A Human Signature: Re-examining Spectatorship and Audience Desire in the ‘Badfilm’ Subgenre

THESIS by Anthony Silvestri

1.4Figure D: Mega Shark fights Giant Octopus

Introduction

Although most modern cinema-goers have grown accustom to viewing well acted, narratively logical and formally coherent films, not all popular releases adhere to this same format. In Trashing the Academy, Jeffrey Sconce argues that the aesthetic attitude of a group of films and spectators united in anti-establishment and low art taste can be defined as . “paracinema.” For Sconce, “paracinematic taste involves a reading strategy that renders the bad into the sublime.”[1]  Characterized by fanatic anti-Hollywood and anti-Academia viewers, paracinematic taste extends to “seemingly disparate subgenres such as ‘badfilm’, splatter-punk, ‘mondo’ films, sword and sandal epics, Elvis flicks, government hygiene films, Japanese monster movies, beach-party musicals, and just about every other historical manifestation of exploitation cinema.” (Sconce, Trashing the Academy, 101) Though this account of viewership works well as an overall survey, within paracinematic culture it does not wholly account for the pleasures of spectatorship that exist within each subgenre. Combining such a diverse set of films into an anti-establishmentarian aesthetic reading protocol denies a more nuanced exploration of how each unique sub-genre operates to hold the gaze of even the most casual viewer.

Focusing on one of these specific sub-genres, Sconce uses the terminology “badfilm,” taken from a website devoted to examples of cinematic failure, but fails to elaborate on the variety of disparate examples are located within just the idea of badfilm (given how many ways a film can fail). For example, certain films are critically or commercially panned while incorporating great production values and adhering to contemporary standards of how a film “should look.” Other films are considered bad because they have ludicrous plots and poor visual effects, yet they also are able to adhere to the standards of invisible editing, continuity, lighting, and audio mixing. Finally, there are the films that are deemed bad because they fail almost unanimously, with poor acting, a failure to meet any technical standards, and terrible writing. Of course, given the recent proliferation and popularization of these films and evidenced by the wide response on social media to an exploitation series of badfilm like Sharknado (Ferrante, 2013), there must be an account of spectatorship that extends beyond merely anti- establishmentarian, counter-cinephilia. I will further explore how spectatorship functions in Sconce’s sub-genre of badfilm for even a casual viewer. For examples, I will use both Mega- Shark vs. Giant Octopus (Perez, 2009), a film with bad visual effects and a ludicrous plot that is able still to achieve some technical standards, such as editing, audio mixing, and lighting, as well as Birdemic: Shock and Terror (Nguyen, 2009), a film that fails to live up to contemporary filmmaking standards on almost every level. It is my view that the failure of these films to achieve modern-day production standards operates as a set of attractions that suspend and fascinate the gaze of the audience. Furthermore, the fact that these attractions take the form of a human signature of error both allows for a fascination in the failure of the medium rooted in cinephilic tendencies, as well as in the satisfaction of the contemporary desire for humanistic error, opposed to the technological perfection of digital effects.

A Failure of Style

John David Rhodes argues that style is contemporarily understood as something that is had by a film, but should actually be thought of as something that an artwork or artist does, “not as property, but as labor.”2 Style itself “is a sign, or a trace, of human effort,” (Rhodes, 49) and most films attempt to eradicate any traces of this laborious process. The most common example of films attempting to hide the labor of style is through the convention of invisible editing, in which shots are smoothly pieced together to uphold the illusion of continuity, despite generally being filmed and assembled over a long course of time. This enables viewers to focus primarily on the diegesis and narrative, rather than on the stylistic structure, production methods, or the technical process that constructed the film. Rhodes uses the term “sprezzatura” to describe the invisible style for which most films strive; he further defines sprezzatura as “the mode of stylized performance that effaces itself as style has gone” and as the “practice of making difficult look easy” (Rhodes, 49). When a film achieves sprezzatura, the spectator is able to focus on narrative rather than stylistic structure. “Failure in the pursuit of cinematic sprezzatura entails spectators to become aware of the work required of them…however, this failure may figure the triumph of individuation within the system.”(Rhodes, 57)

In order to underscore the importance of achieving sprezzatura, Rhodes further argues that art is a commodity. Although it differs from the traditional idea of a commodity as an object that is purchased, producers still sell the experience of viewing a film to spectators in search of a pleasurable experience. Just as with a commodity, film audiences spend physical money on an experience with preconceived notions of what it will accomplish for them, be it that they expect to laugh, cry, or quiver in fear. In this way it is important to remember that films are a product on the free market, and thus that can be purchased by masses of consumers. When a commodity is faulty, however, the consumer will return it; if a knife won’t cut, the user will be upset with the object and have no use for its practical purposes. For Rhodes, this concept extends to cinema as a commodity; failure to achieve sprezzatura and satisfy the norms of contemporary filmmaking means that a group of spectators could view an artwork as a faulty commodity. Rhodes asserts this was most likely the case for a group of people that were so upset by the obvious stylization in The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011) that they demanded refunds from the theater (Rhodes, 60). Due to clear stylization, The Tree of Life failed to achieve sprezzatura; as a result, these moviegoers were shocked, appalled, and given an unforgettable experience. However, as with many commodities, the value of an artwork remains nuanced, and varies from product to product; though these people may have been upset at the failure to achieve sprezzatura, The Tree of Life received widespread critical acclaim, in part due to the artistic quality of its unwillingness to yield to cinematic norms. Thus, a failure to achieve sprezzatura can actually result in a different, more stylistic dimension of value for a spectator.

Though not akin to the high art experience of The Tree of Life, films like Birdemic and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus also fail to achieve sprezzatura in their own ways – the viewer is subjected to poor graphics, editing, and mixing that makes the failed labor of their style apparent. In other words, these films engage in the practice of making the difficult look difficult. The labor of style, for example, becomes very obvious to the spectator in the audio mixing of Birdemic. The failure to create a room tone results in shifts of sound level and background noise, making the spectator aware of the work required to create the film; or perhaps it is rather the lack of successful labor put into the film. Even in Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus, the poorly crafted visual effects operate in a manner that makes the effort and manipulation that goes in to the process of creating computerized graphics apparent. Yet these are films that have gathered extensive viewership—not in spite of, but due to their failure to yield to the cinematic norm of sprezzatura.

