When Snark Jumps the Shark

Our affinity for "so bad, it's good" film cynicism hurts creativity and art.

November 27, 2018 5:00 am
Ian Ziering in "Sharknado 2"... or was it Sharknado 3"... or was it... (Photo by: Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Ian Ziering in "Sharknado 2"... or was it Sharknado 3"... or was it... (Photo by: Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

“It’s so bad, it’s good.”

That’s the snide, superior conclusion that happily hip movie fans have been using ever since the old, drug-scare movies like Reefer Madness first started screening at campus film festivals, and no-budget horrors like Plan 9 From Outer Space hit local late-night TV.

But it’s beginning to feel like the embrace of snark has jumped the snark.

A flip phrase that once turned a disposable piece of entertainment into a source of in-jokes and insults has now become an almost non-stop credo, and given movies an extra, ironic function. Films are no longer there to be either enjoyed or ignored. They’re also there to be goofed on. Insulted. Ridiculed.

The worse they are, the more we like it. It’s an attitude that grows more corrosive by the day.

After years of pumping out unintentionally bad movies—most of them starring one B-list TV actor, a couple of pin-ups, Lance Henriksen and Bigfoot—the Syfy Channel finally went all-in with the determinedly awful Sharknado, an intentionally atrocious film that gave birth to a hit franchise. (Its sixth and final—let’s hope—installment ran in August.)

Meanwhile last year, The Disaster Artist immortalized Tommy Wiseau’s execrable The Room, faithfully re-creating every ludicrous line-reading and inept plot twist. And this Thanksgiving, Mystery Science Theater 3000 turned 30—a show that still continues in a variety of spin-offs and formats, mocking everything from drivers-ed films to Godzilla pictures.

It can be fun, but the “so bad, it’s good” idea really isn’t very good for anyone. What do we really gain by laughing at bad art instead of searching out the good? By mocking people for their mistakes instead of daring to make our own?

James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in ‘The Disaster Artist.’ (A24)

It’s not only mean, it’s arrogant. I’ve sat in revival houses where people laughed derisively at “corny” old movies, taught classes in which students refused to believe the humor in a film was intentional or that the performers knew they were going “over the top.” We think we’re so much more sophisticated, so much more discerning than our parents or grandparents were.

We’re not always right.

Of course it’s amusing, particularly after a few drinks, to sit back with our friends and lob insults at the TV. (The Beatles may even have pioneered it: in A Hard Day’s Night, George talks about how they all watch a popular music show, turn down the sound and “say rude things.”) And the MST3K gang’s running commentary, being scripted, is the best.

But in the end, the cumulative effect only encourages a coarsening of the culture, a delight in sarcasm and invective, an ugly eagerness to feel bigger by tearing other people down.

And in this angry age, we can’t get enough of it.

People complain about negative news, and yet it’s the slams and pans they turn to first and retweet the most. Whatever the site, the year-end “Ten Worst Films” post almost always gets more clicks and shares than the “Ten Best Films”; “Red Carpet Disasters!” slideshows consistently outperform positive portrayals of chic and stylish stars.

If you can’t say something good about someone—well then, perhaps you should consider a job in journalism?

Television is an even broader wasteland. News shows push ambush interviews and on-camera meltdowns; reality shows routinely traffic in hurt and humiliation. Even the programs that present themselves as competitions draw audiences not by giving us the pleasure of seeing someone win, but by providing the schadenfreude of watching them lose, and lose spectacularly.

Take that meanness-as-entertainment idea and couple it with a let’s-laugh-at-the-losers urge and you’re left with…the current state of American politics.

Maybe it’s time we pushed past the whole, snotty, “so bad it’s good” notion.

After all, you wouldn’t deliberately go out of your way to hear a band that can’t sing or play, or attend an exhibit of crude, amateurish art. So, why are movies any different? Why waste your time hate-watching something? Where’s the real joy in feeling superior to incompetents? And how superior are you if, from the safety of your seat, you’re merely sneering at the risks that other people took?

I’m not trying to talk myself and other critics out of a job. Bad entertainment is bad entertainment and deserves to be called out, without hesitation. Good intentions count for little in art, and benefits of the doubt benefit no one. As a reviewer, I think your ultimate sympathies need to be with the person paying for the entertainment, not the person being paid to provide it.

I won’t pretend that there weren’t times when I didn’t smirk at Glen or Glenda or Manos: The Hands of Fate or Sextette. Didn’t talk back to Gigli or hoot at Birdemic or curse out Little Nicky. It was fun. It was easy. I understand the urge—and I still give into it, when a movie I’m reviewing turns out to be a steady insult to my intelligence, and yours.

But why deliberately seek out that chance? Life’s too short, and great art’s too rare. We should be more careful with how we spend the former—and more diligent in looking for the latter.

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