Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

“So Bad It’s Good”: How to Love Bad Movies

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from The Room (2003), dir. Tommy Wiseau

Writing Why it’s OK to Love Bad Movies has given me an opportunity to bring together two of the most important parts of my life: my cinephilia and my research in philosophy of art. This is not a book I dreamed up in a library or classroom. It emerges from the countless hours I’ve spent immersed in the medium of film, and it’s more of a love letter than a treatise. The ideas I present convey my own way of being as much as my views about debates in aesthetics.

It is therefore especially moving to me to be read with the careful attention that the contributors to this roundtable display, and it is immensely gratifying that they have taken up my exhortation to dive into the fray and let their freak flags fly. My goal was never to convince everyone to love the bad movies that I love. Rather, my hope was that readers would embrace taste anarchism and proudly celebrate the disreputable movies they love in ways that are expressive of their own idiosyncratic sensibilities. 

I argue in the book that so-called “bad” movies are the ones that violate the received norms and standards of the medium in a way that is not perceived as artistically serious. Many of these movies are dull and uninteresting. But many others are exciting precisely because they are so unconventional, and they can be interesting to us in ways that fall outside the scope of culturally constructed notions of artistic seriousness. Bad movies tend to break us out of our ordinary contexts and open new pathways for aesthetic engagement and social bonding. When I watch a straightforwardly “good” movie, I know the routine. I know how to watch it, how to talk about it, and how others will react to me when I discuss it with them. Loving bad movies leads us into a cultural wilderness. It risks the mocking judgment of those who are in the narrow grip of received norms, but it opens the door to surprises—new joys, new friendships, wilder movies. Setting aside the script for the way we are supposed to watch movies creates the opportunity to watch them in our own way—a way that is expressive of who we are as unique individuals. Such self-expression, in turn, enables participation in lively communities that celebrate the weirdness and creativity of bad movies and the people who love them. As I argue in the book, coming together to find unconventional ways of appreciating movies also helps us find unconventional ways of appreciating each other. The contributors to this roundtable have answered this calling, and I can only hope that those who read it are inspired to do the same.

— Matt Strohl

Our Contributors are:

  • John Dyck, Lecturer, University of West Georgia
  • Justin Khoo, Associate Professor of Philosophy, MIT
  • Alex King, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University
  • Erich Hatala Matthes, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Wellesley College
  • Thi Nguyen, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Utah
  • Nick Riggle, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of San Diego
  • Elizabeth Scarbrough, Associate Teaching Professor of Philosophy, Florida International University

John Dyck

John Dyck is Lecturer at University of West Georgia

I found myself giddily reading along with this book, nodding even though I’ve read it for the fourth time. Matt discusses the way that trash movies are unencumbered by mainstream norms—what the famous film critic Pauline Kael calls “middle-class padding”. Trash movies don’t aim for respectability, and that’s just what makes them so delicious. (Indeed, Kael had a keen distaste for obsequious films that tried to fulfill an audience’s desire to feel moral.) A real movie, Kael thought, aimed for entertainment.

I think Kael would have loved Matt’s defense of direct-to-video (DTV) movies (and indeed, his defense of the genre itself).  I certainly did. Matt argues that these movies resist the middle-class padding that Kael mentions. Matt points out that the formulaic elements of DTV films are precisely what give them their value. 

Matt gives two kinds of arguments. One is based on the priorities of a film. A movie can spend only so much time doing things. Matt appeals to critic Vishnevetsky, who argues that movies that aim at middle-class padding spend energy developing “character development, dramatic weight, extensive world-building, plot rationality, grandiose effects” (Vishnevetsky, quoted on p 80). DTV movies don’t bother with any of that. And that gives those movies a kind of “minimalism” (Vishnevetsky’s term) so that the movie can free up to focus just on action sequences. It frees up our attention to focus on “action choreography and cinematic style.” (83). As Matt says: “The formulaic nature of low budget action cinema is a feature, not a bug.” A narrative formula frees up our attention from being focused on narrative aspects that aren’t why we go to action movies.

