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Best Worst Fanboys


Have We Gone From Loving Indie Film to Loving Hating it?

The current state of indie film is tearing me apart!

I think I began to notice this trend with Christopher Guest‘s hilarious 1996 send-up of small-town theater and its unrequitable aspirations toward greatness, “Waiting for Guffman.” Even though when that film came out I was fully-invested in a small-town theater and had the kinds of aspirations that Guffman’s characters had, it was fun and easy to laugh at the deluded and power-hungry jackasses who maybe took themselves a bit too seriously, expecting their slight artistic efforts would launch them onto the world stage. Guest went on to make three other films (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind,” and “For Your Consideration“) with basically the same sentiment – Your singular passion is also your most bloated, farcical, ugliest form of vanity. Suck on our bile.

And while I enjoyed “Guffman,” the first Guest-directed semi-mock-doc (not to mention the Guest-starring “This is Spinal Tap,” from whence Guest seemed to discover his improvisational oeuvre), as his films went on they seemed to circle around that same theme – if you have creative aspirations, you’re a asshat and we will mock you. His targets also drew closer to the art of filmmaking itself, concluding his mockery-doc quadrilogy with the utterly-forgettable “For Your Consideration,” a film so stale and on-the-nose that it itself begs mockery from the audience. I guess one lesson is stop while you’re ahead, Mr. Guest. But around the time that Guest was mocking would-be pretentious filmmakers, a real phenomenon was taking root in the film culture. A “Rocky Horror”-esque audience participation experience that accompanied the Tommy Wiseau written by/directed by/starring “The Room.”

No Room for Quality

The Room” is a hard film to not mock openly. It practically mocks itself. Made for a reported $6 million (and looking like about $200,000 if one rounds up), writer/director/star Wiseau rented an auditorium at the Laemmle Sunset 5 theater in Hollywood to run the movie for two weeks in order to qualify his star vehicle for an Academy Award.

Really.

And during that time, it developed a cult following as a result of its hysterical awfulness. And eventually I too succumbed to the siren song of its suck.

The film concerns a strange long-haired professional man in his 40’s or 50’s with an indistinguishable Eastern-European accent and a solid 3-foot football throw who suspects his future wife (played by 18-year old Juliette Danielle) is cheating on him with his best friend (bearded-then-clean-shaven Greg Sestero). Bad acting, cringe-inducing love scenes, and tone-deaf directing ensue. Epic bad. Hysterical bad. And now, on the last Saturday of every month, Wiseau himself shows up at the Sunset 5 and sells out TWO SCREENS, takes ridiculous questions from the audience, and shows his film to the jeering throng. Did I mention that he SELLS OUT TWO SCREENS???? That’s just in LA – “The Room” has been booked in New York as well to a similar overwhelming reception. It’s hard to know if Wiseau is simply embracing the fact that a demand to mock his film is still a demand, or if he’s deluded into believing that anyone takes his work seriously. My guess is the former, as he’s now marketing the film as a “dark comedy” in addition to still comparing it to Tennessee Williams. I seem to have missed the dark comedic overtones of “The Glass Menagerie,” but I’ll presume Wiseau would say anything to sell another copy of “The Room” and move on.

From left to right, Jaime Robledo, "The Room" Auteur Tommy Wiseau, and me (photo by Jenelle Riley)

And although I admit enjoying my two trips to see the audience-participation version of this film – a movie that wouldn’t get through the first-round of judging at a film festival in a mental hospital – My enjoyment does not stem from its goodness, it stems from being part of a community that knows celebrity is bullshit and to worship a bullshit celebrity like Wiseau who is only famous for being bad is in itself a transgressive act. And in Hollywood, where we’re never supposed to say anything bad about anyone’s work, it’s relieving and a bit hilarious to heap praise at the altar of awfulness. In short, to say “we put your failure on a pedestal to draw everyone’s attentions away from our own.” Mean-spirited though it is, this behavior is beginning to sprout copycats.

