The Big Idea: Katharine Coldiron
What does it take to make a famously bad movie? Katharine Coldiron, who here writes a book-length monograph on one of the most famous bad films of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space, suggests that it’s not just what shows up on the screen.
One version of the story of my monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space is that the format preceded the idea. Learning about PS Publishing’s line of Midnight Movie Monographs made me wonder, idly, what single film I could write about for 100 pages. The answer that almost immediately appeared in my head was Plan 9. Once I had that answer, I had to write the book.
Another version of the story is that I’d been thinking about the value of bad film for some years before I even considered writing about Plan 9, and the monograph is my first adventure into explaining that value.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, where the idea of Neil Snowdon’s book line mingled, brainwise, with my own ideas about film. It’s definitely true that writing on Plan 9 was so much fun that once I’d finished the monograph, I decided to keep writing about bad movies until I was tired of it.
I’m not tired of it yet. Writing the Plan 9 monograph was its own reward, but the reward I’m really after is to get more scholars and critics to consider bad movies as a meaningful spoke of film studies. For two years I’ve been studying this subject, writing about Cop Rock and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats and a series of meaningless 1940s movies starring “the Teen Agers.” I’ve watched hundreds of bad movies from nine decades of cinema, read books about exploitation films and Ed Wood and Manos: The Hands of Fate, had conversations with podcasters and fans and writers about this topic. Nothing has dimmed my passion for explaining why bad film matters.
It does! Bad art of all kinds matters, as ballast and cautionary tale, as practical counterexample and philosophical mystery. It matters as unintentional influence, as background noise, as starting point. Bad art can even inform us about the artmaker and the cultural context more fully than good art can. I know a hell of a lot more about Neil Breen’s private concerns than about Peter Weir’s, for example, and I know more accurately how kids in the 1940s dressed from watching Monogram’s films than from watching MGM’s. There’s plenty more to say about this, but that’s why I’ve written about it in such detail.
With the Plan 9 book, I wanted to prove the value of bad art as a teaching tool and to share my enthusiasm for the form as professionally as possible. Since delivering the manuscript, I’ve written most of another, longer book about bad movies. It’s a collection that explores and analyzes some of my favorite (and least favorite) bad films, contextualizing them and arguing for their importance as objects of study.
Recently, that project took a turn. I’d written most of the essays as a critic, working on how each film presents itself and what that presentation means. Thinking about the baffling After Last Season and the sleazy Girl in Gold Boots made me want to focus on the other end of the projector: how the audience receives bad movies.
The main thing almost all bad movies seem to have in common, I’ve found, is unintentional comedy. This quality doesn’t exist until the audience interacts with the film. That the filmmaker didn’t intend to be funny is built into the term, and yet who can help but laugh at The Room? Without the audience, there is no unintentional comedy. But all along I’ve been focusing only on the bad film as a semi-inert artifact: how it fails to cast the common spell of cinema and instead reveals an incompetent attempt to make a movie. When I think about the audience, I have a whole new batch of questions: whose standards make a film incoherent, why enjoyable bad movies must be “reclaimed” instead of just enjoyed, what it means that I can tolerate certain kinds of cinematic abominations and my friends can’t.
There’s always more to say about bad movies. The field evolves constantly, as every day a new aspiring director picks up a cheap little DV camera and pirates a copy of Final Cut Pro. Now that I’ve stretched out into considering not just what they mean, but what they mean to us, I don’t know if I’ll ever be finished writing about them.