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What Makes a Movie Bad?

(This essay was originally posted on my former blog one year ago.)

The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps, circa 2000

My band friends will be familiar with this organization, but if you’ve never attended a Drum Corps International (DCI) event or seen one on TV, you should check it out. In brief, drum and bugle corps are like high school and college marching bands (minus woodwinds) taken to a professional level and very competitive. In the preliminary competition leading up to the yearly finals, you see some corps that are superb and others that are clearly not going to come close to making it to the final 12. (This will have a connection to movies, I promise. Bear with me...)


Most of the corps performing during the early part of the prelims are pretty rough. These groups are typically better than most high school marching bands, but they’ve got definite problems holding them back. As you might imagine, the audiences for these groups are sparse.

While attending the prelims in Denver in 1977, I noticed a man with a note pad watching and taking notes on two or three of these groups with great interest. I finally asked him what he was doing. “Getting ideas,” he said. I assumed from that response that he was a high school band director, and he was. “You get some of the best ideas from the worst corps. A lot of them have wonderful ideas, they just don’t have the talent or the know-how to pull them off.”

As I began watching a bit closer, I realized he was right. These groups often took greater risks than the more polished groups, performed music that was a little beyond their reach, attempted drills and maneuvers that hadn’t been carefully thought out. But they were going for it with passion, and you had to admire that.

I see the same thing with movies, particularly B  or low-budget movies. You watch such movies and often see great ideas and concepts, or maybe even an intriguing plot or story, but sometimes things simply don’t come together due to limitations of budget, time, talent, or other reasons.

Case in point: I watched a B movie last week on Amazon streaming called Doorway to Suspicion (1954). Jeffrey Lynn plays Paul Stapleton, a successful American band leader touring in Europe. He meets and falls in love with Greta (Linda Caroll), a lovely yet mysterious woman with a secret. This is a plot we’ve seen many times before and we know exactly where it’s going. Many of its scenes are clumsy and poorly written, yet one scene is quite charming. Paul and Greta are at a party and Paul is frustrated that they can’t find a place to be alone. Paul says to Greta, “In ten minutes, you’re going to get a terrible headache.” He leaves it there for a moment, a moment in which we wonder if he’s slipped something in her drink. Then he says something like, “In fifteen minutes, I’ll meet you in the courtyard,” then defining what he’ll do to excuse himself from the party. This moment could’ve been handled in a routine way, but the script (at least here, and perhaps nowhere else) provides a clever moment of surprise.

You look for those things in movies and celebrate them when you can. I love Rodney Dangerfield, but thought his 1983 comedy Easy Money was mostly forgettable. (I know several people who love this movie, so I’m sure I’ll hear from them.) Yet there’s one moment from that movie I absolutely love: Dangerfield is walking toward a store that has a sign on its door that reads “Open 23 Hours.” As soon as Dangerfield reaches for the door handle, the lights go out inside the store. Not exactly knee-slapping hilarity, but I loved that moment from a film I otherwise didn’t like.

People are different and some movies simply aren’t for you. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad, they’re just not for you. Or perhaps it’s a case of the right movie at the wrong time. When it was released in 1984, I thought The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was both interminable and awful. I revisited it two years ago and absolutely loved it. With other movies, you might never change your mind. I don’t care how many people liked The Martian (2015): I didn’t. That doesn’t make it a bad movie; I just don’t care for it.

Just yesterday I watched It (2017), based on the Stephen King novel. I don’t necessarily think It is a bad movie, but I don’t think it’s a particularly good one, either. The kids are excellent, easily the best thing in the film, but the scares (most of them jump-scares) felt tiresome, occurring so often that you quickly become numb to them. The older kids and adults are so stereotyped they might as well be part of the furniture. And don’t get me started about the CGI…

But I think the biggest disappointment with It comes from its high expectations that never (at least for me) materialized. For a horror movie, the film took very few risks. I would rather see a film that took more risks, even if all of them didn’t succeed. A film like mother! (2017) certainly took risks and challenges, and even if you didn’t like it, you won’t forget it. A film that took less obvious risks, yet risks nevertheless, was Annihilation (2018), which demanded that its audiences think about what they’d just seen. People are still talking about this film (as they should), even if they didn’t care for it.

We (and I include myself) have to remind ourselves that audience reaction (or lack thereof) does not make for a good or a bad movie. Those labels are subjective and always will be. We all determine what constitutes a “bad” or “good” movie for us. I imagine that there are several good elements of movies in this list of “films considered the worst” of all time from Wikipedia. (I’ve actually seen several of them and even liked some of them quite a bit.) Maybe “bad” is something that we sometimes enjoy. I’ll certainly admit to that. The phrase “It’s so bad, it’s good” touches on the subjective and seems to reverse it, making it a phrase both ridiculous and yet understandable. Yet it contains some validity.

All of this to say that, like the high school band director I mentioned early in this post, I can usually get behind films that take chances and fail. I celebrate the fact that someone thought up an original or unique idea and had the courage and determination to see it through, maybe not to their complete vision, but as much as their time, budget and talent pool would allow at the time. Give me that any day over some big, overblown tentpole extravaganza that has absolutely nothing to say, nothing that will challenge its audience, and whose primary existence is marketing toys and other licensed products. (Yet, sometimes I’m in the mood for just that. I’m also in the mood for Snickers bars at times, but not everyday all day.) The way things are in the present landscape, you’re seeing very little of the former and an absolute infestation of the latter. Yet those little filmmakers taking chances and trying something different are out there. Find them. Support them. Champion them. At the very least, tell someone else about a movie or other artistic venture you fear might otherwise slip through the cracks. That’s my challenge to you.

Photos: BD Performing Arts, Synergy Entertainment, Cineplex, DVD Beaver, Colourless Opinions, Rotten Tomatoes

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