At the A.V. Club, they have this concept called “The Gentleman’s F.” Based on “The Gentleman’s C” — the idea that a well-connected student at Ivy League schools could get a pass for having wealthy parents — the ceremonial grade of “D-” is awarded to films that are terrible in generic ways. Films like Because I Said So, Did You Hear about the Morgans? and Playing for Keeps were bad, but bad in the kind of way that Hollywood specializes in. The industry churns out tons of bottom-feeding, lowest-common-denominator crap every year, and much of it starts Katherine Heigl. Films like New Year’s Eve weren’t made to aspire to anything grand or say some Herzogian truth about the human condition; they were made to get drunk to on a plane and forget about later. Movies like New Year’s Eve would make for perfect viewing when you’re in a coma.
The grade of F is saved for movies that are bad in a special way — the once-in-a-lifetime kind of awful that you have to see to believe. When The Last Airbender or The Paperboy get an F, it’s a strange, inverted badge of honor, an award that shows your film succeeded at being the worst. Rather than aspiring for “deliberate mediocrity,” M. Night Shyamalan genuinely believes in his own talent, enough to put out some of the most nakedly ambitious and mind-blowingly horrible films released at the studio level. Only someone who believed himself to be a messiah of filmmaking could stand behind The Happening or pretend that Lady in the Water was anything but a self-important mess. Shyamalan is the Terence Malick of shit.
Some of my favorite bad films are of that ilk, the kind that reached for the stars but couldn’t make it out of the sandbox. Although films like The Room, I Know Who Killed Me, Howard the Duck and Alone in the Dark helped raise the bar for ineptitude in filmmaking, each is strangely alluring in that special Ed Wood way. I Know Who Killed Me wasn’t some tossed-off sequel in a gestating franchise or a soulless cash grab. That piece of crap was someone’s passion project, and Lindsay Lohan throws herself at the screen as if her life depends on it. When Sandra Bullock (deservedly) won Worst Actress for appearing in 2010’s All About Steve — a movie so bad I watched it three times in a single weekend, just to make sure it was as bad as I remembered — she showed up to accept the award in person. Bullock stood by the film and brought a wagon full of DVD copies to prove to change the audience’s minds.
I showed All About Steve to my grandmother for two reasons a) I needed someone to take down with me and b) I had to prove to someone that it happened so I could talk about it. It was like a trauma that I had to work through. My Nana was equally baffled by it. How else do you react to a film whose climax plays dead children falling into a pit for laughs? However, the experience of it bonded us in a strange way, and we still talk about it to this day. Similarly, I made my old roommates watch The Room, a candidate for the Most Inept Film Ever Made, after we moved in, and the film became a common language between us, a running joke and go-to quote. One of my roommates was named Mark, and he couldn’t walk in the door for a whole year without hearing, “O hai, Mark!”
I often hear films like The Room or Troll 2 as among the worst ever made, which in technical terms might be true. But there’s a joy and exuberance captured in these films that you’d never find in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or any of the middling romcoms released in any given year. Five years from now, will anyone remember Failure to Launch, The Ugly Truth, Fools’ Gold, Just Married, Life as We Know It, License to Wed, Rumor Has It, Because I Said So, When In Rome or New In Town? Many have already forgotten them, and yet we keep churning them out at an alarming rate. Call it the race to the middle.
Compare this to Gigli, Waterworld or John Carter, which will be remembered forever as benchmarks of failure. For those who have seen it, Gigli is almost impossible to forget. It’s burned into your brain forever — for better or worse. Ben Affleck immediately turned on the film upon its release, as a PR move to save his dwindling career, but Martin Brest must have believed in it enough to go down with the ship. The two-time Oscar-nominee never made another movie afterwards, but his parting gift will be remembered forever.
I’m one of two people who saw I Know Who Killed Me in theatres and an avowed fan of cinematrocities, hunting down the best in bad cinema. I’ve seen Gothika about eight times, and I defend Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky as being one of my favorite films — for being a delicious hot mess. It’s not an ironic thing, although the sight of Penelope Cruz in an asylum fright wig makes me giggle to no end. I think that failure at that kind of level teaches us something about life, what it means to believe in things that no one else does. When I look at Cameron Diaz giving it her all as the film around her literally disintegrates or think about the fact that Crowe spent four years adapting Abre Los Ojos into English—just to be critically flogged for it — I’m given a strange sense of hope.
Most people don’t do anything out of the ordinary, and strive to live lives that will be palatable to other people. We want to be well thought of and say socially acceptable things on our Facebook walls, so people will agree with them and reward them with “likes.” We want to write articles that are general enough to appeal to a wide group of people without offending anyone or eliciting too much hate in the comment section. We don’t want to raise our voices too loud, in fear that people won’t like what we have to say. This is why people stay in relationships for years after their feelings have all expired. We’re too afraid of making waves. No one wants to be hated. When we break up with someone, even if they were the biggest jerk in the world, we still secretly want them to like us.
We can spend our whole lives like this, wanting everyone to love us and being too afraid to push boundaries or buttons and write nice articles about nothing we know will get a million hits, or we can live how we want. We can write what we want, talk as loudly as we want, say what we think, dream of impossible things and not be afraid of being laughed at or scorned by a bunch of people who don’t really know us. We can keep living for everyone’s approval, striving always to keep our critics at bay, or we can be anything we want. The things we create in this world might not make sense to other people, but our lives aren’t theirs. Our choices aren’t theirs. Our families and our hearts aren’t theirs. At the end of the day, you’re only accountable to yourself.
I’m not telling you to go out there and fail or make Glitter 2: Mariah Boogaloo, but we should all strive to be greater than ordinary, whether we’re remembered for our glory or our infamy. Do what gives you fire and what you believe in, even if that makes no sense to other people. Don’t do things because you want other people to like you. Do them because they mean something to you. Your life might not be the masterpiece you envisioned, but if you’re going to fail, it’s best you earn it.