Bad Movie Classification System: Part Three

On to the Category III bad movie. Now we’re cooking with gas! While it is possible to endure the Category I, possible to find perverse enjoyment in the Category II, the Category III takes things to the next level: it’s the movie that is too painful to watch under any circumstances.

  • Type: Category III
  • Also known as: the “walk out of the theater” movie
  • Example: Ultraviolet
  • Circumstances for watching: you have advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and you’ve managed to really piss off your caretakers

It’s easy to differentiate Category IIIs from Category IIs: if there exists some mental state where you might find amusement watching the movie, it’s a Category II. By definition, watching a Category III is a joyless experience.

But differentiating the Category III from the Category I is trickier. The typical Category III might at first appear to be a Category I, but soon the realization dawns that the movie is not just mediocre or bad in all aspects, but so awful across the board that all the bad stuff must have been done on purpose. Just having, say, awful acting is not enough — the movie needs to utterly fail on all levels.[1] If you’re having trouble telling the difference, the Category III rule of thumb is that the Category I stems from laziness, incompetence, or cynicism, while the Category III stems from sheer malice. This rule breaks down for some special cases (mentioned below), but in general, if the filmmaker doesn’t care about the audience, it’s a Category I; if the filmmaker clearly hates the audience, it’s a Category III.

One easy path to Category III status is to create an adaptation that desecrates its source subject. The bonus points accrued for destroying something the audience loves are often enough to push a movie over the Category III line. For example, director Uwe Boll‘s films usually earn Category III status in no small part due to the hatred he induces in the video gamer community. (It’s okay video gamers, Uwe hates you right back.) Another example would be the infamous Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, Part One — ordinarily a solid Category I, but for many Tolkien fans, an atrocity. Interestingly, Bakshi’s film violates our rule of thumb about Category IIIs and malice: as far as I know, Bakshi didn’t necessarily hate his audience or subject matter, he just ran out of money. (Although the wretchedness of his film is hard to explain by just that.) Likewise, Courtney Solomon doesn’t hate his fellow roleplaying game enthusiasts — it’s just that his film makes it appear that he does.

Next time, we cover the last and most complex case, the Category IV. Don’t miss it! Errr, that is, don’t miss the journal entry. The movies, eh, those you can miss.

1. Although I suppose there is the theoretical possibility of a Category III having only one or two bad characteristics. For example, there might be a movie out there where the awful soundtrack or motion-sickness-inducing camera work is enough. Suggestions for candidates welcome!

Bad Movie Classification System: Part Two

The last entry covered the Category I bad movie, also known as the run-of-the-mill bad movie. Today we discuss the Category II bad movie, which pushes past the mediocre-bad barrier all the way through to funny-bad:

  • Type: Category II
  • Also known as: The “so bad it’s funny” movie
  • Example: Hercules in New York
  • Circumstances for watching: Inebriation, being in college, watching MST3K (preferably all three)

If Category I movies are the cinematic equivalent of background noise, the Category II movie represents one of those awesome and rare moments when you discover that the noise is the signal. As in, oh my God, that’s not pigeon shit — that’s the temperature of the universe! Now in the case of the Cosmic Background Radiation, it takes specialized equipment to tease out the structure behind the noise, such as SIS junction mixers and sub-1K pumped liquid helium refrigeration systems. Likewise, Category IIs are best observed with specialized instrumentation: namely, a healthy supply of mind-altering drugs.

In other words, a Category II is bad enough that it actually might have some merit, although not, perhaps, the merit that the filmmakers intended. Category IIs are usually worse than the typical Category I by most criteria: the acting is worse, the dialogue lamer, the plot more preposterous, the special effects cheaper, and so on. And yet when viewed in a certain light, the Category II can become more than the sum of its parts.[1] This is not to say that Category Is can’t have Category II-like moments. The key difference is that watching a Category I movie deadens your soul, while watching a Category II movie merely deadens your brain.

