Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Superhell
June 13, 2011

Krypton (comics)

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So it looks like DC comics is resetting the clock on the entire DC universe. I’m guessing that means that Dick Grayson will go back to being Robin, Lois will once again pine for Superman without realizing he’s actually the dweeby bespectacled guy on the other side of the newsroom, etc. Deaths, births, crises, marriages, costume changes, rebirths, redeaths, rerebirths, and decades of other nonsense erased, and the slate wiped clean once again.

Here’s what that also means: for the umpteenth time, young Bruce Wayne will be forced to watch the murder of his parents. Krypton will blow up again, killing billions more. Harvey Dent will get yet another fistful of acid right in the face. The unending nightmare that is these characters’ lives will just start over from the beginning, and I give DC less than a decade before the mythology gets back to being so convoluted that they need to do another world-spanning Crisis event just to set things straight and kill off all of the extraneous characters (plus maybe one that people actually like, just because).

It makes you wonder why these titles still exist. Oh, I get why they exist: they’re iconic, lucrative properties. A movie adaptation has to be adapted from something, and tie-in merchandise can’t tie-in to itself — the comics need to be there to justify it all. But why do people still read them? There are other, better comics out there created by writers who let their characters age and grow in a comprehensibly human fashion. These other, better comics have actual narrative arcs — arcs which you know will come to some kind of end.

DC and Marvel’s flagship titles don’t have narrative arcs anymore. If you believe the two biggest comic publishers on Earth, the life of a superhero is incident after nightmarish incident, with no logical progression. And not even death can end the eternal parade of horrors, because dead heroes get only get a few precious months of rest before their hideously contrived resurrections. (See io9’s X-Men timeline to watch that play out in official Marvel chronology.) That’s if you’re lucky, anyway. If you’re unlucky, you get a reboot. And all of the most traumatic events in your life happen again, over and over, except each time they’re somehow more gothic and elaborate and grotesque.

The worst part, though, is that none of it means anything. If you live forever and nothing fundamental in your circumstances can ever permanently change, how can anything mean anything? And if there’s no room for meaning, then why is your story worth telling?

Time to retire universe-spanning comic continuity. Let the Justice League rest.

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Anthony Weiner and the Politics of Boredom
June 9, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06:   Rep. Anthony Weiner ...

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Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir has a lengthy rumination on film criticism’s complicated relationship with boredom. The gist seems to be that, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with films that aim solely to entertain (and in fact a lot of these films are pretty great), this is not and should not be the aim of the entire medium. Great films often have other goals in mind, and sometimes achieving these goals means asking the audience to put a little work in and/or allow themselves to become a little bored.

That’s all basically unobjectionable to me. I like Die Hard as much as the next guy. What bothers me about entertainment for its own sake isn’t its dispensability so much as its ubiquity. Our thirst for entertainment and the market’s willingness to provide have together completely co-opted and debased forum where entertainment should be, if anything, a tertiary concern. I’m thinking, of course, of politics.

The giant school of press-credentialed piranhas gnawing at Rep. Anthony Weiner’s exposed parts illustrates my point perfectly. Here is a massive story which is massive solely because of its capacity to titillate. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, virtually no one covering this story is even trying to explain its importance or relevance to the public interest. That’s because they know there is none, and they don’t care. The story’s entertaining, and that’s all that matters.

What propels feeding frenzies like this is simple economics. Reporters and commentators could put extra work into producing research and original reporting on stories which more directly affect the public. If they’ve got any talent at all, they could even present these stories in a compelling and entertaining fashion. But making a story entertaining isn’t as easy as just regurgitating an already widely disseminated story with an entertaining premise. Of course, because this is still ostensibly journalism, you’ve got to add something new: a slightly skewed context, a new fact (no matter how tangential or arbitrary), or just a new quip about Weiner’s peener. The point being that the more content about the story you aggregate (regardless of the quality), the more likely that you’ll be considered a worthwhile source for people looking to be tickled by another yet another politician’s ritual humiliation.

You could fairly point out that this is a two-way street, and the reason why this sort of lazy tabloid journalism works is because the public is eager to consume it. To which I’d say, sure it’s a two-way street, but one lane is narrower than the other. The public consumes political media as entertainment in part because they’ve been trained to do so by the political media — entertainment being both an easier product to deliver and friendlier to various corporate and governmental interests. If reform is going to begin anywhere, we can’t realistically expect it to begin with mass boycotts by a spontaneously fed-up audience. It must instead begin within the press itself.