Sharknado (Ferrante, 2013) might be the most popular example of a film whose failure to achieve sprezzatura has resulted in a commodity that viewers have bought into on a broad scale, as two films in the series have already been successfully released, with a third installment on the horizon. The Mega Shark series has yielded two sequels so far as well, while Birdemic has had its own sequel, committing the same production mistakes in order to satisfy its viewers’ expectations, and promising audiences a third (according to director James Nguyen’s production company.) Clearly, the demand for these commodities is active enough to merit their respective studios crafting similar products with similar failures multiple times—the lack of sprezzatura is not something that is ‘fixed’ in the following installments. Yet the demand to view these films, and the pleasure that their failure to achieve sprezzatura creates for spectators, cannot be entirely reduced to the contrarian community that Sconce describes in Trashing the Academy—instead, a more casual mode of viewership must be explored. After all, the group of viewers that propels a series of badfilm cannot just be relegated to a group of contrarian cinephiles; one might remember the popular frenzy created on Twitter over a contest to name the sequel to Sharknado. The question, then, remains—how and why can the failure to achieve sprezzatura be viewed as a commodity in badfilm, and why would a casual viewer seek out and derive pleasure from such a viewing experience?

The Cinema of Negative Guarantees, The Blockbuster, and Exploitation

In Movies: A Century of Failure, Sconce introduces the existence of a cinema of negative guarantees, a term that bridges the gap between both bad examples of mainstream cinema and the B-level exploitation of certain producers (such as Roger Corman.) Focusing on the promise of filmic miscarriage, the cinema of negative guarantees has proliferated both online, through sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Mr. Cranky, as well as in mainstream culture, through the Razzie Awards. [3] Sconce further uses the anecdote of Catwoman to explain this type of cinema, noting:

There were the smirking cine-cynics who could not resist the film’s ample “negative guarantees”—Oscar-winning actress reduced, quite literally, to pandering sex kitten, generationally pitted against uberbitch Sharon Stone in a spin-off sequel to a sequel to a sequel…This last audience, in other words, gleefully went to the theater to see a train wreck. They were not disappointed. (Sconce, Movies, 277)

This description of Catwoman affords a perspective on audience expectation that bridges the spectatorship of a variety of bad films. This type of cinema holds a certain promise to the viewer, a guarantee that what they will see onscreen will be bad, thus becoming the main attraction of their seeing it. Be it the failure to achieve sprezzatura in Birdemic or the fall from grace of a formerly lauded actress, spectators seek out failure, indulging “pleasures of alienation over empathy and identification.” (Sconce, Movies, 276) Whereas Sconce extends this to a larger cinephilic tradition that has cynically focused on the failures of film, spectator expectations such as these play an important part in the exploitation of Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. There is no question that those individuals viewing these films, or films like The Room (Wiseau, 2003) and Sharknado, must be aware of the contrived narratives and hokey visual effects in these films, given both the word of mouth and critical reviews surrounding these works.

In these examples, it is in what specifically attracts the viewer where the cinema of negative guarantees seems to diverge. As Sconce explains, the cine-cynics who went to see Catwoman were intrigued by the failure of Hollywood in terms of both idea and execution; it was emblematic of both the failure of the individual film and of a larger cinematic machine. However, films like Birdemic and Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus do not necessarily represent the same fall from grace. While Halle Berry and Sharon Stone may be household names, neither James Nguyen nor Debbie Gibson have the name to elicit expectations of a performance that could have been great. Even more, The Asylum, the production house that creates the Mega- Shark series, is perhaps the most recognizable name in these ventures, but only in conjunction with the terrible films they regularly produce. As older examples of exploitation suggest, the cinema of negative guarantees functions in a manner similar to B-films that imply a “gap between promise and practice, ambition and execution”, contrary to the popular notion that ambition and individuality have left major Hollywood features (Sconce, Movies, 292). However, this does not seem to be the case with the intentionally ironic offerings of The Asylum. These films offer no ambition or promise at being unique or respectable, instead channeling their intentionally poor production values in order to engage in a parodic fashion with contemporary blockbusters. While The Amazing Transplant (Wishman, 1970) and Nude for Satan (Batzella, 1974) hold this promise of unique ambition unfulfilled by execution, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus promises the ambition of a blockbuster with the execution of B-grade exploitation.

Birdemic differs from Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus in that the gap between ambition and execution is something that clearly plagues the original installment, in terms of its’ stylistic failures. While the Asylum’s films do seem to complicate or challenge this notion, Birdemic is a film that promises the ambition of a Hitchcockian thriller, but is plagued by the extremely low skill of its amateur cast and crew. The sequel, however, seems to be created in opposition to this—retelling and remaking certain portions of Birdemic in order to fulfill the audience expectation for a lack of execution conjured by the first.

In both cases, however, clichéd stories are taken to new frontiers, using the surrealistic overtones of excess and inept direction (Scone, Trashing the Academy, 112). These films clearly relate to more respected examples of cinema in terms of the stories they tell. For example, the plot of Birdemic is analogous to that of The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963). The two films both focus on a nascent romance that is interrupted by the sudden attack of birds. In an interview with Empire, James Nguyen even noted this inspiration for his work, saying he wanted to make a movie like The Birds, using birds of prey instead of seagulls and crows. Beyond this revealing of Birdemic as homage to Hitchcock, it also seems to show Nguyen’s intention to take the seemingly innocuous antagonists of The Birds and update them with scarier, killer birds. Nguyen further classifies his films as romantic thrillers, and has proclaimed that “Hitchcock invented the romantic-thriller genre, and I went to the school of Hitchcock cinema.”[4] This intended comparison is key, as these films do not deviate in plot, or even in the intentionality of the special effects, but rather through the gap in execution. Thus, the choice to watch one film or the other must be due in part to the negative guarantees of Birdemic, or the positive guarantees of watching an acclaimed film like The Birds.

