NO ONE EVER sets out to make a bad movie," folks on the "creative" end of the film business often tell you.
It just sort of happens, with serendipitous frequency one gathers, as a consequence of trying to make a living by manufacturing sincere entertainment.
Although reitereated almost superstitously, this disclaimer remains a curiously unconvincing and superfluous defense for fraternal ineptitude. Somewhere along the line a shameless mercenary like Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks' "The Producers" must have crept into the otherwise respectable ranks of Hollywood producers.
Maybe no one ever sets out to make a bad movie, but a high percentage of movies appear doomed from the start by willful ignorance.
Moreover, no excuses are necessary for the perfectly sincere bad movie that also happens to be irrestibly enjoyable. Is any form of popular entertainment more satisfying and harmless than a "good" bad movie? Confirmed moviegoers have never required an apology for savory turkeys, which generate a keen and often lasting pleasure. People who love the medium cherish ridiculous lines or scenes and welcome movies that endear themselves by bungling the dramatic illusion, by conspicuously failing to impose a willing suspension of disbelief.
As a matter of fact, bad movies tend to sustain disbelief with methodical or obsessive persistence. I've often thought it might be delightful to use a time machine to attend a great event like the first sneak preview of "Gone With the Wind." Still, if I had only one trip to use, I might be tempted to relive the first local showing of John Boorman's unforgettably batty "Exorcist II: The Heretic," a fiasco that unified a packed, gleefully sarcastic house at the K-B Bethesda in a way seldom experienced, even at the happiest musicals or comedies.
It's a vintage period for bad movies.To mention only a few over the past three years: "When Time Ran Out . . .," "The Concorde -- Airport '79," "Players," "Hanover Street," "Hurricane," "Moment by Moment," "If Ever I See You Again," "The Swarm" and "Viva Knievel!" Most of these titles, and hundreds more, are celebrated or mentioned in the course of a new book called "The Golden Turkey Awards," a follow-up to "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time," a humorous publishing brainstorm of two years ago.
Michael Medved, who collaborated with his kid brother Harry on both volumes, passed through Washington on a promotional swing last week. The idea behind the first book seemed like a natural, and according to Medved it proved almostly creepily successful.
"Every weirdo in the country has crawled out from under the sink in response to that book," he sighed. "A New York revival house just got through with a Worst Films Festival we helped set up in connection with the new book. The one thing that depressed me was the really obsessive interest some people took in the films. It's great fun to sit through a definitive bad movie like 'Robot Monster' or 'Plan Nine from Outer Space' once in a while, but there were people who were there for every showing. A diet of complete garbage for several hours a day several days in a row. That seems a little . . . compulsive."
The book is organized around a burlesque of the Academy Awards in which nominees are presented in a couple of dozen mocking categories -- Most Ridiculous Monster, Worst Title, Worst Rodent Movie, Worst Vegetable Movie, Worst Lines of Romantic Dialogue, plus some expendably mean or tasteless ones like Worst Performance by Sonny Tufts and Worst Exploitation of Physical Deformity -- and a "winner" is selected. This rather ponderous structure culminates in "Life Achievement" booby prizes for the worst director, actress and actor and a grand booby prize to "The Worst Film of All Time," as determined by readers who returned a ballot printed at the end of the Medveds' first book.
More than 3,000 readers responded, from 46 states and 18 countries.Nine of the top 10 choices were recent releases. Places 13 through 3 were occupied by "Grease," "At Long Last Love," "Airport 1975," "Orca," "Airport '77," "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "The Swarm" and the Dino De Laurentiis remake of "King Kong." A chasm of 100 votes separated "Kong" from the second-place turkey, "Exorcist II." The big surprise, at least to Medved and other movie nuts who hadn't been deeply involved in the subject, was the grand prize winner, "Plan Nine from Outer Space," a notorious science-fiction horror cheapie about extraterrestrial ghouls shot in 1959 by the late Edward D. Wood, whose peculiar life and legend art described in tantalizing detail in the most interesting pages of "The Golden Turkey Awards."
