Affection for the detritus of the media takes many forms. After watching too many campus simpletons (both students and profs) laugh mockingly at Fritz Lang and John Woo movies, I’m opposed to condescension. I suspect Camp in its disdainful form. I don’t like people demonstrating their sense of superiority to the trash their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Knowingness leaves you with nothing. —David Bordwell
I couldn’t agree more with David Bordwell (I wrote about some of my own encounters with unappreciative audiences here, although you probably should not read it if you fall into that category.)
A lot of us possess a need to feel superior to somebody else, and some of us need to feel superior to everyone else. Much of our humor comes down to us laughing at someone else because we feel superior to them. Currently popular, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is based on the idea that some people are just better than others. The need to be superior even finds expression in The Incredibles: “When everyone is special, no one is special.”
This is humor at the service of the status quo, but it’s nothing new. It’s easy to imagine aristocrats assembled in the salon laughing till it hurts as they tell jokes at the expense of their servants. It works the other way as well, with servants telling each other jokes in which their masters appear foolish and stupid. Some of the most popular comedies in ancient Roman were about slaves who bested their masters. These jokes tell us that despite actual circumstances, we are the superior ones.
So it’s no surprise when many of us, most of whom have not even attempted to make a film, find it so easy to laugh at certain kinds of movies, that which we call “bad.” Of course, we don’t always all agree on whether a movie is bad. I remember watching the Douglas Sirk directed version of Magnificent Obsession at MOMA during a Sirk retrospective. Half the audience was laughing, but the other half was yelling at them, through their tears, to shut up. This half of the audience took the film 100% seriously, seeing nothing funny about it.
But what exactly are we laughing at when we laugh at a film that was not made for our laughter? A post on She Blogged by Night about, what else?, Plan Nine from Outer Space, provides some examples. The blogger asks what can be done to “fix” the movie, for it definitely needs fixing, as we all know. What, exactly, needs fixing? Here’s her list:
- Casting: Lugosi’s double doesn’t even look like him.
- Set dressing: That shower curtain in the cockpit? Belongs in a shower!
- Writing: Needed an editor to cut, cut cut.
- Editing: Was there any?
- Special effects: Hubcaps as UFO’s. Gimme a break!
- Acting: Don’t get me started!
- Etc. Let’s just leave it at that and go back to laughing at poor, inept Ed Wood, Jr.
So that’s She Blogged By Night’s take on Plan 9. What’s the common element of these all too familiar complaints? Judging the film according to the standards of Hollywood film studio verisimilitude. If a set is supposed to be a cockpit, it damn well better look like the real thing. If a hubcap is supposed to be a UFO, we better not see the string it’s dangling from. It’s not enough that we know what it’s supposed to represent. It’s necessary that it look the part 100%. It should look so real that we are not reminded that we’re actually watching a film until the credits roll. It’s hard to believe that in Japan a form of puppet theater developed in which no attempt is made to hide the people manipulating the puppets, let alone make everything look real. In fact, according to Noël Burch in To the Distant Observer (download the book in pdf form here), even Japanese film has a tradition in which the filmmakers do not aim for maximum realism or naturalism. But that’s Japan. Hollywood’s where the real filmmaking action is, right?
So, who benefits from this approach. Certainly not the guy down the street who dreams of being a filmmaker. If an audience expects the film to look “real,” it’s going to cost more. Heaven forbid that you do what Ed Wood did and skimp on production value. Therefore, you’d better have money, lots of money. In fact, you’d better have even more than lots. In short, it’s this attitude, of constantly demanding greater and greater verisimilitude, that makes it next to impossible to compete with companies that do have lots of money, namely the Hollywood film studios.
Meanwhile, the ones who are truly laughing are the people who are lucky enough to run the Hollywood studios. They are laughing all the way to the bank. Sure, they have to spend more, a lot more, but they’ve killed off their most of their competition. They have long since conditioned most of their audiences to laugh at movies that don’t have Hollywood’s kind of verisimilitude. But it was not always this way. People did not always laugh at Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession the way I saw them do at MOMA. The fact that the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude are always changing means that future audiences will never be able to look back at the films of yesteryear with the same eyes as those films’ contemporary audiences.
Many of the earliest films used painted sets and no one thought to apologize for it, and audiences did not think to laugh at it. For example, the original audiences for Georges Méliès’ Voyage À Travers L’Imposible did not rush to the boxoffice to demand their money back after watching this train wreck:
My suggestion for anyone who feels that Plan Nine from Outer Space needs to be “fixed” is this: the easiest way to fix this film, or any other film that does not measure up to the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude, is to imagine that the film begins with a message similar to this:
Remember when you were kids and you would make-believe that you were cowboys and robbers? You used nothing but sticks for horses. Filmmaking is only make-believe, folks. What difference does it make if you spend a million dollars or one dollar, as long as you get that it’s supposed to be a friggin’ plane cockpit?
We had a ton of fun making this film and I hope you have fun watching it.
Whatever happened to our sense of play?