In terms of plot, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus could also be read as analogous to a variety of monster movies or creature features. There is, of course, the series Jaws, which centers on the struggle between humans and sharks. However, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is also related to a lineage of monster films including Gwoemul (Bong Joon Ho, 2006), Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008), and even either the classic or updated version of King Kong (Cooper, 1933 and Jackson, 2005). Given its focus on two monsters fighting each other in the presence of human beings, I have decided to use the newest update to Godzilla (Edwards, 2014) as a point of comparison, both in terms of special effects and narrative. For example, while Godzilla focuses its storyline around a lengthy hunt and battle between MUTOs, humans, and its titular hero, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus focuses on the same sort of hunt between Mega Shark, Giant Octopus, and a group of humans. Each film shares the utilization of a romantic plot that propels the action of the monster driven narrative. In Godzilla, the romance between Ford and Elle drives the movement of its protagonist toward San Francisco, where he will aid Godzilla in the final defeat of the MUTOs. In Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, it is the romantic subplot between MacNeil and Shimada that leads to their absurd moment of epiphany: they find that pheromones will solve the problem of the primary struggle with the creature. Once again, given this similarity in plot, the choice to watch one film or the other must rest, at least partially, in what each specific film has to offer the consumer as commodity.

Oddly, even an example of a badfilm like Birdemic may try to push forth the same sort of thematic, moral agenda that more serious films attempt to espouse, despite its lack of being entirely self-aware. Consider the similar environmental anxiety that is prevalent in both Birdemic and Godzilla. While the newest Godzilla expresses a fear over humanity’s inability to control the environment and the necessity to allow nature to act unimpeded, both Birdemic and Birdemic 2 focus on global warming as the catalyst for the bird attacks, resulting in the lives of only those who exist in harmony with the environment being spared. Yet, it could hardly be argued the Nguyen’s stance on global warming is the reason why any spectator has decided to watch either installment in the Birdemic series. For the purpose of discussing the spectatorial pleasure of watching bad film, one must focus on how, despite engaging in such similar narratives or themes, the pleasures are so different and unique.

The mutuality between badfilm and blockbuster is not unique to just these two films, as a range of other films, called mockbusters, are purposefully modeled after blockbuster releases. The Asylum has made such films as Transmorphers (Scott, 2007), a play on Transformers (Bay, 2007), Snakes on a Train (Latt, 2006) as a foil to Snakes on a Plane (Ellis, 2006), and recently Avengers: Grimm (Inman, 2015) to counter Avengers: Age of Ultron (Wheedon, 2015). Given the duration of the studios’ existence, and the fact that many before have produced B-releases echoing blockbuster counterparts (The Monster of Piedras Blancas [Berwick, 1959] and The Creature from the Black Lagoon [Arnold, 1954]) it is hard to imagine that there are many naïve people fooled into viewing such products. However, given the continued trend of releases, it seems apparent that someone must be buying into what these films have to offer. Once again, the question shifts to what unique assets these films contain as opposed to their blockbuster counterparts. The possible associations between these films are incredibly important when considering spectatorship of bad film – given the similarity of plot on a very superficial level between many instances of bad film and their more respected counterparts, the question emerges as to what differentiates these films – why might a spectator want to watch these films?

Opposing Exhibitionism and Attractions in the Contemporary Blockbuster and Bad Films

The answer to the question of how to differentiate these films, and how their unique assets can be viewed as a commodity, is partially rooted in how the failed visual effects, or even just general shortcomings, of badfilm can be categorized as attractions. Tom Gunning originally applied the concept of attractions in relation to the historical era that spanned from the genesis of film to around 1906. This era, named “The Cinema of Attractions,” existed prior to the integration of complex narrative into film. The short films exhibited were mostly trick films or actualities, focusing on the “act of making images seen” and “the act of showing and exhibition” rather than storytelling and narrative. [5] The focus on supplying the viewer with a spectacle to gaze upon did not end with the narrative turn of film, as “even with the introduction of editing and more complex narratives, the aesthetic of attraction can still be sensed in periodic doses of non-narrative spectacle given to audiences” and “the system of attraction remains an essential part of popular filmmaking”[6] today.

In The Hollywood Cobweb, Dick Tomasovic studies how the aesthetic of attractions, from exhibitionism to phantom rides, have been made manifest in the modern blockbuster, specifically in Spider-Man and Spider Man 2 (Raimi, 2002 & 2004). In particular, Tomasovic notes the importance of the use of exhibitionism in the contemporary blockbuster, noting that Spider Man, like the short films during the era of the cinema of attractions, is more interested in the “question of giving to see rather than of telling.” [7] This interest in seeing, rather than telling, is important, given that the story of Spider-Man has been retold countless times over multiple media. Similarly, the importance of providing spectacle can be seen in Birdemic and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, given the countless retellings of each tale, both in and out of their actual series. In addition to the innumerable shark-based creature features that Asylum has produced, the story of a shark attacking humans has been told in a variety of other films like the Jaws series or Shark Night 3D (Ellis, 2011). Given that the concept of a creature feature focused on a shark has ceased to retain its originality, the incorporation of unique attractions for visual pleasure becomes the primary focus rather than just narrative.