Flipping the Bird

Earlier this year, James Nguyen released “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” and gave Wiseau a run for his money. For details of the story, check out the trailer below, but much like “The Room” it was obvious that the draw of the film was of the so-bad-it’s-fun-to-mock variety. Several people I know ran out to crowd the brief theatrical run of “Birdemic” in LA, but I abstained. Here’s why:

Firstly, “Birdemic” director Nguyen seemed, unlike Wiseau, to be sincere and not just narcissistic in his failed creative aspirations (even though he apparently has trademarked the words “romantic thriller”). Secondly, it began to dawn on me that “Birdemic” represents a greater shift in what pop culture views indie filmmaking to be – which is to say that we’re rewarding the worst of it and celebrating people who lack skill and discipline like they’re outsider artists and I would argue that they’re not. Furthermore, we’re planting the Guest-ian seed in audiences’ minds that indie filmmaking is insubstantial, vanity-based, and laughably awful. I don’t think people consciously believe that, but to me the message still seems clear – this isn’t the 90’s and we’re no longer looking for the next Soderbergh, Aronofsky, or Solondz. Now we crave the opposite of those filmmakers, ones we can mock.

And just last week, the documentary “Best Worst Movie” came out, a first-person documentary by Michael Stephenson, the child star of 1989’s “Troll 2,” detailing the long tail of fanboy-ness that has developed around that film, worshipping the unintentional surrealism that only bad cinema can deliver. The doc looks very entertaining and maybe even heartwarming, but the fandom that has flourished around “Troll 2” is not unlike the fandom around the films of Ed Wood, Jr. And I suppose to those people who queue up to watch “Troll 2” on the big screen where it was meant to be seen, that’s the point.

In this week's LA Weekly: The truth, apparently, lies between Goddard and Grease

I Am a Hypocrite

Am I innocent, hell no. I have long blowharded about my love and personal collection of garage sale art. For a time, I was obsessed with song poems – a cottage industry built out of charging would-be songwriters for a professional recording of their amateur lyrics. No doubt, there is something fun to be found in failed artistic endeavors, even if it is garnished with bilious mockery. As a lifelong student of film and theater, maybe I enjoy the schadenfreude to be found in the lack of an artistic spark in the beginner. Or maybe contemporary films have just become so pat and predictable that audiences have to go to poorly-made movies to find something a little unusual. As an audience member, isn’t that like cutting yourself to remind yourself that you still feel?

"For David" by CE "Gramps" Short, 1970. Acrylic on canvass. Plastic stars by artist. Currently hanging in my kitchen.

And there’s always been an attraction to the “so-bad-it’s-good” variety of movies (and I suspect every other form of self-expression). So why am I getting all worked up over this? Maybe it’s because indie filmmaking is in worse shape today than any time I can think of before 1989. Distribution has become elusive and often unprofitable, and the Sasquatch-like “new model for indies” has yet to emerge from the underbrush of a bad economy and rampant piracy. But meanwhile, the message keeps going out, that it’s fun to make fun of failed indies and their deluded directors. In fact, we’re rewarding that behavior. And there is something funny about all of these films that endears them to us, that they have such a tin ear for dialogue, bad casting – that their entire creative house is built on sand.

The truth is that audiences are going to seek out what they want, and they’re going to pay to see it. I don’t want to take “The Room,” “Birdemic,” or “Troll 2” away from the communities that have developed around them, but I would like to focus some light in the other direction – on the indies that do merit attention and show promise. After all, where is the next generation of filmmakers going to come from if we don’t nurture actual talent? It’s a little like the phenomenon we’re seeing now, where Guest’s own Spinal Tap is touring unironically as a real heavy-metal band from the 80’s and performing their “greatest hits.” Were those hits not designed originally to be mocked? Now they’re taken seriously (or seriously enough, anyway) and the joke is buried in there somewhere, but it’s not the point anymore.

Like any art, filmmaking requires a lot of experimentation and ultimately failure before anyone gets it right. I just hope that in the rush to appreciate the transcendental badness to be found in the cult of the horrible film, audiences rediscover the joy of finding fresh, new, actually good work that comes from unexpected sources and pushes the art, rather than the art of the jeer, forward.

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14 comments on “Best Worst Fanboys

  1. Great article. In mild defense of “For Your Consideration,” surely the least of the Guest/Levy Mocks, Catherine O’Hara’s performance is amazing. She is supernaturally gifted. By the end of the film, she’s faking a Hollywood desperation-style facelift. She was also a riot as the voice of Judith in “Where the Wild Things Are.”

    • No question that Guest’s casts are all first-rate. I would credit them with putting Fred Willard and Eugene Levy back on the map. Catherine O’Hara had never left the map and therefore required no putting-back-on. I actually think her best performance in all of Guest’s films was in “A Might Wind.” Also, her character was the only one who didn’t feel particularly mocked.

