The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2010 Return to Table of Contents
The Wolfman
Dollhouse
Chris Menges
Presidents Desk
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up



Does anyone set out to make a bad movie? I don’t mean in a tongue-in-cheek way, where you purposely put in dialogue and situations that are blatantly ridiculous to elicit a laugh. I mean in a really earnest, “I-hope-this-is-the-worst-movie-ever” way?  

I don’t think so. In fact, I think the bad movies we think of as guilty pleasures are the ones whose makers were convinced they had Citizen Kane II on their hands.  

I was thinking about this as I leafed through one of my favorite books. It’s a collection of the blandest postcards you could ever hope to find, the kind that look like they came off a dusty metal rack that had been in a truck stop somewhere off the interstate for decades. The book is called, appropriately, Boring Postcards (compiled by Martin Parr and published by Phaidon). Even though the book is filled with images like obscure turnpikes that no one would ever care about, and a factory that makes a ball bearing in only one size, as you go through the book, you instinctively start to wonder about the thought process involved in the images. Someone set up the camera there, where the building would look as flat as architecturally possible, and someone else thought that picture was worth making into 10,000 postcards. It becomes an almost hypnotic journey of discovery as you study each postcard and wonder why the photographer chose to do an aerial shot of a factory that looks like nothing from the sky.   

It certainly takes a great deal more effort to make an entire feature film than to take a photo, so aspiring to mediocrity would not seem to be high on a filmmaker’s list of goals. In my personal collection, I have more than 10,000 movies on DVD and Laserdisc. When I recently inventoried them to weed out duplicates, I discovered I had a large number of films that others would call trash. Sure, I have Fellini’s 81/2 and several different versions of D. W. Griffith’s silent films, along with milestone movies from every era in the history of cinema. But next to those, just as neatly shelved and categorized by genre, are titles that would not be given a moment’s thought by any serious student of cinema: The Pom-Pom Girls, The Bloodthirsty Butchers, Battle of the Amazons and The Naughty Stewardesses. And I had seen each of them more than once.  

There are a lot of one-shot wonders in my collection, filmmakers who came out of nowhere and were never seen again after their one bad opus. But the ones that are especially impressive actually carved out entire careers making films that the average Godard fan wouldn’t think twice about. Take Al Adamson. The first time I saw The Naughty Stewardesses at a drive-in, I was blown away by the Ronettes-style title music and the graphics. Al worked in every exploitation genre, from biker chicks to horror flicks, and you could tell the man loved making movies when you watched one of his five-day epics. Hikmet Avedis was the king of the tawdry sexploitation film, with credits such as The Stepmother, Dr. Minx and Scorchy. His film The Teacher, though marketed as a sexy coming-of-age comedy, actually went into dark territory by killing off the main character at the end (and it was Jay “Dennis The Menace” North!). And what can I possibly say about Andy Milligan that The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! hasn’t already said?  

When I was an instructor at Columbia College in Chicago, I made my class go see a movie called Ms. 45, directed by Abel Ferrara. It’s an exploitation film about a mute girl who is assaulted and gets revenge on all the men in New York. I had seen it at a grindhouse and was impressed by the intensity of the performances, the edgy look of the low-budget lighting, and the filmmakers’ attempt to do something more than what was expected from such a movie. It was still an exploitation film, but it was an experience that remained in your mind long after you left the dank smell and sticky floors of the theater. It entertained and excited your imagination.  

So, by all means, celebrate Kurosawa, Kubrick and Coppola, because great cinema is an uplifting experience. But keep your other eye open for those movies that live on the ragged edge of acceptability. You just might be surprised at how good bad cinema can be.   

 

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