What Makes a Bad Movie Good?
We talked to a curator for London's Barbican theater about a new season that pushes the boundaries of taste.
Still from 1980s horror 'The Boxer's Omen', filmed in Hong Hong
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
What, exactly, is good taste? And when does a shit film become "art"? These are questions that Tamara Anderson, a curator at the Barbican cinema in London, has been trying to answer. For the last few months, she's been watching Nazi exploitation films, gory slasher movies, and porny art house cinema from the comfort of her living room, to pick films for the cinema's latest themed season, Cheap Thrills.
The idea is to showcase the beauty of "trash cinema"—the kind of films that either intentionally set out to push the boundaries between good and bad taste, or those that accidentally became cult classics for their dodgy screenplays, bad acting, and schlocky execution.
John Waters once said that "to understand bad taste one must have very good taste." It's true, undoubtedly, but while trash is obviously in the eye of the beholder, some films—it's fairly easy to see—are just plain offensive. And in an age of trigger warnings and no-platforming, you have to ask: How offensive is too offensive?
I called up Anderson to find out.
VICE: What inspired you to put on a program full of trash?
Tamara Anderson: We came up with Cheap Thrills to run alongside an exhibition at the Barbican about vulgar fashion. Before the 1960s, no one considered films a high art form—they were shown as fairground attractions or at peep shows. It wasn't until French film critics tried to legitimize it as a form that film was considered to be an elite taste. Then, of course, there was a backlash; people began to argue that no work is too humble for aesthetic complications. Even the lowest forms of art could be seen to have taste.
Who made that argument?
We've leaned on the work of one film critic from the New Yorker named Pauline Kael. She wrote a famous essay called "Trash, Art, and The Movies." The argument is that the greatest pleasure of movie-going is freedom from respectability and what people say is good taste—like books, art, or theater. She writes that great movies are the crude ones, the ones that don't look like art.
But if shit films are interpreted differently by everybody, how do you decide what to show?
It's been quite difficult. We didn't want to be toothless, but we also didn't want to show anything too offensive. Ultimately, I suppose we chose ones that reflect our team here. There are art house shockers, exploitation films, and cult classics, which were made as serious art house films but missed the mark.
What's an "art house shocker?"
Something like Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat, which was a film belonging to a movement at the end of 20th century of quite extreme French art house cinema, full of sex and shocking violence. This is the most notorious. It's a very frank depiction of teenage sexuality, but its ending is horribly violent and really quite ambiguous.
I once read that she made a film where someone puts a bloody tampon in a glass of water and drinks it.
Oh God. I've not seen that one. But it sounds about right.
What exploitation films have you got?
We've got examples from around the world. Fuego is an Argentinian sexploitation film from the 1960s. The Boxer's Omen, made in Hong Kong, is a horror film from the 1980s. There's lots of gloopy, gory makeup and special effects. Then we've got Dolemite, which is a kung-fu Blaxploitation film. What these films have in common is that they're all designed to turn a quick buck, and they do that by exploiting contemporary cultural anxieties, like rebellious teenagers, sexual deviance, or race issues.
What's the difference between an art house film and an exploitation film?
I like to think it's to do with the intentions of the filmmaker; art house, auteur filmmakers are trying to make intellectual work based on personal expression, whereas grindhouse or exploitation films are a cheap thrill designed to titillate.
The problem is, because films are so expensive to make, you're never really far from commercial considerations, even in the art house sphere. How would you describe Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac or Antichrist, for example? He puts it about that they're films about addiction or a couple working through grief, but all the publicity around the sex and violence doesn't hurt at the box office. Same goes for people like Tarantino and Edgar Wright—they're art house filmmakers, but they've been actively calling for a reappraisal of exploitation cinema since the 1990s.
Obviously Tarantino and Edgar Wright are are quite mainstream. Would you say that we've got a better threshold for bad taste today?
On one hand, it's true that we see more bad taste than ever, but on the other hand, yes—I've shown some of these films before, and this was the first time I considered putting trigger warnings on them. I think that's indicative... shocking movies are released every year, but I don't think they've been causing as much controversy as the scandal of so few women directors, or #OscarsSoWhite. Today we're more likely to focus on conversations around diversity or who is in control of storytelling.
Which films in the program do you think are in the worst taste?
What's interesting is that some films have got less shocking with time—like John Waters's films are almost mainstream now. Others have got more shocking with time. Todd Solondz's Happiness, for example, is a black comedy about pedophilia from 1998. It feels unthinkable for that to be made today. And also The Night Porter from 1974—I've never seen it on telly, only on DVD, because it's so problematic even today. It's about an S&M relationship against the backdrop of the Holocaust, between a camp commander and an inmate. It just makes you feel really, really uncomfortable.
Were there any films that were just too gross or offensive to show?
Sweet Movie by a Serbian director called Dušan Makavejev. It was never classed for exhibition in the UK because of a strange scene where a woman stripteases in front of children. That earned it a certain reputation. I just thought, I wouldn't want to put my name to this.
Check out the full Cheap Thrills program on the Barbican's website.
Follow Amelia Abraham on Twitter.
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