As the narratives of these films have become so commonplace, it is important that each film engages in a uniquely compelling set of attractions in order to retain the gaze of its spectator. A differentiation between the moments of spectacle in contemporary special effects films and examples of badfilm with similar stories begins to demonstrate how each type of film produces a singular value for the viewer. To understand how attractions operate differently in similar examples of badfilm and blockbusters, style must be liberated from narrative. In Figures of Sensation, Elvand Rossaak notes:

Gunning’s concept of attraction liberates the analysis of film from the hegemony of narratology, which is dominated by its focus on genre, character, and the structural development of the story. The concept of attraction enables us to focus, rather, on the event of appearing as itself a legitimate aesthetic category. The deepest pleasure and jouissance of cinema may reside in such attractions, rather in the way the film is narrated.[8]

Just as Rossaak suggests, applying the concept of attractions to Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Birdemic enables an examination of the event of appearing, and the joy of attractions that is supposed to be elicited rather than focusing on their rather routine and disinteresting narratives. A more in depth and scenic analysis of these films will reveal how failure to achieve sprezzatura functions as the attraction that these examples of badfilm exhibit for the spectator’s joy. Rather than operating like Spider-Man, which Tomasivic notes is all about “giving a demonstration of know-how, while succeeding in amazing the public with visual spectacle” (Tomasovic, 314), the attractions in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Birdemic function in a way that exhibits a sort of know-nothing as spectacle, revealing style as labor for the spectator’s pleasure and amazement. Isolating and comparing exhibitionist tendencies, I will show how attractions function in examples of badfilm.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the exhibition of spectacle in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is the Condor Airlines flight sequence. In this scene, the failure to achieve sprezzatura is present in the visual graphics, as well as a sort of flatness in the frame that persists from the onset. The plane does not look natural, or even semi-realistic in the frame, in part due to the lack of detail in the graphics. Using sub-standard special effects draws the attention of the viewer to the failed labor used to produce these visual effects. While this lack of detail shows how Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus draws attention to its laborious production what is even more dynamic is how the film presents its failures. Rather than attempting to hide shortcomings, the Condor Airlines sequence functions as a blatant example of exhibitionism as the film clearly presents its failure as spectacle.

The key part of the sequence begins when a man looks out of his window and, seeing Mega Shark jump towards the airline, exclaims “holy shit!” The next few shots in the sequence choose to engage in repetition in order to exhibit the same action to the audience multiple times for visual pleasure. Just like when the action of the rocket crashing into the moon in A Trip to the Moon (Melies, 1902) is presented as a spectacle from multiple angles, the collision between Mega Shark and the plane is repeated three times. The first instance occurs from the point of view of the man on the flight. The next two repeat the same action as a long shot from outside of the airplane. Instead of engaging in a traditional, continuity-based pattern of cutting that would intercut action from the beginning to end, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus provides three separate cuts of the same spectacle to suspend the viewer’s gaze. While this use of repetition both allows the viewer to focus on the same, poorly made spectacle three times, it also draws the viewers attention away from the diegesis towards the labor of creating the films style through its unusual, visible editing style.

This example of exhibitionism, however, is not directed toward a masterwork of detailed, awe-inspiring computerized graphics, but rather involves a crude enactment of an over-the-top scenario. The graphic of the shark is blurry and simplistic, even when compared with mechanical model used in Jaws, created three decades prior. Note also the fact that this scene is framed in daylight; rather than choosing to hide the poorly done graphics on a dark screen, the brightness allows for the audience to see the special effects in full clarity. Rather than choosing to attempt to mask stylistic and visual shortcomings in darkness, the wholly unrealistic action of a shark jumping and intercepting a plane is further compounded by the fact that the poor visual effects are completely illuminated, making the lack of artistry readily visible. This is the key divergence in attractions—while Mega Shark will choose to engage in exhibitionism centering on poorly made graphics, other films choose to exhibit cutting edge visual effects.

Though other, more respected, monster films do not necessarily present a spectacle of action that could be considered any more realistic than a shark jumping onto a plane, their manners of exhibition differ. A similar interaction between plane and monster occurs in the 2014 Godzilla as well, yet the manner in which the spectacle is presented is entirely different. While one of the MUTOs attacks Honolulu airport, a plane flies into the side of the creature, explodes, and falls away. However, the spectacle that is focused upon is much different—rather than an extended repetition of the collision, the camera follows a series of explosions across the airport that leads to Godzilla’s feet. Tellingly, the camera lingers on the second part of the sequence so as to conjure the awe of its spectator, when the camera slowly pans up Godzilla’s body in a medium shot. Though Godzilla has become enough of a cultural icon that his figure is known well by most film viewers, the intention of this exhibition is clear: to present the spectacle of an incredibly graphically detailed, state of the art version of Godzilla. This undercuts the possible silliness of the airplane fighting the MUTO in favor of showing the attraction of both the explosions, and Godzilla’s body, which is shown in dark lighting masking any possible flaws. If sprezzatura is the process of making the difficult look easy, this sequence makes the difficult task of creating an incredibly detailed reproduction of a fictional monster alongside the effect of the explosion look easy, while the poorly made graphics of Mega Shark reveal how difficult the task of creating seamless visual effects actually is through their failures. Later in both films, each set of monsters is shown in battle against each other. The same set of differing attractions are at play again in these sequences; these moments halt the narrative to a stop in favor of visual pleasure through different kinds of spectacle. Though these scenes will be discussed more in depth later, it is worth noting once more that the attractions in Godzilla, or similar monster movies, center around the mastery of computerized graphics and destruction, whereas Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus once more opts to exhibit the failed labor of creating a film, displaying theridiculousness of its own failure to achieve sprezzatura.

Attractions and exhibitionism in Birdemic operate in a similar fashion. At the midpoint of the film the romantic narrative grinds to a halt in favor of attempts at visual pleasure expressed through the spectacle of birds attacking. Despite the fact that Birdemic’s stylistic shortcomings appear to be much less intentional on the part of its author, the film still exhibits the same sort of “know-nothingness” that Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus does because its poor production values infer the amateurish skill level of its crew. The failure to achieve sprezzatura is somewhat stronger in Birdemic given the routine stylistic failures that occur: audio mixing is always off, lighting is very noticeable, the frame often appears to be overexposed, and the editing always seems to cut away from any given shot a moment too late. Take, for example, the scene in which Rod and Jerry, the solar power salesman, interact in Rod’s apartment. Even the least technologically attuned of spectators will notice that, despite the fact that the conversation is taking place in the same diegetic space and time, the lighting is not constant in the sequence.

