No one sets out to make a bad movie -- do they?
Despite movies that are greeted by a barrage of critical rotted fruit, despite TV series that get pulled after two episodes amid a swarm of stinging assaults, the one thing that can often get lost in the critical disgust expressed by professional critics and lay-people alike at some seeming universally reviled work of celluloid is this: no one sets out to make a bad movie (or TV show). Indeed, it can take just as much sweat and hard work to make a turkey as it can to make a swan. And the reason so often you'll see interviews with actors promoting some truly abysmal stinker by blithely assuring you this was the best experience of their career, that they felt really good about the project, is because it's awfully hard when in the thick of it to anticipate what the final product will look like. And that's because there are so many elements that go into a film or TV show -- from the obvious of script and casting, to the subtle like editing and music -- that there's an element of faith involved on the part of those putting it together. You just hope it will all come together in the end.
We've all heard the cinematic anecdotes. George Lucas showing a rough cut of Star Wars to friends and being told he had killed his career -- but once the John Williams score was added, it became a box office legend. Young Frankenstein rating badly before test audiences, but then, after another few sessions in the editing room, emerging as a beloved comedy classic. Sometimes a two second reaction shot is the difference between a powerful, moving scene...and a dull, forgettable scene.
Of course, knowing this can lead to a certain willful blindness on the part of filmmakers. Convincing themselves (and their financiers) that despite all the warning signs during production and the mishandled scenes, despite a script that wilts flowers, a miracle will occur and it will all somehow work out in the end.
Ed Wood was no doubt as sincere, as convinced of his "vision", as Alfred Hitchcock.
No one intends to make a bad movie. At least, that's what I've always told myself.
But, honestly, I sometimes wonder. Certainly there have always been rumours to the contrary. In the 1970s and 1980s, during what became known as the "Hollywood North" period in Canadian film, skeptics argued that tax incentives -- intended to encourage productions -- were actually an incentive to make movies that failed, that the backers could earn more in tax write offs for a failed movie than they could earn from the box office of a mildly successful movie. I was never entirely convinced of this -- a lot of those movies were bad, but they weren't so bad that it seemed deliberate. You could believe the people making them held out some hope of success. But the rumours were there. Such a concept was at the heart of the Mel Brooks movie, The Producers, in which a desperate theatre producer figures he can work it so he can earn more from a Broadway disaster than he could from a hit.
Still, I'm not convinced the failures of the Canadian film industry can be laid at some malicious, Machiavellian intention to fail.
But I do sometimes wonder if it's the result of something equally insidious: a total ambivalence as to whether something succeeds.
And this ambivalence can come along wearing a variety of guises. People more interested in the process -- working with their pals, or hiring some Hollywood celeb that'll impress their friends at the club -- than in the finished product. Or people more convinced of the rightness of their vision, the importance of their genius (or the genius of those they choose to finance) and unconcerned whether the ticket-buying audience shares their taste. People who have a time slot to fill, a production quota to meet, or who simply need to be producing something to bulk up their CV before they go after the project they really want to go after. As I say: it's not that they want or intend their project to fail -- they just don't really care, one way or the other.
What got me thinking about this was in perusing some of the entries for various Canadian projects on the Internet Movie Database and being kind of surprised at how low rated, and how negative the comments were, for a lot of Canadian made productions. This surprised me because the nature of the IMDB is that these things tend to balance each other out -- if enough people like something, and enough people don't, the ratings should balance out somewhere in the middle as often happens with even Hollywood box office failures. But if the average rating seems to be low -- that implies not so much that people didn't like it, which is inevitable of any production no matter how beloved, but that not too many people actually liked it. See my point? Every movie has its haters, sure...but it should also have its fans, too.
Now, obviously, you can read as much, or as little, as you want into the IMDB ratings. In part because this is purely anecdotal -- I haven't made a serious study of it, or assembled enough data to really draw a significant conclusion. Maybe a low rating is just because someone(s) with a grudge decided to skew the rating (just as cynics will argue unusually high ratings are the work of PR flunkies working for the production company). I mean, I've commented before about the unusual hatred that seems to be directed at Canadian productions. And to be fair, I've seen movies I genuinely loved receive surprisingly low ratings on the IMDB.
