Tuesday, January 7, 2014

TUESDAY BONUS: The last shall be first (Best Worst Movie)

I’m clearing out some unfinished business from last year, before introducing the big obsessive projects and ridiculous running motifs I have planned for this year, and that blog-housekeeping includes the belated final installment of DOXEMBER (remember that?), with a look at the documentary Best Worst Movie.

For various reasons, I’m skipping over yet another movie I watched for the theme month, Lost in La Mancha, which captures the collapse of Terry Gilliam’s doomed production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2000. It was a moderately interesting collection of behind-the-scenes footage and some talking head material by Gilliam himself, but beyond that I didn’t have much to say about it. Although there’s some cheap irony inherent in holding up Gilliam’s efforts to realize his vision for the movie as a quixotic quest (including oh-so-many visual references to tilting at windmills*) the fact is that movies get abandoned all the time. They run out of money (as Gilliam did), or an actor has to drop out (as Gilliam’s did), or any number of prosaic pitfalls open up under the crew’s feet, and studios cut their losses and move on. Arguably it’s a greater shame in the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, because it probably would have been an outstanding film, but it’s also just one of those things.

Still, there was something of a throughline with my choices for DOXEMBER, in the following progression: Hearts of Darkness was about a movie (Apocalypse Now) which should never have managed to get finished, yet miraculously was, and went on to become an all-time classic. Burden of Dreams was about a movie (Fitzcarraldo) which also should never have managed to get finished, yet also miraculously was, but went on to become a mostly forgotten obscurity. Lost in La Mancha was about a movie (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) which should never have managed to get finished, because of very similar trials as beset the first two (including insane amounts of rain) and unsurprisingly was never finished, and remains an intriguing might-have-been. Finally, Best Worst Movie is about a movie (Troll 2) which probably never should have been begun and yet semi-miraculously was finished and became first a bomb and later a beloved cult classic.

(Also note the 1001 Must-See Movies progression (or regression) at play here: Both Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are on the Master List. Fitzcarraldo is on the list, though Burden of Dreams is not. Lost in La Mancha is not, but Terry Gilliam has a few directorial efforts to his credit on the List, including Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Best Worst Movie is not on the list, Troll 2 certainly isn’t, and in fact none of Claudio Fragasso’s filmography are anywhere within shouting distance.)

Of all the documentaries about movies I’ve watched, Best Worst Movie is the one that made me smile the most. In part it’s a making-of, but it’s also about fandom, and it’s easy in certain moments to get caught up in the sheer exuberance of a midnight screening of Troll 2 with special appearances by the cast members. The documentary was actually put together by the actor Michael Stephenson who played the ostensible hero of Troll 2, Joshua Waits, as a young child. Twenty years later, he tracked down various castmates, the director, the screenwriter, the composer, and seemingly every fan the movie has gained in its second life as a so-bad-its-good masterpiece, fueled by the dubious distinction of a 0% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well as the #1 spot on IMDB’s Worst Movies of All Time list.

There’s a segment in Best Worst Movie where a couple of members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe extol the virtues of the movie and insist that if a person has never seen Troll 2 they should drop whatever they are doing and find it and watch it that very instant. I, for one, have never seen Troll 2, and even after watching Best Worst Movie I’m not sure if I ever will, much as I appreciate the unrestrained recommendation. I do know that if I end up watching it, I will surely do so in some kind of communal experience, because that’s what the documentary makes look the most appealing.

For an independent documentary with a super-simple premise (“I was in a terrible movie as a kid and now two decades later I want to reflect on it”), Best Worst Movie is surprisingly complex. It gives a fair amount of screentime to most of the major players from the cast, some of whom went on to put together humble but successful acting careers, some of whom went on to have more normal but just as successful careers in other fields, and some of whom did not necessarily turn out so well. It gives director Claudio Fargasso enough rope to hang himself (and he does not disappoint). It gives an opportunity to numerous fans to express their love for the movie, and a chance for some of the cast to react to that love, and that may be the most fascinating aspect of all. Clearly, most of the cultish fans of Troll 2 are, to use the time-saving shorthand of a stereotype label, hipster d-bags. They love the movie with irony, which sometimes seems to be the only way certain people can love things. And yes, there’s some tension between the former cast, non-professionals who lived in and continue to live in small towns, and the phenomenon of Troll 2’s popularity amongst big city hipster d-bag kids, with the question remaining open as to whether or not the cast really understands what a standing ovation at the end of Troll 2 signifies. Best Worst Movie isn’t explicitly cruel to its subjects and doesn’t hold them up for mockery, but it does shine a light on the whole notion of pop culture being deemed so-bad-its-good and how people in different social strata process that. And that includes showing some of the cast going from the highest highs of a raucously successful Music Box screening in Chicago where they get to sign autographs for starstruck fans, to showing the same cast members at a horror-con in Texas where they get ignored alongside the actors who played Freddy victims in Nightmare on Elm Street (parts IV and V), to showing a charity screening of Troll 2 in cast member George Hardy’s hometown in Alabama, where his fellow citizens clearly don’t get what the big fuss is all about. Hardy tries, earnestly, to explain that the movie is funny, and does so by quoting some of his own dialogue which always gets big laughs at the hipster d-bag screenings, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the dialogue isn’t inherently funny until he gets blank stares in response.

But at the same time, somehow, it’s not all about hipster d-bags taking something worthless and pretending to love it in order to be archly amusing to themselves. There is something sincere in more of the fans than not (at least among those captured on camera by Best Worst Movie) in the affection they feel toward the movie. Many of them cite the utter guilelessness of the film, which perhaps triggers an equally unguarded response in them. Others genuinely seem to enjoy the pleasures that can be had in considering something which shouldn’t conceivably exist, and yet does in spite of itself and the hard, uncaring world it came into. Anything that can bring people together, even if it unites them in shaking their heads in disbelief, becomes a positive thing which people can appreciate, one of life’s little unexpected bright spots.

Ultimately that’s the message of Best Worst Movie: Troll 2 was awful, having gone wrong in almost every way a movie can from day one, and it emerged from the dustbin of history as pure unintentional camp, which is not necessarily something to be proud of. And yet, a lot of the people associated with the movie are proud of their involvement. And rightly so, because the movie makes people happy. Whether that happiness is partly a put-on, partly mean-spirited, or wholly unadulterated joy at unmitigated weirdness, is basically beside the point.

Again, I can see myself maybe watching Troll 2 some time, with several of my friends, because we are all geekily hardwired to experience that appreciation for so-bad-its-good. And I know not everyone is so wired, and consequently I wouldn’t urge everyone to run out and see Troll 2. But, I would urge everyone who’s ever been a fan of a film, any film, to see Best Worst Movie, not because it’s about Troll 2 but because it’s about movies, dreams, and all kinds of love.

(* Did you know that tilting at windmills is literally the first thing Don Quixote does in the novel once he fully embraces his delusion of being a knight? I do, because I am a d-bag bibliophilic snob who has read the entire 900 page translation of Don Quixote. Cervantes describes his hero doing lots of other crazy and amusing things over the course of the book, but the windmill scene is the one that has become shorthand for the character. I suspect this is because that’s as far into the proto-novel as most people get, before deciding “AND IT GOES ON LIKE THAT” is all they really need to know about the latter 90%.)

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