Bad Movie Classification System: Part Four

Finally after our long wait, the Category IV bad movie! We’ve covered the run-of-the-mill bad movie, the so bad it’s funny bad movie, and the soul-crushingly awful bad movie. What could possibly be left? Ah, the rare but fascinating Category IV. Category IVs are unique in that unlike their cousins, they can in fact have good dialogue, talented actors, interesting plots. But they suffer from one fatal flaw…

  • Type: Category IV
  • Also known as: the “morally inverted” movie
  • Example: Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Circumstances for watching: by the time you realize what you’re watching, it’s too late

Whoa, whoa, WHOA! I hear you cry. “Morally inverted? What the hell does that mean?” Here you thought I was a nice Reform Jewish boy from California, and before your eyes I’ve transformed into some kind of spittle-flecked Post-Millenial Dispensationalist or something.[1] Wait! Don’t click that back button! Let me explain what I mean first. Actually, it might be easier to start out by explaining what “morally inverted” is not. A morally inverted movie is not a movie where:

  • the bad guys are cooler than the good guys
  • the bad guys win and the good guys get punished
  • the protagonists are the bad guys
  • the bad guys are portrayed sympathetically
  • everyone is a bad guy
  • the whole damn point that there is no such thing as a “bad guy” or “good guy”

Et cetera. Trust me, shades of gray in film are great. I’m a big fan.

No, by “morally inverted”, what I mean is that two things must hold true. First, the filmmaker must construct their universe such that certain characters are obviously meant to be the Good Guys. And second, as the film progresses, it must becomes clearer that despite the filmmaker’s express intentions, the “good guys” are actually horrible people and the viewpoint of “bad guys” is the more sympathetic one. Again, I don’t mean movies that intentionally throw you a moral curveball — I mean movies where the filmmaker is oblivious to the inverted message.

You might have thought my citation of Four Weddings and a Funeral was a weird example, so let’s take a closer look. It’s got good lines, a good cast, it’s visually attractive, and so on. The first time I saw it, I thought exactly what I was meant to think — how charming! How funny! What a cute couple Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant make!

Then a year later I saw it again. And about halfway through I came to the sinking realization that everything Andie MacDowell’s completely self-centered character did in that movie was calculated to manipulate and crush poor, hapless Hugh Grant. Anyone with sense should be shouting at him, “Run! RUN!! Run away with Kristin Scott Thomas! She’s the one who actually doesn’t hate you!!” At that point the movie fell into the Category IV zone, which is sort of like being forced to watch multiple slow motion car wrecks, each caused by a drunk driver, where each drunk driver gets out of their car, waves cheerfully at the camera, and bounds off.

Romantic comedies are a rich source of Category IVs and near-Category IVs, simply because the genre tends to promote behavior that in real life would be considered psychotic and possibly even criminal. One movie that came awfully close to being a classic Category IV was the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend’s Wedding. You all remember this one: Julia Roberts and her best friend Dermot Something-or-Other make a pact in college that if they both aren’t married by the unimaginably old age of 30, then they’ll marry each other, ha ha ha. Well, Dermot gets engaged to Cameron Diaz,[2] and that shocks Roberts into realizing that she actually loooves Dermot. So being a logical and sensible Romantic Comedy Character, Roberts cries a few tears, dries her eyes, and heads off to the wedding to give her best friend all the support she can muster. No, I’m just kidding. Actually she pretends to be Diaz’s friend, and then tries to pry them apart so that she can take Dermot for herself. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Until — oops! She actually succeeds. And then? Well, there’s a great scene right after Roberts’s “victory”. She’s squatting in a hotel corridor teary-eyed, smoking a cigarette illegally, and telling a bellboy in a shaking voice, “I’m an evil person. I do bad things to perfectly nice people.” By acknowledging that Roberts’s amusing behavior was actually, err, insane, the movie recovered and crossed over into actually-pretty-good territory. Not that the movie had to have a happy ending, mind you. But what would have been unacceptable would have been if Julia had never realized her mistake, and had stolen Dermot What’s-His-Name, and the two of them live happily ever after (but not Diaz). Because after all, Roberts deserves him! Because! She’s the heroine! Anyway.

You might think that many action movies would fall into Category IV, but actually, I think this is relatively rare. A complex action movie takes the effort to acknowledge that the “bad guys” are human beings, war is hell. Now, in a simple action movie, yes, the good guys are mowing down the bad guys without remorse… but really, the bad guys (and the good guys) are really just cartoons. These sorts of movies have the same moral force as the Roadrunner tricking Wile E. Coyote into falling off a cliff to his “death”.

