This is a book I didn’t know I needed. But I’m interested in both philosophy and bad movies, so when I found out there was a book making a philosophical case for bad movie love, I had to get it immediately. Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies (2022) – written by philosopher of art and cinephile Matthew Strohl – is part of a series from Routledge with philosophers defending various unpopular stances and lifestyle choices. (Side note: I didn’t realise it was part of a series before purchasing, but I recognised another title in the list, Why It’s OK to Be a Slacker (2021) by Alison Suen, who I had heard make the philosophical case for slacking on The Dissenter podcast, which is well worth a listen!)
In Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies, Strohl looks at some of the classic “so bad it’s good” movies like The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003), Troll 2 (Claudio Fragasso, 1990), and Vampire’s Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1989). These are some of my favourite films of all time. But Strohl, a self-avowed cinematic bottom feeder, examines many other good-bad movies that weren’t on my radar. He also (to my surprise) defends The Twilight Saga (2008-2012) in a dedicated chapter. He argues the Twilight films are not completely bad, as I thought, but also good-bad in some ways and conventionally good in other ways; and for this reason, Strohl rejects the notion that the Twilight films are only meant for adolescent girls.
Freddy Got Fingered (2001), a black comedy directed by and starring Tom Green, is praised too. I had seen the film and my recollection of it was as silly teenage humour; but it was interesting to learn that the film – like other initially widely panned films, such as Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995) – eventually started to be taken seriously, and that there is even a Masters thesis defending it as a neo-surrealist masterpiece. I rewatched the film and can definitely appreciate that angle more now.
In addition, Strohl’s book has a whole chapter – the longest chapter, in fact – dedicated to the career of Nicolas Cage, which I was very happy about. Vampire’s Kiss (1988) is one of Cage’s early performances. I had come across clips of it in YouTube supercuts of Cage ‘losing his shit’, so I thought the film was just funny and ridiculous (Strohl, fairly, bemoans these ‘Nic Cage at his Cagiest’ supercuts), but when I actually watched the film, it became an instant favourite. It is absurdly funny, but I came to appreciate the absurdity and surrealism more when learning about the influence of 1920s German Expressionism that Cage brought to the table. Strohl delves more into Cage’s artistic inspiration for the film and notes that Cage treated Vampire’s Kiss as the “laboratory” – the experimental setting – which would inform many of his later roles. The film, then, is not just iconic; it is essential to understanding the rest of Cage’s acting career.
Now let’s turn to some of the actual philosophical arguments made in defence of good-bad movies. Strohl begins by turning the notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on their head. We have to do this if we are to deem some films so bad that they’re good. What do we mean by ‘bad’ and ‘good’ when we claim this? Strohl states that good-bad movies are ‘bad’ in a limited sense: if we look at the content of many such films, we can find unnatural dialogue, terrible accents, continuity lapses, illogical or nonsensical storylines, sloppy editing, poor set design elements, and so forth and so on. However, these films can be ‘good’ in the final sense. This means we judge them to be aesthetically valuable. If films are ‘bad’ in the final sense, then they are aesthetically disvaluable.
Strohl believes we can make a distinction between Bad Movie Ridicule and Bad Movie Love. The former is a posture of mockery, disdain, and schadenfreude; it treats bad movies – as well as the people who created them and the people who sincerely love them – as worthy of contempt. The ridiculers may enjoy making fun of these films, but they still see them as bad in the final sense (aesthetically disvaluable). Bad Movie Love, in contrast, judges certain bad movies to be aesthetically valuable, “in part because it’s bad in this limited sense” (p. 4). Strohl stresses, throughout the book, that the stance of Bad Movie Ridicule is inferior to that of Bad Movie Love; the former is less fulfilling, both in terms of living an aesthetically rich life and in terms of the connection with others it offers.
Bad Movie Love is superior because it can foster “valuable activities of engagement” (p. 25), which are valuable because they make our lives better. One way they can do so is by deepening one’s cinephilia. It can be bland to only engage with movies prescribed as good according to received mainstream norms. Good-bad movies can open you up to aesthetic novelty, surrealism, and absurdity, in ways that conventionally good movies don’t. Also, Strohl reflects, “bad movies have served as a basis for a variety of social relationships, including personal friendships as well as participation in larger communities. These social relationships are grounded in shared appreciation of good-bad movies” (p. 25).
