Zen and the Art of Bad Movies

Our first BBQ of the summer this year ended with something different this time: a screening of the spectacularly bad fantasy film, Troll 2. The recent release of the making-of documentary, Best Worst Movie, has sparked renewed interest among cult fans. That it has generated headlines in major media goes to show you that the history of an utterly shitty movie can turn out to be even more entertaining than the movie itself. And this particular making-of documentary was directed by none other than Michael Paul Stephenson, the toothy, freckle-faced young star of Troll 2.

There’s something really intriguing about bad movies. Like that way that you pass a really bad car wreck and just can’t look away. Badly written, poorly acted, and shoddily designed, these movies are some kind of confounding testament to serious malfunctions in filmmaking, if not the human psyche altogether.

And yet, even the worst can, paradoxically, be the best…around. Their sole redeeming value is basically social cohesion. That they’re laughably horrible makes them ripee for riffing with a roomful of friends. And there’s certainly been far more cinematic stinkers than any “Worst Of” list can reasonably fit without being overwhelming. There’s plenty of obvious choices. Most any movie Ed Wood ever made. A slew of Japanese creature features from the 1950s. (The Japanese have come a long way, even inspiring American filmmakers who hunger for source material for sub-par remakes). There’s the over-hyped flops like The English Patient (elaborated on in a Seinfeld episode) and Battlefield Earth (which was labeled “Travolting”).The commercially-driven star vehicle like Cool as Ice.

With the Drive-In and late night movie marathons on cable television now being all but a thing of the past, obscure selections like Space MutinyMitchellSanta Clause Conquers the MartiansMonster A Go-Go, and a curious abundance of 1950s teenage rebel movies that overdid it on the slang were resurrected for Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Mike Nelson and the gang continued the tradition with the mp3-based Riff Trax). In addition to regular screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight movie circuit in various cities now run a small monopoly of so-bad-it’s-good fare. DC residents at least are also privy to the goodwill of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, now with 20 years of real turkeys under their belt. Carl, the host, usually enlightens attendees of the free, weekly screenings with hilarious backstory. And I wonder,  if in time, Stephen Baldwin’s hammy Target, will join the list.

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One For My Brother: A ‘Best Of’ List

(DRAFT) Anecdotes and commentary on Gilroy Drastik’s Top 10 favorite movies… (as hard as it was to limit the list to just 10)…


Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!

Inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, Spielberg’s 1975 iconographic movie of the predatory Great White terrorizing the fictional northeastern Amity Island (filmed at Martha’s Vineyard) was adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel. Ironically, Benchley has said if he’d known a bit more about the behavior of Great Whites, he’d not have written the book as it was. Although, when approached by Doubleday, the writer was told that what they wanted wasn’t non-fiction. They wanted a story about a shark terrorizing a town. For once the Creature Feature was enormously successful (rated among the top 250 of IMDB) and only slightly corny (the obvious moments when on-screen actors are dealing with difficult, animatronic puppet). Despite the intensity and suspense that establishes Jaws as one of the greatest horror movies (or maybe plain old thriller is a better genre heading), it was followed by several sequels, a shitty NES game, and one incredibly ridiculous cheesy theme park ride that only nominally have anything in common with their predecessor film (they were definitely “some bad hat, harry!”).

In a nutshell, the plot centers on the newly ordained Amity Police Chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) who inherits a major dilemma in his initial service – a string of shark attacks during the Island tourist town’s busiest season. Initially met with stupid, yet understandable political and economic pressures bearing down on him as to whether the beaches should be shut down, a few deaths has the small town eager for a quick solution like taking row boats out and a hanging a slab of meat on a fish hook, waiting to throw a handful of dynamite in a hungry shark’s mouth. But, Brody, ever the pragmatist, solicits the help of a university-trained marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a wry traditionalist boat captain (Robert Shaw, who also starred in The Deep, another sea-side Benchley adaptation) to put an end to the town’s crippling threat – a great white shark.

Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies…

In part, the movie has survived the test of time because of the cool of its leading late actors, Roy Scheider (Brody) and Englishman Robert Shaw (Quinn). But, it also survives as an example of effective elements in suspense that went beyond the transparent thrills and scare tactics that have saturated most modern American horror. Jaws manages to bring all of its nervous development to a claustrophobic climax rigged with intense doubt – will three desperate men aboard a rather small boat managed to finally put an end to the small town’s persistent terror?

It’s been said that the beach population was significantly down in the year of Jaws‘s release, something understandable where audiences were just as unfamiliar with shark behavior as the author of its source material.