Wood appears to have been the most astonishing figure on the fringes of the professional filmmaking world of the '50s: a pioneer of tacky camp at least a decade ahead of his time. Here's a description from a former colleague quoted in the book: "He wore pantsuits. Women's pantsuits. fHe wore high heels, too, or medium heels at least . . . He used to sit in his office with a cigarette, striking a very masculine pose. But he had on a pantsuit with panty hose -- heavy beard -- he was a very typical ex-Marine, to some degree. He had a very deep voice, physical mannerisms like a man, and he was totally ludicrous. Yet he was completely at ease. He was a very self-confident man. He said that he was already into being a tranvestite by the time he enlisted in the Marines. And when he was making a landing in the Pacific, he was wearing a bra and panties underneath his uniform."
The Medveds mean it when they write that Wood's "six major films . . . form a most impressive canon that is bound together by strong unifying themes." As Michael Medved amplified the point in conversation, "The startling thing about some of these terrible, marginal filmmakers is that their work can be every bit as distinctive as the movies of the major artists. If Bergman and Truffaut and all the others are 'autuers,' then so are these low-rent guys.
"You don't value their work in the same way, but you can't deny that they have a unique vision. It's a lunatic vision; it takes ludicrous or grotesque forms on screen; but it's apparent, you don't forget it once you've seen it, and it's sure like nothing else you've ever seen."
"The Golden Turkey Awards" isn't one of the screen movie books that demand to be read and long remembered, like Eleanor Coppola's "Notes," Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen's "When the Shooting Stops" and Pauline Kael's "When the Lights Go Down." However, where the frivolous book-buying dollar is concerned, it's a more amusing and reliable lightweight investment than Charles Higham's scandalous biography of Errol Flynn. Consulted along with "The Fifty Worst" and the fascinating 1975 anthology edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, "Kings of the Bs," the Medveds' latest can serve as an invaluable guide to enjoyable slumming in revival houses or on the late, late shows.
Michael Medved, now 31, indicated that he might bow out of future projects spawned by the success of "The Fifty Worst," which he described as "a callow useful work," and leave the cultivation of this subject to brother Harry, now a 19-year-old film student at UCLA. "Harry's really the expert on this stuff," he said. "He's caught up in the lore and has all the information at his fingertips. I've mainly helped with the writing."
Medved, of course, enjoyed an earlier literary success as the co-author of "What Really Happened to the Class of '65?," a social history about members of his own graduating class at Palisades High in Los Angeles. Having seen this book mutilated by the producers of a television series allegedly based on it and having spent the last few years writing screenplays that have yet to be filmed, he is tempted to return to nonfiction literature.
Although Medved resists theorizing about the appeal of self-evidently bad movies -- he asked "How's that for pretentious claptrap?" after toying with the idea that they offered viewers "tremendous cathartic satisfaction" by undermining the romantic glamor and idealism of perfected Hollywood illusions -- his remarks about Wood seem as profound as one needs to get.The disreputable or untalented artists in every field may have expressive urges and personalities that are just as pronounced and identifiable as those of the reputable talents.
The movies have a peculiar ability to accommodate expressive extremes, no doubt owing to the varieties of abstraction that film imagery and editing can make possible, often accidentally. Even if you write foolish dialogue, botch up the lighting and camerawork, cut incoherently and rely on obviously faked "special effects," the finished chaos may look weirdly suggestive on film.
In an interview in the current issue of American Film, director Irvin Kershner, who recently completed the "Star Wars" sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back," describes the theater screen as a boundary separating "your conscious mind from your unconscious, and when a film is successful, it permits you to enter your unconscious mind."
Or somebody's unconscious mind, at any rate. The medium itself is wonderfully flexible. The quality of the minds attempting to manipulate it is a different story. At that point value judgments and taste preferences determine whose unconscious you consider rewarding company.