On Monday, Paul Waldman wrote: “If I were Dictator of All Media, I would force every reporter to include a sentence in each of their stories that begins, ‘This is important because…'” That’s not what I would do (it sounds like it would cramp a lot of otherwise eloquent writers’ styles), but clearly every reporter and commentator should be able to write that sentence if asked. This week it seems like barely anyone — including a lot of journalists I like and admire — has even tried to come up with an answer.

Hell, why should they? There’s no immediate profit in having an answer. But journalists used to aspire to something higher than immediate profit. And if that required them to demand a little more of their audience, or even risk boring that audience, then so be it.

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Lad Mags and Policing Heteronormativity
June 2, 2011

That’s the subject of my latest post on the blog of Ms. Magazine:

What it tells us is that FHM and its ilk is about more than famous women in awkward poses and states of undress: It exists not just to titillate but to reaffirm the masculinity of those reading it. I submit that’s why the original Pejic entry, no matter what FHM says, is in keeping with the mission of the magazine. FHM readers are invited to sneer at him because he doesn’t conform to their notions of maleness. And identifying and isolating the “other” like that reinforces their own place in the boys’ club.

Which puts FHM writers in the difficult position of having to simultaneously acknowledge why their readers found him beautiful (which he is, in a delicate, almost angelic way) while also making ostentatious displays of their disgust. It’s a neat trick. But for me, anyway, it inspires more pity than anger. If you’re looking for affirmation of your identity in a lad mag’s heteronormative slurs, then dude, you need help.

Are You Not Entertained?!
May 25, 2011

Nathan Rabin, having just stumbled through volume 34 in the NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilation series, writes:

At this point in the THEN project, it should be apparent to everyone that pop music is just fucking with us. People with too much money and too little talent are taunting us to call their bluff and concede that they’re all empty vessels conducting an insane masquerade that has gone on entirely too long.

This is precisely what I (and, I think, many others) find so depressing about what passes for modern pop music: not its shittiness, but its poverty of ambition. I can respect the sort of woefully ill-conceived project that comes from a deeply personal place — hell, it might even make me feel a weird sort of awe. But virtually every popular medium is saturated with competently produced detritus made by people with a decent grasp on certain technical mechanics but no grasp at all on how to make something feel like it came from a goddamn human being. The fact that a handful of postmodern ironists have managed to elevate that soulless craftsmanship into a sort of self-referential joke doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better about the trend.

Sure, there’s always cool stuff happening at the margins of pop culture, and perhaps now more than ever. Sometimes, it’s even in the mainstream. But the continued flourishing of soulless craftsmanship creeps me out in all sorts of ways, and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.

(Do I even need to explain how the same complaint applies to modern American politics? No? Sweet.)

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Excerpts From WWD’s “Dudeiting and Nothingness”
May 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, Glamour’s dudeitor-in-chief Shane Skaarsgard was having lunch with his fellow dudeiters (Dirk “Hammster” Hamm of New York Magazine and Gregg Scottttt) when Hamm ordered a sparkling wine.

“I was like, ‘Dude! You want a sparkler?'” said Scottttt. “‘You piece of fucking shit. You sicken me to the pit of my withered soul.'”

Shit talk began. The other dudes can’t recall what drinks they had ordered, but they were almost certainly more dudely.

“We were giving Hammster a hard time because it distracted us from our own bone-deep self-loathing,” Skaarsgard recalled. “But once he pointed out that the argument was as meaningless as every breath in my gray, meaningless lungs, the playful banter lost its luster.”

They ate the rest of their lunch in silence.

——————————————–

“They’re the next generation,” said Andrew Kilstein, editor of Newsweek. “Further proof that there is no arc to history, and human ‘progress’ is a myth. We propagate and we die. That is all.”

“Who are you talking about?” joked Lisa Epstein of Condé Nast. “I have never heard of any of these people.”

———————————————–

“Fuck my life,” Skaarsgard chuckled, nursing his Orangina. “Fuck what I’ve become. Every morning I wake up cursing God for having not taken me in my sleep.”

Scottttt takes a more zen approach to life. Near the end of the interview, he blurted out, “I’m happy, though. I really am.”

And then he began to weep.

Books Ain’t Dead
May 17, 2011

IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. ...

