My friends and I realized long ago that if you're going to do a movie night, you should never go for the good movie. A good movie can be seen on your own time, whenever you like, and the effect will be undiminished. It's for the bad movie that you really need company. Now, unfortunately for some, fortunately for aspiring hosts, bad movies are not hard to come by-- movies that exhibit some utterly warped and debased value system, movies that gratuitously exploit our deepest instincts and feelings for a cynical end, movies that are just plain grueling and boring and odious; these are plentiful, and I am willing to watch any of them with you on a dull evening. But what the host truly desires and seeks, with unerring if at times futile purpose, is the good bad movie-- a phenomenon on which much has been written, but of which there are always too few examples.
Is Samurai Cop (1991) a good bad movie, or just a bad one? This is the question my friend Isaac and I had to ask ourselves a couple weeks ago. We had approached the film at first with skepticism, afraid not that it would be bad (this is what we wanted), but that it might be good, through being intentionally and successfully funny. We could not accept this possibility. We sniff daintily at our bad movie fare, you see, and we turn aside with a grimace at the first hint of irony. The bad movie should not have its tongue anywhere near its cheek. Above all other qualities, it must sincerely believe in its own goodness and emotional impact -- in its Svengali-esque power over the thoughts and feelings of the viewer. If the movie intends to be bad, or realizes it is bad, then it comes dangerously close to being a spoof. And spoofs can be pretty good, which was not the quality we wanted from a movie called "Samurai Cop."
This fear, at least, was quickly assuaged. Everything about the movie breathed the sort of sui generis ineptitude that just can't be faked. There is a principle that Gore Vidal once cited in an essay on the "Top Ten Bestsellers" which should serve as an eternal warning to any would-be spoofer: "Shit has its own integrity," the principle reads. This is the one great truth that the bad movie connoisseur eventually discovers. There is no spoof in existence (at least so far as I have seen) that can mimic celluloid god-awfulness in its pristine form. The unintentionally bad movie is inimitable.
But having established that Samurai Cop was not a spoof, and still less a potentially good movie, it was still an open question as to whether it was a bad movie, or a good bad movie.
For the first fifteen minutes or so, my money was on "bad," rather than "good bad." This was due to the fact that so many of its aspects had a boardroom sort of feel-- I caught the smell of artistic collectivism. Individuals, to their credit, have a hard time putting their name to complete dreck. True and complete awfulness is therefore usually a group project-- the result of a vast conspiracy of nincompoops, which is why you always feel as if you are outnumbered, somehow, as you watch it. You also feel offended, because the conspirators in most cases display so much contempt for your intelligence and ethical character.
Samurai Cop at first gives off this vibe, as I say. The main character (as in the "Samurai Cop" himself, who "trained with the masters in Japan" and gained access at their hands to such occult truths as "Katana means 'Japanese sword'") is obviously an appalling and reprobate person. He sleeps with a woman in one scene, only to flirt brazenly with a different woman in the next, while the first is standing right next to him. He tries to date another woman later on in the film while simultaneously questioning her as a suspect in a case (bad professional ethics, for an aspiring Samurai Cop). He first meets this woman, meanwhile, in the company of a *gasp* Japanese man and asks her why an "all-American girl" would ever be seen with "scum like that." (Despite his name, Samurai Cop has no great affection for the Japanese people and their culture. Admittedly, he goes into a soliloquy at one point in the film about the crucial distinction to be made between "hard-working" Japanese people, who do not appear in this film, and the sinister gangster variety he combats. This is about as convincing as the paean to the "great Italian people" delivered by the xenophobic Senator Geary in Godfather Part II).
The fact that the filmmakers seem to want us to like and admire this guy would be more deeply insulting if it wasn't so implausible. The offense is compounded, need I add, by a lot of typical action movie misogyny and sadism, a mean-spirited gay stereotype in the form of a campy Hispanic waiter, and so on.
Bad movie, plain and simple, right? But stay with me just a moment longer, dear reader. Because about fifteen minutes into the film, a scene occurs that is so wondrously strange and unexpected that it launches the film for all time into "good bad" territory. The scene records an interchange between the aforementioned deplorable main character and a nurse. It could very well be the most bizarre set of dialogue ever drafted by a screenwriter in the mistaken impression that it resembles human behavior.