To better elucidate the social implications of Bad Movie Love, Strohl refers to philosopher Ted Cohen’s theory of jokes. Cohen thought jokes depend on a shared context between the teller of the joker and the audience, thus creating a sense of intimacy. As he writes in his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (1999):
And just what is this intimacy? It is the shared sense of those in a community. The members know that they are in this community, and they know that they are joined there by one another. When a community is focused on a joke, the intimacy has two constituents. The first constituent is a shared set of beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, preferences, et cetera – a shared outlook on the world, or at least part of an outlook. The second constituent is a shared feeling – a shared response to something. The first constituent can be cultivated and realized without jokes. So can the second constituent, but with jokes, the second constituent is amplified by the first, and this is a very curious and wonderful fact about jokes.
And so it is with good-bad movies. When you watch these films with others, you laugh not just because the films are funny but also because you can appreciate others’ shared sensibilities. Enjoying bad movies in a social setting, then, is not only enhanced by pre-existing intimacy between viewers; this activity also enhances that very intimacy.
Bad Movie Lovers can constitute what Cohen calls an affective community, which is a form of community distinguished by widely held and collectively understood forms of feeling – in this context, it is with respect to certain forms of art. Or, as Cohen himself defines it in his 1999 essay ‘High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art’, an affective community is “a group whose intimacy is underwritten by their convictions that they feel the same about something, and that that thing – the art – is their bond. They feel that one another respond in the same way, and for the same reasons.” Another unappreciated social value of good-bad movies is that they can, as Strohl states, “forge unlikely connections between people from different walks of life” (p. 113). But the connections made can also be stronger because the love for a particular bad movie, like The Room, is idiosyncratic; instances of this mutual appreciation are rarer (and therefore more exciting).
I appreciate the distinction between Bad Movie Ridicule and Bad Movie Love because it helps me reflect on my own enjoyment of good-bad movies. I think from the beginning, though, it was never about mockery, about trying to pick apart all the problems with The Room or Troll 2 and feeling superior and clever by doing so. If that’s your only focus, you’re missing out. Instead, I appreciated these films and approved of the elements that a ridiculer may sneer at. They’re absurdly funny, engaging, and valuable precisely because they are unintentionally (or, sometimes, intentionally) out of step with the normal movie viewing experience. Also, cringing at good-bad movies is part of the enjoyment (see my essay on why the emotion of cringe can be valuable).
With respect to bonding, there is definitely unique value in watching a good-bad movie with others; one person will often point out bizarre and funny details that others don’t notice, which they might appreciate; and a social gathering like this can involve creative ways to engage with the film. And in terms of affective communities, there is a sense of collective joy when watching a screening of The Room, everyone else being huge fans, having seen it enough times to know the lines and scenes by heart, shouting the lines and laughing and jeering in unison, heckling in between the dialogue, and throwing spoons at the screen when framed pictures of spoons appear in the film. This is very much what makes screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) unique as well. It is a moviegoing experience like no other.
If good-bad movies are good in the final sense, then we mean that they’re worthwhile – they deserve our time and attention. Strohl argues that bizarreness can be an aesthetically valuable trait of such movies. And the fact that the bizarreness is unintentional does not matter in terms of our final value judgement. After all, as he points out, “we can admire a sunset for its unintended beauty” (p. 6).
One of the core arguments Strohl makes in defending good-bad movies is that they transgress received norms and standards. When a Bad Movie Lover says a movie is “so bad it’s good”, they mean it is conventionally bad, so it is bad according to conventional norms. But these movies can be good in the final sense “in virtue of the ways that it violates received norms” (p. 12). In this vein, good-bad movies share common ground with avant-garde films, which likewise, and definitionally, go against the grain of what is expected in cinema. It is no coincidence that Bad Movie Lovers and avant-garde enthusiasts are natural bedfellows; they are both interested in art that takes us beyond convention, landing us in strange, unfamiliar, but highly imaginative and interesting places. Of course, “a movie can violate received norms by being bland, dull, and lifeless” (p. 12-13), and such movies are just plain bad. Good-bad movies, conversely, transgress mainstream values and expectations in an exciting, interesting, and/or amusing way.
