I'm in a bad mood today. It might be the weather (windy, hot, dry), or it might be a feeling that everything I've done recently has only been half-done (yard work, friendship, whatnot). But the last time I felt this way, it was because I hadn't written anything in a while, and once I wrote I felt better. (Like constipation.) Blogging isn't really what my muse has in mind, but it'll have to do; all the other projects on my plate require too much research. Those projects include a long essay on Tarantino, a long essay on two dance films, and two other film essays that haven't shaped up yet.
The Tarantino essay was something I accepted as a lark but it's taking on much bigger proportions. I half-joked to Matt that I felt sure no one else in the world would ever again ask me to go on at length about Tarantino, and I definitely could have written the thing without research or refresher-watches, just bullshitting for several thousand words. Alas, my tactics have changed. I've borrowed or bought a lot of books about him and am reading them, slowly. My target is Kill Bill, and I had a very safe, simple thesis about it before I started reading. Now I think there'll be a few prongs.
|what you get when you ask me to write about something|
The main one is that Kill Bill is a hinge, an artistic midpoint, and the films themselves express Tarantino's waning interest in mixtapes and growing interest in the static Western. That's pretty easy to prove. He kinda laid it out for us. The tougher sell is writing about rape-revenge films and other exploitation genres that Kill Bill draws from, and critics have mostly ignored that angle. (Just incidentally, every single writer-at-length on Tarantino is male.) Obviously, his films are such rich texts that no one book or essay will explore all possible angles for his work, but I'm amazed at how many writers seem to have missed one crucial influence or another. They don't seem to be reading each other. One guy's writing about samurai films, the other's writing about Westerns, but they're not writing about how those two genres both go into the T-blender (and how they echo each other outside the T-blender anyway). Not all of us can have brains as encyclopedic as Tarantino's, but I expect people with PhDs to do better than this. All I've got is a library card and I plan to do better.
[I understand that Tarantino has, at best, a questionable personality. He's fallen in and out of favor with the public so often that I'm sick of worrying about it and am just gonna write about his films.]
I might have mentioned here that the last essay in the bad film book, the one I haven't written yet and should have written three months ago, is a dual piece about Showgirls and Staying Alive. Staying Alive is easy, few people have bothered with it, but a surprising number of people have written about Showgirls, and that has made me intimidated to start. It's a movie in which I have limited interest. I guess the kinder way to say that would be focused interest, but I said what I said; I don't enjoy watching it as much as I do the other movies I've written about in this book. So there's that too, that in studying it I have to watch it and think about it a bunch. I shouldn't have saved this essay for last, I should have saved an easy one for last, but I love the grotesque and delicious Staying Alive so I thought that enthusiasm would carry me through.
I'm kind of glad I didn't write the essay over the summer, though, because the other day I had an idea for how to rejigger the entire book that I think will make it better and more saleable. I was telling Marissa about how Showgirls has been "reclaimed" by writers who argue that it's a good movie, not a bad one, and how silly I think that is. (She agreed.) The same thing has happened to famed bomb Ishtar, which, look, I know Elaine May deserves a good reputation, but Ishtar is terrible. It's terrible! Don't redeem it, don't reclaim it. It's bad. That's it.
I started thinking about about why people bother to "reclaim" movies at all, why they try to prove they are good rather than just letting them be bad. Multiple reasons for this pattern exist, but the main thing I'm sure of is the cognitive dissonance. The critic knows she has good taste and yet she likes this movie that is objectively bad, so she has to turn it around and make it good to make this preference make sense, and she uses all the power of rhetoric she can summon to do so.
There is just no need for this. It's possible to like something bad without redeeming its reputation. Just go on and like the bad thing. They won't take your membership card away.
The best example for this in my own life is Girl in Gold Boots, an MST3K classic that is truly a shitty little movie. It's skeezy and cheap and badly made (by one of the schlockmasters of the 60s, Ted V. Mikels), about criminals, go-go dancers, and generally people with bad lives and no taste. I genuinely love this movie. Not just the MST of this movie; I love the movie, and I really, really don't know why. There's nothing in it that's good, nothing I can argue for as having objective quality. But I have such affection for it. I watch it when I'm sad.
I got to thinking I could write about the mystery of loving this movie, could try and dismantle the - to quote myself, in the Plan 9 book - mechanism in me that loves bad movies. I don't know if I'll ever understand what makes that mechanism run, but I can try, and in the trying I might uncover some cool stuff.
Then I started thinking about where this essay would fit in with the others. So far I've written a book that intends to explore the ways that bad movies are bad: how they go wrong. If I add this essay, along with another, I might be writing about something else altogether: how we as audience approach bad movies.
The other one I'm thinking about is on After Last Season, which is truly the most baffling piece of cinema I've ever come across. It's the only movie I've ever seen that has completely resisted my attempts to analyze it. Even in the most opaque art films I can determine influences and the filmmaker's general concerns, and sometimes intentions, but this one...it's a piece of outsider art from a person who doesn't seem to have any creative urgency at all. And look, it's terrible, too, don't get me wrong, it's incompetent in every particular. But more interestingly, it fails to cohere around any significant ideas or intentions, creating something that's almost abstract, coupled with mundane failures of filmmaking.
How do we approach a film so poorly made that it offers us no entry points? With Neil Breen, we can figure out what the films are saying about the man who created them, but After Last Season doesn't speak the way Breen's films do. It's anonymously bad, but outrageously so. What do we do with it?
These angles, to Season and Boots, alter the angle of the book. They make the book more thoughtful, and more about the audience than about the movies themselves. I think they make the book more useful as criticism and hopefully more interesting as essay; I have to admit to being stumped by Season and to loving Boots, and I have to work out what these reactions mean in a wider context of studying bad film.
Writing the Plan 9 monograph was a breeze. These are much bigger challenges. But now that I've thought of these ideas, this more significant arc for the book, I'm having a hard time giving them up.
And would you look at that. The hour I spent working on this post has cleared my bad mood right up. Gotta love that Senokot.