The second kind of argument is based on appreciation that depends in some sense on a formulaic trope—not because the formula opens up focus on other aspects, but instead because that formula allows a structure that is worthy of attention. We can compare things and appreciate things best when they share the same formula. You gain a greater appreciation for the formula itself, but you can also get better at making distinctions in works that execute the formula. Matt’s example is pizza—an endlessly-executed formula. The more familiar you are with pizza, the better you can evaluate each individual pizza, making distinctions and valuing certain aspects of others. Matt insightfully makes the same point about paintings of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. No one complains that these paintings are formulaic; they are interested in different ways that they satisfy the formula.

Part of the reason I love this argument is that it sheds light on my passion for mainstream country music. I started listening to mainstream country because part of me found it ridiculous because it was so formulaic. I soon learned that country fans know this! But the formulaic elements help us do so much more with the music. They help us appreciate other elements that might lend to country authenticity that is important to people’s experience of the genre (even if it’s totally fake). They help us notice what goes in and out as a marker of authenticity (lately, it’s mentioning Eric Church songs and Yeti coolers). Country fans don’t roll their eyes and think, “Oh brother, another song about getting over a heartbreak through alcohol.” No! The country fan says: “Ah, I love this kind of song. I’m curious to see how this one does the trick.”

I want to raise a question about how it works with Matt’s account of good-bad movies. Matt says that an artwork is good-bad when it promotes valuable aesthetic activities in virtue of violating certain conventional norms in a way that is not perceived as artistically serious. This raises a question. Does the good-bad movie fan have to prize the features of a movie precisely because they violate conventional norms? Or can they prize a work just for its valuable features without focusing on the fact that they aren’t conventional?

Matt has given us two very real virtues of formulaic art. The formula itself opens up avenues for delicate discriminations about the formula, and it opens up more space for other aspects. When we value a film along these lines, then it seems we are just enjoying a film for its valuable activities of achievement. I am appreciating the films for these features—not because those features violate conventional norms. What makes these movies worth watching is the choreography and the cinematic style, the ways in which repetitive formulas like the Die Hard trope can be endlessly revisited. It is these features that we appreciate. The respectability or lack of respectability seems to have fallen entirely away. Even if a formula might be disreputable, it’s not the disreputation that makes it good. It’s the good qualities. 

And yet, a part of me likes the fact that people make fun of mainstream country for the tropes that I love. So, my dilemma for Matt is an honest question. There’s a part of me that just enjoys what’s good because it’s good. But there’s another part of me that still takes some pleasure in the fact that these works violate good standards of respectable art. I wonder which it is.  

Justin Khoo

Justin Khoo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at MIT

What do we mean when we say that a movie is “so bad, it’s good”? We might mean that its badness enables us to engage with it in enjoyable (good) ways. Some of these ways of engaging with bad movies are negative (mockery, ridicule); others are positive (developing an appreciation for sincere eccentricity, conceptual exploration, forming new communities). In Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies, Matt Strohl argues for the value of positive engagement with bad movies. I am totally on board with this project. 

Alternatively, if I say that a movie “so bad, it’s good” I might mean that I found it so bad that it inspired a revision to my tastes, so that I now find it good. I recently watched Welcome to Marwen, the 2018 film by Robert Zemeckis that tells “the inspirational true story” of a man, Mark Hogancamp, who, after being severely beaten for wearing women’s clothes, finds refuge photographing elaborate dioramas involving dolls in a miniature World War II era town. My initial reaction to the film mirrored the broad consensus. I found it almost unbearably corny, and the earnestness with which Zemeckis portrays Hogancamp’s often creepy fantasies with his dolls (some of which are sexual) made me deeply uncomfortable. Yet, for days afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It irritated me that, despite what seemed like many obvious and unforgiveable flaws, I wanted to like it; part of me did like it. 