The term film maudit (“cursed film”) was popularised by the 1949 Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz, France, organised by poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and film critic and theorist André Bazin. The festival celebrated films that the cinephiles who organised it believed were unfairly maligned or wrongly neglected. According to American film critic J. Hoberman in his 2021 essay ‘No success like failure – a natural history of the film maudit’, Cocteau said in the catalogue for the festival: “A great film is an accident, a banana skin under the feet of dogma,” and the films we should defend are “those that despise rules.” And we can certainly defend bad movie love with this in mind. We can defend the aesthetics of failure.
A difference between good-bad movies and the avant-garde, however, is that the former don’t (yet) have an aura of artistic seriousness. Nonetheless, gaining an appreciation of the norm-violating nature of good-bad movies can then open you up to appreciating avant-garde films, and vice versa. Watching good-bad movies is a way to expand your aesthetic palate.
In clarifying the value of good-bad movies, Strohl also refers to Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ (1964), which passionately defends Bad Movie Love. This essay is made up of a series of epigrams that describe the camp sensibility, portrayed by over-the-top movie stars like Bette Davis, John Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, and emulated in drag performances. Relevant to his discussion of good-bad movies and their aesthetic value, Strohl quotes the following from Sontag’s piece:
23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.
24. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. (“It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed,” are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)
34. Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different – a supplementary – set of standards.
55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.
56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.”… Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.
Similarly, the Bad Movie Love that Strohl is advocating, and which I also share, is an admiration of exaggeration, absurdity, eccentricity, awkwardness, and failure – displays of human nature in art that we often don’t see in mainstream films, which are made (and judged) according to conventional norms and standards.
In his influential book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979), French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that taste functions primarily as a way for the upper classes to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. As he wrote: “Tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgusts provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others.” However, we can expand on Bourdieu’s point and say that we use taste to elevate ourselves above others in many ways, not just across class boundaries. To give an example, Strohl points to the prejudice that the Twilight films are ‘only for girls’. Bad Movie Ridicule is an example of Bourdieu’s conception of taste; it is a way for individuals to try to gain a sense of superiority, by upholding received norms and looking down on people’s tastes that transgress those norms.
In his book On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck (2017), pro-skater-turned-philosopher Nick Riggle writes: “Being awesome is a matter of creatively breaking out of, or riffing on, norms that determine much of everyday life, and doing so in an expressive way, generating a social opening that allows for the mutual appreciation of individuality.” And Bad Movie Love can achieve precisely that.
Nonetheless, Strohl, for the sake of balance, points out that this love can fall prey to the same sneering and contempt that ridiculers are guilty of. He refers to Mark Jancovich’s 2002 essay, ‘Cult fictions: Cult Movies, subcultural capital and the production of cultural distinctions’, in which the author notes how cult movie fans can self-servingly construct “mainstream film culture” as a monolith that dominates the taste of the naïve and unwary masses. This is a form of countercultural snobbery, as obnoxious as any other form of cinematic snobbery. We could also call it cinematic hipsterism: feeling culturally superior for valuing what is non-conventional or obscure. Like Bad Movie Ridicule, it is characterised by a narcissism of negativity: egocentricity and self-satisfaction gained from contempt. Strohl writes:
I have no problem with the mainstream as such; my problem is with its tendency to crowd other things out. I’m not here to indict the mainstream; I’m here to defend films that stand outside of it and make a case for open-mindedness and the celebration of diverse sensibilities (p. 36).
In the last chapter of the book, “Bad Movies and the Good Life”, Strohl goes on to make the case for a generous and open-minded attitude towards cinematic taste (and art more generally). “We all have a different psychological makeup and life history, and so it stands to reason that we would prefer different activities.” He proposes that:
a work of art has value in its own right to the extent that it enables valuable activities of engagement. Because different people legitimately prefer different activities, the fact that an artwork is valuable in its own right does not entail that it will be valuable for every single person. Indeed, much of what is valuable for someone else might be downright repellant for me. It’s not easy to see outside one’s own perspective, but sometimes I can recognize that an artwork that isn’t valuable for me is nevertheless valuable in its own right, because I can recognize that it is apt to enable valuable activities of engagement for other people (p. 178).