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When you cut through all of the chaff, the debate over whether analog books are dead sounds a lot like this:

Pro-ebook, anti-book: I personally think ebooks are fine. They are also cheaper to produce. Therefore, the book is dead.

Pro-book: Hey! I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead, and we should continue to pay taxes supporting our local libraries.

Those are some pretty self-centered arguments, but as a stalwart book partisan I figure the least I can do is be unabashed about my self-centeredness. I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have anything against ebooks. I own a first-generation Kindle, and sometimes I even use it. But it’s almost always easier and more pleasurable for me to read a book. My attachment to them is pragmatic, and not just aesthetic or sentimental (though it is both of those things as well). As Nicholas Carr writes:

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Maybe some day the ebook will become as versatile as the book. I rather suspect it will just become a different kind of medium with its own advantages and idiosyncracies. The book will remain the book: disposable for some, not so much for others.

That’s all the justification I need for keeping libraries open and well-stocked. If a statistically significant slice of the population still finds it easier and more pleasurable to read a physical book than an ebook, taxpayers should accommodate them. After all, the whole reason we have libraries is to increase everyone’s ease of access to information. For quite a few folks, gleaning that information from ink and paper is still easier than squinting at a screen.

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Signaling Authenticity
April 14, 2011

Kingdom of Northshield court in the Society fo...

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A friend passes along this study (PDF) from The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography on how members of the Society for Creative Anachronism use what the author calls “bridging discourse” to demonstrate to one another that they’re engaging in authentic group behavior — that, in the terminology of the SCA, their clothes and mannerisms are sufficiently “period.”

The author, Stephanie Decker of the University of Kansas, defines bridging discourse like so (emphasis added):

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

And here’s an example of one member of the group, ostensibly dressed as an authentic medieval warrior, justifying his use of period-inappropriate cotton instead of wool:

Well, I know that they wore wool, but they wore wool because that’s what was available to them, and that’s what met their needs. But if they were in North America I’m sure they would have worn cotton, because that’s what would have been available, and it would have been hot as hell. So I think wearing cotton is totally period, because it’s practical.

The paper’s about a pretty specific and eccentric subculture, but it doesn’t exactly overtax the imagination to try and transplant bridging discourse into other contexts. In the political realm, replace “period” with “seriousness” or “belief in American exceptionalism.” Within the Republican caucus, replace it with “Tea Partier,” “conservative,” or “loves Reagan.”

But what’s most interesting to me about this phenomenon in the political realm is the way politicians sometimes need to use bridging discourse to catch up with evolving standards. American exceptionalism, for example, didn’t used to be the hot button issue it is today — but then conservatives realized they could use it as a semi-veiled way to call into question the American-ness of their opponents, most notably President Obama. Now all of a sudden, even people who don’t subscribe to American infallibility are going out of their way to make public statements about aspirational exceptionalism and the like. It makes you think less of a bridge than one of those stair trucks you see at airports.

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Our Serious Intellectuals
March 8, 2011

There are intellectuals, and there are Intellectuals. There’s no real consensus over who qualifies for the former category, but a capital-I Intellectual is way easier to spot. These are people situated roughly within the mid-to-upper brow of mainstream American culture who expound on the important matters of the day and are often referred to in public as intellectuals.

David Brooks is such an Intellectual. In fact, he’s an extraordinarily accomplished Intellectual. And if PZ Meyers’ scorching review is any indication, then Brooks’ new book — called The Social Animal — might be his greatest accomplishment yet. Consider this passage from the review:

The plot is deadly dull: Erica, for instance, ascends smoothly from private school to business management to business leader to significant government functionary to the inner circles of Davos to a blissful retirement spent wallowing in high culture, with only brief stutters — losing a tennis match, a failed business, a brief marital infidelity — which she powers through with the discipline of her will, pausing only long enough for David Brooks to lecture the reader on how the mind overcomes adversity. What story there is here is pure mainlined bourgeois wish fulfillment, a kind of yuppie Mary Sue for the whole of the trust-fund set. There aren’t even any losers to contrast with Erica’s unending winningness, because everyone around them seems to be rising on the same cheerful bubble of privilege.

Nothing changes. In the introduction, Brooks even mentions this, that the story “takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century,” so the characters are born in this decade, grow up in this decade, work in this decade, die in this decade. Brooks has created a world where history doesn’t matter and there are no troubling external intrusions on the blithe reality of Harold and Erica. If ever you are in the market for the antithesis of the Great Russian Novel, here it is, the petty provincial string of anecdotes about only two characters who never experience a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.

