Sunday, December 28, 2008

Go Make a Cup Of Tea...

(Sorry for the long and boring post about an utterly personal and uninteresting topic. I will add pictures of naked and semi-naked people at a later date to make it less of a chore to read.)

I've been thinking recently (when I get the chance what with my jet-setting life style and all) about just quite why it is I am so addicted to watching bad movies. I have to come to some conclusions - but first, some broad and unsubstantiated generalisations:

Humans are, for the most part, logical beings. We like to make sense of things, join the dots, make patterns. See actions and reactions. Understand cause and effect. We like to know where our next meal is coming from and whether there will be tomato ketchup easily available if it's not very good.

What human beings don't like is chaos. Thrown into a chaotic situation people will immediately start to impose some sort of order on it - or at least organise a committee to delegate someone else to do it for them.

One of the ways people organise the world is to tell stories. Stories are organised. They have a beginning, (or at least the telling of them will) and an end. There's a middle in between which usually makes some sort of sense, connects the two, and tells us something about ourselves and the world around us. Morals aren't always presented but are often inferred. We learn from stories.

There are many reasons why people consume fiction; comfort I would guess is a major reason. It reassures us to see the bad guys defeated, the murderer unmasked, and true love triumph. All's right with the world - The End. And most people seem to stay within a narrow comfort zone by reading genres they are comfortable with. I doubt if I will ever pick up a Mills and Boon or Harlequin romance for example but there are many who read little else.

We know what we like, and we like what we know.

Some people will enjoy the puzzle element of a Whodunnit or thrillers - trying to outguess the storytellers, some will want the cathartic experience of being scared witless by a horror movie, or will want a good laugh, or have a good snivel at the happy ending of some three-handkerchief tearjerker. The point I'm trying to make here is that when we sit down to a piece of fiction (and Isuspect this is especially true of film because of it's immediacy and power) we already know the sort of reactions it is going to evoke in us. We choose the films we watch according to the reactions we want to have, the moods we want feel. There's an expectation that the movie will trigger a desired response in us. If it succeeds in triggering that response we think it's a good film. If it fails, it's a bad one. The only thing that just about everyone agrees on is that no one sits down to be bored in a movie. Boredom is not something people actively seek out.

What I've come to realise is that the thing I often find I want from fiction - is bewilderment. I like being bewildered. For one thing it is such a fugitive feeling. Like Deja Vu it is not something you can easily trigger in yourself. I know that if I want to laugh, all I have to do is watch a Buster Keaton movie, or Yahoo Serious' Young Einstein, or any number of movies I know I find funny. If I want a good cry I'll watch It's a Wonderful Life, or The Dresser, or Cerano De Bergerac. But bewilderment? How do you bewilder yourself?

I'm often bewildered by bad movies.

A good bewilderingly bad movie is like a memorable dream. It will almost make sense from moment to moment - but then suddenly jump illogically in some disconcerting direction which, because it is part of a story, has to be fitted into place with what has gone before. Stories make sense - that's axiomatic (or possibly tautological) so if the storyteller has suddenly shifted the location of his story and made his characters suddenly do seemingly inexplicable things or vanish then we automatically try to fit the pieces together. It's our part of the game. The storyteller gives us the pieces and we fit them together.

When the storyteller is telling a simple story like Little Red Riding Hood the pieces are presented to us in a simple clear and easily comprehended manner. This happened, then that happened, then this happened..
When the story gets more complex, the story telling process gets more complex. In a mystery story the order of events is often revisited several times, open to multiple interpretations from different characters - not all of whom can be trusted to be honest in their versions.
The skill of the story teller is to present the pieces of his story to us in a way that keeps us interested and - no matter how complicated and fancy the way he shuffles and deals them or disguises them with stylistic tricks - he has to play fair. He has to stick to the rules; even if he is inventing them. How many times have you had the feeling you have been cheated when an author suddenly whips out a piece of story from somewhere, bangs it into place and announces the game is over? The Deux Ex Machina ending, the 'He Woke Up And Found It Was All A Dream' ending, or the character who suddenly changes personality for no reason, and renounces evil, embraces good, tra - la - la! Roses and bluebirds! Goodnight. The end.

In a good, bad movie all those things may happen before the opening credits have finished.

Sometimes the story teller is so wrapped up in his own weird fevered imagination, or so thoroughly incompetent, or hampered by technical problems (like not having enough money), that he doesn't communicate his story in a way that lets us follow it. We try to follow it, for a while at least, because we are conditioned to try but sometimes it just isn't possible.

I finally realised what was going on while watching Ed Wood's masterpiece of incoherence Night of the Ghouls (a sequel to his utterly wrong Bride Of The Monster*) The movie opens with Criswell (real-life fake medium and deranged narrator of several of Wood's films) rising from an open coffin and trying to stare into the camera while reading his lines on idiot boards held too far off to one side of the camera:
"I am Criswell - for many years I have told you the unbelievable related the unreal and showed it to be more than fact. Now I tell you a tale of the threshold people - so astounding that some of you may faint - This is a story of those in the twilight time - once human... now monsters... in a world between the living - and the dead. Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!"
It goes downhill from there very fast. There is a bewildering quality to Wood's films in which logic and all known storytelling techniques evaporate before your very eyes in an orgy of wrongness... I love his films but it was only watching this one for the first time that I realised the truly weird dreamlikeness of them. While the audience is still puzzling over the philosophical implications of things that are more 'real' than facts, Wood shows us a long interior of a police station full of over-acting amateur actors loudly screeching their lines - the upshot of this over-long, weirdly composed static shot is something strange and scary has happened to an old couple. They've seen something horrible.