Cigarettes, Dirty Laundry, and Mangled Manifestos: Reality Bites

There seems to be a puzzling trend lately of non-fiction authors in their 40s publishing defenses of “The Greatest Generation.” But, contrary to the presumption that this title refers to those of the World War II era, as it commonly has before, the new (self-)decried honor instead refers to Gen Xers, although these authors frequently lament over the validity of the title, or any title at all. These defenses are similar in their reporting of the history: Baby Boomers are a selfish lot, incessantly urging credit for influencing some kind of revolution. But that by the 1980s, this wave of liberalism was instead replaced by the one-track capitalist ambition of the Yuppie. The “revolutionaries” getting their pictures in the paper for their part in a protest are now driving the kids to soccer practice in a minivan. But the demand for credit never ceased, and continually intrude to remind or altogether impose their values and ideas on the generations of youth to follow.

By the 1990s, with college graduates facing one of the most hopeless periods in the job market, the overhyped myths of the Boomers fell on deaf ears in a way that mirrored the brief punk boom in the late 1970s, with its snarling recognition (and acceptance) of a cultural, social and economic apocalypse. (Compare Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me to Michael Azzerand’s Our Band Could Be Your Life). The Gen Xers penning these books proclaim their generation to be the smartest and the most creative (spawning a major transformation with YouTube, MySpace and Google). Although, puzzling enough, the examples always stem from a limiting and definitive Holy Trinity: director Richard Linklater (Slacker), author Douglas Coupeland (Generation X), and Nirvana. The Generation X histories remind their audience that the lifespan of Gen X was brief, and their contributions are frequently masked by the Boomers who refuse to acknowledge their irrelevance. Ironically, these histories also skip over any mention of a Generation Y to chastise the Millenials as a worrisome return to everything the Gen Xers had declared as wrong: self-absorption, obsession with celebrity, mass obedience, and worst of all, insatiable material pursuit.

This shaping of Gen X’s mark on humanity was already told years ago during its brief existence, although in the medium of film, the Gen X biographies were frequently shaped by Hollywood Hands, no matter how attractive it was to call something a product of the Alternative or Grunge Era. In particular, there were three histories that survive memory. One was writer/director Cameron Crowe’s 1992 romance dramedy, Singles. The second is Linklater’s improvised vignettes, Slacker, a favorite in the cult circuit released in 1991. And the third is, Reality Bites, marking Ben Stiller’s directorial debut (written by Helen Childress), followed two years later.

While Singles served as a time capsule of the Gen X lifestyle, it is really only ancillary to it’s primary focus on the romantic relationships of its various characters. It was something of a bust at the box office. Slacker has dominated the discussion when it comes to Gen X films, but Reality Bites deserves some spotlight in the analysis of life as a twenty-something in the early 90s – fresh out of college, full of ambition, jaded, and about to cement their cynicism. (“The script was initially turned down by all the Hollywood studios because it tried to capture the Generation X market like Singles and that film was not a box office success.” 1)

It is worth noting that the application of generational titles, although always marked by some range of birth dates, is that it’s usually not all inclusive of it. There’s always the unspoken distinction in demographic, or socio-economic status, or some other variable. Though Generation X is said to refer to anyone born between 1965 and 1981, its histories really tend to be dominated by whites that met this criteria. And more specifically, college educated whites. For those outside of that demographic, but born within that time, does Generation X even have the same meaning? Does it even apply?

Reality Bites frames Gen Xers in the same way as the Gen X histories do today (though it’s more first-hand than the material coming out now), doing so through a variety of themes: romantic relationships (obviously), commercialism of art, contempt for parental values, overeducated and underemployed graduates, AIDS, homosexuality, and so forth. The movie centers on the dynamics of four college friends (three having just graduated and one having dropped out) sharing a house in Texas. Lelaina (Winona Ryder), one of the film’s major characters, works a thankless job as a production assistant for an arrogant morning talkshow host (John Mahoney). The documentary filmmaker assumes her art will be her escape, though it never seems likely to get off the ground until she befriends an entertainment executive (Ben Stiller). Troy (Ethan Hawke), the other central character, is extremely smart, jaded, and both frequently unemployed and aloof. (The real Troy Dyer is reported to be a financial planner these days). The witty Vicky (Janeane Garofolo), rarely finding herself in positions of responsibility in her career and relationships, starts to turn this around. And the least seen, Michael (Steven Zahn), is a homosexual who eventually, though anti-climatically, comes out to his friends.