Still, what got me musing about all this was some of the Canadian co-produced TV movies aired on CanWest-Global and Space: The Imagination Station. CanWest-Global often airs a TV movie on Saturday nights -- made usually in conjunction with the US cable channel Lifetime. These are often suspense films, occasionally comedies, usually all with a "chick flick" vibe (Lifetime being, I believe, the US equivalent of Canada's Women's Television Network). Space, meanwhile, airs horror/sci-fi flicks made in conjunction with the US SyFy cable station (ironically, there was a time when Space insisted it was a "science fiction", not a horror station, but these days most of its programming is horror cheapies). Both group of films tend to feature a low-level American to star, and are set in the US. And if you scoot on over to the IMDB, they seem to boast unusually consistent negative reviews and ratings. This is particularly remarkable (as in, something worth remarking upon) with the Space films, because as niche/genre films, it's not like the audience shouldn't have some idea of what they're getting into, and one would assume the viewers are already willing to meet the filmmakers half way -- and they still come away disappointed!
So what's going on here? Week after week, month after month, year after year, these two networks/channels regularly air movies that don't simply seem to be hit and miss -- a mix of almost classics, middling time killers, and some dogs -- but instead are fairly consistently regarded with derision by the very target audience they are aimed at. The reason I've noted this is because, of late, I tend to be a little more stinting in the time I can dedicate to watching n' reviewing Canadian movies, and since these are movies set in the US, often featuring an imported actor, they aren't necessarily a priority for a "Great Canadian" movie site. So I'll deliberately look them up on the IMDB, looking for some encouragement to turn them on -- and very rarely get any.
There is an aspect an assembly line to these films. Not only are they the same network partners (Space wedded with SyFy, CanWest-Global wedded with Lifetime) but the same production company names tend to crop up as well -- Muse Entertainment and RHI are two that I've noticed a lot. These companies presumably have two departments: their highbrow, classy division (Muse also was involved in The Pillars of the Earth) and their schlocky, genre division that churns out TV/DVD movies on demand. And presumably these associations deliver the goods -- on time, on budget, no fuss, no muss. If you go back through the years of Canadian film and TV -- specifically the meeting of the two mediums -- you'll find periods where such partnerships will arise, deals are struck, and a series of genre films are churned out over a period of a few years. If memory serves, I seem to recall seeing production company names like "Three Themes Hamster" and "Allegro" on more than a few Canadian films in the past. As I say, these usually offer a set product following set templates: US actors, US setting, thriller, maybe horror, sometimes involving a shared source (The Mary Higgins Clark Collection, adapting Clark's novels) or taking as the inspiration a popular US film. Fatal Attraction for instance, which begat what came to be called the "urban angst" thriller (ie: stalker films) inspired a kazillion Canadian movies, many directed by Douglas Jackson if I recall.
And for the most part -- these films just weren't very good. I don't mean that personally I didn't like them. I mean, looking at other reviews, or IMDB message boards, they weren't generally regarded that highly.
Why? Well, as I said: presumably they were being delivered on time, on budget, with no surprises. They were good product. In much the same way that some schools let fast food joints and pop conglomerates into their cafeterias even though they know it's bad for the kids: the food is cheap, fast, and requires no supervision from any one in management. A contract is signed, and no more has to be thought about it.
Assembly line movie making isn't necessarily a bad thing -- particularly if you're trying to keep costs down. But it still needs to be married with a certain creative sincerity. US B-movie king Roger Corman has become a beloved icon, despite making a lot of truly awful films...because even his bad films often had little sparks of creativity, or ambition. Enough that some actually emerged as quasi-classics. While Britain's Hammer Films is much revered for their horror films of the 1950s and 1960s -- again, because there was some sense of art, of ambition, to them, not the least because they went the audacious route of making period films (presumably keeping costs down by reusing the same costumes and castle sets for various films). So I'm not for a minute knocking the idea of some producers and financiers getting together to set up a lean, mean, assembly line for spitting out cheap little guilty pleasures.
But it relates to the end goal.
And that gets back to my earlier point about the fact that it isn't that these Canadian flicks are meant to be bad movies. It's merely that the quality of the movies isn't really a deciding factor. As long as the reels show up in the mail when they're supposed to, and run the appropriate number of minutes, with nothing in the subject matter that'll send up any red flags anywhere -- the networks are happy.
