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 CoolCinemaTrash.com, 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 rottentomatoes.com I thought the site had been hacked.)
5. Howling Dogs for the Ages.
Exhibit A: Showgirls.