  2. I think your points on the state of indie film are well-taken, but I don’t see the correlation to audiences celebrating beyond the pale bad movies. Audiences have always loved awful movies, whether we are talking about the midnight movie smash Rocky Horror Picture Show or the long running success of MST3K, this is not a new phenomenon that is affecting the fortunes of indie film.

    The blame for that belongs entirely to the filmmakers. Where are the great indie films, the ones that challenge and entertain, that make us marvel and delight at new forms of storytelling and brilliant writing? The last three times I went to the movies without the kids, I saw indie films – two of them were so lifeless and trivial (Greenberg and Please Give) compared to most of the TV shows I watch at home (which cost a lot less that $15 a ticket plus babysitter). The other film was by Banksy, an art provocateur who had never made a film before and it was brilliant. Interestingly, the difference between Banksy and the average indie filmmaker is that Banksy knows how to turn his work into an event, he understands the marketplace and how to secure PR to get his work out there. Also, he made a film worth celebrating.

    But I think indie film’s main competitor for attention right now is television. While indie movies haven’t progressed much in terms of quality, TV has become vastly superior and more creative. The last 2 seasons alone have delivered great work across a variety of genres: Lost, True Blood, Dexter, Modern Family, Justified, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Treme, 30 Rock, Glee — all far superior writing, acting, and cinematography than most of what passes for indie film these days. In fact, most of those shows are directed by former indie filmmakers turned TV directors! On top of that we have the last 5-7 years of great TV available to us on Netflix, from The Wire and The Sopranos to The Shield and Arrested Development. If indie film wants to get its audience back, it needs to rise to that level and beyond – offer something we can’t get at home or from Hollywood. It’s not the celebration of bad movies killing indie film — nor is it the pirates, but we’ve been hashing that one out for weeks now ;), it’s that very lacking quality of most indie films themselves that’s killing it.

    I’d loved to be proven wrong, though. How about a list of 3-5 brilliant indie films from this year that I should seek out to watch (documentaries don’t count)? And if I sound bitter about the quality of indie films it’s because I was once one of their greatest supporters, but I as a fan feel,let down by them time and time again. We fans are here, and we are waiting for filmmakers to earn the love and support back, but ya gotta earn the love.

    • I’m absolutely not blaming fanboy lust for so-bad-they’re-good films for the decline of indie cinema. Absolutely not. I’m just seeing a shift in the perception of what an indie film really is.

      That being said, I can think of a few indies this year that really impressed me with freshness and vision: “Bronson” (on Netflix streaming now), “House of the Devil,” and a couple that aren’t distributed yet: “Midnight Son” and “The Revenant.” A film that, by the nature of its own transgression has become a cause célèbre is Tom Six’s body-horror film “The Human Centipede” which disappointed me but was still quite a draw for an indie – but it’s out right now in NYC and LA. Also, I would cite the only Lars Von Trier film that I would ever recommend – “Antichrist.”

      I do think fresh, challenging, even (sometimes) visionary indie films are out there, but they are struggling to find an audience (again, not my point in this particular blog post). It may be a post-Blair thing that it’s no longer news when someone spends a small amount of money and makes a good film. Now it’s better news when someone spends $6 Million and makes “The Room.”

  3. “A Mighty Wind” was, in general, the least “mocking,” most openly affectionate of Guest’s cycle. “Guffman remains my fave, because I just know more about that world, and think Corky is a genius character. He’s not “off” for a moment. I think satire, especially mordant satire, runs the risk of shining a cynical spotlight on almost anything. There’s nothing that can’t be subjected to a reductio ad absurdem approach and made to look silly. What I love about Guest/Levy is that he manages to do it while preserving the hearts of his characters. He ribs them, sure, holds them up to our privileged gaze, but not so much scornfully as gently prodding us to see our own vanity. In this, he reminds me of Daumier, or Jonathan Swift, even Voltaire.

    As to this odd assortment of films you bring forward, they all remind me of Ed Wood stuff. He seemed blissfully unconscious of anything resembling standards. A doorbell rings during a take in “Jail Bait” and it stays in. In the face of such filmic overperfection as we’ve been seeing since (for me anyway) “The Frighteners,” perhaps it’s a normal reaction, a desire to return to simplicity. I think there’s a reason why “so bad it’s good” persists. The level of quality we see now, as a result of crews of 150-1000 artists on a shoot (Cameron) seems to call for some kind of democratization. Remember when 20 people made a movie? And sometimes not a bad one? As with this blog itself, the movement is toward smaller, more democratic, more accessible, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean lower quality. The “Iron Baby” video clearly showed that. But I find it’s growing tiresome to watch things I could never participate in. The days of Harryhausen, Corman et. al. had their own charm; that of accessibility. George Pal made delightful films with far fewer resources than exist on a Mac today. I loved this blog entry of yours, and look forward to the re-evolution of the small, independent film… which as you point out, never really left.

