In conjunction with The Lambs in the Director’s Chair #12 focus on Edward D. Wood, Jr., I give you an old essay I wrote in 2001. If it reads like a school assignment, that’s because it was (it references two texts; an essay by two sociologists named Paul Lazarsfeld and R.K. Merton called “Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action” and a noted Film Comment article from July/August 1980 by J. Hoberman entitled “Bad Movies”). I include this here, because I don’t think I could really come up with anything better to write about the film right now (I assume others will be comparing it with the Tim Burton faux-biopic or mentioning various players, including Bela Lugosi and his unfinished part in the film).
Plan 9 from Outer Space has been popularly conferred status as the worst movie of all time, which, strangely enough, legitimizes an heightened status of acceptance in the culture. One would think that if a film really was bad enough to be the worst of all time, that not very many people would want to see it. There are a countless number of “bad movies” that very few people have seen. So, why does Plan 9 continue to be hailed the worst when it continues to gain satisfied viewers? Despite it being a bad (or even the worst) film, people watch it anyway, with this “cultural signifier” placed upon it, and it becomes, like any cult film, something to be judged apart from all those mainstream movies (that, curiously enough, may begin to seem nearly just as bad).
It is this “status conferral function” that Lazarsfeld and Merton (L&M, 20) articulate that makes Plan 9 stand out so much from all those other “bad movies” that nobody usually wishes to see. Only because Plan 9 has received a significant “mechanism of public exposure” (L&M, 21), creating a sense of curiosity as a film to see (because it’s just so bad?), does its status cross over from a set of limited, individual “private attitudes” to a more widespread “public morality” (morality, in this sense, meaning a matter of public taste) (L&M, 22). Plan 9 becomes more than just one of those films-that-no- one-has-heard-of that you watch for laughs, because you happened on it by chance. The film has been inserted into the cultural landscape, acting as a kind of threat to the “social norms” of what the mass-audience considers “good” cinema.
The “cult film” is, in a sense, a form of “counterpropaganda” against the “monopolization” (L&M, 27) of (Classical) Hollywood filmmaking. Plan 9 would, supposedly, never be confused with even the worst of Hollywood films – so its inherent difference signifies to the viewer what is not a part of the mainstream monopoly, and therefore what is not a part of the “conformist culture”. It is this identification with non-conformity and something Other than the so-called “good” of Hollywood that a (re-)viewer of Plan 9 identifies with.
However (according to the 1948 mindset of Lazarsfeld and Merton), the so-called cult-media does not pose any kind of applicable threat to the “social and cultural structure,” for the same reason that they argue the mainstream monopoly does not affect change: “locally organized centers for face-to-face contact has seldom been achieved in groups striving for social change” (L&M, 30). Part of the “fun” in one’s support of a non-conformist, cult cinema is in its minority status as the aesthetic Other. “Bad” cult films would no longer have their “special status” (and the majority of them would presumably be re-discarded as “bad”), if they were incorporated into a more even mass-cultural significance with the mainstream monopoly of Hollywood films. [Edit: This may be one of the many reasons Hollywood is compelled to remake films like these, rather than re-release them to a wider audience. To allow the original film to dominate would constitute a shift in hegemonic power from the established system, which only happened briefly in the age of New Hollywood and, arguably, with the rise and eventual co-opting of Independent Cinema in the ’90s.]
What J. Hoberman terms an “objectively bad” film (Hoberman, 13), something that is deemed bad beyond personal taste (which, assumedly, is subjective), serves a social function that has a greater potential impact than Lazarsfeld or Merton imagined. One could say, as Hoberman argues, that Plan 9 acts, unknowingly, as a kind of cultural critique of mainstream, “good” cinema (and therefore, mainstream, “good” culture?). If a film is “objectively bad,” and must relentlessly draw one’s attention away from its absurd plot (Hoberman, 15), then one may be inclined to look for things within the film that are not superficially part of the intended viewing experience at all. It seems that Hoberman is insinuating that “objectively bad” movies have the potential to turn anyone into a film critic.
Simply because Wood’s delivery of his message is so badly executed, one may be more readily compelled to listen to his (conflicted) attempt at a socially relevant, anti- nuclear technology moral. Wood provides an extremely non-conformist (perhaps even radical) view in the ending dialogue between Jeff, the human aeroplane pilot, and Eros, the alien commander. Jeff “stupidly” wonders, “So what if we were to develop this solaranite bomb? We’d be even a stronger nation than now.” Wood seems to be suggesting, through the more intelligent alien’s overdramatic response of “Your stupid minds. stupid stupid!,” that ideological nationalism is just that – plain “stupid”. In this horribly acted, “bad” movie scene, Wood can be interpreted to be effectively criticizing mainstream Cold War ideology; he is stating that the nuclear arms race is a product of “ancient juvenile minds” (of course, Wood may have overlooked the fact that these same minds, like his own, also make films). The sympathetic Colonel reinforces this ‘stupid is as stupid does’ mantra of humanity in the last line, agreeing, after the alien ship is destroyed by a human-started, “stupid” fire, that “they’re far ahead of us” (I can’t help but think if the U.S. Military really had a “dichtolobator”; “a machine that breaks down any language to our own,” that communication with the Soviets could have been a lot more peaceful and non-threatening, though if we couldn’t use it properly with the aliens, then I guess it wouldn’t have worked with the Soviets either).
As usual, in an Ed Wood scenario fraught with technical mistakes and conflicted dialogue, one cannot help but think about how he missed an opportunity to do something better; how he screwed something up – though, this seems to be precisely the point that Hoberman is making – if it was not this “bad,” you would not have thought about it all. The seamless narrative execution of (the majority of) mainstream films expects the viewer to forgo this experience of thinking about the cinema, in favor of escaping into the story. Despite Hoberman’s disdain for the Medveds, their playing a part in popularizing “bad” films by the likes of Ed Wood only further serve toward getting that much closer to proving Lazarsfeld and Merton wrong. When “bad movies” can compete for viewership with mainstream films (especially with the explosion of video and DVD), the “untutored audience for the arts” (L&M, 25) may begin to have an outlet for developing critical, cinematic thought.
However, it must be granted that all of this possible interpretative and critical thought that Hoberman says can be gained from “bad movies”; postmodernly narrowing the boundary between “trash art” and “high art” (if one is to assume that the function of “high art” is to inspire thought) is an expression (and sadly, an ability) of only a minority of film viewers. Hoberman’s assumption that a film has to be “objectively bad” for a viewer to look beyond its surface appearance is also a bit suspect. One would assume that this “genius” of “bad movies” would transfer to mainstream films as well. Is it only certifiably “bad,” non-commercially successful films that provoke thought rather than, say, boredom (Is this because one assumes the film will be bad before viewing it?)? If the ordinary mainstream theater-going viewer sees something like, say, Batman & Robin – knowing full and well that it is, objectively, a big piece of cinematic crap – can one get the same benefit as one would get with Plan 9? I have no idea where this is going now, so I will stop.