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// So bad, it's good. The Paradoxe of judgment in Culture// Kaja Klimek

So bad, it's good. The Paradoxe of judgment in Culture Kaja Klimek

Every so often, popular culture gives birth to such a terrible product that it is impossible to even include it in the continuum of its numerous failed projects. Books, films or comic books sometimes go beyond all limits of bad taste and although in theory they are not worth a second thought, in reality they just do not let us forget about them. They are just shameless; they are not satisfied with the bad impression they made on the unlucky few who read or saw them. However, they do have that mysterious power that makes them reappear on the opposite pole as a (master)work in the special category of ‘so bad, it’s good’ without losing even a bit of their exceptionally poor quality.


The ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’

So what kind of productions fall into this category? Films are definitely the best described and the most obvious in terms of selection. Let us quote for instance Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), universally acknowledged to be the worse film in the world, Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, starring Nicolas Cage (an icon of bad cinema), Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Troll 2 (1990), Striptease (1996), the classic of turkploitation known as The Turkish Star Wars (Dünyayn Kurtaran Adam, 1982), The Street Fighter with Jean-Claude Van Damme (1992), Stephen Sommers’s Van Helsing (2004) and many, many more. These are but a few of the ‘wonderfully terrible’ movies. How do they acquire this added value that lets productions that are generally considered to be, so to speak, complete ‘duds’, become absolutely cult for a large part of the audience? This questions raises two major issues. First of all: Are there any determinants of a bad text of popular culture, other than purely aesthetic and subjective considerations? More importantly, does the aesthetic criterion count at all? And secondly: What guarantees that the work will acquire a status of a truly cult production, a term that has been frequently abused and appropriated by the entertainment industry? This status offers a big opportunity to every creation (also one that was transformed by the audience) that belongs to the realm of popular culture. This is where it is read and appraised by the audience which, by establishing a fan community around it, provides it with the cult status. Umberto Eco once wondered why Casablanca won this kind of acclaim. Although in this case, the quality as such was not an issue, Eco still wanted to find out what the film’s magic ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ was all about.

According to Eco, a cult film does not have to be well-made or even coherent.

It has, however, to be able to compensate the viewers for its faults by feeding them data that will help them construct their own fantasies. The more topics it covers, the more communities may be created around it, and the more emotions it causes, the better. If at the same time it offers a new interpretation of a myth or it is full of allusions and references to other productions, it becomes an inexhaustible source of references itself. These arguments remind us of post-modernism, a trend that shaped artists such as Quentin Tarantino (whose artistic output is a tribute to B-class film) or Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive), unjustly considered his successor, who pursues the project of ‘fetish film’ based on a sheer fascination with the cinema itself. These authors explore the history of film and, by adopting the role of a viewer-maker, they enter into dialogue with what intrigues them in movies. At the same time us, the viewers, also interpret movies mostly in relation to other productions. In other words, cult becomes the primary way in which both artists and viewers experience film[1].

The ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ movies can also acquire the status of a ‘cult classic’. So what conditions should a work falling into this category meet? Tvtropes, a web portal that monitors popular culture tropes, offers several criteria that help determine that a given movie is truly bad, or, in its terms, ‘So Bad It’s Horrible’. ‘Just because you and some people you know don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s Horrible, just like the fact that you like something does not automatically mean it is not bad’, say the portal’s administrators, discarding the viewers’ unlimited subjectivity as a criterion. They reach outside the community to find at least a semblance of justification for any given judgement. And so, they base their opinion on reviews written by reputable critics not only just after the premiere but also throughout the following years, since time can actually do justice to some films. It might yet turn out that they were just misunderstood at the time of their release; with time films may also start to grow on viewers. And the fact that they found a fanbase will automatically ban them from the ‘so bad, it’s good’ list. The guidelines also include factors such as small audience and mediocre sales. Also, the film may have various faults that inspire parodies. In other words, the judgement is not pronounced once and for all, but it changes with the evolving tastes of the audience which, like ‘retromania’[2] and nostalgia shape the fluctuations in the realm of popular culture. Audiences are motivated by pleasure, involvement, entertainment and sense of community created by popular culture. They appreciate such values much more than distance and rigid aesthetic categories.


‘Oh, hi Johnny’

More often than not, a film, novel, comic book, computer game or another text of popular culture is condemned right after its release to small audience ratings and poor sales by virtue of reviews and the decision taken by the audience itself, ending up in the discount bin. The quality of the product is verified by its market, just like capitalists preach. However, the journey does not need to end there: it may be just an interim period, a sort of limbo from which such a production may yet return in its full glory. Discovered only after some time, it turns out to possess this certain ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ that provokes an emotional reaction among some audiences. And although it got discarded before, it may yet become a sensation. Sometimes it can even attract a fanbase fascinated by nothing else than its exceptionally poor quality. John Fiske remarks that the very same text of culture may gain currency depending on the context[3]. ‘Wonderfully terrible’ movies perfectly illustrate his analysis. He argues that if a capitalist product (a film, a TV show or a book) does not have anything in common with the daily experience, it will not become popular. Aesthetic determinants or quality have virtually no meaning in this respect; what counts is the relevance and the functionality of the text. In a way, it is a test of its potential: the text needs to have something in it so that the audience is attracted to it and makes it ‘their own’, manifesting its resistance to and flight from the hegemonic chase. In this way a text, far from being imposed and read-only, can become a read/write item chosen by popular culture consumers.  Aesthetic standards are put on the backburner, together with Adorno-inspired judgement system that still haunts both the popular culture and its researchers. In this perspective, adjectives such as ‘anodyne, bland, shallow, derivative, worthless’ lose their significance. What is more important is the way in which texts affect the audience. In order to take action, the audiences need to possess some cultural and social competence that will enable them to use the text and become truly engaged in its reading. In other words, they are not just mere consumers but creators.