  4. “It’s not the celebration of bad movies killing indie film — nor is it the pirates, but we’ve been hashing that one out for weeks now”

    Ha! Monello doesn’t agree that piracy is to blame for the demise of indie filmmaking? Someone buy that man a drink (and fill me in with the details….because I really want to know).

    • Blaming piracy is the easy way out and robs filmmakers, distributors, and entrepreneurs the opportunity to examine the real roots of the problem and deal with them intentionally. Piracy is a great boogyman, with made up metrics that have no basis in reality “piracy robs us of billions of dollars, etc.”

      I’m not saying piracy doesn’t hurt, but blaming it for the entire collapse of the system is foolish when there are so many opportunities to experiment and find new ways. I’d rather see filmmakers work towards new solutions rather than throwing up their hands and crying uncle because the old system doesn’t justify itself or produce the same results anymore. Things change, and with that some opportunities go away and new opportunities arise. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do recognize the movie industry as a whole complaining about piracy while utterly failing to make any changes to adjust for it, thus digging their own grave even more.

      As I’ve argued with Ben, the collapse of the music labels and industry hasn’t marked the end of quality music for any of us and the same will be true for films. We may be in the “Metallica sues Napster” phase of things where the new models feel even further away, but that’s the time we live in now. Filmmakers and producers must innovate or die,it’s that simple.

  5. Sorry for reading more into it, I leaned a bit to heavy on the third to last paragraph. Bronson is going on my Netflix list for sure. The Human Centipede has been playing to mixed reviews while the 50th anniversary print of Breathless is stealing all the film fan love around here.

    But I would argue that the vast majority of people who love sincerely bad cinema do not celebrate the filmmakers as outsider artists, nor does seeing a bad movie a substitute for seeing a brilliantly moving one. In my casual and non-scientific analysis of the friends who love bad movies, they are usually the ones who still support their local art houses, who continue to seek out and love the good indie and foreign films that do get released. After all, appreciation of terrible movies has to involve some love of movies in the first place.

    You wrote: “Furthermore, we’re planting the Guest-ian seed in audiences’ minds that indie filmmaking is insubstantial, vanity-based, and laughably awful.” I suggest that has nothing to do with bad movies being celebrated — after all, is Worst Best Movie that much different than American Movie eleven years ago? The problem is that while passionate but untalented people have continued to churn out laughably awful movies, indie filmmakers have failed to keep pace with quality work to combat that impression. Not to mention the fact that so much indie film has always been “insubstantial and vanity-based,” it’s just that film festival screeners were the only ones who watched those that failed to reach “laughably awful” status.

    So, I’m back to where I started, I guess. The perception of indie film as a whole is in large part a reaction to the quality of the indie films being made. Festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, and Cannes fail to make a mark on mainstream culture the way they did in the 80’s-90’s heyday largely because the quality of films and filmmakers aren’t there. It’s not that we’ve stopped looking for the next Soderbergh, Aranofsky, or Allison Anders (how about some love for the great ladies of indie film, yo), it’s that they simply aren’t there. There’s an entire infrastructure of festivals, distributors, and media devoted to finding those people, and they’ve come up empty, year after year. Every once in a while, something shines, but usually we get it from an already established filmmaker (Adventureland), than a brilliant newcomer.

    Partly that comes down to the glut of films being made, no doubt. As the costs and process of filmmaking became democratized, so did the noise level. It’s no longer enough to simply make a great film, the way the earlier generation of filmmakers did, you now have to understand how to get your film out there, how to find an audience. Unfortunately, indie film culture was a reaction to the business – it’s all about the art, maaaan – and that worked when it was still difficult to make a movie and required an expertise or at least a knowledge of gear and technique that wasn’t readily available, but that very culture works against those filmmakers now that they actually need a business plan and an idea of how to earn back the money they raise before they can raise it. Couple that with the dwindling economics of traditional distribution and the current (but not permanent, IMHO) lack of new economic models that can support a 10 million dollar indie budget and you you drive away the most interesting creative voices. One look at the current state of indie film and you find things like the “Take-Back Manifesto,” a screed against the business of indie films that is so naive, so dogmatic, and comes from a place of such privilege that it’s just as laughably bad as The Room in its own vanity filled way.

