Birdemic: Shock and Terror, a B movie (F-minus movie?) that has become the toast of the midnight-movie circuit, is something like the un- Avatar. It is a romantic action-adventure with an earnest eco-parable at its core. It features computer-generated visual effects the likes of which cinema has never seen: .gif-style birds superimposed clumsily on the screen. And it requires that audiences don special eyewear to fully enjoy it: beer goggles.
Written and directed by a 43-year-old software salesman and Hitchcock devotee named James Nguyen, Birdemic is the latest cinematic stinker to transform into a cult hit—part of a tradition of ironic feting that extends at least as far back as Ed Wood's clunky oeuvre. Screenings of Birdemic—in which a young couple falls in love, only to have their small Northern California town attacked by a bloodthirsty airborne flock—have routinely sold out since the film's February premiere in Los Angeles, an event hosted by the Adult Swim comedy duo (and bad-taste connoisseurs) Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Late last month, the New York Times ran a story chronicling the Birdemic phenomenon, and ABC World News aired a somewhat bewildered interview with Nguyen, in which he shared the title of his next project: Peephole: The Perverted.
At their best—which is to say, at their fascinating worst—movies like Birdemic can be surprisingly rich experiences. They don't merely afford us a groan at their wooden acting or a laugh at their crude charms: They drop us into a murky vortex of authorial intent, sabotage some of our most basic notions about character and narrative, and remind us of film's power to disturb, disorient, and discombobulate us. All that and homicidal hawks.
What's the difference between a film that's just plain bad and a film that's Birdemic-bad? Nguyen's movie has several things in common with its cult-beloved predecessors—a motley, misshapen lot headed up by Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space(1959), Hal Warren's bumbling occult horror Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), and Tommy Wiseau's captivatingly insane soap-thriller The Room (2003).
For starters, from the software-salesman Nguyen to the former hospital worker Wiseau to the Texas fertilizer salesman Warren to the paperboy/janitor Mark Borchardt (the slasher-film obsessive profiled in the excellent 1999 documentary American Movie), such films are typically helmed by outsiders, who seem untainted by excesses of competence, money, or irony. Despite the preposterousness of the movies these people make, their outsider status lends them an important aura of authenticity, a word that equates, in this context, with a lack of knowingness. We like our awesomely bad auteurs to be out on the joke, to believe themselves actually awesome. If we detect a wink in the film, it threatens the happy sense that we're experiencing something truly naïve, truly alien, truly weird. Watching a movie like Birdemic, we find ourselves asking a version of the question that attaches to many of the "found" viral videos on YouTube: Is it a fake? The absence of guile is a key condition of our pleasure.
Indeed, aspects of Birdemic can seem too bad to be true—and the Tim and Eric endorsement only heightens suspicion. In one scene, a gaggle of birds sprays what appears to be toxic urine on screaming victims below. Shots linger for far too long. The sound is all over the place—muffled in one scene, abrasively loud in the next—and virtually every cut is heralded by a steep drop in volume, as though someone keeps sneaking up on the boom operator with a chloroform-dipped rag.
This speaks to something else Birdemic has in common with other so-bad-it's-good cult hits—it's physically trying to watch. This is not always a strict case of poor production values. The Room (also championed by Tim and Eric) suffers from none of Birdemic's sound problems and is generally better shot, but it launches its own formal assault on us. In some scenes, too-long pauses pothole the actors' exchanges; other moments are carpeted with rapid-fire dialogue (as in this heavily dubbed scene). Plot twists arise and drop away unresolved, and the presence of certain characters is never explained. Perhaps most off-putting is that the actors frequently seem to be talking past one another—not in a satisfying, dramatic sense (illustrating an emotional disconnect, say) but in a way that suggests they are the inhabitants of slightly different movies. They repeat themselves doggedly, do not react comprehensibly to each other (chuckling one moment, crying the next), and generally seem to operate free from any coherent "motivation."
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.
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.