Last month’s Sight & Sound critic’s poll of the Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time, in which Vertigo deposed Citizen Kane from its longtime perch at number one, has stirred up all kinds of online chatter — thoughtful commentary and furious denunciations alike. It seems everyone has an opinion about what the classics are, or should be.
But the list got me wondering, what is the worst movie ever made? As absurd as it might sound, I wonder if the question has been considered enough.
In the 1980s there were a couple of jokey books dedicated to bad movies, such as Michael and Harry Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards, which took the standard approach of treating famously bad movies as campy fun. More serious critical examination of just what might qualify for a canon of cinematic stinkers is hard to come by.
In weighing this very important matter — so ripe for academic study! — the first thing to do is establish some criteria: 1) No porn, for reasons which should be obvious (if you were to include porn movies in the debate, would you ever get past pornography?); 2) No counting movies that are “bad” because they espouse some loathsome message, such as the Nazi propaganda film Jud süss (1940). I’ve never seen Jud süss, but to lump anti-Semitic propaganda in with such “bad” films as Plan 9 from Outer Space or (to use an increasingly popular candidate for Worst Movie Ever) Troll 2 would be dangerously glib, to say the least.
Also, for all I know some competent or even talented craftspeople may have worked on something as pernicious as Jud süss. In fact, it’s quite likely, to judge from a Nazi propaganda extravaganza like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Whereas the truly terrible film, to be a contender for worst movie ever, would presumably be distinguished by its breathtaking technical incompetence.
Wikipedia even has a list of the worst movies ever made, broken down by decade. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 (1959) and Troll 2 (1990) are both on there. But this is the English-language Wikipedia.org; no foreign-language movies are included on the list. How can we say for sure that the worst movie ever made hails from America? Who’s to say there isn’t some all-time stinker from France or China that puts our most celebrated disasters to shame? (Shame being a somewhat relative concept here, of course.)
Perhaps the only way to settle this question would be to hold a film festival where each country proudly brings its most infamous debacle. Given how contagious laughter can be among people watching a truly abysmal movie together, think of how such a film festival could bring citizens of all nations together.
The festival would need to take place in a congenial location; since Cannes is already spoken for, Austin springs to mind. The city is smart but unpretentious, and there’s tons of beer, all necessary ingredients to make our festival a success.
As I try to picture the screenings, though, all kinds of questions come up: Would the subtitles for each rotten movie have to capture the painfully inane dialogue with perfect fidelity, or should the subtitles add their own layer of staggering ineptitude to the proceedings?
And let’s say we wanted to judge which flick was really the worst movie in the world — the audience could vote, or we could have an esteemed panel of judges. How many godawful movies could we reasonably expect the judges to sit through? My guess is that sometime during the festival, they’d run the risk of A), if not dying of laughter, at least requiring hospitalization from having ruptured something; or B), fleeing the cinema and swearing off moviegoing for the rest of their lives.
On a slightly more serious note, I wonder if audiences from different countries could ever agree on what constitutes a truly wretched film. Are there different standards of acting (a level of histrionics, say), or pacing, or plot resolution that typical moviegoers in different countries consider acceptable?
For example, if you plow through customer comments on the Netflix site or skim the forums on imdb.com, it’s clear that for mainstream audiences in the U.S., any movie that is “slow” by Hollywood standards is by definition terrible, a waste of time.
The question becomes further complicated when you think about how movies routinely written off as schlock or junk upon their release later turn out to have no shortage of aesthetic qualities that make them interesting. In fact, the more avid the viewer’s cinephilia, the more interesting a B-movie of yesteryear is likely to be. Umpteen forgotten low-budget noirs from the 1940s and ‘50s were rediscovered during the 1980s and ‘90s — the old movies’ storytelling looked ever more witty and efficient as newer studio releases became more lumbering and formulaic. And the past 10 years has seen the exhumation of the entire grindhouse genre. The disreputable grade-Z scuzz of those ‘70s and ‘80s artifacts provides a thrill or fascination that products of the digital era can’t equal.
Finally (not that this argument will ever be finished), in assessing a notoriously “bad” movie, what allowances do you make for the filmmaker’s intentions, failed or not? I doubt audiences in the punk-rock/New Wave era would have rediscovered Plan 9 from Outer Space if the movie didn’t have, for all its campiness, some odd mystique at work. The film’s unique vibe is undoubtedly enhanced by catching it as a midnight movie with an audience grooving to the weirdness of the zombified performances.
A film that attempts to realize an artistic vision, no matter how unsuccessfully, will always be more interesting, if not memorably strange, than a product made out of more cynical motives. Ed Wood was trying to be an artist, after all, and Troll 2 director Claudio Fragrasso is famously not laughing along with the audiences who have made his film a cult favorite.