Abstract

There are bad movies, and there are movies that are so bad that they are good. So-called good bad movies have received a lot of attention from critics and moviegoers in recent years. Many people, including those with good taste, are willing to invest their time and resources in watching and discussing them. In this paper, I will argue that the fact that aesthetically competent consumers of cinema are engaging with good bad movies challenges an intuitive assumption according to which a film merits appreciation qua film only if it manifests artistic competence. I will argue that we should weaken this assumption. Good bad movies do merit appreciation because they are unique in instantiating artistic possibilities that are out of reach of competent filmmakers. I conclude the paper by comparing and contrasting my account with a recent view of good bad art, suggested by John Dyck and Matt Johnson.

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Notes

1. Epigraph: Ted Cohen, “Jokes,” in Pleasure, Preference and Value: Studies in Philosophical Aesthetics, ed. Eva Schaper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 120-36, at 124n4.
2. Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist: My Life inside “The Room,” the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (Simon & Shuster, 2013); Richard McCulloch, “‘Most People Bring Their Own Spoons’: The Room’s Participatory Audiences as Comedy Mediators,” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 8 (2011): 189-218.
3. Ian Olney, Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 74.
4. I am here indebted to Kendall Walton, “Categories of Art,” The Philosophical Review 79 (1970): 334-67.
5. Sestero and Bissell, Disaster Artist, 55.
6. See Noël Carroll, “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” in Intention and Interpretation, ed. Gary Iseminger (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 97-131.
7. GBMs should also not be confused with camp. I take camp to characterize a kind of art that prioritizes style over substance and is marked by exaggerations, artificiality, and nonseriousness. GBMs are not defined in terms of such formal features. I am relying here on Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1966), 275-92.
8. Jeffrey Sconce, “Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style,” Screen 36 (1995): 382.
9. Keyvan Sarkhosh and Winfried Menninghaus, “Enjoying Trash Films: Underlying Features, Viewing Stances and Experiential Response Dimensions,” Poetics 57 (2016): 49.
10. Sarkhosh and Menninghaus, “Enjoying Trash Films,” 48.
11. Dominic McIver Lopes, “Aesthetic Experts, Guides to Value,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 73 (2015): 235-46.
12. Dominic McIver Lopes, “Beauty, Social Network,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 47 (2017): 444; see also Tom Roberts, “Aesthetic Virtues: Traits and Faculties,” Philosophical Studies 175 (2018): 429-47.
13. Jesse Prinz, “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock,” Philosophy Compass 9, no. 9 (2014): 583-93.
14. For the distinction between different appreciative contexts, see Stephanie Patridge, “Snobbery in Appreciative Contexts,” British Journal of Aesthetics 58 (2018): 241-53.
15. It is clear that the social component is very important in the pleasure that one gets from watching GBMs. See McCulloch, “Most People Bring Their Own Spoons.” However, if my argument is on the right track, what audiences get from GBMs does not reduce to the pleasure of bonding.
16. I do not pretend to have refuted the contextualist proposal, but I do think that my own suggestion below avoids the type of challenge that contextualism faces.
17. That GBMs have only instrumental entertainment value has been suggested by James MacDowell and John Zborowski, “The Aesthetics of ’So Bad It’s Good,” Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media 6 (Autumn/Winter 2013): 1-30.
18. “Why People Keep Watching the Worst Movie Ever Made,” YouTube video, 5:32, posted by “Vox,” June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k27mr6p-yhY, accessed February 19, 2020.
19. Tim Brayton, “Miami Connection (1987),” Alternate Ending: Discovering Good Movies, One Bad Movie at a Time, August 4, 2018, https://www.alternateending.com/2018/08/miami-connection-1987.html, accessed February 19, 2020. Miami Connection even has a reasonably high score on the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates positive and negative reviews, yet probably no one would deny that it fails at every aspect of filmmaking and counts as a GBM.
20. For more about aesthetic love, see Nick Riggle, “On the Aesthetic Ideal,” British Journal of Aesthetics 55 (2015): 440.
21. Unless it’s gentle mockery, but the latter doesn’t preclude the attribution of aesthetic merit.
22. It is important to stress that GBMs meriting some appreciation does not imply that one is obliged to engage with them. It just implies that an appreciative response is warranted.
23. By this I am not implying that competence guarantees success. It just increases the probability.
24. Their uniqueness might also explain why people are so fascinated with the putative unique persona of the filmmaker. See Renee Middlemost, “Renovating The Room: Audience Reception and Paratextual Intervention,” Celebrity Studies 10 (2019): 247-64.
25. Compare this to the way in which artistic luck can be appreciated. Presumably, acquiring competence in filmmaking does not put one in a better position to be lucky. Luck cannot be learned, strictly speaking. In that sense, both the merit of GBMs and the merit of lucky features of generally competent movies can be explained in a similar way. They both exemplify artistic possibilities in which case learning does not put the artist in a better position to actualize them. On artistic luck, see Alessandro Bertinetto, “On Artistic Luck,” Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics 5 (2013): 120-40.
26. Mark Schroeder, “Value and the Right Kind of Reason,” in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Vol. 5, ed. Russ Schafer-Landau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 25-55; Nathaniel Sharadin, “Reasons Wrong and Wright,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 97 (2016): 371-99.
27. These are just examples and are not meant as final analyses of the fittingness-conditions for belief.
28. John Dyck and Matt Johnson, “Appreciating Bad Art,” Journal of Value Inquiry 51 (2017): 279-92.
29. Dyck and Johnson, “Appreciating Bad Art,” 287.
30. One could object that, if such cases are possible, then my reasoning can’t account for them either because it is a sign of incompetence when a film is received as bizarre without the filmmaker intending it. Therefore, the objection could go, my account also implies that such a film should be treated as a GBM. I think, however, that this objection relies on a problematic assumption that it is part of a successful exercise of competence that the author does not achieve anything unintentionally. This seems like an overly strong requirement. People who are competent and skillful in a performative domain need not have full control over their audience’s uptake.
31. Dyck and Johnson, “Appreciating Bad Art,” 286.
32. See Dominic McIver Lopes, “The Myth of (Non-Aesthetic) Artistic Value,” Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2011): 518-36.
33. Dyck and Johnson, “Appreciating Bad Art,” 288.
34. Dyck and Johnson, “Appreciating Bad Art,” 288.
35. Kendall Walton, Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 21.