Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Siren's Compleat Anatomy of Cinematic Badness

Ignatius J. Reilly, self-styled genius of A Confederacy of Dunces, goes to the movies regularly. He does this not from love of the art, but because he wants to be appalled by them. The Siren's favorite scene (and she loves all of John Kennedy Toole's novel) comes when Ignatius settles near the front of the local movie house and notes during the credits "that several of the actors, the composer, the director, the hair designer and the assistant producer were all people whose efforts had offended him at various times in the past."

There's a little Ignatius in every serious moviegoer. That must be what has prompted me to break down my own categories of Cinematic Badness.

1. Bad, but Enjoyable.
The Naked Jungle is a nice little example of this category. An outstanding illustration, though, is The Greatest Show on Earth, deemed by general critical assent to be the Worst Best-Picture Oscar Winner of All Time. Who in the name of D.W. Griffith voted for this the year that High Noon came out?

Most movie-savvy readers of A Confederacy of Dunces assume this is the circus epic Ignatius is watching when the sight of the female star singing from her trapeze perch moves him to bellow, "Oh good heavens! ... what degenerate produced this abortion?" (That degenerate would be C.B. DeMille.) When I see Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton kiss, my mental background music is Ignatius yelling, "Oh my God, their tongues are probably all over each other's capped and rotting teeth."

2. So Bad It Achieves Its Own Sort of Artistic Merit.
And here the Siren nods to the folks over at, who have constructed a site devoted to this very category. Susan Sontag may have written the definitive essay on camp, but Cool Cinema Trash has more fun. Thanks to them, I even want to see The Revolt of Mamie Stover. I wrote in and begged them to tackle The Best of Everything (Robert Evans! Suzy Parker! those suits!) but so far they are ignoring me. Also well worth a visit is The Meeker Museum, if only for the treatises on Diane Varsi and the films of Conway Twitty.

3. Bad, but Thinks It Is Good.
By far the most provoking category, the one that makes a cinephile gnash her teeth and order a double Pernod. Se7en, for instance. Everything about this one irritates the living daylights out of me. That ridiculous typo in the middle of the title. Pointlessly murky cinematography that made me wonder if anyone in that police department could find the damn light switch, let alone a serial killer. Scene after scene of sadism all to make some trite point about apathy and the world's ugliness. Tacit endorsement of the killer's contention that his victims had it coming because one was fat, one was vain, one had sex for money, etc. And the hoariest cliche of all: the part where the killer brings out the savagery in his pursuer, because you know, we all share the beast within. I look at the IMDB Top 250 and see this in the top 50, three places above M, a serial-killer movie with more artistry in one frame than Se7en gives you in 127 minutes, and I want to storm the local Blockbuster.

4. So Bad It Is Unwatchable Even as Camp.
Think of Jean-Jacques Beineix's The Moon in the Gutter. (When I saw the two good reviews on I thought the site had been hacked.)

5. Howling Dogs for the Ages.
Exhibit A: Showgirls.


girish said...

Showgirls is so profoundly loony that I find it quite...*cough* moving *cough*.

Exiled in NJ said...

The sad thought is that in 5-10 years the IMDB top 250 may actually be considered an authoritive source of quality, not taste. "7" ranks 100 places above Mystic River, and both films are probably too new to find their place in any hierarchy. Any board where only 348 people have rated Friends of Eddie Coyle is sadly lacking in something.

girish said...

btw, campaspe, i saw some of your comments over at "a girl and a gun" and the voice sounded like it was coming from inside my own head. just curious: have you written about movies in the past, outside of this blog? and are your writings available on-line?

Campaspe said...

Don't even get me started on the IMDB Top 250. The thing to do with that ranking is look at the bright side, like the fact that things like Ikiru and Wild Strawberries made the list at all, and ignore the presence of The Matrix or whatever.

Girish, I couldn't be more flattered that you understood my Girl and a Gun comments. Nope, this is my first stint as a self-appointed movie critic. There's a lot of us out there, aren't there? I am still pondering your blog question from this morning, btw.

Flickhead said...

Siren -- You remind me of the character, Clare, in Theodore Roszak's novel, "Flicker"! Ever read it? Here's my review:

girish said...

hey look what's on its way.

girish said...

i can't believe it actually says...2010.

Campaspe said...

2010? that's a first. What's the hold-up? Rights, probably. Grrr.

Flickhead, I had some trouble locating the link so for several moments I didn't know whether I should be flattered or very nervous. :D I've chosen the first. I don't think I fit most people's idea of an aesthete, though.