    You have definitely hit on something important about perception, but I wonder if it is audience perception or the perceptions of talented creatives that have changed. Our culture has stopped celebrating the indie filmmaker. The narrative of the talented outsider who blows everyone away with a brilliant film has worn thin. Today we celebrate the tech startup, the group of outsiders who put something together and impact our lives in some way – Facebook, Twitter, etc. I meet a lot of these people and they remind me in their curiosity, drive, and talent of the people I used to meet on the festival circuit 15 years ago.

    So, I totally agree with your main point, I just think it has less to do with the celebration of bad films than it does the fact that the indie film community has been stagnant for some time, and that stagnation drives people away rather than attracts fresh new talent.

  6. Normally I don’t chime in on stuff outside of fB, and fB at least for me is getting irritating and cumbersome to keep up with.

    I quite enjoyed the following observations, which would make great bumperstickers and billboards. But God forbid we make anyone actually think these days.

    “Your singular passion is also your most bloated, farcical, ugliest form of vanity”.

    “,,,,but I’ll presume Wiseau would say anything to sell another copy of “The Room” and move on.” I believe Madonna and Gene Simmons observed art is whatever the general public says ‘is’ or ‘is not’. Both were shameless promoters with the notion ‘bad press is good press, its better than no press whatsoever’. Both driven by greed and ego, no doubt. I wouldn’t call what G.G. Allin did ‘art’, but I have heard of and been disgusted by him.

    “we’re rewarding the worst of it and celebrating people who lack skill and discipline like they’re outsider artists and I would argue that they’re not.” Jack White. The White Stripes were completely awful. Perhaps that was his point, I don’t know. The fact that he got tired of piracy and the Machine that churns the ‘music’ industry and started his vinyl only label Third Man Records in Nashville is a much needed shot in the arm for indie music guys like myself. Oddly enough vinyl is making a steady comeback and indie mail-order only presses allow the artists full control over creation of the music and the art that adorns a vinyl jacket. Visual art not seen in decades as cd packaging requires a microscope to see details.

    “I have long blowharded about my love and personal collection of garage sale art.” Sweet!

    “contemporary films have just become so pat and predictable that audiences have to go to poorly-made movies to find something a little unusual.”–This I believe to be true. ‘Bottle Shock’-better than expected’,,,,’About Schmidt’–$7 naptime in a chair.

    I know nothing of cinema except that I either like it or don’t. One has to balance shameless promotion and honest artistic endeavors. Its a double edged chainsaw.

    Paul S. Dallas, TX

    ps Whats up with the big AFI film thing they have in Dallas every year? If you get in on that, you’re welcome to crash at my place. Austin is 5.5 hrs south, or 1 hr by plane.

  7. I like your point, Ben. I would add to it that what’s considered “indie” these days is usually crammed with a cast of names and helmed by a big director who gave up his parking spot on the lot to make the film. I would like to see indies make stars instead of depend on them once more.

  8. I agree with Monello 100%, I think he raises some great points about the stagnation of indie cinema in recent years. I believe that this is a result of both indie filmmakers becoming complacent and looking for an easy offering, and studios getting sharper about their films. The very definition of indie filmmaking has been blurred, some people would describe the Star Wars films as indie…but where does that fit compared to something like BWP?

    Lastly, I think our attention is being heavily diverted by so many sources. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Cable TV, Movie Theatres, Arthouses, and sure…why not? The BitTorrents. These are all sources of entertainment which are competing for our attention on an hourly basis. Indie cinema has to fight extra hard to be heard over the noise of the competition. Not unlike politics where a good man with a good message had a shot for presidency, now it’s all about the marketing.

    Regarding Human Centipede, I view that movie as the feature length equivalent of Two Girls, One Cup. The idea so revolting that it’s going to send shockwaves of buzz around the net even if the people who actually watch it are in a small minority.

  9. This was a great post. I can’t laugh too hard at these folks. Most of my work has resulted in some type of mockery – But from a filmmaking perspective, it is better to be criticized and talked about than not talked about. I think it’s important to not take yourself too seriously.

  10. […] he specialized in mock-docs that crapped on those with creative aspirations, Christopher Guest‘s first movie chronicles a visionary filmmaker (Kevin Bacon) who graduates […]

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