Because they have the potential to be entertaining, Category IIs might at first glance seem to be “better” than Category Is. But that’s the insidious thing about the Category IIs; they’re really just better at suckering you into watching fundamentally piss-poor entertainment. My attitude towards Category IIs has evolved over the years, but right now it’s summed up by the classic Onion article, “Aging Gen-Xer Doesn’t Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore“:

“I used to be able to take great pleasure in not enjoying things,” Erdman said. “But these days, the only things I like are things I like.”

Given that our fellow human beings have produced so many great works of art, and a nearly unlimited number of really good ones, why bother with the stuff that sucks? A little cheesiness never hurt anyone, but when you get right down to it, life is waaay too short to waste watching truly bad movies.[2] 😉

1. Category IIs are good candidates to become “cult” movies, although this is not to say that all cult movies are Category IIs.

2. Notice how I cleverly buried the key point of this entire series of essays right in the middle of the text? You journalists out there can take your inverted pyramid style and suck it!

Bad Movie Classification System: Part One

Yesterday I mentioned that, inspired by the movie Ultraviolet, I had developed a unified theory of bad movies, complete with a four-category classification system. We’ll start with the Category I bad movie. The Category I movie is the cinematic embodiment of Sturgeon’s Revelation: “90% of everything is crap.”

  • Type: Category I
  • Also known as: “extruded Hollywood product” (h/t Charles Stross)
  • Example: The Karate Kid, Part III
  • Circumstances for watching: Insomnia, long airplane trips, waiting in a lobby of some sort, friend or relative worked on the film

Although Category I movies represent the vast majority of films made, this is not meant to be pointed criticism of Hollywood per se. Sturgeon’s Revelation is ironclad, and applies to all works of art produced throughout history. If we could wave a magic wand and double the raw talent of everyone in Hollywood on both the creative and business sides, we might see the percentage of Category I movies dropping to 88% or so. No matter what you do in the art world, there’s a lot chaff that gets in the way.

Nor do I mean to suggest that Category I movies only come from Michael Bay and his ilk. Some movies are born Category Is; others might have solid acting, dialogue, editing, and so on while still managing to be far less than the sum of their parts. For example, take Woody Allen’s recent Match Point. “Allen’s best in ten years,” the critics said. “London has revitalized him,” the critics said. I actually emerged from the theater sorta kinda liking Match Point, until my friend quite sensibly pointed out that the only reason the plot slogged forward was because every character was necessarily A) an idiot, B) despicable, or in almost all cases, C) both.

Of course, a movie’s Category I-ness varies in the eye of the beholder. For example, I suspect most people think of Armageddon as a classic Category I: stupid, bombastic, bad dialogue, the whole package. But for me it nearly crosses over into Category III, because the bad physics is just so, so offensive. On the other hand, I thought Starship Troopers was a run-of-the mill Category I, and even had some parts that were enjoyable.[1] But Sammy felt nothing but burning hatred for that movie. The stupid tactics, the ineffective weaponry,[2] the total absence of the Mobile Infantry’s powered armor suits. There’s a brief scene where a squadron of space fighters swoop through a canyon, firebombing everything below them. Sammy: “Where the hell were those guys before? Why weren’t they doing that all the time?” For yet another data point, Sammy and I saw Mystery Men and literally fell forward out of our seats, crying laughing at the “Limousine Attack” scene. Everyone else in the sparsely-populated theater was stone silent. So to each their own.

While creating a Category I movie is easy, Category II, III, and IV movies are special cases. Creating a Category II+ movie takes special drive, talent… possibly even malice. So on that note, it’s on from the merely mediocre to the truly wretched! Join me, won’t you?

1. I particularly liked the subversive thread running through the Starship Troopers movie: that the humans probably started the war and were almost certainly the bad guys. The hilarious propaganda newsreels, dressing the commissioned officers like the Nazi SS, and so on. Plus it had plenty of eye candy, if you disregard Jake Busey.

2. Seriously, if each enemy warrior bug takes ten seconds of concentrated fire from several marines to take down, you shouldn’t even be bothering with ground operations. Contrast Starship Troopers with the far superior Aliens: the Space Marines in Aliens had the weaponry for the job, they were just badly outnumbered or otherwise constrained. (“So, if they fire their weapons in there, won’t they rupture the cooling system?”) Additionally, the Space Marines were able to reassess their situation and come to entirely sensible conclusions. (“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” Yes! Exactly right! A bit too late, though.)

