Dumb movies

I don’t know if it takes any special kind of refined irony to appreciate dumb movies, like the ones compiled on this “50 Films You Can Wait to See After You’re Dead” list from Kottke. I’ve seen many on the list with relish — Basic Instinct 2, From Justin to Kelly, Glitter, Catwoman to name a few — and Freddy Got Fingered is one of my favorite films ever, if only for the disturbing dinner-date sequence, which seems as though it was shot while the director was on PCP. In fact, I think this kind of film is far more dependably entertaining than middlebrow “quality” films along the lines of The Reader or biopic tripe like A Beautiful Mind or Ray. That could just be because I like “campy” movies — but it seems insufficient and maybe inaccurate to dismiss these as mere camp. The standard definition of camp is an earnestly made work that’s terrible; in laughing at such a work we are showing our appreciation for that quintessentially human ability to persevere without talent. Camp, theoretically, is for those who especially relish the frisson of being in that no man’s land between laughing at and laughing with someone. The Room fits that bill — director Tommy Wiseau is ambitious and incompetent in equal measures, and his film leaves you with a weird respect for his stubbornness, for his evident refusal to listen to anyone who knows better. Few of us have that strength of character.

But the films on Kottke’s list are different. These are not films made by incompetents, but schlock made with a measure of cynicism at least at some level — whether the producers, the director, the studios, or the cast (if not all of the above). There, the overt and inevitable failure tends to be humanizing for all parties involved, reminding us that the hegemony of the culture industry is not quite complete and that its ability to manipulate us in the ways it seeks to is not infallible, not even close. The workaday actors in such films secure our sympathy, palpably muddling through, working on something they must know is garbage but doing what they can to remain professional. And in the best of these dumb movies, the stars themselves are the only people who are entirely clueless, lost in a hubristic haze that makes them think the project is dignified and destined for greatness merely through their sheer presence. And despite everything, the delusion of these stars seems to remain undimmed throughout the otherwise incoherent finished product. All that holds such films together in the end is the stars’ unearned self-confidence — probably we get that quality in a much more concentrated form in dumb movies than in good ones. The earnestness of the marquee names in dumb movies, however, brings them down to our level; the audience can revel in their superiority, fully aware, for once, how dependent the stars are on them, how the fans’ indulgence in fact constitutes the stars’ talent. So in a sense, we celebrate and appreciate ourselves when we sit through an ego-fest movie like Striptease or Blade 2.