The Good Bad
Making a movie is difficult. Making a good movie is really difficulty. And making a good “bad movie” is an art in-of-itself.
This past weekend was the Great Digital Film Festival which, I can only assume, was an initiative started by Cineplex Odeon Cinema to try and shore up some extra sales during that post Christmas lull where nothing but movies expected to die are released and most the populace is either recovering from holiday feast induced comas or are desperately trying to keep to their optimistic New Year’s resolutions until the end of the month when it’ll seem less pathetic when they invariably give them up.
How’s that for an opening sentence?
The Digital Film festival is filled with old cult classics–presumably because cult hits are the only type of film apt to still draw viewers years or even decades after release. I’m sure there’s some sort of commentary somewhere in there about the disposable entertainment of our generation and how art is meant to be immediately consumed and forgotten in an never ending pursuit of the latest big releases from our dominant industry overlords. We’re on the precipice here for some good, old fashioned futuristic dystopia with the way our tastes are dictated to us but, alas, this is probably just a moment of “old man yells at clouds.”
Mostly, I want to say that I saw Big Trouble in Little China this weekend. And I had fun.
Yes, me. Yes, fun. It was as unexpected an event as world peace or a tasty English meal. Now this isn’t to say Big Trouble is a fantastic movie that everyone must see and totally a forgotten masterpiece that changes lives. It’s stupid fun but not the sort of “stupid fun” that I complain about in pretty much every other single release that hits the screens.
See, Big Trouble in Little China is a “bad movie.” By all reasonable measurements, it fails in every category worth discussing. It has undeveloped characters. It has a nonsensical plot fill with enormous holes. It has terrible special effects and awful cinematography. Its dialogue is oft-times incomprehensible. But unlike so many other movies, this is done intentionally. This was a beast of a movie made solely to be “bad.” And it is. And it’s great.
It reminds me of the type of comedy movie that I enjoyed as a child (and given the age of the movie itself–released in 1986–it’s probably made in that style). I’m thinking of the Leslie Nielsen pictures of yesteryear. The Airplanes and Naked Guns and whatnot. These movies were all parodies, deriving their humour by poking fun at the faults or cliches of the genres they spoofed. Then you have the Mel Brooks films which also steer into parody but also have a strong farcical component to them. I mean, one of Mel Brooks recurring jokes is having production elements slip into the action on the screen, whether it’s a boom microphone breaking a window interrupting Maid Marian’s song in Robin Hood: Men in Tights or Dark Helmet accidentally cutting down a cameraman during a mock lightsabre battle in Space Balls.
It’s a style of comedy that I haven’t really seen much nowadays. You could argue that Spy was a modern attempt at that parody/farcical style but it leaned far too much on gross humour and the standard “fat person falls down” that’s rampant. And it’s stupid but it’s not the same kind of stupid. That may be a strange claim to make but it’s true. There’s an air of “Screw it, let’s just do this,” in Big Trouble. It’s not dumb because the creator’s couldn’t do better. It’s dumb because it’s silly, fun and weird. I mean, I have no other explanation for the weird beholder monster or ugly Chewbacca that show up with little to no explanation in the movie. It shoots for the unexpected without trying to strike at shock value humour.
There’s a deliberateness that doesn’t come off as artificial. It feels like the creators set out to specifically make a bad movie, spoofing the elements that plague poorly created works much like Mel Brooks spoofs the technical gaffs of production. It’s in the little details, like villainous Lo Pan’s first name being David even though he’s depicted as an ancient Chinese sorcerer. Or Miao Yin arrives with a big box of baking powder. And, of course, there’s the bigger detail that Kurt Russell spends much of the action either knocked out, trapped under bodies, stuck in wheelchairs or chasing after knives. Course, he’s ostensibly only in the film because the villains stole his truck for no apparent reason other than, I presume, Lo Pan needed a honeymoon vehicle.
And yet, the strangest thing about Big Trouble in Little China is that somehow a movie thirty years old somehow bucks a lot of the issues prominent in our media now. Its female characters, while ostensibly serving as damsels in distress, end up getting involved in a number of rescue attempts and action. And their uselessness in combat is negligible given the plethora of female villains that the protagonists have to combat. Since, you know, everyone in China knows kung fu and the movie is most certainly happy to fall into Wuxia tropes at the drop of a hat. And outside of the principle male and female role, near everyone else is a minority. And while the narrative frame is to try and put the focus on Jack Burton and Gracie Law, the action and story is most assuredly set around Wang Chi and Miao Yin. Perhaps its because comedies aren’t expected to hold to conventions.
I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons between Big Trouble in Little China and The Room of Tommy Wiseau fame. Both are pretty nonsensical, with perhaps The Room maintaining even less coherency than Big Trouble in Little China. And that’s without the aid of lightning riding martial artists or a man whose soul looks like a creepy, black haired Ronald McDonald. Whereas there’s so much deliberate shoddy work in Big Trouble, Wiseau addresses his film with all the earnestness and solemnity of an actual drama. You can tell that John Carpenter is in on the joke and yet he is still able to make you shake your head and leave you guessing where he’s going next. Wiseau, however, isn’t aware of any joke and the complete fumbling of his film is near an exact copy of everything that Big Trouble is mocking. The characters, narrative and pacing is so poorly done that you, as the audience, can’t help but laugh. In a sense, the fun of The Room is mean spirited but I can’t feel bad about it. First, The Room is really bad. Second, Tommy Wiseau is perhaps far more famous than he has any right to be. Finally, The Room is entertaining even if it’s not in the manner it wanted.
So, to make a good bad movie, you need to either be entirely clueless and talentless without the self recognition to realize you need improvement or you need to actually possess the skill to appear as if you don’t. Otherwise, you’re just making a bad movie and while that may be just as much work, it’s significantly less fun.
In short, I had fun with Big Trouble in Little China. On the other hand, I’ve just discovered that they’re going to make a reboot of this movie and now I’m back to being sad about the empty hearted consumerism of modern entertainment.