I recently watched a couple of the horror flicks on Space. Carny, was one, Black Swarm was another. Actually, that ties into a previous editorial I wrote, about casting. Because in both cases, it was the actors that got me to turn on. Carny starred US actor Lou Diamond Phillips, but it was Alan C. Peterson prominently billed in the cast that got me curious -- Peterson a sturdy character actor that I've long appreciated and I was curious to see in a leading role (as the villain). While Black Swarm featured Sarah Allen, who had caught my eye in the medical drama, Jozi-H. Peterson was very good -- arguably better than the part demanded, bringing nuance and shading to a role that, after all, was just a one note villain (I half wonder if in an earlier draft of the script he was supposed to be a more ambiguous figure). Allen didn't quite rise above her material...but honestly, she, and the cast of Black Swarm, had a harder climb than did Peterson and the cast of Carny.
Carny was just a stock monster movie about a creature terrorizing a small town, but with the potential for a more intriguing sub-plot involving a travelling Carnival -- but it remained only a potential. It had some silliness (no one seems especially nonplussed by the existence of a winged gargoyle!), some occasional nice touches, but mostly it was just a generic version of a generic story -- though one where you could believe someone had some ideas that ended up discarded in an early draft (like Phillips' final scene, and final line, which made me wonder if there was a sub-plot that had been discarded somewhere). It's an example of what I mean about good or bad not being an issue: I don't for a minute believe it was bad enough to be deliberate. I just don't think anyone -- writers, actors, directors -- went into it with the gumption to fight for quality either. Or rather, they did rise to individual moments -- good moments of acting, occasional good lines, but not enough to affect the overall production. Black Swarm was more problematic. I actually found it laughably bad as it went along, often making little sense. Part of the problem was that the script seemed cobbled together from about four different drafts, scenes seemed to be missing (as characters would have knowledge of things they hadn't witnessed), or have discussions about the most inappropriate things at the most inappropriate times! Allen and the cast were sturdy enough (interestingly, both Allen and leading man Sebastien Roberts are Canadian -- unusual for these kind of films; the American import was genre veteran Robert Englund as a mysterious scientist). But I suspect even the actors knew it was a lost cause and that affected their commitment. Perhaps equally bizarre is that Black Swarm was a variation on the "killer bug" genre (just a few years ago Canadians did another called just simply Swarmed -- which, curiously, also seemed like different scenes were using different drafts of the script). It's a genre that has rarely, if ever, produced a decent story (other than the classic short story, Leiningen and the Ants) -- so right there, a sharp producer should've recognized the movie had to overcome its own pedigree to succeed! And it didn't.
(Pointing to a chief culprit in a bad movie can be hard. It's easy to blame the script -- but as many script writers will tell you, the script they wrote often doesn't end up on the screen, as the director, or the actors, or the producers, take it upon themselves to make alterations will-nilly. Black Swarm may've been disjointed and nonsensical...but who made it that way may never be known!)
Now again, I'm not saying these movies were meant to be bad. Nor that there wasn't some creative or artistic impulse driving them. As mentioned, Carny took the usual creature feature premise and added the novel twist of the travelling carnival. Black Swarm took killer bugs...and added (albeit ill-conceived) a zombie-type aspect, plus some character drama. Yes -- the writers, actors, directors etc. I think genuinely put some effort into them -- but without support of the producers, without a sense that anyone in charge really cared one way or the other about making a good movie, such effort bleeds away and everyone is just left hitting their marks and waiting till payday. That's kind of the point I'm making: these didn't necessarily come across as movies made by talentless hacks, so much as they were made by competent professionals who lacked encouragement. It's like a bright child who's failing school because his parents and teachers aren't nurturing him.
The reason I harp on the idea of whether anyone cared is because, in a way, these movies weren't unsalvageable -- I'm not saying they could be great movies, but as Roy Scheider says in All That Jazz...they could be made "better". I said the zombie thread in Black Swarm was ill-conceived, but really what I meant was it was poorly executed. Indeed, when you turn on this killer bug flick, and suddenly see a zombie wandering around...it actually piques your interest, because it was unexpected. And for the first couple of scenes, they're kind of creepy...but once you're more than half way through the film and no one has even noticed, they just become silly. Or the romantic tension between the heroine and her ex-brother-in-law could've been effective (certainly we could appreciate the emotional obstacle -- he was a twin, so he looked just like her dead hubby) but what was odd...was how few scenes Allen and Roberts had for a lot of the film. It's hard to generate sexual chemistry when the actors aren't even in the same frame! And so on. There were a lot of bad scenes, ludicrous scenes, ill-thought ideas...that probably could've been saved, not by throwing the baby out with the bath water, but just by someone having the desire -- and wisdom -- to say, y'know, this doesn't work, can we make it better? Again, I'm not saying Black Swarm would've ever been nominated for an award -- but it certainly could've been an agreeable little time killer, even for a killer bug movie.