Such aesthetic turmoil is uncomfortable because, with our tastes called into question, we are tasked with adjudicating a conflict without any grounds on which to issue a verdict. But it is also invigorating, a chance for reinvention, a reminder that our tastes are not something we are beholden to, yet at the same time not entirely under our conscious control. 

I eventually made my peace with Marwen. I now find the movie good exactly because it so earnestly embodies Hogancamp’s fractured and peculiar state of mind. In fact, I think there are few better portrayals of the phenomenology of panic than this film. The film needed to be corny and induce discomfort to achieve these valuable aims. To his credit, Zemeckis must have known how most people would react to its oddities, and yet he embraced them anyway, in the pursuit of his artistic vision. 

Something happened pre- and post-Marwen for me. It’s not just that I felt awkward expressing my love for a film everyone else seemed to hate and then got over that (in fact, I still feel some discomfort expressing this opinion publicly). Something about me changed; my tastes changed; the way I watched movies changed. Aesthetic turmoil is an experience I don’t know quite how to describe. Nonetheless, it is one of the few opportunities we have to exercise pure aesthetic agency, to reinvent ourselves as valuers.

Reinvention can be painful; we have to lose ourselves, or at least a part of ourselves, to evolve. That’s why books like Matt’s are important — they show us paths through the chaos to try out while we wonder what kind of valuer we want to be. Even recognizing that bad movie love is a genuine aesthetic outlook may itself induce some degree of turmoil that leads you to revise or refine your tastes. So, I join with Matt and invite you to avoid aesthetic complacency: don’t let critics or popular consensus or the “cool kids” decide for you what to like. Try on new perspectives, and don’t be afraid of aesthetic turmoil. Yes, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s also part of what it is to be free to define your own point of view. And, who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself with newfound strong opinions on the Team Edward / Team Jacob debate (see Twilight; see my conversation with Matt about the film on Cows in the Field).   

Alex King

Alex King is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University

Matt Strohl’s recent book is a delight to read. That is in part because of the spirit of excitement, generosity, and sincerity he offers as a counter to the snobbery, cynicism, and disdainfulness that too often characterize aesthetic community building. To lift a term from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Strohl is concerned that we use aesthetic preferences as a form of distinction. This is distinction in both the sense of simple difference and the sense of superiority. We use our aesthetic preferences to classify ourselves as different from others, and moreover to classify ourselves as somehow better than or more distinguished than others. This isn’t the central issue that animates his book, but it’s an important thread.

It was therefore sort of surprising to me that he doesn’t talk about irony and ironic liking. I’ll admit that I know a bit about what went on behind the scenes: He thought the term was too variably used to be instructive or illuminating.

He’s right – people use these terms to mean wildly different things. But I think it can still be helpful to examine what I take to be the core uses of the term. Ironically liking something involves two attitudes or presentations: one positive and one negative. On the positive side, ironically liking something involves some form of, well, liking it. On the negative side, this liking is somehow undercut by irony. Maybe it’s an outward performance of liking alongside an actual attitude of dislike or disdain. Maybe it involves genuinely liking something alongside an awareness that one shouldn’t like it. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, it embodies these two aspects, and one upshot of Strohl’s view is that we should question the negative aspect when we find ourselves liking something ironically. Why the disdain? Why think that you shouldn’t like what you actually like? Why that negative aspect?

Strohl’s answer to this is, of course, to say that it’s OK to love bad movies! In other words, at least in many cases, we should deny space to the negative aspect of ironically liking things. If you don’t like something, don’t pretend to like it. That’s messed up! It’s inauthentic and, more perniciously, it’s a way of making fun of the people who do like it, or making fun of the manner in which they like it. They like it simply, without reflection or distancing. But the ironic appreciator likes it with a haughty smirk. Strohl’s counterpoint, framed by the discussion of irony, is that this is a terrible way to move through aesthetic and artistic worlds.

