The Cult of ‘So Bad It’s Good’: Sharknado and Trash Cinema

By: Daniel Reynolds

I didn’t watch Sharknado 2. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, Sharknado 2: The Second One. I didn’t see the first one either. For those who know me, this admission is not particularly shocking. Now let me add that I do understand the appeal. Maybe. These, ahem, cultural events are part of a new way of enjoying media. It’s not that TV movies are new, of course, it’s the social media conversation around the TV movie that’s new. That’s the real entertainment, the chorus of jeers and sarcasm provides the true plot. In this case, I’m not a fan. And I get how this makes me sound like I’ve missed the joke.

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I’ve forgotten where I heard this piece of wisdom, so I won’t take exclusive credit for it, but here you go: a “so bad it’s good” film only falls into this category when its makers believe they are crafting something truly great. They aspire to create a work of art, to say something valuable. A misfit like Ed Wood (the patron saint of “so bad it’s good” films) doesn’t set out to cash-in – not completely anyway – under the guise of cynicism. If Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is to be believed, Wood wanted to communicate grand ideas or, failing that, to use film as a method to grapple with his own repression. It was just his total lack of talent that got in the way.

In a similar vein, Russ Meyer, another silver age icon, made trashy films stocked with exotic (and stacked) women in lurid tales of sex and violence. But, he knew very well the conventions of his day and sought at every turn to subvert them. A respected figure like Roger Ebert talked glowingly of Meyer not just because he was firmly ensconced under Meyer’s wing – Ebert wrote Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dollsbut also because he recognized a talent, an intellect, using the auspices of trash to say something new. Today, most would say that Wood’s films are terrible, and many are probably bored by Meyer (particularly when titillation in film is so easy to come by). Yet, selections of their work stand a curious test of time. In a way, they knew. It doesn’t count if you set out to make a bad film on purpose. That’s just crass. And therein lies the problem.

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In Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero’s recent book, The Disaster Artist, the reader is taken on a surreal journey of friendship and creative exploration. The central figure of the book wants to make a movie, and he’ll marshal all of the resources and people he can to make his dream a reality. That man? Tommy Wiseau. His movie? The Room. To read Sestero’s account – he was the lead actor, and go-between for Wiseau and his increasingly perplexed cast and crew – is to descend into a space of artistic abandon so singular that it is literally inexplicable.

Sestero attempts to catalogue all of Wiseau’s bizarre habits, the terrible working environment that was fostered, and most interestingly, the conditions by which a man like Wiseau could come to be created at all. As the book progresses, it is clear that Wiseau’s history is far more compelling than anything he could ever conceive of for the screen. His conviction, like some twisted Michael Scott figure, that the completion of his film will bring him peace and – most heartbreakingly – love is what ultimately makes Wiseau a sympathetic figure. The Room is a terrible movie. But to the very last day of its filming, throughout all of its delusional marketing (including the presence of a costly billboard in Hollywood), Wiseau believes he has made his masterpiece.

“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
― Pauline Kael

What’s important to note here is the cynicism. With Wood, and his clear spiritual successor Wiseau, it was their earnestness that got them through the day – and secured them a small niche in eternity. With Meyer, it was a powerful will to subvert, and playfully banter with, the cultural mores of the time. But, what then of Sharknado? Why all of my  hand wringing? I told you, I got the joke. I saw the zingers scrolling by in my Twitter feed. The hero’s name is Fin! Tara Reid plays a concerned wife! But like those purveyors of the Disaster/Epic Movie way of thinking, it produces nothing real, nothing that sticks. Like a car that’s stripped of all its component parts, these movies only provide the vaguest notion of shape and purpose but no real drive; we’re left only with trash. All art contains some element of commerce, but these films come pre-sold out. What happens as the returns lessen and the trending reaction falls quiet? Where does this slide to the bottom end? And just how long will it take before we’re saying “Ow my balls!”

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