Birdemic, The Room, and what makes a horrible film great.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 6 2010 9:53 AM

The Worst Movies Ever Made

Birdemic, The Room, and what makes a horrible film great.

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The film's artlessness comes to function as its own sort of hallucinatory art. In The Room and Birdemic, we see the narrative space of the film breaking down and rebuilding itself constantly—bloody stitches on its forehead, bolts in its neck. This breakdown can be profoundly discomfiting and surprisingly infectious. After watching The Room at home the other night, its anarchic rhythm took me over. Everything I said sounded somewhat forced and unnatural: My phrasing and my cadences seemed off to me, like when you stare at a word for so long that it becomes unfamiliar. It was as though I was under the influence of a drug—or worse, Wiseau's directing.

This is no doubt part of the appeal of watching such movies in a theater full of drunken co-conspirators. Such midnight screenings make for a warped social ritual while simultaneously helping to comfort and re-ground us in the face of that warping. Part of the fun of watching a horrible movie is that we get to feel like we're part of a club, all of us superior to the rube who made it—the film functions as a comedy we laugh at, not with. But the communal laughter hurled at a movie like The Room is also something of a defense mechanism, a means to fend off the film's uncanny, invasive effects.

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A horrible movie can also function as a vexing mystery: Why did that take continue so long after the action stopped? Why is the camera suddenly shooting through a pane of glass, streaked with water, even though we are in a bedroom? Why does that actor keep his eyes half-shut when he's talking? Answers are hardly forthcoming, and this points up another difference between run-of-the-mill bad movies and awesomely bad movies: The former are often predictable, while the latter are deeply stymieing.

There's a great picture on James Nguyen's Web site of him shaking David Lynch's hand, and although a headline describes the encounter portentously as a meeting-of-the-minds ("DIRECTOR JAMES NGUYEN MEETS DAVID LYNCH TO DISCUSS DIGITAL CINEMA"), Nguyen beams with the glee of a diehard fan … at what is clearly a book signing. (To be fair, it's not hard to imagine Lynch, master of the unsettling, finding much to admire in Nguyen's film.)This whiff of glee is another, less disturbing, byproduct of a movie like Birdemic. There's a degree to which the auteur becomes a striver we empathize with—someone who has gone out with a camera and made something out of love, after all, on a shoestring budget, inadequacies and ineptitude be damned.

This meta-narrative is made explicit in Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic, in which Wood is cast as a bumbling, lovable eccentric, and in American Movie, in which we're swept up in Mark Borchardt's quixotic struggle to make his horror film, Coven. We are entertained, we are tortured, and we are confused, but we are also moved by Nguyen's obstinate desire to tell a story, even if—especially because—he isn't much good at it.

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