Film Genres

So Bad It's Great

Both gentlemen are respected and appreciated on university campuses, but they are also passionate fans of films and film auteurs. You can see that in the photo below, where they surround Dario Argento, wearing the leather gloves famously worn by psychopaths in the filmmaker’s gialli.

 © Jeremi Szaniawski et Michael Cramer, NYC, Fangoria 2009.

In Praise of Failure

— Jeremi Szaniawski

So Bad It's Great was conceived in January 2020 - just as the health crisis started shaking the world. Scheduled and then cancelled twice (in spring and autumn 2020), the reopening of cinemas/museums is finally being used to make it happen again. So Bad It's Great includes some of the most important works of Z movies, cinematic 'turkeys' and other epic failures. And yet, one can rightfully wonder whether such jolly programming is any good at such a time of fear, suffering and great sorrow for so many of us.

There are times when enjoying badly made films stems from an ironic or even cynical attitude.

Does this pleasure - which today we would associate with a "hipster" attitude, linked to a postmodern and misplaced reevaluation of texts that have no real artistic value - have valence in these deeply troubled times? If we accept the axiom whereby "dumbing down" is good for you, then watching bad films is advisable, at least in moderate amounts, at all times, and especially in times of increased stress. And especially in gloomy times when the government is imposing restrictive rules to deal with the pandemic, forms of entertainment, such as a movie screening, can not only gently distract, but also thoroughly entertain -- and, in the context of public screenings, bring an audience together as a community.

Here, the function of the failed film, of the 'artistic flop', takes on a political and useful turn that is far from the pleasure of a condescending insider: these particularly unacademic works represent forms of resistance by the way in which they escape the norm (and therefore control). This is very obvious when one compares them with standard imitations (parodies) - which are merely ironic and yet cannot reproduce what, outside the norms, gives the 'so bad they’re great' films their inimitable flavor, even their poetry.

But behind these films lies also a critique of what a Society of Control is: a form of dictatorship that is brutal and idiotic, and that wants to impose a vision at all costs.

These films, often made with utter seriousness (I am thinking in particular of an interview with Lucio Fulci, made at the end of his life, who with utter solemnity compared the genius of Joe d'Amato to Antonioni’s, and said Amato – had he obtained the financial means to do so – would have outclassed Spielberg), carry, through their blindness and their refusal to distinguish between the original and the ersatz, a message about a society that has suddenly become totalitarian and is unable to laugh at itself. It is in this sense that failed films hold up a mirror to a society that suddenly, after so many years, sees itself as it is; as it never wanted to see itself: a terrible mess that would somehow become sublime. Suddenly, the cruel, ruthless mechanisms that underpin the production of cinematic works, which are usually well hidden beneath the smiles of the stars and the polished virtuosity of the mise-en-scène, are exposed, in their raw materiality - and this is first of all astonishing. And then, as a final defense, our laughter emerges, between disbelief and unease, between distance-taking and acquiescence.

When watching these films we take our distance, because in them we find that which the mind usually does not want to see, which is flushed down the proverbial drain and is sent back to the Real. But we acquiesce also, because in the face of horror, joy is our best weapon. Following Spinoza, Deleuze reminded us that the vampire or totalitarian regime wanted to be fed with sadness. It is by an obscure alchemy that we find, both buried and in the open, the truth that the failed text, the filmic "trash" evokes in us. That is, both the absolute will to control and that which emerges from it: an ungodly mess against which we burst in mocking and unashamed laughter. And this laughter, this joy, is more than a way of distancing ourselves from the failure: it is also the missing element for the oeuvre to reach its ultimate goal, that of a utopia finally fully realized - the time of the film screening, the salutary inoculation and ejaculation. Until, once the lights are back on in the movie theater, we return to our daily darkness – but with a glimmer of hope in tomorrow’s world, perhaps.

— Jeremi Szaniawski