I adore bad movies. I own Foodfight! on DVD. I’ve made countless friends furious when I forced them to sit through Manos: the Hands of Fate. I own a VHS player partly so I can watch my copy of Miami Connection. Terrifyingly personal psycho-drama turned black comedy The Room, no-budget bigfoot horror Night of the Demon, the many sordid works of Neil Breen, real estate agent by day, least charismatic person to ever act by night- these are movies that I enjoy, truly, and, strange as it may seem, they mean something to me. When I tell people that Birdemic is one of my favorite films ever, I mean it in every way, with no ironic distance. As silly as they are, as strange as the cult of bad movie watchers is, these things are more than just trainwrecks to be watched with a sense of sadistic joy; they’re odd, unique little pieces of art, and, whether embarrassingly big flops or tiny unknown personal failures, they have something special about them, something almost intangibly beautiful in their incredibly odd points of view. Whatever you can say about them, they’re not content to just exist; they have something to say, and they say it in the loudest, most out of tune, and sometimes awkwardly moving way they can.
Imagine my concern then when last summer Sharknado became the movie on the tip of everyone’s tongue. For those familiar with bad movies, it wasn’t anything new; distributed by The Asylum (most famous previously for making low budget mockbusters like Transmorphers) and airing on Syfy (themselves a bit of a brand name implying barely considered thrown together garbage to make a quick buck), it sounded to me like a million other bad movies, created in the not-so-proud z-movie tradition of “title comes first, movie comes never” that yields surprisingly little for the bad movie fan. They’re mass produced shlock, made to get a few dollars out of the undiscerning before dying a never-mourned death on the bad parts of actors’ IMDB pages. But, for whatever reason, people cared about Sharknado, and they gave it a platform- they acted as if this was an unprecedented level of ridiculous movie, apparently forgetting completely the absolute disappointment that was Snakes on a Plane, the last supposedly “so bad it’s good” movie the mainstream manufactured and bought on title alone (granted, a very good title).
The fact that friends of mine who aren’t so into bad movies would ask me if I was excited for Sharknado displays exactly how such a non-event blew up into the phenomenon that it became. People who don’t seek out bad movies don’t really understand what draws people to them, what makes them interesting, and what makes the bad movie fan tick. It’s more than just laughing at a lack of quality- it’s the sense of misguided but honest vision that runs through the best of them. That Sharknado displayed exactly this lack of understanding is not shocking, but it is disappointing; it existed on the surface level, never gaining a unique perspective, hoping to get by on bad CGI, ridiculous plot, and a few choice acts of stunt casting. For what it was- a rushed out, tired product of a company that desires nothing more than to make a quick profit from genre fans or the clueless- it was alright, but its self-aware tone grated, for more reasons than it simply being unfunny. It wasn’t clever in its post-modernism, just defensive, deflecting attacks by attacking itself first. It was the sad sight of a kid making fun of themselves before the bullies could, everyone involved embarrassed by what was happening. I was more than happy when the hubbub about it died a relatively quick and painless death.
But here we are, another year, another Sharknado, and I simply don’t think this is the kind of thing we, be we bad movie lovers or regular folk, should stand for. I don’t say that to sound like Sharknado 2, of all things, is the cause of evil in this world; we are talking about a made for TV movie about a bunch of tornados filled with sharks featuring Andy Dick in a cameo as a cop after all. What it is, however, is evidence of the continued, pained gasping of ironic distance as a way of life, a corpse I thought had been beaten enough to die a thousand deaths at this point but somehow still soldiers on. What Sharknado 2 represents isn’t just ill-informed bad movie neophytes excited for the mainstreaming of their odd passion, but a certain kind of modern fear of openness, fear of honesty, fear of failure that, despite the best efforts of some incredible artists, continues to haunt us. Ironic detachment is a coping mechanism for a group of people that can agree that the world they grew up in is failing, but who feel powerless, hopeless, and aimless in any attempts to correct or stop it. The Sharknado films are indicative of an acceptance of this impotence; to celebrate it is to celebrate the stunted emotional growth and expression of the adult in modern industrial society.
