SBIG: Mothra and Florence Foster Jenkins

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I don’t know where my childhood went wrong. I was exposed frequently to art museums and the best music – both classical and jazz. The shelves were full of Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Faulkner, and Plato; the walls were covered with Bruegel and Pollock.  My mother had no sense of humor. (Technically, that’s not true, she thought Bertolt Brecht and Edward Albee were hil-arious!)  My father had no appreciation for Star Wars or Steven Spielberg, and took us as children to see West Side Story and Rashomon instead. Yet, somehow, since I was a wee bit of a thing, I have always loved bad art.

Bad movies, bad music, bad theater, bad painting, bad poetry. There is a whole subgenre of the arts within each of these categories. Performances that were fiercely bad, sleep-inducing, screechy, ridiculous, and downright dreadful. In the Kaj household, we even labelled it in our classification system as SBIG – So Bad, It’s Good.

April showered me today
And got me kinda wet.
I wasn’t looking for the rain.
Glub, I’m a rivulet!
–From Spectrum, Author’s name withheld to avoid public shaming

What Makes The Performance Bad?
There is a fine line between dull and wretched, and we have to examine wretched just a bit, to understand where that line is drawn. Bad can take on many forms – maudlin, boring, insipid, confusing, blurry, not believable, or overly predictable – when it comes to films. This is tricky when it comes to comedy, because comedy can be highly subjective. You like the Hangover or Jim Carrey; I detest them. Yet vulgarity or farce on its own is not necessarily bad, but subject to personal taste.  You don’t “get” Monty Python; in our house, it is considered to be part of the genius canon.  Does that make any of these bad or good? Probably not.

The heaviest disagreement comes over whether something is “great” or one of the “greatest.” We will come to blows over whether to include Borat or Dumb and Dumber on a Best list. There is less disagreement about whether something is universally bad. Don’t believe me? Gigli. Howard the Duck. Fifty Shades of Black. Need I go further?

Music is easier to identify as bad. Off-key, strange lyrics, poor phrasing, off-key, off rhythm, constantly changing key, mispronouncing words, did I mention off-key? Is the song really only a chorus repeated over and over? Can the band play the instruments? A theme starts to emerge, that transfers to painting, poetry and so forth. Did the artist fail at what they were trying to achieve?  Do the mountains in a landscape really look more like ice cream cones? Does the interpretive dance consist mostly of hair flinging? Is the poem so cloying that it makes you cringe?

What Makes it So Fiercely Bad It’s Good?
The common theme to the best of the worst seems to do with pain. Painfully bad. Cringing, wincing, covering the ears or eyes (or nose!!!!), the performance takes entertainment which might just be mediocre into another realm entirely.

Boring, on its own, is not sufficient. A little flat in pitch isn’t really funny. A dumb script is fairly common; we need to have wooden acting, stupefyingly bad special effects, inappropriate product placement, and maybe the sound boom showing, to crank a bad performance up to that mythical level eleven.

This topic came to me while watching the excellent rendition of the life of Florence Foster Jenkins in the self-named film. I will note that we saw an even better musical called Souvenir, with Tony-winning Judy Kaye as Florence, when it toured here a decade ago. The film is a superb depiction of Florence though curiously warmhearted in its approach to the subject which explains why the reviews were mixed. If you only think of it as farce, you might be disappointed by the film’s emotional content, focusing in part on the generous nature of Florence’s husband, St. Clair, as he support his wife’s dream to sing at Carnegie Hall. If you expect a tale of triumph described in the trailer, then you will be shocked her singing, which is deliciously, painfully, downright dreadful. Meryl Streep can sing. She was an odd casting choice for Mamma Mia, but she was on key singing ABBA. Thus, she was an excellent choice for Florence’s story, since a good singer is the best at pretending to be the worst singer.

Just Bad
The performance can’t be just bad in order to be bad enough to see, or see again. I sat all the way through Howard the Duck to determine if it was bad enough to be good. It was not. Boring and stupid. Poorly written, adapted from a comic book, but strangely shot as live-action. The choices were curious but not entertainingly dreadful.