This same error occurs between almost every cut in the film, which makes the fact that the film was a laborious creation over multiple cuts much more evident than in the smooth continuity of most films. These moments of failure to conceal style are what, in fact, gained the film quite a cult following. A number of the film’s first showings in Los Angeles and New York sold out precisely because Birdemic’s value, as a commodity, rests in its complete and utter failure to produce nearly anything correctly. [9] This becomes apparent in the second half of the film, which focuses on the attack of the killer birds. When Rod, Nathalie, and their new cohorts try to escape the motel in the early second half of the film, they find themselves attacked by a group of birds; the group is armed only with clothes hangers with which to protect themselves. Though the graphics are clearly bad, the film still pauses its narrative for a drawn-out sequence of spectacle as the birds attack.

Routinely in the second half of the film, a semi-coherent narrative is put on hold for the spectacle of birds attacking. When the film pauses for this spectacle, however, it does not look realistic or well crafted. In the escape scene outside the motel, for example, the birds look as if they are affixed to the screen, and not a part of the diegetic world as their bodies do not conform to the z- axis of the frame. As the humans swing the coat hangers at them, it does not actually look like any sort of contact is made: feathers don’t go flying and the people don’t get scratch marks as birds claw at them. As no hint of semi-realistic interaction occurs, the attraction never reaches a level of exhibitionist visual spectacle that demonstrates digital mastery. Furthermore, the birds look two-dimensional and without depth in the frame. This poor level of craft, however, seems to function in multiple ways; the first is that it gives the film a sort of unique, visual attraction, through its failure, to hold the spectator’s gaze and create a sense of joy through the absurdity of its failure. Furthermore, Birdemic seems to disprove any notion that digital technology makes the well-crafted creation of effects much easier. In stark contrast to Birdemic, The Birds was able to use a blend of production techniques that enabled its antagonists to seemingly interact with the characters in the diegetic world nearly fifty years earlier. The moments of failure, however, in Birdemic operate as attractions that debunk the notion of the ease of digital film creation, while the comically absurd style is exhibited for the spectator’s visual pleasure. In both Birdemic and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, these attractions are further used to elicit the viewer’s sense of astonishment.

A (Poorly Crafted) Aesthetic of Astonishment

In An Aesthetic of Astonishment, Gunning recounts a common tale that has persisted about an early screening of The Arrival of a Train at the Station (Lumière, 1896) in which spectators were so overwhelmed by the realism of the train on screen that they literally got up and ran, screaming in terror. Contradicting this story’s classification of the naïve spectator, Gunning argues that the astonishment caused by these images were not due to a frightening illusion of realism, but from the magical metamorphosis from still to moving image that showcased the new technology. Gunning further notes of the spectatorship of these attractions, including The Arrival of a Train at the Station, that

Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment….this cinema addresses and holds the spectator, emphasizing the act of display. In fulfilling this curiosity, it delivers a generally brief dose of scopic pleasure. (Gunning, An Aesthetic of Astonishment, 121)

I would argue that spectatorship for contemporary badfilm operates in much the same fashion as the aesthetic of astonishment. Much like the viewership of these attractions, spectators of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or Birdemic do not get lost in these films’ respective diegesis, but rather remain aware of the act of looking upon failure, and the curiosity of how these films will fail to achieve certain cinematic conventions. In lieu of the breathtaking moment when a still photograph becomes a moving image, badfilm exhibits the failure, or the shortcomings at the very least, of the cinematic apparatus in order to deliver its brief dose of scopic pleasure. Rather than rejecting badfilm as faulty, the spectator takes pleasure in the revelation of the limitations of digital effects. This, however, means that the pleasure of watching these films must be predicated upon two things: firstly, an expectation of negative guarantees that orients and prepares the viewer for failure, and secondly, a knowledge of what “good” visual effects look like, otherwise these films could not retain the curious gaze of the spectator.

Though working towards the similar affect, and end result, of astonishment, this is another area in which the process, how these attractions foster astonishment, differs in films like Godzilla or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. For example, one of the powers of the attractions in Godzilla is also based on possessing knowledge of what has preceded it, yet in order for the attractions to be successful it must be viewed as an improvement. The effects in Godzilla could also be considered a good example of visual effects, the sort of thing that is important to know in order for the affect of the bad production value of badfilm to work. Consider the use of Gozilla’s signature weapon, “Atomic Breath,” in both the update and the original Gojira (Honda, 1954). Figure A shows this effect from the 1954 film; figures B and C show the most recent update of atomic breath. Once again, both instances are examples of exhibitionism focused on the act of display, a brief moment of scopic pleasure that is not necessarily dependent on the diegesis or character empathy. A part of the astonishment linked to the 2014 update of atomic breath is tied to a showcasing of the possibility of newer technology to create a more visually appealing and realistic iteration of the weapon. It is important to note that, when I use the term realism, I do not mean the viewer is naïve and believes the visual effect to be real, or even that there is a possibility of it being real. It is more about the technology aiding the creation of an image that conforms to what a viewer will believe the unique form of the object would look like, were it real. Consider that, while in figure A the breath looks like smoke, in figures B and C, the effect looks like something extremely unique. There is a glow and form to it that does not look like an effect that has preceded it and does not appear to be recognizable in terms of any object in the real world. In other words, figures B and C seem to adhere more strongly to the notion that, if atomic breath were a real thing, this is the unique form it would take and look like, as opposed to the 1954 version. This is an example of what could be deemed good craftsmanship; in order to be considered good, an important trait of the effect has to be its uniqueness and detail. The astonishment derives from the exhibition of how new technology has made this sort of craftsmanship and representation possible.