That’s as good an encapsulation as you’ll find of the Intellectual master narrative: affluent yuppies succeed in their endeavors and feel generally good about themselves, forever. If Meyers’ review is to be believed, then Brooks tells a particularly naked, archetypal version of that narrative in The Social Animal. But just as the salvation narrative reveals itself in so much Christian philosophy, the foundational myth of Harold and Erica provides a conceptual skeleton for nearly every work in the Intellectual canon.

Take another example from the work of David Brooks, a recent New York Times column called “Make Everybody Hurt.” In the limited column space given him, Brooks (1) reaffirms soothing truisms his audience will recognize; (2) presents a not-particularly-dire problem which won’t alarm the audience (thereby making them shrill) but will concern them (thereby making them serious); and (3) offers up a solution that costs the audience nothing but will make them feel brave and clear-eyed for demanding sacrifices from others. In other words, Erica and Harold will have once again saved the world without breaking a sweat.

And then there’s a less obvious example of Intellectual dogma, courtesy of Simon Critchley and, yes, The New York Times (which seems to be a central organ of modern Intellectual thought). In “What Is a Philosopher?” Critchley dazzles the audience with some clever parables from ancient times and a couple of self-deprecating remarks about his profession, but never gets to anywhere substantial or challenging. That’s because the point of his essay has absolutely nothing to do with explaining philosophy and everything to do with flattering the intelligence of his readers. Erica and Harold are intended to walk away from “What Is a Philosopher?” having learned just enough to feel educated witty, but not enough to feel troubled or challenged.

And here we begin to see that the project of the Intellectual is in many ways antithetical to anything approaching a genuine intellectual endeavor. Though few of their kind remain anywhere near the cultural mainstream, many of the intellectuals of yore were pugnacious radicals, rightly reviled by the Ericas and Harolds of their time. Their politics and philosophies were often extreme, their writing sometimes offensive. But their work bled, which was the important part. It sunk its burrs into your spine and clung to you long after you thought you had walked away.

David Brooks is the quintessential Intellectual in that he promises you, in PZ Meyers’ words, a whole life without “a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.” But those moments of self-doubt and inner turmoil are where the real intellectual work begins. The intellectuals we need — always, but I suspect now more than ever — are the ones who stir up that turmoil and then kick their readers in the ass just hard enough to make them pull themselves out of it. To those people, the Intellectuals are the enemy.

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Men Be All Like This, But Men Suffering From A Crisis In Masculinity Be All Like THIS
March 3, 2011

Knocked Up

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I suppose I should probably be insulted by the recent wave of faddish books and essays about how young men aren’t really men anymore because feminism/hipsterdom/Judd Apatow has turned us all into slackers/little girls/total basket cases. Mostly, though, I don’t get it. I mean, yes, there exist young men with no direction or ambition. If you look hard, you can also find some young men who are resentful, sexist assholes. And I’d be pretty surprised to find out the majority of men haven’t, at one point or another, felt some anxiety over what they felt was insufficiently masculine behavior or impulses on their part.

But what, I’m supposed to believe that this shit didn’t exist before the 80’s? All of these challenges and failings strike me as rather mundane and irrevocable aspects of the human condition. I seem to remember life being hard before Knocked Up came out.

I suppose I could be persuaded it’s particularly bad now if someone cared to show me some statistical evidence. But so far all I’ve seen is a whole lot of anecdotal evidence and wild speculation. What statistical case has been offered up looks pretty dubious.

So maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Not: “What is the cause and nature of the modern crisis in masculinity?” But: “Why the fad in shirt-rending over a supposed crisis in masculinity?”

Allow me to engage in some wild speculation of my own and suggest a few factors: One is that being “counterintuitive” about feminism will always be lucrative for social critics, especially female social critics (who get extra points for novelty and are insulated from charges of misogyny). Even though the orientation of American culture is essentially conservative and rather atavistic, it’s still considered innovative and revolutionary to blame a lot of bad things (real or imagined) on second wave feminism. That’s especially true if the victims of said bad things are white dudes, the eternally persecuted martyrs of the modern world.

