Why Do We Like Watching Terrible Movies (Even When NOT Trapped on the Satellite of Love)?
Most cinephiles I know like to watch bad movies. At least, they think they like to.
The $3.99 supermarket movie bin never fails to be oddly alluring. I speak from experience. My good friend and former roommate once acquired a VHS with a flimsy holographic cover called King Cobra at a Cub Foods in Minnesota. The cover promised “30 FEET OF PURE TERROR.” The back cover informed us that the man-eating beast of the title had a hilariously benign proper name: Seth. For months, possibly years, it laid near our TV, unwatched, but not forgotten.
We toasted King Cobra at parties. We practically sung paeans to it. We looked ever forward to finally watching it, but we put it off until about a week before we left and moved to New York. We had sold many of our possessions, said our goodbyes, and finally realized the time had come. We sat down, popped the tape in, and finally experienced King Cobra.
Guess what? It was not very good. There were definitely moments of incredible, breathtaking cheesiness. But was it really worth 90 minutes of my life? Maybe…but probably not.
The compulsion to not only accept but revel in the worst examples of a given art form is more or less specific to film people. It’s true that the Museum of Bad Art exists, but I am sure that music lovers, for instance, don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from, say, “Freaxxx” by Brokencyde as film lovers do from Plan 9 From Outer Space.
If Grindhouse, the Found Footage Festival and the fact that Armageddon is included in the Criterion Collection tell us anything, it’s that filmmakers and film scholars have a respect not just for the great films but for everything else too. Anyone can write a terrible short story, but the complexity of the filmmaking process makes every movie a small miracle.
I suspect this is why people watch bad movies. It’s astounding to witness the basic elements of film production—the use of expensive cameras, the consumption of precious film stock or digital memory, the recitation of lines from a screenplay someone wrote, special effects of any kind—in the employ of something so unworthy. I think there’s a sense that the work it takes to make a film at all is deserving of respect, and when a filmmaker squanders that work in a spectacular way, something entertaining (if not a little sad) comes about.
That’s my main problem with watching the supermarket bin film, or the Salvation Army-bought VHS, or the made-for-Syfy film of the week: At a certain point it stops being funny and starts feeling sort of depressing. That’s where Mystery Science Theater 3000, the sublime show about a man and his robot friends being forced to watch (and make fun of) terrible movies, comes in.
I won’t spend time talking about how funny it is—that’s already been done by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Neil Young. What I think is really significant about the show is how it makes watching bad movies not just fun but comfortable. Once the comical novelty of watching a bad movie (alone) wears off, you’re left with…well, watching a bad movie. But watching it with the company of Joel (or Mike if you must) and his robot friends puts everything in what I find to be an unexpected and pleasant context: where the films’ badness, ironically, is not the point as much as how we’re allowed to wallow in a cinematic arena we usually can’t stand spending much time in.
The theme music that opens MST3K included a line that I always found a bit odd:
If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
And other science facts
Then repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,
I should really just relax.”
It may have never been revealed how Joel or Mike ate or breathed, but to say the show didn’t care about its internal mythology would not be right. The living quarters of several characters are shown. Tom Servo being carried into the theater is explained by the fact that an air vent at its entrance that disrupts his hovering mechanism. Their ship travels through time and to the end of the universe on occasion.
Just like the B-movies it gleefully skewers, MST3K is a low-budget story that still cares about being a story. That kind of earnestness is at the heart of why Ed Wood is remembered, MST3K is so appealing, and the supermarket DVD bin remains so strangely tempting.