With this sort of good craftsmanship in mind, it is time to turn to how the aesthetic of astonishment operates in films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or Birdemic. Though focusing on the same sorts of creature based visual effects, astonishment at badfilm is rooted in how bad craftsmanship reveals a sort of failure of technology, rather than the immense detail and quality of contemporary blockbusters. Unlike the updates in a newer film like Godzilla, these examples of badfilm work to exhibit stylistic failure and visual regression to the viewer. In other words, the astonishment comes from the fact that the labor of production is made apparent, and that the films show how difficult the act of creating these effects actually is counter to the seamless inclusion of effects in many blockbusters. Spectatorship can be a pleasurable experience given the negative guarantees that come with viewing these films. Rather than getting lost in the narrative world of a film like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, the viewer is aware of his or her relationship to the screen and to the act of looking upon the attraction of the failure to achieve sprezzatura. The climactic battle between the two titular monsters seems to illustrate this well, especially in opposition to the final fight in Godzilla.

Figure D and E show Mega Shark entangled in Giant Octopus’ tentacles where, once again, the crude visual effect of the shark is the object of the film’s exhibitionism; importantly, the shark is a creature that has been depicted using a range of technology from animatronics to digital effects in a detailed manner that mimics some sense of realism. Both Mega Shark and Giant Octopus, however, do not amaze the viewer with this notion that they adhere to some sort of realism, or as a triumph of technology; both are very clearly composed by cheap CGI and the body of each creature lacks a certain amount of artistry or detail. Unlike the unique glow of the atomic breath, Mega Shark and Giant Octopus don’t attain a standard level of detail and craftsmanship. Mega Shark fails because its form, creation, and detail are all so evidently the outcome of poor craftsmanship that the spectator is alerted not only to the amount of labor (or not) that has gone in to the creation of the effect, but that the visual effect also lacks realism.

This lack of detail even comes to fruition in the environments surrounding both this fight and the fight in Godzilla. As Mega Shark and Giant Octopus fight, there is nothing but water surrounding them and when they collide with the submarine the impact is only shown from the inside. In contrast, figure F shows a part of Godzilla’s climactic fight with the MUTOs. Note that despite also being a dark location, the area of the fight is incredibly visible and detailed, and the two monsters are interacting with it by destroying a building. This lends a certain sort of credibility to the fight, implanting Godzilla and his foes into a diegetic world reminiscent of our own and having them interact with the setting. That Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus works in contrast to this scene is very telling; as I noted earlier, there is a certain dependency on the knowledge of what a good effect should look like in order to understand and be astonished by the poor labor of badfilm. Viewers see the detail in a monster like Godzilla, Gwoemul, the creatures in films such as Avatar (Cameron, 2009), or even the heroes, villains, and extraordinary creatures in the latest Marvel entry, and take these to be the standard of craftsmanship of effects. Even though some viewers may recognize the craftsmanship required to create these creatures, the relative abundance of special effects driven films hides the true difficulty of creating these effects. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is a contrast to this, as the labor that needs to go in to creating a detailed monster becomes apparent to the viewers due to its failures. What seems like a simple task, in the age of digital technology, is revealed to be painstakingly difficult and expensive to create. This, in turn, distances the viewer from its diegetic world and creates a sense of astonishment at how, despite the seemingly infallible, state of the art technology used to create so many special effects films, poor craftsmanship is possible.

Briefly, it is important to note how the astonishment works with Birdemic. While its visual effects operate in much the same way as Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, Birdemic also reveals a differently technical shortcoming. Of course, the visual effects of the birds in Birdemic have the same problems with lack of detail but they are most interesting in what they reveal about perspective. What makes the graphics of Birdemic arguably more frustrating than Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is that they never seem to conform to the z-axis of the frame. That is to say, in Figure G, you can see how there is no depth to the birds; they remain two-dimensional and give the impression that they are almost glued onto the frame. In these moments Birdemic astonishes the viewer in that the technology fails to even account for perspective and reveal how truly difficult it is to create good visual effects, even though the proliferation of special effects films and the hiding of labor in conventional films make it seem so easy. However, what makes Birdemic stand out, even from a film like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, is how it accounts for the fact that astonishment can also be, in part, due to the failing of technical conventions like invisible style, editing, lighting, cinematography, and audio mixing that have become norms.

One of the better examples of how this astonishment can be created without the aid of poor visual effects is the dinner scene with Rod and Nathalie at the Chinese. This scene begins with what seems like an egregiously long establishing shot that pans across a mural inside the restaurant. When the characters’ dialogue finally begins, a few things become noticeable, the first of which is the poor lighting and cinematography. The lighting in this scene is almost consistently noticeable due to the fact that faces are often over lit and the backlighting creates an unnatural glow for the characters. To further complicate matters, there are moments when a good deal is out of focus, such as Rod’s hands as he uses chopsticks. Finally, the audio mixing within this dialogue is extremely noticeable, as the level of ambient background noise jumps up and down with every cut, both in this sequence specifically and in the film as a whole. What this does that Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus does not completely do is reveal the labor that goes into following basic cinematic conventions of production. A facet of production like audio levels is not usually evident to a casual spectator and thus would appear to be easy given its consistent invisibility, yet a film like Birdemic reveals how difficult concealing this truly is, as well as how difficulty of the labor that produces a film. Rather than getting lost in the fictional world of the film, the viewer remains aware of the act of looking upon these constant mistakes, fulfilling a sort of curiosity about just how poorly a film can be made, and a revelation of the amount of effort that goes into film production. Thus, astonishment in Birdemic is created by revealing just how the cinematic apparatus can fail given what seems like decades of perfection of conventional techniques of production, as well as the proliferation of special effects in digital cinema.