If you do like something, like it earnestly and honestly and with abandon. Don’t listen to the haters who say that you shouldn’t like Nicolas Cage’s over-the-top acting or Troll 2. Don’t give in to the way of watching popularized by Mystery Science Theatre 3000: with the gleam of superiority in your eye, a loaded insult in your mouth, and similar-minded friends present (because if nobody laughs at your insult, did you truly insult?). Don’t look at people who are honest and courageous enough to openly like bad movies and think to yourself how much better you are. (You both watch bad movies, sure. But you watch them better than they do.)

In case it isn’t already obvious, I agree entirely with Strohl’s perspective here. And this perspective gives us a way to understand what happens when people ironically like things, and especially what happens when that mode of appreciation gains social currency. If those people are in positions of social power or dominance, this leads inevitably to systematic knocking-down of the things ironically appreciated and public shame at honest affiliation. This, I think, is why people take ironically liking something to mean such different things: Some people are shamed into presenting as though they dislike something; others are shamed into presenting as though they like it; others occupy a cognitively dissonant intermediate position.

If what I said above is right, then it is pretty obvious that the ironic appreciator is in the grip of a series of misconceptions, polluted by the prevalence of irony. What is less obvious, however, is that the unironic appreciator’s liking is also polluted. Disclosure time: I love Taco Bell, and I watch The Bachelor and its franchise shows religiously. I aspire to love these things earnestly, honestly, and with abandon, but I admit that the social structures of ironic appreciation get in the way. Ironic liking is the status quo for a person in my position engaging with things like this. It is the default way I am interpreted as liking them. But these social structures and expectations make it impossible for me to like these things without thereby taking a side or communicating something about myself. I can choose the ironic mode, and be an ironic jerk. Or I can choose the authentic mode, and be a proud iconoclast. The impossible option, sadly off the table, is to just be myself.

Erich Hatala Matthes

Erich Hatala Matthes is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College

Philosophers, beware: this piece is going to be more of a Strohl love-letter than a critical commentary, but I hope that it’s philosophically valuable for precisely that reason. I want to highlight two features of Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies that capture undervalued philosophical virtues: openness and a sense of fun.

First, openness. Strohl has an uncanny ability to help you see things that are worth appreciating even when your point of departure for appreciating them is so far away that the prospect of your minds meeting seems incredibly bleak. My first experience with this Strohlian skill was when I read his blog commentary on the Saw movie franchise. While I appreciate a certain brand of generally creepy horror, I really lack the stomach for the kind of “torture porn” gore-fest that the Saw movies exemplify. I’ve never seen any of them. But when Strohl published his Saw commentary, I clicked on it out of passing curiosity, and before I knew it, I had read the entire thing. In doing so, I felt an almost visceral sense that I had gained a perspective that might allow me to appreciate something that I before couldn’t conceive of appreciating, like paradigms were literally shifting in my brain. Reader, I might someday watch a Saw movie.

Part of how Strohl achieves this openness is through his embrace of what Nick Riggle has recently called “the norm of invitation.” Sometimes, when people champion a view that is counter to received norms, they try to brow-beat everyone into recognizing that they have been thoughtless fools for accepting such a lame consensus position in the first place. But consistent with his distinction between Bad Movie Love and Bad Movie Ridicule, Strohl’s approach to a niche aesthetic space isn’t to viciously criticize the mainstream, but to open up room for new objects and modes of appreciation. He doesn’t try to make us feel bad about getting things wrong; he tries to help us see what we might be missing. I hate the prevalent pugilistic disposition of contemporary philosophy, and Strohl’s book illustrates how you can take a strong stand in favor of a disputed view without turning it into a fight. Philosophy would be better for aspiring to this virtue.

Second, a sense of fun. This book is just plain fun. The topic is fun and the writing is infused with joy. Philosophy can and should be fun sometimes, and I dare say, more often. Not all the time. Some philosophical topics are too serious to approach with light-heartedness—it would be offensive to do so. But even when philosophers do write about fun topics or cases, they often wring the fun out of them by making them overcomplicated and tedious. Sometimes it feels that in order to take a “philosophical approach” to a topic, philosophers think you need to introduce 27 distinctions that leave the issue cut to ribbons, as if you’d smashed it through a potato ricer. That’s not Strohl. He doesn’t just write about Bad Movie Love here: you feel the love. The book itself reflects what Strohl calls “an activity of engagement in the mode of appreciation” (24).

