What Makes Great Bad Art? by Bastard Keith 6/25/12

Last night, I paid full price to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Delirious after the screening, I tweeted a few thoughts.  Among them:

“Forget what cinema has accomplished til now. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire hunter vaults past cinema straight into madness.”

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was so amazing that after the end credits, I marched up to the ticket booth and demanded to pay again.”

“The Hunter is pitched at the crossroads of disbelief, awesomeness and insanity. Benjamin Walker gives a Bizarro World Oscar performance.”

It’s true, my entire experience of the film was one of astonishment.  First, that it existed at ALL.  Then that the director, Timur Bekmambetov (he of the vile action flick Wanted and the grandly amusing Russian vampire epic Night Watch) seemed to be playing it utterly straight.  Finally, I was left in slack-jawed amazement at the sheer pleasure I was taking from scene to scene.  I knew as I was watching that it was not a good film, but I was equally sure that it was a delightful and frequently amazing one.  Never again will there be a motion picture that features our 16th president chopping up hordes of kung fu vampires with his black sidekick atop a speeding locomotive.

This brings up what is perhaps a more pertinent question than the one in the title: If bad art becomes enjoyable, is it still bad art?  This is complicated.  The gays, as usual, got here before anyone else did.  Camp was initially defined as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, et cetera. (cf. quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour.” (Thanks, OED)  It eventually grew into something broader, a notion of art so over the top that its quality was secondary to its fascination.  When gay men seized on unintentionally terrible old cinema (its shoddy glamour, its torrid melodrama, its outdated sense of shock), the modern notion of camp was born.  Mystery Science Theatre 3000 made a legendary broadcasting career out of teasing the silly, perverse, sometimes homoerotic subtext from self-serious cinema (it also marked a watershed moment in “dude” camp, a moment where the jokes took on a heteronormative panic in intimations of queerness).

Dave Kehr, one of our canniest print critics, observed that “Camp cannot be made, only found,” and of course he’s right.  The great works of modern camp genius are not attempts at comically bad filmmaking, but born of genuine commitment to an artistic vision.  Russ Meyer, for instance, may have had a sense of humor, but his keynote works are imbued with as much auteurist passion as anything by Kubrick or Welles.  John Waters may seem a frivolous or primitive filmmaker to some, but you know a Waters film when you watch one.  It is impossible to say whether their movies are, strictly, GOOD, but they’re never boring.  Does awkward camera work, hamfisted editing, jarring sound design, ridiculous dialogue, and stiff, often incompetent acting make a movie bad?  Objectively, sure.  But when those elements combine harmoniously into a sublime viewing experience, what’s the takeaway?  I’ve seen much more professionally assembled films than, say, Supervixens, but few as continuously captivating.  How can something this demonstrably NOT GOOD be GREAT?

I mean, I could think of a COUPLE of ways.

Which brings us back to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  And its new genre, Gothic Action Social Studies Camp.

The concept of Bekmambetov’s film (the script is Seth Grahame Smith’s loose adaptation of his own novel) is right there in the title.  Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, history’s most reasonable Republican, was secretly a vampire hunter.  That’s it.  That’s literally IT.  The title is the plot, in four words.  When I first heard the idea, I was reminded of the spoofs in Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF.  Conan the Librarian or Ghandi 2: This Time It’s Personal.  In other words, it sounds like sketch comedy.  This should not be the premise for a full-length film, and looking over the Rotten Tomatoes review round-up, most critics seem to agree.  One of the more common complaints is that the film takes itself far too seriously.  Only Roger Ebert seems to grasp why the tone works: something this ridiculous can only fly when it “cautiously avoids any attempt to seem funny.”

And he’s right.  This is a movie in which slavery is actually the work of greedy, evil, undead succubi (a pretty great metaphor, actually), and which suggests (SPOILER ALERT) that the Civil War was REALLY won by Lincoln and the Underground Railroad smuggling vampire-destroying silver to the Union armies.  How is anyone supposed to REVIEW this thing?  I could talk about the performances (all of them are committed and sincere, though Benjamin Walker really does go above and beyond), the cinematography (a mix of weirdly cheap History Channel re-enactment and wild digital abstraction), the script (it is about Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter), you name it…but it’s useless.  You’re either in or you’re out.  Bekmambetov?  He’s in.  He got the script and said, “COOL!” and just shot the damn thing, making sure not to leave out the scene where a vampire throws a horse at Abe Lincoln’s face and Abe Lincoln jumps onto it and gives chase.

The tone of the thing represents an act of total naivety.  It really is as if no one involved understood how thoroughly nutty the premise was.  The politics aren’t played for laughs (the Lincoln-Douglas debates are, at least briefly, dramatized), the vampires are actually sometimes kind of scary, the action is well-choreographed….I mean, the DEATH OF LINCOLN’S CHILD AT THE HANDS OF A SEXY LEATHER FETISHIST VAMPIRE is presented as tear-jerking tragedy.  And Mary Lincoln’s revenge on the fanged bitch is a fist-pumping payback moment that made theater 4 in the Court Street Stadium 12 cheer aloud.  Timur Bekmambetov doesn’t want you to laugh, he wants you to believe.  Which is absurd.  But also wonderful.  But terrible.  But great.

I don’t know how much clearer I can make it: this movie is exactly what it says on the box.  You want an Abe Lincoln vampire movie with jokes?  Go make one.  This is NOT IT.

I make a habit of seeking out great bad art.  My show Bastardpiece Theatre enshrines compulsively watchable trash.  I don’t know if my taste has gotten worse over the years, or if it’s just gotten broader (I still watch and enjoy conventionally good cinema, I promise!).  But I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that the good/bad paradigm has become obsolete in evaluating cinema.  It’s an artform founded on, and grown on, sensation.  The more useful metric might be this: since it’s all calories, are they empty or nourishing?  After watching a film, whether studio-slick, indie-raw or porno-clunky, how do you feel?  If you feel more alive at the end of a film than at the beginning, more awake, more engaged, you can be sure it was worth your while.

I’m not suggesting abandoning criticism.  On the contrary, intelligent criticism is more vital now than ever.  But the best critics (and for how often I disagree with him, Ebert is undoubtedly one of them) understand that the intellectual must sit side-by-side with the gut, that one feeds the other.  The intellect can tell you what a great movie is, and the gut can tell you what a great EXPERIENCE at the movies is.  Both are valuable.  And while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is nearly unreviewable as a film, it’s unbeatable as an experience.

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