Those Who Dance: Beautiful Missteps In Film
"You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable-that is why you are here." -Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space
Philosopher David Hume wisely concluded that any assessment of art should make the distinction between whether one likes a work, and whether it is good. What you enjoy is utterly subjective, but what makes a work artistically successful is far more objective. We often enjoy less successful art despite its flaws. Over the long history of cinema, however, have emerged a number of films that fail so massively in their execution that they have become favorites precisely because of their flaws. They collapse in terms of objective quality, but do so in a way that is thoroughly enjoyable.
While there are a many films that are "bad" in entertaining ways, true accidental classics are a less frequent occurrence. Perhaps the oldest, most well known, and most groundbreaking in the development of the form is Ed Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Astonishing in its ineptitude and meager budgetary resources, the film is a near ceaseless barrage of bizarre, awkward acting, cardboard tombstones, wobbly flying saucers, nonexistent day/night continuity, and a generally blunt, tone deaf approach to its material. The plot, to the degree that it is clear, involves humans from another planet resurrecting Earth's dead. An opening featuring a wild eyed man named Criswell, bearing its own title, "Criswell Speaks", features a rambling, repetitious, anti prose oration that concludes: "Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?!" The shocking facts. The movie lets you know instantly what you are in for, and it does not disappoint.
Plan 9 From Outer Space is a comedic miracle, so genuinely funny in its failings that its like could not be replicated intentionally. Looking back, it seems impossible that so much could have gone wrong in such a wonderful way. Made in 1959, it was the product of an era when the motion picture industry and the accessibility of filmmaking technology had greatly expanded, allowing for an increase in the number of people in a position to make a film. The door was open wide, and some very interesting people slipped through. Procure a 16 millimeter film camera, a small crew, and you could crank out fodder for the drive-in at terrific speed. Roger Corman's quaint dark comedy Little shop Of Horrors was filmed in a few days, during the hours when an existing set - intended for another movie altogether - was not in use. The industry and its population of creators would only grow further over the decades, allowing for other great bad films to be made. Troll 2, Miami Connection, Deadly Prey, The Room, Samurai Cop, and the work of filmmaker Neil Breen are more recent examples of a truly special caliber.
Mystery Science theater 3000, a comedic television show built upon the premise of a man and his robot shipmates being forced to view bad movies at the hands of a mad scientist, became an important curator of this species of film. Many came to infamy through their appearance on the series. Often the selections are sci fi and horror entries released between the 1950s an 1980s. Genre films have more to offer in terms of kitsch and strangeness, and were often hurriedly produced in great numbers for noticeably little money. A great deal of these movies have a hokey charm, and it is clear that many of the show's creators had affection for them. So do I.
Not all flawed films inspire cheer, however. There are two kinds of bad movie, and for every wonder like The Giant Claw, there is something made without redeeming value. The missing ingredient is not budgetary, as the last two decades have seen enormously expensive garbage released into theaters. What a truly bad movie lacks, and what the great ones possess, is sincerity. Real wasted celluloid is a result of an absence of passion, or a removal of it by circumstance or studio interference. If nothing real is put in, nothing will come out, intended or otherwise. You have to try in order to fail, you have to have skin in the game.
One thing that can survive poor execution is the thread of a filmmaker's passion. Ed Wood Jr.'s sincerity, his love for what he was doing, survived the gauntlet of incompetence that is Plan 9 From Outer Space. Perhaps this is why the film itself has survived - maybe we pick up on such things subconsciously, or otherwise detect when someone cared about what they created. At the center of Plan 9's very serious thematic warning about the danger of atomic war is the echo of Ed Wood's beating heart. We kept on making such weapons, anyway, so maybe, in the end, the joke's on us.
When we laugh at fun, bad movies, I hope that we can learn to laugh with compassion. We all sometimes fail as human beings. At least creators like Wood are willing to give it a shot. They stick their necks out, and take the chance of making fools of themselves. This is a kind of bravery. No great art was ever built out of cowardice, out of fear of judgement. If an honest endeavor fails, then it is an honorable failure. In fact it can be downright entertaining. And if a movie charms or entertains, even if by its imperfections, is it truly bad?
"We are fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance" - Japanese proverb