The openness and sense of fun that this book captures unite to make it both an enjoyable and enriching reading experience. Generally speaking, I am the square with mainstream taste that Strohl is exhorting to branch out, and insofar as I have enjoyed bad movies in the past, it has probably been in the mode of ridicule more often than not. But Strohl shows us that there’s another way, and he invites us to join in. I don’t feel called out reading this. And that’s how philosophy should be! There’s so much joy and wonder in philosophical thinking, and I think many of us know this in our bones when it comes to teaching but manage to forget it (or have it shamed out of us) when it comes to our writing and research. This book makes me want to approach bad movies in the mode of appreciation, but also to extend that charitable attitude to other things, too, remaining open to what might be there to value, even if it’s conventionally “bad.” You might think I’m kidding when I say that a book about loving bad movies makes me want to be a better person, but I’m going to take a cue from Nicolas Cage here and try to be “genuinely emotionally naked”— it’s the truth.

Thi Nguyen

Thi Nguyen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Utah

Matt Strohl’s new book, Why it’s OK to Love Bad Movies, is hysterical, genre-defying, and tasty as fuck. I mean, when I was reading the thing, I laughed so hard that my kids came over to find out what was going on. They wanted me to read it to them. (I did; I’m not sure they had the requisite understanding of John Travolta’s cultural legacy to really understand why Strohl’s Battlefield Earth exegesis had me howling with laughter.) It is actually hard to pick out the funniest part of Strohl’s book. And how many works of rigorous analytic philosophy could you possibly say that about? 

But Strohl’s book is more than funny: it’s brilliant. In working through his burning love of The Core, Nicolas Cage, and Ninja III: The Domination, Strohl gives us a full story about why we spend so much time with art — or, rather, about how we should spend our time with art. Because in Strohl’s mind, aesthetic appreciation isn’t just a matter of getting it right or wrong, properly classifying art as good or bad, elegant or trashy. Appreciation is so much more. It is a profoundly participatory act. Doing it well involves being open and alive to a whole spectrum of possible different ways of being valuable, and even inventing new ways of seeing and understanding.

Here is the coolest part about Strohl’s view. What you see in a movie doesn’t just reveal something about the movie. It reveals something about you. You can be a perfectly accurate, but profoundly uncreative appreciator. You could walk into the world with a received set of norms about how movies should be — The Rules of Movies. Movies should be plausible; that they should have well-developed, believable characters and coherent story arcs, blah blah blah. And then you could harshly judge everything that fails those rules. You’d have the weight of mainstream critical agreement behind you. You would most assuredly have “good taste”. But, Strohl not-so-quietly suggests, you’d also be kind of an asshole. You’d be participating in the game of refusing innovation, enforcing standard norms, and shitting on people for their sincerity, for chasing their own muse. You’d be a boring appreciator. 

Or, you could be an alive viewer, an open viewer, a creative viewer. And you could help to build a live, open-minded, and creative community of appreciators. You could find ways to appreciate something, without just stupidly enforcing the prevailing norms. Maybe Ninja III doesn’t have a coherent plot, but it has the pure minimal beauty of bodies in elegant motion. Maybe Peggy Sue Gets Married doesn’t have the most realistic characters, but it does have the delicious absurdity of Nicolas Cage acting with an energy completely out of synch with everybody else. 

But here’s where things get interesting. Strohl believes in creative appreciation, but he also thinks that the activity of aesthetic appreciation should be loyal to the real features of the movie. Appreciators should pay attention to the historical context, the artist’s intent, the actual details of the work. It’s important that what we’re appreciating, in our creative vision, is part of how the movie really is. A tension emerges: how can art appreciation be free and creative, but also be a matter of finding the real features that artworks actually have?