The linear history of Reality Bites is nearly identical to the celebratory histories released of late, even opening with the impetus for the principals of Generation X. Valedictorian Lelaina (Winona Ryder), addressing her graduating peers, has no advice about their post-college futures, as even she is uncertain what direction is best. But one thing she is adamant about: criticizing their parents’ promise of revolution, but despicably trading it for material ambition. The claims of perfect families and perfect lives that really weren’t, a statement supported by quick cut scenes from Lelaina’s documentary which features clips of her friends describing their parents. Divorces for some and indifferent marriages for parents of Lelaina’s friends that did stay together. Which leads to the construction of their ultimate dogma: avoid everything your parents did. For that reason, Reality Bites, whether just in retrospect or even when it was released, makes the Generation X crowd seem like the bubbly hippies they criticize.

The self-proclomations of the generational revolution, like those before it, once again settled as an embraceable myth. But, although the recent biographies of Generation X doesn’t just claim this to be the Generation’s defining principal, but it’s most admirable one (at least where it worked out without much flaw in retrospect), this blanket rebellion seems naively inflexible, fruitless, and excessive. Something, in other words, to hail at a young age, until reality kicks in after enduring the more difficult trials and error of life. The philosophy is embodied in particular in someone like the stereotypical Troy (Ethan Hawke), often simply characterized as the rebel philosopher, one with equal parts intelligence and cynicism coupled with zero motivation. Says Lelaina to Troy in one scene: “I have to work around here, and unfortunately Troy, you are a master at the art of time suckage.” Lelaina’s staunch refusal to let her artistic integrity be compromised is another example. She is appalled that her documentary is given a demeaning Mtv revamp once executives get a hold of it, illustrating the great fear of Generation X culture was the dreaded act of selling out.

While it is urged by some not to be taken as a serious portrait of the early 90s, though it should not be entirely dismissed as a falsehood of the times. Just like a lot of movies about the rise through adulthood (Lelaina: “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23”), whether the it’s twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings (The Last Kiss is a recent example), there’s this eventual realization that the difficulties that started with adolescence never conclude just because you leave your teens. The confusion of growing up is consistent.

White Line Fever: Motorama

Behold, Motorama! The bizarre black comedy you may have never heard of! Or maybe watched by accident, thinking you just found an undiscovered 80’s teen romance co-starring teenage Drew Barrymore! Oh boy, were you wrong!

See the kid standing in that picture standing on the Mustang? That’s 10 year-old Gus, and he basically represents the all-American kid’s fantasy: he’s a supervised minor with a car. Now you’re probably thinking that’s a guaranteed recipe for comedy hijinks later downplayed by a saccharine, but important moral lesson at the end. Maybe, but that wouldn’t really be all that bizarre, now would it?

Actually, Gus isn’t so much unsupervised as he is newly emancipated from his abusive parents. But rather than going through the cumbersome legal channels to sever ties, a stolen Mustang and some cinderblocks to reach the pedals provide the quickest and surest path to independence. Screenwriter Joseph Minion, the man behind the Scorsese comedy (yes, Martin Scorsese directed comedy) After Hours and the creepy 1989 movie Vampire’s Kiss, penned this rather unique interpretation of “coming-of-age” fiction. Gus is a kid in childhood limbo, in a sense. He’s far more intelligent and a hardened cynic for his age, but he seems like he’s searching for the traditional notion of “childhood.”

At first, escaping his parents seemed to be just about Gus’s only goal. His subsequent journey on winding, generic highways seem like an aimless one and Gus is now a 10 year-old with all the time in the world. Luckily, the road is paved with a host of unusual characters who keep things entertaining. Upon stopping at gas stations along his impromptu route, Gus rather haphazardly starts collecting game cards that contain one of the letters in the word M-O-T-O-R-A-M-A. Players who find all 8 letters can claim a $500 million dollar prize from the Chimera Gas Company. As soon a Gus has a few successes, he begins to obsess over finding the remaining cards. In the process, Gus gradually transitions from  and understandably cynical 10-year old runaway explaining the relative innocence of his actions to the “enlightened” gas station attendant named Phil, to a deceptive gambler who happily hustles overconfident competitors. Somehow a brief adolescent daydream fills Gus’s head; the dream girl of course, played by young Barrymore. But by the end of the film, the 10-year appears noticeably aged and run down–after dodging an explosion his hair appears to have grayed. He wears an eye patch to conceal injuries received when getting caught trying to siphon gas from a seedy couple (which includes Mary Woronov). And strangely, he is eventually trying to rescue an older version of himself before future tense Gus drives off the road while, in a panic, trying to find that one last letter to claim his award money, loses control of his car.

Although this kind of tale might be off-putting or just simply confusing to the viewer not typically accustomed to movies like these, the narrative construction is the interesting element — the circular storytelling of character reflection. That is uses a 10-year old as its central character is perhaps its most distinctive draw. Unfortunately, while making the transition to DVD faster than probably more well-known cult films (The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps come to mind), it is a film that remains woefully absent in background information of any kind (considered bonus materials for the DVD, all that is included is a trailer of Motorama and a mismatched companion trailer for the idiotic David Spade comedy, Joe Dirt.

