Bad to the Bone
Just yesterday I saw the latest film co-signed by Lars Von Trier of Breaking the Waves (1996) fame. It’s the second volley of his series The Kingdom, a gruesome soap opera set in a horror hospital. One thing that particularly struck me in this strange, epic telemovie was the ongoing dialogue of two characters, a man and a woman, who serve as a kind of chorus to the story. All they talk about is good and evil. They pose gnomic questions like: “If you see a thing of evil, is it a thing that’s evil or you, or the glasses you’re wearing at the time?” And at the end, as they propose marriage to each other, they wonder “Is the evil in us?”, and the guy muses: “Maybe we are the evil, and maybe we are not – and our uncertainty is what makes it really beautiful”.
I think it’s the same with the movies – best and worst movies, good and bad movies. I’m never sure whether the badness is in the movie or in me, or in the glasses I’m wearing – and the same goes for goodness. Talking about films that shaped me is a game I can certainly play. I I know that, as a child, my numerous, nameless terrors were given an uncanny form by Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), watched on a black and white television. I can guess that my hard core of foolish romanticism most likely comes from an old movie called The Enchanted Cottage (1945), in which two disfigured people see each other through the eyes of love. I figure that my slightly whimsical sense of my own masculinity has something to do with watching the dancing white socks of the nutty professor himself, Jerry Lewis. And I most certainly remember that the first really scary apparition I had of female sexuality came from – of all things – John Huston’s biopic Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), starring Montgomery Cliff as Sigmund Freud.
As a lad, I watched this movie, in a suitably darkened loungeroom, in the company of my father and my eldest brother. A woman in this film arches back on a couch and wails like a banshee – I later learned she was the famous hysteric Anna O. Monty whispers his dark diagnosis in his assistant’s ear: “She is suffering from a phantom pregnancy”. Now, as a kid I had no idea what a phantom pregnancy was, but I was instantly convinced that it had to be the most frightening thing in the whole universe. When I mustered up the courage to ask my father, there in the dark, just what a phantom pregnancy was, he curtly informed me: “It’s none of your business.” And still today, I pray that it never ever will be my business.
And here is another true story, believe it or not. When I was seven, I dreamt, with hyper-real clarity, three scenes, three episodes from an extremely fanciful, science fiction type story. A year later, I nearly jumped out of my parents’ car barreling down the highway when I saw a billboard advertising a new film, it was The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968). Demanding to see this film the next day, I there saw before my very eyes on screen the three scenes I had dreamt in precise detail, showing a race of apes rounding up and imprisoning human men and women. A friend of mine reckons, from this evidence, that I was obviously destined to be a cinephile, since for her this is the very definition of cinephilia: a desire for cinema so strong that you dream films before you even see them.
The worst films of my life. I’ll not linger too long here tonight, for reasons soon to become clear. But suffice to say, in my personal vision of the inferno, there is a special place in hell reserved for the entire œuvre of Ken Russell, for that currently overrated Brit Mike Leigh, and for the unbearable Australian film Bad Boy Bubby (de Heer 1993).
I am struck when I come up with my own lists of best and worst, and when I take in others’ lists, that people’s best are invariably associated with memories of childhood; while the worst are associated with the principles of adult life. There is an obviously depressing lesson to be drawn from this. Our readiness to judge, brand and segregate what is supposedly bad in cinema coincides with our getting of refinement, of ideology, of discernment, our acquisition of what could be called the anxiety of taste. Suddenly, at a certain moment in life, it becomes terribly important to know what it is we don’t like, and to stand on that platform at all costs, as if our very identities and our allegiances were bound up in this aggressive and defensive posturing. We never posture so much as when we advertise the things we hate.
For years now, I have been troubled by the cult of badness in film culture – our growing collective obsession with what is bad and our superior indulgence of what are branded and marketed as ‘bad movies’. I guess there’s part of me that just can’t get into this cult, can’t join the wicked fun of the party. You see, I happen to believe that Heaven's Gate (Cimino 1980), Ishtar (May 1987), Hudson Hawk (Lehman 1981), Color of Night (Rush 1994), for instance, are not the bad movies that the world tells me they are – I don’t believe it because I experienced only intrigue and pleasure and amazement at these films, oddities and experiments every one of them. As a critic, I try to remain committed to a motto that was once attributed to the surrealist connoisseur of movies, Ado Kyrou: it was said of him (by his lifelong friend Louis Seguin) that “he preferred discovery to certainty, and sought surprise rather than satisfaction”.
I have a theory about why film critics and film reviewers these days are so grimly obsessed with badness – and why they have become so damn cynical about it. Over the past decade or so, the centre of film culture has shifted – in terms of film magazines, it’s shifted from Sight and Sound and Film Comment to say Movieline and Premiere. Critics who basically spend their hours cruising the pages of these new-fangled magazines, in between attending previews of the movies bought for commercial release, tend to become obsessed with weird and stupid things: things like box-office earnings, what’s releasing in America this summer, Academy Award nominations, and how the latest studio deal masterminded by Spielberg, Lucas or Cameron is shaping up. In other words, we become obsessed with a movie culture that is all hype, showbiz and money, whether that’s independent art-house money or blockbuster money. And we quickly become cynical about this dirty world, but we’re caught – because there’s seemingly nothing else to see or read or talk about. We are critics on the chain gang, shoveling the shit, and we develop hard hearts and flip tongues to deal with our daily, jaded misery. We become bad to the bone, contaminated by all this badness apparently forced upon us by Hollywood.
Yet it wasn’t always like this. Years ago, critics (some critics) actually cared about whether we would get to see the latest Godard or Antonioni or Yvonne Rainer film in this country; now all we care about is when the new Woody Allen movie is opening. Of course, important, risky, rare moments of cinema still happen all over the place, in film festivals, at special fringe events, at the Cinémathèque, on video – but are you reading about these moments, these events in Premiere or in Cinema Papers, or on the arts pages of our quality newspapers?
I have another, perhaps even more fundamental objection to the cult of badness that hangs over our film culture like a gloomy storm cloud. We keep hearing these days about all the movies (pop movies and art movies alike) that are supposedly drowning in a sea of unreality and cliché and commercial calculation and ersatz emotion and fake values – all of the hallmarks of badness. Where does this deep distaste and distrust of the movies come from? It comes, I think, from a genuine ambivalence about cinema as a form of fantasy in our lives, cinema as something that feeds us sensations and dreams.
Sometimes, movies taunt us, make us feel cheap and tawdry and uncomfortable – uncomfortable because we feel that the dreams they are selling us are lies, delusions, impossible and damaging ideals of glamour or happiness or security. We feel compromised by some movies, manipulated in a way we don’t like, and it’s that feeling that we convert into a judgment of badness afflicting the movie in question. But the very fact that we feel such niggly discomfort should also alert us to something fundamentally true about cinema: even the fakest, phoniest and most corrupt movie may have the power to move and enchant and inspire us.
Could I stand a history of the cinema that no longer held a fond place for the aerobics dancing in Flashdance (Lyne 1983) or the ecstatic shopping orgies in Pretty Woman (Marshall 1990), for the gore of Z-grade zombie films or the silliness of the so-called dumb comedies? If we really thought today’s movies were so bad, so vulgar, so empty, so bereft of imagination, then why would any of us keep going back to them?
I think it’s because none of us have any idea, finally, which movies are really good and which are really bad – and that uncertainty keeps driving us. And our uncertainty, as the man sad, is what makes it really beautiful.
Delivered on the panel “The Best and Worst Films that Shaped Our Lives” at Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.
© Adrian Martin 21 October 1997