Bad Films, Good Times

Bad Films, Good Times

What do "The Godfather" and "Glitter" have in common? They're both classic films — if you're in the mood or have the right mindset.

The former explores conflicts within a mob family. The latter painfully details the rise of a virtually comatose singer. "The Godfather" is masterful and "Glitter" is just ... bad.

But for some, both are equally entertaining.

"'The Godfather' is a fine French meal prepared by a chef. 'Glitter' is a pizza with everything on it and thrown into the oven. One is fine cuisine, one is a mess. But sometimes all the elements of a mess come together deliciously," said Bob Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for Television and Popular Culture.

For years now, everything from mainstream flops such as "Glitter" to obscure cult darlings such as "Plan 9 From Outer Space" have been entering the rarefied, so-bad-it's-good collection.

Fans watch these films with a mix of disbelief and fascination, reveling in their wooden acting, shoddy special effects, overstated dialogue, continuity errors and absurd plot points.

Seeking entertainment, people look to the "flying saucer" in "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1959) with a string noticeably supporting it. Or the illogical, almost hypocritical need for goblins in "Troll 2" (1990) — vegetarians, of course — to turn humans into vegetables before eating them.

Sometimes fans turn to the trashy, overstated dialogue in "Showgirls" (1995).

These films and fans may not be new, but the DVD and Internet age has more seamlessly brought the two together. Still, these films' followings puzzle even those close to film. Why bother watching the ridiculous, the nonsensical and the downright strange?

It could be more than just a laugh, some say.

"I don't know if it is a compassion or affinity. But there is a respect — or something — there between the viewer and filmmaker, or the film," said Gary Kaboly, director of exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which runs three independent theaters in the area. "There's something that you cherish about it, but I don't know what that thing is."

It might be the filmmaker's seeming inexperience or innocence that draws reverence rather than a mean-spirited response, Kaboly said.

But some may watch these films, which typically aren't deliberately awful, to prove they can distinguish "good" from "bad," Thompson said. Take, for instance, someone laughing at a notably bad line of dialogue.

"They're saying, 'Aren't I smart? ... By my laughing, it shows that I know that difference,' " he said. "You get to feel superior."

Nevertheless, he wouldn't be happy if these films didn't exist. "I don't know; do you want to watch masterpiece after masterpiece?"

These films seem "really good at doing something" — just not a usual definition of "good" — since they have maintained multiple viewings, he said. In other words, a "bad classic" might be as rare as a "good classic," Thompson added.

There are thousands of bad movies out there, but only a few are awful enough to accrue a cult following, some say.

"It's not all bad movies that people love. There's something about these movies that appeal to people at a terrible level," said Randy Collins, manager of The Oaks Theater in the Pittsburgh suburb of Oakmont, Penn. The theater does a cult-film series each summer.

Years ago, people had to sort through thousands of films to find "the classics," Kaboly said.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, late-night television started showing low-budget movies with eccentric storylines, and college campuses in particular started watching, Kaboly said. During the same period, these budding cult movies were then discovered and, even, rediscovered at independent theaters and repertory cinemas that showcased different films each night.

"I showed every type of film on Earth," said Richard Rauh, who booked movies for 15 years at The Point Park Playhouse in Pittsburgh when it was still a movie theater. The theater often showed a different film each night, but the film repertory program ended on Aug. 31, 1994. By that time, the theater had shown some 5,000 films, he said.

The theater even had an "awful film" series at one point that featured films from infamous auteurs such as Ed Wood, the director of "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

And these cult films, along with mainstream flops such as "Glitter," have become more accessible today with DVDs and the Internet, Thompson said: "Now people all over the place are having movie nights with their friends."

Collins, like others, insists these films are "utterly dull" if watched alone. Against etiquette, many theatergoers chatter, joke and may even do "call and response" rituals during screenings, he said.

"The Room" (2003) is arguably the bad movie today. A flop a few years ago, the film has exploded recently into a cult sensation, spreading to midnight viewings across the country. In May, it finished a successful yearlong run at the Oaks Theater.

For many fans, "The Room" is optimally awful — lush with continuity errors, obvious green screens and out-of-focus shots.

Inexplicably, female lead Lisa decides she hates her fiance and proudly announces to her mother she's having an affair with his best friend.

Perhaps modeling James Dean, the expressionless protagonist Johnny shouts "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" after learning of her affair.

Subplots about one character's drug use and another's cancer diagnosis are mentioned as quickly as they are dropped. And one bizarre scene shows tuxedoed men standing close and tossing a football to each other.

Adam Morgan, assistant manager at The Oaks Theater, says words can't describe "The Room" — besides, of course, that it's the worst movie ever made.

"Just the dialogue in that film is unbelievable. Nobody acts like a human being ... It's like an alien came to Earth and tried to write a film about what he thought human beings talked like," said Morgan, 23, a filmmaker. "It's like the (film) crew has never seen a movie, let alone made one."

Yet Morgan is a fan. It's a good laugh, he said.

During the film's yearlong engagement at The Oaks, he gladly worked almost all of the film's monthly screenings on Saturday nights. Audiences often shouted, joked and even engaged in organized rituals.

For example, audience members threw spoons at the screen — provided by the theater — every time they saw a framed photograph of a spoon in what viewers are led to believe is the room.

"The Room" might not be playing at The Oaks anymore, but Morgan said he and his friends sometimes watch it on DVD. And, like other terrible films, it's a bit hard to forget.

"I still definitely talk about it with friends. I don't think I can stop talking about it. It's in my brain forever," he said. "It's a good thing and bad thing."

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