But couldn’t we also, just, you know, make shit up, ignoring some of the facts on the ground, maybe even ignoring a few convenient parts of the movie, in our quest to offer our goofy, drunk case for how Jackass Forever is actually a Marxist critique of work? Ignoring a few parts of the movie — or the historical circumstances of its creation — is a small price to pay for how funny my interpretation is, and how creative the process was for me. If the point is creativity, and community bonding, why should we be constrained by the truth? 

This echoes an older debate in aesthetics. Some philosophers have thought that the purpose of aesthetic appreciation was pleasure, achieved via accurate judgments about art. But that raises the question: if the point is pleasure, why be accurate? If the point is pleasure, why not make whatever interpretations and judgments give you the most pleasure, no matter how inaccurate? The same puzzle arises for the Strohlian view. To the extent that the point of aesthetic appreciation is creative engagement, personal expression, and community building – then why not make whatever judgments, in whatever manner, that are the most creative, expressive, and community-building? 

I have my own answer, but it leads someplace a little different from where Strohl goes. I think art appreciation is like a game: we try to get the right answers, but not because we care about the right answers — but because we want to be engaged in the struggle. Sometimes, the game we want to play is getting things right. We play it because we love the experience of carefully attending to the details — the joys of fine-grained, careful attention. But, importantly, that’s not the only game to play. There can be games where we try to pay less attention, or no attention, to getting all the details right. Think about the difference between the game of, say, Trivial Pursuit vs. the game of improv comedy. In one, we care about getting the historical details right; in the other, we might act out a torrid love affair between Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson because it’s so damn funny. 

Here is my modified version of the Strohlian view: call it Bad Movie Love Pluralism. There are lots of possible appreciation-games to play with bad movies. Some involve fine-grained attention to details. Others involve making shit up. Some of these games better serve the goals of experiencing fine-grained attention. But other, slightly different games better serve the goals of creative self-expression — and the joys of just making shit up with your friends. 

So my question for Strohl is: why not go full pluralist? Why not allow that there are some versions of Bad Movie Love that should be attentive to all the facts on the ground, and other versions — that serve slightly different purposes — that care far less about getting it right? 

Nick Riggle

Nick Riggle is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of San Diego

Strohl and I have had an aesthetic disagreement for years now. He thinks that Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift is good-bad. But I think that Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift is perfectly bad. It is not so bad that it’s good. And it is not good. It’s just plain, straightup, exactly bad. The first two films in the now 9-film franchise are also not very good, but aren’t all that bad. They feature early acting from Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Eva Mendez, and Paul Walker. They are full of wild car chases, high-speed heists, and high-risk races—all of which occur as part of some incredible, hilarious, and super fun plot. They set the stage for a series of films that would double down and improve on these elements, taking them almost literally to the moon. 

The third film, Tokyo Drift, does not have Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez, or Mendez. It does not have a hilariously extra plot. It has zero multi-car heists. There are no cars epically launching onto yachts to save the day. Instead of Paul Walker, it has the goofy Lucas Black playing the goofier Sean Boswell. It has the most formulaic and pared-down plot imaginable: Sean is an outsider who doesn’t play by the rules, as the film makes amply known, and he has to find his own way by impressing the hot girl at school with his car handling skills. Tricked out cars do little more than drift in parking lots and down mountains. And boy do they drift. So much drifting that my memory of the film is inseparable from the awful sound of screeching tires. Everything good about the first two films is gone, and we’re left with gratuitous boob and butt shots. I will never watch this movie again.

That’s what my past self would have said, myself before reading Matt’s book. 

Since reading Matt’s book, I have watched Tokyo Drift three more times, and I found a way to love it. This is what Matt’s book will do to you. I could spend hours praising it. I read nearly every word with a smile on my face. It is insightful, original, clear, bold, hilarious, and full of Strohl’s distinctive and wonderful personality. To lift a cringy, exhaustingly-repeated phrase from a favorite good-bad cooking show: It’s Strohl on a plate. But the plate is a book. And I ate it up. Reading it genuinely affected my aesthetic life in what I am confident will be a lasting manner. Thanks to Strohl—like, truly, thank you—I have spent many more hours than I would have watching cinematic garbage. The book is philosophy, and reading it was sheer joy. How is this possible with a philosophy book? Well it is. I wish more philosophers were capable of writing books like this and bold enough to go through with it. Read it. And be prepared to spend at least twenty-five bucks renting films that no streaming service cares to make readily available.