Another factor: for a number of reasons (including second-wave feminism) the definition of what is acceptable masculine behavior has relaxed to the point that men can get away with doing all sorts of things in public that their grandparents would have derided as girly or undignified. This is, on balance, a good thing, but it can be frightening and disorienting for people with a very particular vision of what it is to be a man. These frightened, disoriented people end up concluding that the whole gender has fallen on dark times.

And one more biggie: We actually do have, I think, an epidemic of hedonism and self-absorption. But it’s exceedingly easy epidemic to misdiagnose in a way that conforms to one’s preexisting prejudices and absolves one of any complicity.

That last one is an entirely different blog post. Hell, it’s probably a whole book, albeit one that would sell very few copies. Instead, I should just write one about why Seth Rogen is the face of the decline of Western Civilization.

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Bad Movies and “Bad” Movies
February 20, 2011

Troll 2

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The trailer for I Am Here….Now is totally hypnotic, absurd, and weirdly compelling. But just as compelling is the backstory as transmitted from Hadrian Belove to Andrew Sullivan to the readers of the Daily Dish:

One of our in-house guys cut a really hilarious trailer for Neil Breen’s latest crazy fucking masterpiece of accidental weirdness. The trailer itself is hilarious. If you don’t know him, writer/director/actor/caterer Neil Breen is a real estate agent in Las Vegas who self produces these indescribable movies, casting his friends from the biz…total outsider madness. This guy is so different he has four dots in his ellipses.

For someone like me, this is a genuine find. See, I’m a bad movie buff. A connoisseur of crap, if you will. And recent cinematic history hasn’t been all that kind to my unholy obsession.

Don’t get me wrong: there have been some really positive trends for the terrible movie. Film and editing equipment is getting cheaper every year, especially shitty film and editing equipment. Same goes for visual effects: an aspiring director can create whole worlds on his desktop computer, especially if he doesn’t mind if those worlds are lodged somewhere in the darkest recesses of uncanny valley. It’s easier than ever for a budding auteur with outsized ambition and microscopic talent to scrape together a few thousand, cast some reluctant family members (or non-union actors), and immortalize their hilariously fucked-up vision in celluloid.

That’s where we got The Room, to name arguably the most towering achievement in bad movie history. And it looks like this very same trend has now blessed us with I Am Here….Now. The casual observer might think that the awful film is going through a bit of a renaissance, and she wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But there’s a flipside: for every Troll 2, we now have to sort through five Transmorphers: slick, self-aware productions cobbled together by a professional cast and crew at the behest of a cynical producer. It’s getting harder and harder to find the real crap in this sea of fake crap.

I blame Snakes On a Plane. This was the first mainstream attempt to produce a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie that was wholly cognizant of its badness. Not a truly bad movie, but a “bad” movie. A smirking, ironic commercial pitch to our baser instincts. The difference between the intentionally bad Snakes On a Plane and, say, the great British satire of 70’s genre television Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is that whereas Darkplace is a clever, affectionate riff on a specific period and field in pop culture, Snakes On a Plane is just deliberately half-assed and uses its own half-assedness as a selling point. It promises to invite us in on a joke that isn’t really much of a joke at all.

In other words, there’s no ambition. The only ambition is to flatter our sense of taste and savviness for long enough that we’ll fork over some money. Compare that to The Room, whose trailer promises a film “with the passion of Tennessee Williams.” What makes a movie like The Room so fascinating is the enormous gap between what it tries to be and what it is. Something like Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus can’t compete because it is exactly what it tries to be and can’t stop reminding the audience of that fact.

The recent wave of fake-bad movies is really just another example of how businesses have screwed us all by co-opting irony for commercial purposes. It’s a testament to the dark, hollow place we’ve found ourselves in that television commercials can become enormously popular in their own right simply by commenting on how stilted and hollow television commercials are. Or as David Foster Wallace put it in his essay E Unibus Pluram:

What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.

The great thing about a genuine, genuinely ambitious, bad movie is that it tells us something about a real human being’s desires and fears, albeit unintentionally. The Room is as much a movie about half-mad misogynist Tommy Wiseau as it is about poor, cuckolded Johnny. House of the Dead isn’t a story about zombies but a story about a deranged German ex-boxer who somehow cobbled together the financing to adapt some old third-rate arcade game. What is Snakes On a Plane about?

That’s why I’ll continue watching the true disasters, the movies that at least tried to fly before crashing to the runway. I want bad movies, not “bad” movies. You can keep your fucking quotation marks.

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