Then the voice of Criswell returns:
"This how it began. An incident the police were fearful to admit."
Fade to police car, sirens blaring driving right to left along a dusty road. (Assumption in the audiences mind - these are the police we just saw on their way to investigate the 'incident' )

"Your daily newspapers radio and television dares to relate the latest in juvenile delinquency!"
Fade to a wide shot of some teens gently soft-shoe jiving in a coffee shop while someone whacks a demented jazzy drum solo to an entirely different rhythm on the soundtrack.

Cut to: Another shot of the police car driving left to right along what looks like the same road (Assumption in the audiences mind - the police car is going back to where it came from.)

Cut to a montage of four shots: a bunch of youths looking down - one boy jumps down a bank - onto another and hits him - unenthusiastically cheered on by his friends while Criswell intones:
"At Times it seems that juvenile delinquency is the major problem of our law enforcement officers - but, is this the major horror of our times?"
Cut to: another, near identical (tediously long) shot of the police car going left to right as the mad drumming returns on the soundtrack. (Assumption in the audiences mind - these policemen really don't know where they are going, do they?)

Cut to: Montage: a well lit alley boys boys 'fight' on the ground. A girl holds her handbag and shuffles screen right, a look of unconvincing unhappiness on her face.
"Is this violence and terror the small few perpetrate the most horrible terrifying of all crimes our civil servants - must investigate?"
The mad drumming is back again. Cut to: The police car - from right to left time. (Question in the audiences mind - What the hell is going on?)

Cut to: Another, different, car travelling left to right - this shot taken from another vehicle - I'm no expert on American cars of the period, but this is a much older car and looks like stock footage.
"The national Safety Council keeps accurate records on highway fatalities. They can even predict how many deaths will come on a drunken holiday weekend..."
Roadside bushes whip by as the camera is suddenly in the car, looking out. A close up of a spinning wheel (which can't belong to the car we just saw because it has white wall tyres and wheels on the car didn't). The car drives out of control down a steep bushy bank to come to rest,out of shot, behind a dark tree. Medium shot wrecked car, a body peering out of the smashed side window.
"But what records are kept? What information is there?"
Cut to the same damn police car driving right to left along the same damn road. (Enough! Enough! Mr Wood, we don't need to see every take you made of an establishing shot for another movie**!)
"How many of you know the horror - the terror, I will now reveal to you?"
(None, you fucking weirdo, that's why we're watching this crappy movie!)

Cut to an open top car, a necking couple inside, make out music on the radio. Frogs croaking. Cut to a wider shot of same car. AT LAST! Suddenly we are in linear movie storytelling time. The girl gets out of the car, he follows... The relief is almost overwhelming. Two sequential shots that actually make some sort of coherent logical sense! Blessed relief! The story progresses. This is where the movie really starts, folks!

What, the viewers asks himself, the hell HAD all that 'Juvenile delinquency', and road safety stuff got to do with anything? Nothing. It had nothing to do with anything that had previously happened, or would subsequently happen for the rest of the film. As I sat there trying to puzzle it out I realised it was the most genuinely surreal bit of film making I had ever encountered.

Many directors try to make dream-like movies, David Lynch and Fellini are two obvious examples but neither really get there. Their films are great, I love them, but their dreams are too coherent. Too good. They make too much sense. Their movies, lovely and wonderful things that they are, are composed and edited too lyrically. Dreams aren't lyrical. We impose lyricism on dreams afterwards as we think about them (if we remember them at all) and try to make them into stories.

We spend about a third of our lives asleep and a great deal of the time we are asleep we spend dreaming. Dreaming is obviously important to us. There is some reason why humans have to spend so much of their time time believing they are fighting enormous custard creams, or rowing across a sea of spaghetti, or running around their school yard naked from the waist down (or is that just me?). With Ed Wood, and all the other very bad movie makers of the world, we can all have a chance at that kind of experience while wide awake.

It's an opportunity I can never pass up.

*Starring Bela Lugosi in his next to last completed movie. Bride of the Monster contains one of the greatest bits of weird acting of Lugosi's career (and that's saying something). There's a moment towards the start of the film where a hapless victim wakes to find himself strapped to a surgical table, a captive of the evil Dr Varnoff (Bela in white coat and stethoscope) and about to be experimented upon with a atomic powered ray. Hey, what gives!
"Soon," gloats Dr Varnoff clutching one of those huge switches so beloved by mad scientists, "you will be asa bik as a chiant, wid the strength ov twenty men, or -- like all the others, DEAD!" Lugosi throws the lever. Lights flash. The victim convulses against the straps binding him to the table then falls limp. Bela registers horror (or something) and steps forward, dons the stethoscope, listens to the man's heart. Nothing. His shoulders slump. Another failure.... Then. In a truly inspired moment of acting genius (Bela is so in the moment here) he discerns a possible glimmer of hope and... stethoscope still in place - listens to the man's head! .. and then his wrist! ... only then does he finally give up hope.

**Plan Nine from Outer-Space

1 comment:

Phoebe said...

Still thinking about this. I'm glad you wrote about it.

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