The heart of Strohl’s book is a plea to be more loving and generous in our engagement with film, and much of the book displays a master at work, finding cinematic treasure in the unlikeliest of places. One of the most striking literary qualities of the book comes from the fact that it is written by a seasoned, broad, and supple movie lover who does not inject their love parenthetically or tweak it to fit some formulaic writing mold. Strohl openly expresses his aesthetic love on every page; it is what drives and structures the book, and this gives the book a unique and fitting style. Sure, maybe Tokyo Drift is unsubtle, has bad acting, the thinnest of plots, gratuitous appeals to the simplest pleasures, and so on. But even a film like that might be more than it seems, and bad movie love is a valuing practice that demands a deeper look. 

After reading Matt’s book I wanted to see through his eyes, so I looked deeper. Here’s what I found: Rather than abandoning all the flashy and fun elements of the first two installments, Tokyo Drift is the first to establish the deeper themes of the whole franchise. My attitude shifted when I realized that it is way more interesting to think of Han Lue as the main character, not Sean. Han is introduced in Tokyo Drift, but he features in five of the next six films and becomes one of the most beloved characters in the franchise. In the timeline of the fiction, the events of Tokyo Drift take place after Furious 7. After Han’s partner Gisele dies in the epic tarmac scene, Han finds his way to Tokyo and tries to rebuild his life. But he seems unable to escape a deep loneliness, and Tokyo Drift centers around Han at his lowest, mourning and longing for Gisele, for the love from his chosen family, apparently in need of money and taking even more deadly risks (e.g. stealing from the Yakuza). If you didn’t know about Han’s past, you might wonder why he decides to help Sean Boswell. But knowing about Han’s past makes it obvious: Han sees in Sean glimmers of himself, of Brian and Dom, and he realizes that Sean also needs to find what Han just lost: his own chosen family. So Han takes Sean under his wing and teaches him the Fast & Furious values: how to take your love of racing cars beyond macho competition to build family, loyalty, love, and meaning. This makes Han’s (apparent) death in Tokyo Drift even more tragic and Sean’s triumphant win at the end a celebration of Han’s altruism and heroism.

So, Matt, if you wanted to change my mind about Tokyo Drift, then you succeeded. As Strohl says in one of many quotable lines, “Getting over yourself is a beautiful thing.” It’s liberating to find sources of love where you thought there were none, especially when it’s easy to be over-invested in your aesthetic hatred. I am nowhere near Strohl’s level of aesthetic love, but I think his book set me on a path to being a better lover.

Elizabeth Scarbrough

Elizabeth Scarbrough is Associate Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Florida International University

In a recent episode of the Cult & Trash Horror Movie Grind podcast, the hosts discuss Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996), a classic good-bad movie. One of them asks the group (including Strohl): “Why is it that people like me…love that shit [good-bad movies], but my wife can’t stand it at all?” Strohl cites a study that found that 87% of “trash” movie lovers were male. And while the account of bad movie love described in Why it’s OK to Love Bad Movies extends beyond this male-dominated culture, it’s still true that good-bad movie culture has an image problem. Leprechaun 4 is an instructive case. Its director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, also directed made for TV Hallmark movie, The Cabin (2011). I have two related questions: why is this fandom so male and why is Leprechaun 4 in the good-bad movie canon, but not Hallmark Holiday movies like The Cabin?

I think the answer to the gender imbalance question lies in both the content and the community. Recently I rewatched Leprechaun 4 several times with folks who are not straight/white/cis/male. In general, we loved it. Its juvenile humor is mostly hilarious, but the situations making light of sexual assault and the racist/sexist/homophobic jokes did not go over as well.