A Human Signature

Examples of badfilm, such as Birdemic and Mega Shark. Vs Giant Octopus, display their failure to achieve sprezzatura, and their stylistic flaws, for the visual pleasure and astonishment of contemporary spectators. However, while this explains how these films may function for a casual viewer, it does not fully explain why a viewer would want to participate in the cinema of negative guarantees. As Sconce suggests, a part of the answer to this question is rooted in cine- cynicism, which is “part of a larger cinephilic tradition that has long focused on the seemingly

perpetual failures of film art.” (Sconce, Movies, 288) Due to their failure to conform to cinematic norms, as well as their widespread cult followings, these films also seem to be taking part in an aesthetic discourse rooted in a familiarity with the proliferation and perfection of digital technology and well-made attractions. This, however, also means a part of the draw of these attractions is of a parodic nature; they can be viewed as mocking a system that is often derided for its lack of imagination. While I believe this viewpoint accounts for a portion of the audience for films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Birdemic, I propose that viewing the attractions in these films as a human signature both allows for this aesthetic discourse while explaining casual viewership.

Nicolas Rombes’ Cinema in the Digital Age provides an extremely useful account of contemporary spectatorship, especially when applied to the subgenre. He asserts that while computerized effects have proliferated, so has the spectator’s desire to see error. This desire for error was characterized, in the beginning of the digital era, by the Dogme 95 series. The Dogme films partook in an aesthetic discourse countering mainstream cinema, much like how paracinematic culture has advocated for an alternative vision of what cinema can be, while “mimicking the esoteric discourses of outsider art to forge a pseudo-populist avant-garde” (Sconce, Movies, 288). Despite the disparity between these instances of high and low art, both film movements compete against popular aesthetic standards, breaking away from conventional filmmaking techniques. Rombes further notes that, “as the cinema transitions from the traditional analogue apparatus to the digital, there has been an unexpected resurgence of humanism—with all its mistakes, imperfections and flaws—that acts as a sort of countermeasure to the numerical clarity and disembodiment of the digital code.”10 This countermeasure acts as a sort of “human signature”, where error becomes equivalent to the human touch and perfection becomes analogous to the computerized. Just like with the rough edges and rules of the Dogme films, the astonishing failures that are presented in films like Birdemic and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus form a human signature in that they draw the spectators attention away from the diegesis and towards the act of creation.

This desire for a human signature is pervasive in contemporary cinema as “at the heart of the perfect digital image—coded by its clean binaries—is a secret desire for mistakes, for randomness, for what Dick Hebdige might call ‘little disasters’.” (Rombes, 1) In badfilm, however, these disasters are pushed to the foreground, becoming the central draw of the film. The exhibition of these flaws as attractions only further moves the spectator’s focus away from the narratives to these moments in which humanistic errors occur. These attractions, distinguished by the human signature of error, both counter the perfection of contemporary special effects films and form the basis of the negative guarantees that attract spectators. In badfilm, the human signature of failure becomes an overwhelming root of the spectator’s astonishment and jouissance.

A human signature appears in other contemporary forms of art, including the movement of glitch art. Glitch art focuses on the creation of error through the alteration of digital codes that “undoes the communications platforms that we, as subjects of digital culture, both rely on and take for granted.”11 In much the same way, the poorly created visual effects and style of badfilm upsets the digital cinematic norms that spectators take for granted. Furthermore, the glitch “loudly announces the hegemony of digital representation and the passivity of its subjects.” (Manon & Temkin, 6) In much the same way, the stylistic shortcomings of a film like Birdemic or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus announces the passivity of subjects by drawing attention to style as labor; when sprezzatura is not achieved, the viewer becomes aware of the work required of them.

Figure I, taken from wwwwwwwww.jodi.org, represents a purposeful alteration of digital codes that has produced an illegible result, something that is normally characterized as an error, yet has gained its meaning and value through failure. In addition to the meaning of the aesthetic discourse that this artwork belongs to there is a certain beauty inherent within the piece. Badfilm also represents a rejection of the perfection of digital code as well as a failure of seemingly perfect technology. In much the same way, though the glitch-like special effects of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Birdemic represent what would normally be viewed as a failure, they become astonishing attractions that appeal to viewers. The shared value of these two movements, though, is rooted in their humanism. Glitch art is deployed “not as a marker of artifice, but as a signifier of raw authenticity.” (Manon & Temkin, 8) In much the same way, the human signature, in examples of badfilm, operates as a representation of authenticity due to constant failures reminding the viewer that these films are, indeed, human creations. For scholars Hugh Manon and Daniel Temkin, badfilm and glitch art are linked to other movements of film through more than these just these parallels of failure and humanism. In the case of aesthetic discourse, “the digital era has also brought the CGI blockbuster, with its suffocatingly pristine landscapes, incessant undulating ‘camera’ movements, and hyper-detailed surfaces. Glitch is the farthest one can get from such imagery, re-infecting that which technological advancement has made sterile.” (Manon & Temkin, 13) Just as the code of glitch art and its failure marks it as a reaction against the pristine, invisible style of the CGI blockbuster, so too do the failed computerized images in a film like Mega Shark. vs. Giant Octopus or Birdemic. These examples of badfilm infect the pristine landscapes of contemporary blockbusters with the human signature of their failure.

Finally, one last crucial element that relates the aesthetic discourse of these two seemingly unique movements against the blockbuster is that Manon and Temkin define the glitch as a “failure to fail fully”; the software continues to run in spite of the encoding errors the author causes. Similarly, the effects in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Birdemic must be characterized as a failure to fail fully. Even though the visual effects are seemingly created in error in both films, this does not either impede the narrative or halt the production of each film.

In addition to the fact that the killer birds in Birdemic both represent a failure to achieve sprezzatura, they also seemingly fail to become a part of the diegetic world. Yet, the film can still be understood a failure to fail fully; despite being seemingly displaced from the diegesis, the birds and the characters continue to interact and the story progresses. Furthermore, visual effects are still presented to the audience in spite of issues of quality, and the film has even found distribution and a viewership that enjoys it. Despite the films’ countless failures, it has somehow failed to fail fully and become quite the story of cult success due to the many astonishing instances of its human signature. Just like the Dogme 95 movement and glitch art, badfilm participates in an aesthetic discourse based off of its use of the human signature contrary to cinematic norms. However, it is important to note that while the human signature in badfilm can be located in this aesthetic discourse, a casual viewer may simply read it as a set of astonishing, or even parodic, attractions.