Bring on the Singing Weirdos: Freaked

“A thinking man’s stupid comedy.” – Freaked tagline

Freaked is a case study of studio executives interfering with a decent idea.

Once an unknown VHS sitting on a video shelf in a small Central Florida store next to Tank Girl (1995) in a section of “Oddball Gen-X Comedies,” the 1993 comedy Freaked (which underwent several name changes because of several trademarks held by the rights holders of Freaks) finally made the transition to DVD in 2005 thanks to adamant cult fans and on-line petitions, the same which encouraged the eventual release of Monster Squad (1987) and the entirety of the short-lived television series, Freaks and Geeks (1999). Directors Alex Winter (better known as Bill S. Preston, Esq. of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Tom Sterns who share writing credits with Tim Burns, were film school classmates at New York University. Judging by the stop-motion animation shorts included on the DVD extras, the duo found a niche in strange comedies like these. Prior to Freaked, which was originally intended as a low-budget horror vehicle for the Butthole Surfers called Hideous Mutant Freakz before being optioned (and consequently, re-written) by 20th Century Fox, Winter and Stearns directed a short-lived variety show for Mtv in the early 90s called Idiot Box, which was based on similar absurdist humor and slapstick comedy.

Alex Winter takes the lead role as arrogant pretty boy actor Ricky Coogan, who’s been “chosen” (read: bribed) to be the celebrity spokesman for the Everything Except Shoes (EES) Company’s toxic fertilizer, Zygrot-27. William Stadtler, who brilliantly played the Grim Reaper alongside Winter and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, perfectly portrays the sleazy head (and stockholder puppeteer) of EES, Dick Brain. While Ricky is in Santa Flan–“named for the patron saint of creamy desserts”–with his chauvinist friend Ernie (Michael Stayanov who audiences might better recognize as eldest brother Tony from the NBC sitcom Blossom) to promote the product, they ironically befriend Julie (Megan Ward), an idealistic but temperamental environmentalist protester while trying to distract a crowd of protesters. Joining in their escape, she convinces them to stop at Freekland, which is much more than the typical roadside freakshow attraction. Owner Elijah C. Skuggs, played by a well-tanned Randy Quaid, is a parody of Dr. Moreau, except that he’s not fusing mismatched species with a needle and thread. His distortion magic is Zygrot-27. But, while his freakish creations are something of a hobby to his point, Skuggs has a dastardly plan to use the fertilizer to make the ultimate freak!

The story is told in flashback. Coogan narrates to talk show host Skye Daley (Brooke Shields) his “awful ordeal” of how Skuggs turned he and his friends into hideous mutant freaks! Cast into the shadows the Freekland underworld, the newly distorted newcomers are introduced to Skuggs’ other creations, including Ortiz the Dogboy (Reeves in an uncredited role for which he was paid $1 million), The Eternal Flame (Lee Arenberg), Sockhead (Bobcat Goldwaith), The Bearded Lady (Mr. T), the Worm, Zippy the Pinhead, Nosey, Cowboy and Frogman. Shallow Coogan, unwilling to accept life as a freak despite the others’ suggestion that it’s not so bad once you get used to it, he encourages mutiny against Skuggs and proposes they search for an antidote.

Freaked marks the directing duo’s first major film production, but in the end, it wasn’t well-received by test audiences and Winter, Stearns and Burns, as humorously recounted in the DVD commentary, had to bend to a lot of the Studio’s demands in order to even get the movie made. Joe Roth, who was the original producer at Fox, was fired afterwards (for “making too many weird movies” according to Winter) and was subsequently replaced with Peter Chernin who didn’t like the idea of basically two inexperienced directors being given $12 million to make a movie, which meant that not only was the special effects budget significantly cut (and a demo recorded by Iggy Pop for the closing credits eliminated altogether), but the advertising budget was almost non-existent. Opening on only two screens in the United States, it only grossed around $6,000 dollars and less than $30,000 when released to video.

But in retrospect, the movie really isn’t that weird, or at least not in the bizarre surrealistic sense, although, audiences might want to skip the seizure-inducing opening credits. Special effects artist Screaming Mad George’s strobe light and melted claymation morphing cacophony–something that looks to channel the old commercials of Twizzler, Caramello and Bubbletape as well as Peter Gabriel music videos on mescaline–are accompanied by Henry Rollins and Blind Idiot God’s raging “Freaked.” Nor is the movie any kind of extreme in its crudeness, although the script was toned down to satisfy the censors of the MPAA.

Thus, what was hindered by the studio and rejected by test audiences naturally found a strong cult following.