One of my favorite parts of Strohl’s book is his argument for aesthetic slots. We don’t always want to watch a certified great movie – sometimes we want to watch a comfort movie, and other times we want to watch something that challenges us. If good-bad movies are supposed to fill the aesthetic slot of fun, perhaps movies with certain vices won’t scratch that itch. And, from anecdotal (and personal) experience, the communities formed by bad-movie love are often not friendly to those who might wince at (or dare mention) the moral wrongdoings mentioned above.

While chapter 4 of the book is dedicated to the Twilight movies, Strohl admits, “At least in my circles, it’s cool to like The Room and it’s cool to like Troll 2, but it’s decidedly uncool to like Twilight.” Why? His response, “There’s no doubt a lot of misogyny wrapped up in this disdain.” Agreed; but I think another answer holds: the self-perception of being transgressive.  

In the study Strohl cites, trash film lovers are predominantly male and tend to self-identify as appreciators of art cinema. They like movies that transgress norms. But it’s not just that the movie itself transgresses received norms of good movie making, but also that the movie watchers see themselves as being transgressive in their bad-movie love. Strohl notes that for some demographics embracing Twilight can be a way of “resisting gender expectations” and therefore, I think, quite transgressive. A similar argument can be made for watching Hallmark Holiday movies. 

Strohl quotes the famous critic Pauline Kael who says, “The lowest action trash is preferable to wholesome family entertainment. When … you make movies respectable, you kill them.” But Hallmark Holiday movies aren’t quite the “wholesome family entertainment” Kael had in mind. Sure, they’re cinematic comfort food to their target audience: white conservative women. But many of these movies have pernicious MAGA-style agendas where heterosexual marriage is the primary path to emotional fulfillment and the true heart of America exists only in small towns (especially snow-covered ones in Vermont). Baking also seems really important. Women, having forgotten how to bake, have lost traditional values – which is making them miserable! 

Memes about hate-watching these movies in reverse are ubiquitous (e.g., small-town girl leaves hunky boyfriend to move to NYC to take a high-powered job). And while most of these movies are bad-bad, every once in a while, you find one bonkers enough to be worthy of good-bad love. For example, the classic, The Christmas Train, has been likened to Snowpiercer except for everyone is drunk on Schnapps. And for a genre that adheres to Hays Code-level sexual censorship, the movies are ridiculously horny. Good-badness abounds, if only you know where to look. 

Let me enumerate the similarities between the two groups. Strohl pointed my attention to a great Letterboxd list, “Hallmark Christmas Movies by Exploitation Directors.” Canonical good-bad movies and Hallmark Holiday Movies share directors, and share many of the same flaws: formulaic, bad acting, narrative holes, terrible dialogue, and cheap production value. Uniquely Hallmark flaws include over-sentimentality, Thomas Kinkade-like setting, and the often not-so-subtle messaging of a Republican political ad circa 1984. I think it is the ‘womanly’ sentimentality and norm-core environs that keep these movies off many people’s good-bad lists. A leprechaun being ‘reborn’ out of a penis during an aggressive hand-job – transgressive. The subtle ways directors subvert Hallmark’s agenda is perhaps harder to spot – but no less transgressive or satisfying.

Over the holidays I watched the DTV Christmas Ever After with my family. We laughed at many of the cringy bits, and even played a game of “which character has been secretly drunk this entire time.” We marveled at the ways the movie subverted some of the pernicious ideologies discuss above and norms of its genre. At the end of the movie – we genuinely liked it. Not ridicule. Not hate-watching. Pure good-bad movie love.   

Highlighting Hallmark Holiday movies’ transgressions, and framing watching these movies as transgressive, might bring more people – and more movies – into the fold. Diversity of tastes, and diversity within communities, is something to be celebrated. And I know Matt would agree. 

Co-edited by Alex King and Matt Strohl

One Comment

  1. Well,
    I’m defying you all to find a philosophical meaning in the movie Soldier of Fortune.

    To this day I don’t know if it was made that bad on porpose or not.

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