Conclusion

By understanding the failure to achieve sprezzatura in badfilm as a human signature that functions as a set of attractions for audiences, a more complete account of badfilm spectatorship begins to emerge that explains the investment of both Sconce’s contrarian community as well as casual viewers. It is important to note that these concepts do not renounce the traditional idea of ironic spectatorship. The fact that these films so readily exhibit the human signature as an attraction allows viewers to easily display their knowledge of the mechanics of failure; as previously stated, though audio mixing is not something many casual viewers would routinely observe in films, it is extremely noticeable in Birdemic. This functions as a prominent mark of the human signature, which makes it easier for spectators to express their astonishment and situate themselves above the failures of these films. In addition, though, these concepts allows for a different mode of viewership to emerge in which the spectator has a more sympathetic relationship with the film. This spectator would not necessarily situate himself or herself above the film, but may empathize with the beauty of the more human moments of these films or even just find the showcasing of the regression of digital technology to be astonishing. Furthermore, a spectator may view these attractions as having a parodic relationship with blockbusters. Viewing badfilm spectatorship as just cynical or ironic denies the diverse relationships possible with the screen that an account based off of attractions, astonishment and the human signature allows to emerge.

Furthermore, the spectator’s purposeful seeking out of authenticity in error does not, of course, limit itself just to these examples of badfilm. A quick gloss over any film’s IMDB page, or a variety of other devoted film sites, will yield a long list of “goofs”, moments where continuity is broken or maybe even a boom is seen in the top of the frame. Even in a cutting edge, special effects driven film, like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014), a spectator can scan the frame at several moments and see cameramen that are supposed to be hidden from view. These seeming moments of failure in production, when the laborious process of crafting a film is revealed, can actually be viewed as triumphs, satisfying the desire for a warm, humanistic touch to contrast the computerized creation of many of these moments in addition to, once again, the ability for the audience to know more than the film. These moments may only temporarily distract the viewer from the diegetic world and character entanglements, but they provide a welcome moment of relief wherein the spectator is reminded of a genuine, human aspect of creation, even in the largest scale and most seemingly impersonal blockbuster.

What poorly made films, like Birdemic and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, do is to push these failures to the foreground and exhibit them as a sort of spectacle for the audience’s pleasure. While spectatorship of badfilm still fits into the aesthetic discourse that Sconce posits, the concept of attractions further clarifies the joy that even a casual viewer may derive from the experience of watching these films. Furthermore, these attractions, marks of a human signature behind the production of the films, further establish the value of badfilm as a commodity that audiences would be willing to watch. Regardless of whether the viewer is ironic or sympathetic, the astonishment, and joy, of watching a badfilm come when the films’ attractions remind the spectator of just how human computerized visual effects can still.

[1] Sconce, Jeffrey. “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style.” The Cult Film Reader. Ed. Ernest Mathijs. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open UP/McGraw-Hill Education, 2008. Print. 113

[2] Rhodes, John David. “Belabored: Style as Work.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53.1 (2012): 48. Print. 48.

[3] Movies: A Century of Failure.” Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Ed. Jeffrey Sconce. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print. 276.

[4] Nick, De Semlyen. “James Nguyen Talks Birdemic: The Resurrection | Interviews | Empireonline.com.” Empireonline.com. Empire. Web. 19. Apr. 2015. <http://www.empireonline.com/interviews/interview.asp?IID=1684>.

[5] Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Ed. Thomas Elsaesser. London: BFI Pub. 1990. Print. 56.

[6] Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Art and Text (1989). Web. <http://www2.uni- jena.de/philosophie/medien/pdf/SoSe09_Gunning_AestheticOfAstonishment.pdf>. 123.

[7] Tomasovic, Dick. “The Hollywood Cobweb.” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006. 309-320. Print. 314.

[8] Rossack, Elvand. “Figures of Sensation” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006. Print. 322.

[9] Itzkoff, Dave. “A Cheesy Horror Turkey Becomes a High Flying Cult Hit.” The New York Times, March 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/movies/25birdemic.html.

Works Cited:

De Semlyen, Nick. “James Nguyen Talks Birdemic: The Resurrection | Interviews | Empireonline.com.” Empireonline.com. Empire. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.empireonline.com/interviews/interview.asp?IID=1684>.

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative.

Ed. Thomas Elsaesser. London: BFI Pub. 1990. Print.

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Art and Text (1989). Web. http://www2.uni- jena.de/philosophie/medien/pdf/SoSe09_Gunning_AestheticOfAstonishment.pdf

Itzkoff, Dave. “A Cheesy Horror Turkey Becomes a High Flying Cult Hit.” The New York Times, March 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/movies/25birdemic.html.

Manon, Hugh, and Daniel Temkin. “Notes On Glitch.” World Picture Journal 6 (2011).Web. http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_6/Manon.html

Rhodes, John David. “Belabored: Style as Work.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53.1 (2012)

Rombes, Nicholas. Cinema in the Digital Age. London: Wallflower, 2009. Print.

Rossack, Elvand. “Figures of Sensation” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed.

Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006. Print.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style.” The Cult Film Reader. Ed. Ernest Mathijs. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open UP/McGraw-Hill Education, 2008. Print.

Sconce, Jeffrey “Movies: A Century of Failure.” Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Ed. Jeffrey Sconce. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

Tomasovic, Dick. “The Hollywood Cobweb.” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed.

Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006. 309-320. Print.

 

Appendix: Images

 

Figure A: Atomic Breath in Gojiro (Honda, 1954)

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Figure B: Atomic Breath in Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)

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Figure C: Atomic Breath in Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)

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Figure D: Mega Shark fights Giant Octopus

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Figure E: Mega Shark fights Giant Octopus

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Figure F: Godzilla fights the MUTOs

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Figure G: The birds attack a double decker bus in Birdemic

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Figure H: Hitchcock’s birds attack a group of children outside of their school

 

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Figure I: Glitch Art from wwwwwwwww.jodi.org

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