Towards a Unified Bad Movie Classification System: Part Zero

Earlier this year, I saw Ultraviolet.[1] After stumbling out of the theater in a daze, my buddy and I came to the conclusion that Ultraviolet might very well be the worst movie we’ve ever seen. Or at least in contention, along with, say, Yor, Hunter from the Future. You can’t use “worst movie ever” lightly, but wow, Ultraviolet was a failure on every artistic level I can think of:

  • Emotional Content: Every scene provoked the opposite emotion intended. All action scenes provoked boredom. All dramatic scenes provoked cringing. All tear-jerking scenes provoked laughter (Ex: the merry-go-round scene).
  • Dialogue: Beyond stupid.
  • Logic: Bad guys from several different factions appeared out of nowhere as the plot required. Violet had the supernatural ability to kill as many bad guys as required. People betrayed each other for no particular reason. Chase scenes were impossible to follow: Violet would be running through one futuristic corridor, then we’d cut to a scene of bad guys running after her through some other futuristic building, then we’d cut back to Violet running through yet a third futuristic building…
  • Bad Guy: An action movie lives and dies by the dark charisma of the Big Bad Evil Guy. Star Wars had Darth Vader. Die Hard had Hans Gruber. Ultraviolet had some guy who liked to taunt his enemies with, “Are you mental?” He also wore nose plugs.[2]
  • Sex Appeal: No tension at all between Violet and anyone, least of all her wimpy vampire scientist buddy (William Fichtner, who usually rises above material like this). Fellow red-blooded males should note that the uninterrupted view of Milla Jovovich’s sculpted midriff got boring about ten minutes in.
  • Action: Violet defeated about 60% of the bad guys by whirling her torso around in “bullet time” and letting her enemies shoot or slice up their own buddies to death.
  • Visual Style: The architecture was scrubbed clean and inhospitable to all life. The bad guys were faceless helmeted interchangeable fascists. The rebels wore tight leather and had swords and mirrorshades. Et cetera. The only really innovative element was the nose plugs.
  • Music: Every action scene pulsated with loud, grindingly awful techno music. (Over the years, I’ve actually learned to like loud techno music, so I can only imagine what people who don’t like techno thought.)
  • CGI: Without a doubt, the worst I’ve ever seen. Particles didn’t pretend to fly out right. Perspectives looked skewed. Fiery explosions looked patched in from consumer-grade movie editing software. And whenever a heavy CGI scene occurred, the camera would go blurry and glossy to cover up the dirt-cheap effects. It looked like someone had smeared petroleum jelly on the camera lens — like a Barbara Walters interview, or NBC’s much-maligned athlete retrospectives during the 2000 Summer Olympics.
  • Languages: There’s a scene where Violet runs onto the roof of a building and is suddenly surrounded by dozens of Asian gangsters. A frank, subtitled exchange ensues between Violet and the Head Gangster, followed by Violet dispatching all the gangsters with the technique described in “Action”, above. Just a run-of-the-mill bad scene, right? Well, a couple of days another friend of mine reported that he had actually understood half the conversation. The gangster was speaking fluent Vietnamese, but Violet was speaking… some other Asian language! Mandarin, maybe? Japanese? Random syllables? Who knows? As long as it’s Asian and stuff. Ultraviolet is so bad, it has layers of badness that require specialized knowledge to unlock.

I bring all this up not to warn people about seeing Ultraviolet — too late for that! — but to ponder the idea of bad movies in general. So stay tuned as we dive in to my brand-new Official Four-Category Bad Movie Classification System! (I tried to come up with a Category V, but to no avail.)

1. There’s a medium-length story that explains why we chose to see Ultraviolet and stick through to the bitter end, but it’s really not very interesting.

2. Special hint for aspiring screenwriters! Nose plugs do not make your villain look tougher or smarter.

And Change the Combination on My Luggage!

My office has devolved into a junk room, and I’m on a mission to reclaim it. The original plan for the room was to make it into a cool combination guest room / office. At the time, I didn’t realize the fatal flaw in my plan: namely, guest rooms are idiotic. But I was young and foolish. A guest room it would be.