The Saturday night suspense flicks aired on CanWest-Global are similar -- not wholly bad (though some are) but just doggedly, determinedly generic. Something to fill a time slot.
Now -- am I crazy? you ask. After all, surely executives and programmers must be concerned about quality -- that's their bread and butter. Well, not really, because you forget the eternal optimism of the viewer. The Peanuts paradigm, the "Charlie Brown running for the football that Lucy pulls away" scenario. Because reading some of the comments on the IMDB, a lot of these people who dislike these films freely admit they had low expectations, that they had seen plenty of these bad films before, that SyFy had a bad reputation for TV movies...but still they turned them on. Because they hoped. They hoped this time the programmers wouldn't pull that football away and it would be a good movie. And that's all the programmers care about...that the audience tunes in. They don't care if you enjoyed it. They don't care if you recommend it to your friends (cause by the time it is re-aired months down the line, your friends will have forgotten you warned them away). They don't care if your eyes bleed and your ears explode from watching it. They just care that you watch.
To use another Peanuts analogy, in one strip a character points out to Linus that he's polished only the front of his shoes. Linus responds that's because he only cares what people think of him when he enters a room...he doesn't care what they think of him when he leaves! So programmers don't care whether you enjoyed a movie -- they just care that you turn it on in the first place.
Is all this cynicism really justified? Maybe these are films that those making them and programming them really do have faith in, really are convinced are going to wow the audience. But I suppose the test would be whether anyone of these executives, these programmers, these producers...whether any of them really do sit down in front of the screen, family gathered around, a bowel of microwave popcorn steaming at hand, to watch these movies.
If so, maybe they need to restore our faith in the process. Maybe the head honchos at Space: The Imagination Station should hold a press conference to tell us how they really do, sincerely, truly, think something like Malibu Shark Attack is a great movie -- they can detail their favourite scenes, the moments that got them to jump out of their chair, or to weep with joy.
I'll believe in the sincerity of their programming choices...the day they do.
ADDENDUM, JUNE 1st: A couple of days after posting this, I saw a commercial Space used to advertise its Thursday night horror/thriller movies. And the tone in the commercials was mocking and campy. Now, admittedly, that’s how Space has advertised a lot of its products over the years, including when it aired old B-movies and Drive In-era quickies, or when it aired reruns of the original Battlestar Galactica. Presumably there is a faction in the Space executive that is embarrassed by the very kind of programs they offer. Still, I think it goes to the point of my essay that even in advertising these recent movies Space seems to be saying: hey, we know they’re bad. Now what’s significant is that movies like Carny, Black Swarm, Malibu Shark Attack, Rise of the Gargoyles and others is that they are not made to be campy or tongue-in-cheek. Sure, there is an inherent fun to them, a twinkle-in-the-eye, as they are old school creature features -- but that’s not the same as deliberate camp. Now, obviously, definitions like that are hard. To someone who doesn’t like or “get” fantasy, anything in that genre is inherently, deliberately camp, a joke -- they would define Star Trek as camp, or the Exorcist, or Lord of the Rings. But in order to say something was meant to be camp, it would require a specific, obvious tone -- like the 1960s Batman TV series, with its mannered performances, its colourful sets. And that certainly wasn’t what they were going for with Carny, et al. If you were laughing at these movies (and, I confess, I did once or twice during Black Swarm -- an incredulous, exasperated laugh) it wasn’t in a way that should make the filmmakers feel proud. Those reviews I alluded to on the IMDB weren't praising these films as wonderful comedies any more than they were saying they succeeded as thrillers.
Going by that commercial on Space, the brass did seem to be throwing up their hands and saying, “yeah, we don't respect these films -- and we don’t care.” And I can’t help wonder what sort of movies could be made if they actually did care.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
May 25, 2011
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