I’ve hinted around this, but the SBIG entertainment value at its heart is comedy, not drama. A film that can’t make up its mind is probably neither. And a film like Fifty Shades may be laughable as a trailer, but who would want to sit through it to determine if it was funny enough? In other words, some films fail in what they are attempting to be, but don’t fail enough to be funny about it.

Also, art that tries to be bad may not be SBIG. The Sharknado series succeeds at its premise, with each film actually improving on the original. The actors earnestly deliver their cliché-filled dialogue. The cameos have an internal logic. The special effects – well, what would you expect a tornado full of sharks to look like? The premise may be bad/silly/ridiculous but the execution can’t really be faulted. There is nothing surprisingly bad about Sharknado.

Bad poetry!
You can just
sit in the corner
until you learn
to rhyme.
–Pamela Russell, B is for Bad Poetry which it is not.

Similarly, a self-titled book of Bad Poetry someone gave me turned out not to be bad at all. I laughed out loud on every page. In contrast, a hardcover volume called Spectrum that I purchased at a rummage sale turns out to be some of the worst drivel ever written.  Ultimately, this is the paradox in the premise of The Producers.  If you go too far in trying to make it bad – you will end up making it entertaining. Along with producing work that is wretched, the artist should be unable to realize that it is so.


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In the not too distant future…
Which brings me to the bots. Maybe there was something going on in the 1990s, when we started labelling their tapes as SBIG. These included snippets from late night talk shows on UHF channels, PBS attempting to call baseball games, movies called Green Slime and Target Earth, and descriptions like “Hercules emoting” and “Frightening Sean Cassidy.”

In the same time span, my brother – who has the same penchant for bad art as I do –started holding “Bad Film Parties” first in Boston and then in Seattle. One of his closest friends brought in Manos: Hands of Fate, which has since taken on legendary status as one of the five worst films of all time. Perhaps growing up under Nixon gave us all a strong appreciation for irony and the desire to see something funny in everything. It had to be laughable, or the world would not make sense.

This is where the dudes from Minnesota, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew, came in. Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and others launched a show whose premise was the appreciation of bad movies. The show also involved robots, mad scientists, weird inventions, and parodies of commercials, but the core was the “riff” of the movie, with the hosts providing commentary to highlight the low lights. And they found stinkers – 197 of them – ranging from Robot Monster to The Crawling Eye to Teenage Cave Man. (Not to mention ones we already knew, Green Slime, Manos, and the Godzilla franchise.)

The show found a following, as those of us who discovered it on late night cable started sending VHS copies to each other. After being picked up on the Comedy Channel and producing a feature-length theatrical release, they developed a permanent cult following still devoted to their work as it left MST-dom and morphed into other offerings such as Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. For film buffs who have SBIG as a category in their movie database, the RiffTrax crew has raised this “art form” to a broadly distributed, internationally loved, category unto itself.

They still riff on movies. The movies are still bad. Mothra was in theaters last week and, for me, a beautiful bookend to Florence Foster Jenkins. The riffs made clear the core tenants of badness. Mothra has decent production values. The story involves a villain kidnapping two miniature women from an island to exploit them King Kong style until their distress song calls forth a caterpillar/butterfly to save them, destroying bits of Japan as it crawls forward. Watching RiffTrax reminded me also that the film is extremely slow. Long shots of ships on the ocean or dancing natives without any dialogue or moths at all. The weird singing by the fairies gets stuck in your head. The worm is creepy looking, but the butterfly has lovely sparkly eyes, so who cares if it knocks down a few power lines? The movie always made me wish that Godzilla was around to liven it up with a bit more fighting, so that even across the kaiju genre, Mothra is one of the poorer entries.

Painful to watch for more than one reason. Check! Filmmakers were attempting in earnest to make a good film. Check! Not trying to be funny or bad on purpose. Check! We have an SBIG entry!

Florence is still in theaters. Rifftrax is next covering Carnival of Souls for their Halloween entry (mark your calendars), and their website has a wealth of download choices, on many movies you thought were only bad. Never saw Twilight or Clash of the Titans? Now’s your chance.

My dad used to say that it’s laugh or cry in this world. But why choose? With So Bad It’s Good, you can laugh and cry.

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