But this is not to say that there aren’t some Category IV action movies out there. The Last Samurai is beautifully shot, has some fine actors (crippled by mediocre dialogue), and some good fight scenes (including Ninja vs. Samurai. Awesome!) Except that the movie takes the lamentable position that the Samurai symbolize the better, braver, Romantic side of Japan, and the businessmen in the capital are all evil cowards. When in fact the Samurai were vicious feudal warlords who would happily cut off the head of any peasant who forgot to bow when they passed. Keep in mind that I’m not arguing that any movie that had heroic Samurai (or their Western equivalent, the feudal knight) is necessarily a Category IV. You can certainly have individual Samurai[3] who are good eggs. It’s just that The Last Samurai spends all its time bemoaning the loss of the Samurai class, which is another thing entirely.

Another Category IV action movie is The Patriot, which had such a laughably one-sided portrayal of the Brits (so evil! so prissy!) that it actually made me embarrassed to be a supporter of the American Revolution. That movie also earned extra Evil points for the subplot involving the mute daughter. See, our hero, Mel Gibson, has this adorable little blond daughter who has never spoken a word. Daddy goes off to war for a couple of years, and she still refuses to speak to him — and in fact, she won’t even hug him, because she’s so mad about his absence. Finally, there’s a scene near the end of the movie where he’s about to leave for war again, and the cutest-little-girl-on-earth runs to him crying, speaking her first words, “Don’t go, Daddy, please don’t go!” And God help me, my eyes got watery, even though I knew that sequence was just about the most crassly manipulative thing ever put to film. That’s when my burning hatred for Mel Gibson really got started.

1. Don’t you hate when that happens? There’s some blogger you’ve reading a few weeks or months, and you’re liking their stuff, and then out of nowhere they write something that makes you think, “My God, this person is a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic.” Just makes your stomach flip, doesn’t it?

2. Bastard.

3. Or even Seven individual Samurai.

Physics: Pretty Weird All Around, Actually

Ah, July, when a young man’s fancy turns to… thermodynamics. Seriously, it is just broiling up here on the second floor. My plan tonight was to post the final “Category IV Bad Movie” entry, but that’s going to be a long one, and it’s just way too hot to even try that tonight.

Instead, I’ll riff off a post by physicist Chad Orzel, who discusses how “common sense” can apply to physics. Orzel makes a distinction between one kind of common sense, our natural human intuition about how the universe works, and the second kind of common sense, the logic of the scientific process. I’ll focus on the first kind, though.

Most people who have taken physics classes at some point in their lives will tell you that quantum mechanics (or alternatively, special relativity) is weird and counter-intuitive. And these people are absolutely right about when they say this. However, whenever I hear this complaint/observation, I think of two counterpoints.

First, our minds evolved in a world that operates at a particular scale and energy. Here’s what would be really weird: if we were born with an intuitive understanding of the physics of extremely hot things or extremely large things or extremely small things. Why would evolution have provided us with that functionality? And why would we think that our realm of “tables and chairs” would be anything like the realm of galaxies or particles?

Second, all realms of physics are weird, even boring old Newtonian mechanics. All objects instantaneously exert an invisible attractive force on each other? Really? How? Who’s crazy enough to believe that? (Certainly not physicists.) And for that matter, even if you ignore all the conceptual and philosophical issues, it’s still hard to work out Newtonian problems. Aristotlean physics might be commonsensical, but Newtonian physics clashes with common sense all the time.[1] There are all sorts of fun Newtonian thought-experiments out there that not only trip up all “regular people”, but also most physics undergrads, many grad students, and even the occasional young and unwary professor. For examples of what I mean, go read Lewis Epstein’s outstanding Thinking Physics. If you think you know Newtonian mechanics, this book will blow your mind. Ditto for fluid mechanics, electromagnetism, and other less sexy realms of physics.

Hmmm. I really sold that one, didn’t I?

1. I remember that as a little kid, my science fair project one year was to prove that objects of equal mass fall at the same rate. Despite what Galileo had to say about the matter, I was sure that the heavier rocks were hitting the ground first. Dropping rocks off a 6′ step ladder was insufficient; we had to go to the park and drop the rocks off a 20′ climbing structure before I was convinced. This experiment would be impossible to reproduce today, since such climbing structures have long been litigated out of existence.

Viable Paradise

We interrupt our dissection of bad movies to bring you this announcement: I’ve been accepted to Viable Paradise! This is a fantastic opportunity to tap into the wisdom of some awesome, well-respected writers and editors in the SF field, and meet 23 other fresh new faces. So I am totally stoked. According to my careful study of the traffic on the Viable Paradise mailing list, the accepted exclamation of excitement over one’s acceptance is apparently, “squee!” However, cautious little ol’ me, I’m going to stick with the traditional exclamation of my people,[1]w00t!” That’s just how I roll.

1. By which I mean “video gamers” rather than “Jews”, of course. Are Ashkenazic Jews even allowed to have happy exclamations?