These films, especially the second one, remove themselves from criticism by making everything ironic and totally stepping away from their creation or purpose, handing off responsibility to the aether. When the entire film acts like an elaborate put-on, executed by people who know that what they’re doing is absurd and who believe that they are above genuine attatchement to the material, then they deflect all hopes of an engagement with the art that allows genuine critique. If someone watching says a joke isn’t funny, well then it wasn’t meant to be, and if someone finds an incompetent moment hilarious, well then that was the plan all along. Because everything is hidden, nothing can be criticized, and nothing means anything. Instead of being willing to risk failure, Sharknado (and countless other bad movies like it) simply removes itself from the betting table, unwilling to fail and, of course, never succeeding because of that; they are films based entirely around a concept of non-commitment as an organizing philosophy, so paralyzed by fear of losing that they never even try to win. This is what “bad on purpose” equates to, ultimately- a complete and consuming fear of honesty. It combats this fear by masking meaning and intent, by removing the creator from the equation, by portraying itself as higher than it all because it shoots for the ground instead of aiming towards the target and risking a miss. It meets its goals because its goals are nonexistent.
Being bad on purpose doesn’t make a movie not bad, it just makes it obvious and cloying. If you know enough to understand you’re making a bad film, why not use that knowledge to make a better one? If you understand that your film is failing, why not work to improve it? The Sharknado films go the bad on purpose route because no one involved wanted to be on hand for a potential embarrassment. Everyone covered their face in whipped cream before the pie could hit them as a preemptive measure. It’s an act of artistic cowardice; it’s easier and less painful to be in on the joke than it is to take a risk, to really try, and to fail. Being honest is hard, and being open is hard, and the Sharknado films are not about doing things the hard way. It’s lazy and it’s easy. It’s dishonest and fearful. It is a symbol of a form of disengagement from the world, a use of irony not to enhance or illuminate, but to obfuscate, to throw smoke bombs at the audience before they can accuse your magic show of being a sham.
If there is one trait that all good-bad movies share, it is that they are fearless. They don’t take half-measures, and they don’t hedge their bets; they are determined, desperate, even raving mad about their need to exist. They are a product of sheer will, an example of people deciding that they need to make art, that they want to make art, and that they deserve to make art, no matter who they are. The Room, Troll 2, Plan 9 From Outer Space– these movies do not fear failure. They are sincere. They believe in the power of movies. They put their faith in this thing, this art form barely a hundred years old, to tell the world something inside of them that needs to get out. They fail- that’s why we call them “bad” movies- but they are noble failures. They are open-hearted failures. They are failures that tell us about our humanity. This is why people develop affection for them; they’re willing to be honest, even to the point of humiliation. Bad movie fans laugh, but I like to think that on the whole, we enjoy these movies because we understand them and we respect them. They’re awkward and strange and ugly and weird, but they are, most importantly, themselves, without masks or tricks. They are remembered because they tried with all their might to communicate and to speak to other people; this deep desire and this enormous effort is something even the most severe incompetence can’t hide.
The Sharknado movies don’t try. They don’t care. They don’t mean anything to anyone, except dollars signs to movie execs. They’re cold and mechanistic. They fail because they don’t want to risk embarrassment, and then they expect praise because of this cowardice. This is not what should be rewarded. This is mercenary work of the lowest order. When we reward them, we are rewarding fear and the non-committal engagement of human beings with their lives. When we reward Sharknado, we are rewarding a system that is intent on distancing us from each other, a system that does not care about people. Yes, they’re just silly movies, but silly movies aren’t just silly movies. That’s the attitude of someone who doesn’t really care about movies in the first place; saying “it’s just a movie” is to devalue the nature of movies as art, as something that can change lives. Yes, even the silly ones. I believe in film, the same way Tommy Wiseau believes in film, the same way James Nguyen believes in film, the same way Ed Wood believed in film. Sharknado doesn’t believe in film. Sharknado believes in product, in distance, in fear, in dishonesty, in reluctance, in apathy. If I’m being virulent in my dismissals, it’s because I know that even in shlock, film deserves better. I know, and I believe.