Furthermore, it is a positive thing that there is diversity of taste. As philosopher Alexander Nehamas writes in his book Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (2010): “Imagine, if you can, a world where everyone likes, or loves, the same things, where every disagreement about beauty can be resolved. That would be a desolate, desperate world.” As I have argued elsewhere, a standard of taste is neither possible nor desirable. Therefore, as Strohl says himself, “if everyone liked bad movies, that would ruin it. There’s no thrill of lowbrow transgression where there’s no contempt from above” (p. 184). However, he continues that his book is not making a case for universal Bad Move Love, only that “bad movies can be a valuable ingredient in a human life” (p. 184).
Strohl also deals with the question of how to spend our limited time watching movies. We will never be able to watch every movie we might possibly enjoy, so the critic of Bad Movie Love might say we should restrict our limited time to the certified greats because it’s more worthwhile to watch them than good-bad movies. Strohl calls this the Optimization Argument. Strohl first rejects the notion we don’t have time for bad movies. He introduces the concept of “aesthetic slots”: spaces in your life where you can fit in an aesthetic activity. Some slots are suited to one activity more than another. If you’re cleaning, you can’t watch a film, but you can listen to an audiobook. If you’re tired and stressed, you may be more in the mood for an uplifting bad movie over a certified great that demands serious attention.
However, Strohl more strongly disagrees with the assumption that bad movies are less worthy of our attention than the certified greats. We’ve already seen how bad movies can be at least as worthwhile as conventionally good films, in virtue of them enabling valuable activities of engagement. In some cases, bad movies may be even more worthwhile than certified greats (I agree with Strohl that The Room has probably added a lot more value to my life than some of the classically great films). But Strohl invites us to consider the deeper question of which approach to films is more promising: optimisation or omnivorism (the latter being a cinematic diet that includes not only certified greats but also good-bad movies, the avant-garde, experimental, and so forth and so on). Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’ helps us to see why we should prefer omnivorism, which also reminds us of Bourdieu’s notion of distinction. Sontag states:
54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Out Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.
Strohl goes on to highlight the dangers of becoming fixated on having highly refined tastes:
There’s a classic image of the relentlessly negative art lover – the expert so advanced that nothing is good enough for them…That the most avid lover of an art form should be the most restrictive about what they appreciate is perverse at best, and a likely recipe for a life of alienation and discontent. Bad Movie Love is one available escape from the pitfall of refinement as narrowness (p. 190).
American film critic Pauline Kael offers her own argument against optimisation when it comes to films in her 1969 essay ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies’:
Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture. And yet this is probably the best and most common basis for developing an aesthetic sense because responsbility to pay attention and to appreciate is anti-art, it makes us too anxious for pleasure, too bored for response. Far from supervision and official culture, in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses. Unsupervised enjoyment is probably not the only kind there is but it may feel like the only kind. Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.
In other words, we feel a sense of obligation to appreciate the films that are the certified greats. We have a duty to have the correct response. To be underwhelmed by them would be a sign of personal failing, such as having unrefined taste or not being sharp enough to ‘get it’. Yet, as Kael observes, this sense of duty can have an effect opposite to its intended one. The cultural expectation to appreciate a film and have the right response is oppressive. We strain to enjoy the film rather than let ourselves react organically. But it is precisely this freedom in how we as individuals react to art that leads to a distinctive sensibility. And this is what bad movies enable.
All in all, I think Strohl makes an excellent case for why Bad Movie Love can be a valuable part of the good life. It has made me more deeply appreciate bad movies I already love, reconsider films I’ve categorised as being plain bad or just silly, and want to go further in expanding my cinematic diet – to be as omnivorous as possible. Indeed, as Strohl maintains throughout the book, we flourish when we prioritise aesthetic diversity and novelty.
This article originally appeared in Senses of Cinema, Issue 105.