To that end, I acquired a free box spring and mattress from some old friends who had just had a baby and were looking to clear out some room. Free furniture! What could be more awesome! All I needed was some decent bedding and pillows, and I would have the centerpiece of the “guest room”. Of course, what ended up happening was that several months later, the bare mattress was piled high with bills and unopened envelopes and other office detritus. Flat surfaces in an office are just deadly.

So I finally gave up and spent some time figuring out what I needed to keep and what I could shred. And to help stay organized, I also invented a new filing system that is so easy-to-use and so awesome that for a couple of weeks, I could not shut up about it. Them: “Hey man, what’ve you been up to these days?” Me: “Oh! Let me tell you about my new filing system!” The ladies loved it.

Anyway, as part of this process, I’m trying to get a handle on all my old investments and consolidate whatever I can. Step 1 is making a neat pile of all the papers I’ve got for each account. Step 2 is making sure I can log into all the websites. To my dismay, I discovered that one of my old, nearly-lost 401(k) accounts takes your Social Security Number for a username and… wait for it… a FOUR digit PIN for the password. At first I thought maybe this was just an initial PIN that would enable you to set a new, stronger password, but no. After recovering from the initial shock, I logged in and received yet another surprise: the money was still there. Go figure. I need to get out while the getting’s good.

Smugger Than Thou

I just got back from a quick trip — helped my brother-in-law drive his car up to Seattle on Sunday, flew back down on Monday. My flight was delayed, so I bought a couple of magazines — a Harper’s and a New Yorker. When the folks picked me up from the airport, somehow the subject of the magazines came up. “What, too elitist?” I asked. “Worse, too East Coast elitist,” said Mom. Yikes! Of course, the joke’s on me and Mom, since the real East Coast elites probably read Granta or The London Review of Books or whatever the hell you read when you sincerely believe that it is only a tribe of 15,000 novel-readers on the Upper West Side that keeps fiction alive in America. Thanks for holding up your end, guys!

Of course, this raises the question — which magazines would a good West Coast elitist be reading? The only magazine I subscribe to is Newsweek, which is so hopelessly middlebrow[1] that I can’t possibly have any useful insights on the matter. Mom suggested that a West Coast elitist would read People magazine as opposed to Us or In Touch. At first I thought, see, that’s a perfect example of the kind of overbaked East Coast smugness[2] that we West Coast elites should be striving to avoid. But the unfortunate truth is that there’s no avoiding smugness, since after all, that’s what being an elitist is all about.

In fact, Mom’s little dig at People readers (a.k.a. Southern Californians) serves to illustrate the Basic Organizing Principle of West Coast Elitism: Uncoolness is centered in Anaheim, and the further up the coast you go, the cooler you get. Los Angeles feels superior to Anaheim, Santa Barbara feels superior to the greater LA basin, San Jose feels superior to all of Southern California, the Peninsula feels superior to San Jose, San Francisco feels superior to everything south of the Cow Palace, Portland feels superior to all Californians, and Seattle feels superior to everyone in the United States. The strength of the smugness field increases quadratically until eventually you cross the event horizon and slide irretrievably over into Canada; presumably the smugness singularity itself rests somewhere in downtown Vancouver, but this is the point where all modern theories break down, and no probes have ever made it back.

Anyway, given that New York City rules the publishing industry with an iron fist, maybe there is no such thing as a West Coast elitist magazine. But maybe I’m wrong. Any ideas? (Note that the key question is general West Coast elitism — if you just want to be a plain ol’ Silicon Valley Techno-Elitist, it’s fairly obvious which blogs you should be reading.)

1. And far worse than that, dull. How many covers of Jesus do we need per year, anyway?

2. Before I read that article, I was only vaguely aware of Death Cab for Cutie inasmuch as it was a sort of hipster insult. (Ex: “Oh yeah? Well, why don’t you go home and listen to your Death Cab for Cutie collection!?”) But after seeing Death Cab for Cutie disparaged twice on the first page — dude, where’s your editor — I felt an urgent need to rush out and buy every album they’ve ever made.