August 11, 2010

Which is worse - trying and failing, or not trying at all?

How do bad movies happen? In the most general sense, bad movies are born in one of two ways - either the filmmaker/creative team doesn't put in any effort, or do they try very hard and fail. But are all failures created equal?

I'm not sure. One on hand, these lack-of-effort films (think empty, loud blockbusters) seem to be easier to sit through. They're kind of dull and uninvolving, but they will never actively offend or agitate you, and you might even get a couple of laughs or thrills. You'll forget them quickly. The spectacular failures, on the other hand, can get under your skin. Their (subjective, sometimes) badness is confrontational and forces you to become involved (to cite an extreme example, some who have seen and disliked Antichrist seemed to have felt violated by the experience).

And yet, I find that deep down, I always have a begrudging respect for artistic failures. I could never accuse these films of being easy cash grabs - I know they were works of passion and vision. Sometimes I even find myself feeling a bit bummed out that a promising idea wasn't executed to its full (or correct) potential - I almost want to rescue the good parts from the flames and find them a loving home in a better film.

Of course there can be grey zones, particularly in determining the artistic intent of the filmmaker - you don't want to psychoanalyze. James Cameron said that he had been developing Avatar in some capacity since 1994, which prompted many snide remarks about his inability to write a half-decent script even over a 15-year span. But was he even that concerned with the script as opposed to the technical side? Maybe he really did just want to make something dumb and explodey that just looked really really cool (and a closer look reveals he only worked on the actual screenplay for about a year). Also, was Christopher Nolan even trying for the complexity and depth of emotion and psychology that some critics claimed he failed at? (There are also the unclassifiable oddities like Tommy Wiseau's infamous opus The Room, which he originally made thinking it was a masterpiece but eventually came around and embraced its cult status as one of the worst movies ever made.)

So why does any of this matter? Well, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and it's frustrating when people push a film like Inception aside with the same indifference and snark as Transformers. That's completely unfair. Christopher Nolan made a film that, even if it wasn't the gift from heaven that we all expected it to be, is an exciting and well-crafted thriller. Like Avatar to Cameron, Inception was Nolan's pet project for years, and he built it with loving care and intelligence. Entertaining the masses while trying to offer something beyond robots and explosions is a noble goal, and even if the final product didn't work for you I can't really see how it deserves downright scorn. It probably has something to do with certain people's compulsion to shoot down popular films with a venom that would be absent if the film were more obscure. At any rate, I would hope that my esteemed colleagues would know better than to fall into that trap...but perhaps they need the reminder!

Multiplexes are loaded with no-effort failures that come and go (typically without being missed). But really, we need more noble failures (particularly of a mainstream variety)because they prove that filmmakers give a damn and think audiences are more than just dumb walking wallets. And even when people don't like a film that tried, we still get discourse. It's been heartening to see all the honest-to-god discussion of Inception, which is far more evolved than the usual "Iron Man 2 was okay" or "Clash of the Titans was gay and if you liked it you're gay." Here we have analysis, conspiracy theories, interpretations - what was the last mainstream film that could possibly have multiple interpretations?!

Ultimately, it's important to support these films even if they're not perfect, and tell Hollywood that you like to see them take risks. What do you think? Does it matter how a movie fails?


Daddy Geek Boy said...

Great post. I've always appreciated a failure like Speed Racer, which at least attempted to do something different, than an abomination like Transformers.

I don't understand the venom some people have for Inception. Even if you don't like the movie, I've heard people calling it hacky and lazy...or worse. As you said, it may not be a masterpiece, but it's definitely not either of those things.

joem18b said...

great subject. thanks for the post.

so many ways to try to think about good vs bad movies: budget, effort, talent, taste, zeitgeist, luck. i don't watch many bad movies, at least all the way through - and by "bad" i suppose that i mean "movies i'm not enjoying," but in the case of some low-budget b movies, i do like to turn on the director's commentary and listen to him/her talk about the movie. it's one way to gauge where his or her head was at while making it. the sincerity that comes across is sometimes quite touching.