The two characters have apparently never met before, but this does not prevent the nurse from asking Samurai Cop if he "likes what he sees." He does, as he droolingly acknowledges. It will not do for long, however, to leave matters between them in a state of such opaque and Gallic subtlety, so the nurse propositions Samurai Cop more directly. He again indicates that he's up for the job. Then the nurse gropes his crotch, in full view of another character, which as we know is standard mating procedure among all health professionals.
At this point, you may think you know where the scene is heading, but you would be wrong. Because suddenly the nurse asks Samurai Cop if he was ever circumcised. After he says "Yes," she quips, "Your doctor must have cut a large portion off." And she leaves. (The whole interchange can be read here). This ends up being only the tip of the matter, if you'll permit me. The genital size question becomes a theme, and always in similarly unexpected ways.
This is the stuff that marks out the film as "good bad" material-- for it is so evidently the product of a single, distinctive personality. If straightforwardly bad movies are made by committees, good bad movies are always made by the lonely and solipsistic auteur. They mirror back to us in the most direct way possible the tortured psyche of some particular creator.
What makes good bad art, it then seems, is very similar to what makes good art in any form. Oscar Wilde and others have assured us that true artistry lies in the capacity to lay bare one's soul-- to record with all honesty its innermost essence. The task of Wilde's "Critic as Artist," for instance, is to "chronicle his own impressions"-- to depict reality "through the woven veil" of his own mind.
The only difference between this procedure of making good art and that which spawns good bad art is that in the latter case, there is no self-awareness or intention on the part of the creator. There is no process of artistic sublimation to intervene between the mass of insecurities and terrors and desires that writhe unappealingly inside any human mind, and the product that appears on screen. The good bad movie, unlike the good and artistically sound movie, is perfectly ingenuous. It provides unmediated access to a specific -- and often peculiar-- human psyche.
There are other cultural artifacts that share this trait, and with such items, therefore the good bad movie forms an aesthetic unity. This is why the connoisseur of good bad movies is also likely to have an appreciation for batty religions, crackpot mathematical and scientific theories, esoteric cosmologies, and websites devoted to "odd books." I don't know of anyone who answers to this description, but I'm sure such people exist-- they can probably be found at your nearest used book store, on the trail of volumes attempting to weave together the Kennedy assassination, the second coming of Christ, lizard people and the evils of "self abuse" into a single unified field theory of physics.
Those who share this appreciation for all things nutty and spurious often face suspicion-- first, on the charge that they might be crackpots themselves, second that they might be engaged in a mean-spirited and rather cheap form of heckling (it's easy to feel intellectually superior to a crackpot, after all). There may be some truth to the aspersions; one can't always discount the presence of either factor among devotees of good bad movies and general crackpotedness. However, I don't think they dominate, in the end. Rather, what makes the aesthetic quality of "kookiness" (as dubbed and defined by Donna Kossy) more deeply appealing to us is its naivety -- its inescapable, almost grudging, authenticity.
The crackpot is always riding a hobby horse -- oftentimes a sexual one. By extension, so too is the good bad movie. But the good bad movie, like the crackpot, does not present its agenda to the viewer with any degree of self-consciousness. It is not making a plea for tolerance, or seeking to change social attitudes, or attempting through art to reveal the truth about a perhaps unsettling feature of the mind. It is not engaged in any such laudable endeavor. Rather, and much like the human mind itself, it is cycling through its obsessions because it just can't help itself. Ed Wood's pink angora sweaters are a canonical example. Samurai Cop's genital insecurity must now be added to the list.
One can feel queasy watching the cycle of obsession repeat itself. It should be clear by now, after all, that the unmediated subconscious material that appears in good bad movies is not always pretty. Perhaps, faced with Samurai Cop, we begin to understand why self-awareness and sublimation are traits we have come to prize in our artists-- why, in fact, these are precisely the traits that set off "good" art from its cousin, "good bad" art. If the ingenuousness of crackpots can convey a certain sweetness (as captured in Tim Burton's tribute to the original master of the "good bad" genre, Ed Wood), it also betrays a hint of danger. When you open up the floodgates of any person's mind, some of what comes out will be endearing. But a lot of it will not be.
Acknowledging this danger for what it is, the good bad movie is still an item to be treasured. This is because humanity is something to be treasured, in all its ugliness. And the good bad movie presents humanity to us in a manner that is uniquely unvarnished-- and because of that, uniquely touching.