Let us consider, for instance, the spectacular career of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, referred to as the ‘Citizen Kane of bad movies’. The Room is a seemingly endless streak of plot slip-ups, bad script, terrible acting (with Wiseau, scriptwriter, director and actor in one, being no exception), as well as now legendary production and promotion blunders. Despite all that, the film made a glorious come back, acquiring a considerable fanbase and the ‘so bad it’s good’ status. It was actually turned into a synergic story, with a spin-off book and a computer game that follow the adventures of Lisa, Mark and Johnny when they are not on the screen. The Room has also become a source of quotations (the endless greetings exchanged by the characters: ‘Oh, hi Johnny’ and ‘Oh, hi Lisa’ are now internet memes), and the RiffTrax group recorded a riff, i.e. a parallel film commentary, which can be played in real time with the movie itself. Its cult status is not due to any aesthetic considerations; rather, it springs from the pleasure the film evokes among certain audiences and the community created around it, with fans making up for any deficiencies in the plot and adding new themes. Their activity blurs the lines between the text and its interpretation, turning Wiseau’s film into a cult classic. Looking to repeat his untimely success, the director, who, incidentally, still says that The Room was supposed to be a black comedy and not a true drama (a claim that is denied by other crew members), came up with a short horror, The House That Drips Blood on Alex (2010). In this case the absurd plot, bad acting and cut were part of the creator’s strategy. However, as the film lacked genuine mistakes and goofs, and careful planning replaced sincerity, it failed to satisfy the fans as much as The Room had.


Nonetheless, I continue watching

But why do we even watch films that are ‘so bad, they’re good’? Apart from the need to communicate with others and have fun, we are motivated by pleasure. It may be understood as guilty pleasure, which suggests that the person who feels it is actually ashamed of the pleasure and happiness they experience when interacting with such a text. It is based on the awareness that a given film, TV show or any other element of popcultural universe is bad. It is also a double pleasure, accompanied by the use of our cultural competence that lets us distinguish between bad and good texts. However, this awareness does not affect the experience of pleasure; neither does it persuade anyone to abandon the bad text. As Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text, ‘I pass lightly through the reactionary darkness. For example, in Zola's Fecondite, the ideology is flagrant, especially sticky: naturism, family-ism, colonialism; nonetheless, I continue reading the book’[4].

This ‘nonetheless’ can also define our relationship with a work that is ‘so bad, it’s good’, in which we sometimes notice this little ‘je ne sais quoi’ characteristic of a cult film. And it is not that viewers turn a blind eye to its faults, lacks and blunders, no – whenever they notice one, they open their eyes even wider, utterly surprised. When in Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) Rowdy Abilene (played by Ronn Moss, a.k.a. Ridge Forrester of The Bold and the Beautiful, which only adds to the glamour) conquers his enemy by using a Frisbee stuffed with razors, the viewer can only admire the absurdity of the idea. The greatest pleasure is born where logic and coherence go to die, where mistakes and bloopers abound and the script goes beyond all limits of absurdity. We remember the scenes that make us blink with stupefaction and think ‘no, it cannot possibly be that bad!’. In this way, they resemble the abyss-images in fairy tales which, although we tend to forget the story itself, stay in our memory for the longest time[5]. What fascinates us is also the endless imagination and ingenuity of the creators, who, although they just killed off a character fifteen minutes ago, let them rise from the grave and explain the situation: I was saved miraculously by a Persian prince, a UFO or a pizza delivery guy. And they are not ironic in their choices: they truly believe in the sense and purpose of such a twist in the plot. They treat their work as seriously as Tommy Wiseau and want it to be just perfect. They fail to notice, though, that the whole concept is slipping out of their control. And it is precisely their sincerity and their unawareness, a total lack of distance visible in the end product, that let the viewer say ‘nonetheless, I continue watching’.

Roland Barthes wrote, ‘I cannot apportion, imagine that the text is perfectible, ready to enter into a play of normative predicates: it is too much this, not enough that; the text (the same is true of the singing voice) can wring from me only this judgment, in no way adjectival: that's it! And further still: that's it for me![6]. This is the final answer to the secret of works that are ‘so bad, they’re good’. They have this little ‘something’ in them, and sometimes even a ‘someone’. It might be Nicolas Cage’s attack of fury when he is trying to escape bees (Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man), Ron Moss wielding the murderous Frisbee or colonel M. Bison impersonated by Raul Julia in The Street Fighter. The dying actor, aware that this was going to be his last movie, let his sons decide what kind of film it should be. And they just loved computer games, so they chose The Street Fighter. He wanted to please them, so he agreed, at the same time saving the movie from the ‘so bad, it’s horrible’ category. As for him, he ended up in the honour lane as an actor who starred in bad movies ‘for the sake of art’ and ‘so that the kids can watch’. Glory be to them.

[1] Cf. U. Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1986.

[2] Described by Simon Reynolds in Retromania (Faber & Faber, London 2011), who discusses the dependence of popular culture on its own past.

[3] Cf. J. Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, London: Routledge 1989.

[4] R. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by R. Miller, Hill and Wang, New York, pp. 31-32.

[5] Cf. P. Péju, La petite fille dans la forêt des contes, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1981.

[6] R. Barthes, op. cit., p. 13.

Kaja Klimek (born 1984) – graduated from journalism and cultural studies (Jagiellonian University), currently writing a Ph. D. thesis on remix in popular culture. Translates films and books. In 2011, she received a distinction in the Krzysztof Metrak competition for young film critics.