“Man, that was a good movie, An Inconvenient Truth.”
“That is it. I am getting myself a car that’s environmentally friendly.” —Birdemic: Shock And Terror
Good movies are hard to make under any circumstances. But competent movies are hard to make, too, and the reason most people don’t realize that is because grossly incompetent projects either don’t get distributed, or never get bankrolled from the start. If you’ve spent any time in film school, you get a sense of how easily (and frequently) neophytes can mangle the most basic cinematic syntax: simple spatial relationships and blocking, a balanced and consistent sound mix, some—any—movement within the frame. For my money, though, the biggest (and funniest) mistakes are mistakes of proportion, when amateur filmmakers shooting on video or 16mm with virtually no budget set about aping Hollywood productions. The best bad thesis film I ever saw tried to goose up two ineptly staged action/suspense sequences by using the famous scores from the James Bond movies and Tim Burton’s Batman. The disparity between sound and image was breathtaking in the same way that, say, an epically sloppy cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” might be.
The latest entry in the so-bad-it’s-good midnight-movie sweepstakes, James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock And Terror, does Hitchcock on $10,000, but the mistakes of proportion don’t end with the faux-Bernard Herrmann score or the notorious shots of CGI eagles and vultures plastered over a flailing, hanger-wielding cast. Early in the film, to note my favorite example, we meet Nathalie (Whitney Moore), an aspiring model, as she poses for her latest photo session. The location: a strip-mall one-hour photo outlet. Inside, she vamps in front of Senior Prom background screens, donning a series of outfits that suggests different designers in different seasons with radically different sensibilities. And she’s barely a minute off the shoot when she gets the good news from her modeling agency: “Victoria’s Secret wants you to become their cover-girl model.” From a strip-mall photo shop to the cover of the most famous catalog in the fashion industry, Nathalie’s rise to the top of her profession is a heady one indeed.
On the bad-cinema spectrum, Birdemic more closely resembles the stilted incompetence of Manos: The Hands Of Fate or the Ed Wood of Plan 9 From Outer Space than the agonizingly personal failures of The Room or Wood’s Glen Or Glenda?, or the weird Italy/Utah culture clash that resulted in Troll 2. While there’s an element of real passion to the film’s environmental message—a message delivered less through Western Union than via a shovel to the base of the skull—it isn’t a passion that’s particularly revealing of its maker. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s far less polished than The Room: The performances and writing are worse, the staging more awkward, the longueurs more agonizingly protracted. Yet it isn’t as revealing of its creator as The Room is of Tommy Wiseau, and thus it isn’t compelling beyond the scope of its staggering abuse of the medium. Viewers leave The Room with a raw impression of Wiseau’s alienation from (and hostility toward) the women who have bruised him; viewers leave Birdemic knowing nothing about Nguyen that can’t be broadcast through a megaphone.
The opening credits are a good indication of the gaffes and bizarre stylistic choices to come: Nguyen’s habit of shooting exteriors by having the camera scan around on a tripod, titles that include “Moviehead Pictures Presents” followed closely by “A Moviehead Production,” a dashboard view angled so far to the passenger side that the car looks like it’s about to drift off the road, and a repetitive score that winds down to what sounds like a natural endpoint, then winds back up again, as if on a drunken loop. We then meet our hero, Rod (Alan Bagh), a happy-go-lucky software engineer who drives around in a blue Ford Mustang hybrid that gets 100 mpg (by what magic is unclear) and is looking to parlay his imminent windfall into saving the planet. As fate would have it, Rod runs into former high-school classmate—and future Victoria’s Secret supermodel—Nathalie at a diner, and the two connect over bland pleasantries.
The love story will continue, but first: a heart-stopping scene in which Rod pulls into a gas station, fills up the tank, then exits the gas station. Also: breathless TV news reports of flocks of crows and seagulls dying mysteriously, polar bears dying on melting ice floes, a wildfire spreading rapidly through the Santa Cruz mountains, and other signs of the coming avian apocalypse. Yet Nguyen takes his sweet time getting to the “birdemic” part of Birdemic, instead giving space for Rod and Nathalie’s love to blossom, with dates in a Vietnamese restaurant (which is clearly a Thai restaurant), the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival (which features a directional sign that reads “<<<----TOILETS ---->>> GIANT PUMPKIN), and another restaurant where the singer croons just for them. Meanwhile, in the film’s most widely circulated sequence, everything’s coming up Rod at work, as his stock options are about to pay off:
Following the ceaseless waves of clapping above, my favorite line in the film: “So I guess, uh, the meeting’s adjourned.” As far as Nguyen cares to speculate, this is how business gets done in Silicon Valley, with glad-handing and high-fives and big checks for everyone around the table. (And maybe, given the dot-com bubble that popped on so many hollow business models, he’s onto something.) The beyond-chintzy CGI in Birdemic may be primarily responsible for its instant cult appeal, but the boardroom sequence is a good indicator of what makes the film so mesmerizing long before the eagles soar. Every scene in Birdemic feels conspicuously off-balance in the way unvarnished student films tend to be. Actors in dialogue sometimes look like they shot the same scene on different days on separate locations; Bagh and Moore read their lines with the opposite of naturalism, as if they learned them phonetically; the edits always come a beat or three too late, or jarringly out of rhythm. But the sound mix gives Nguyen the most trouble: The ambient noise varies wildly from one cut to the next, and sometimes washes out the dialogue completely, like when Rod and Nathalie are walking near crashing waves. And then there are times when the sound drops off completely, or when the only sound is a post-dub of someone’s shoes clanking along the floor like Frankenstein’s monster.
Here’s the thing about Birdemic, though: It isn’t the worst idea for a movie. Reworking Hitchcock’s The Birds as an environmental thriller about nature avenging the encroachments of mankind sounds like something Larry Fessenden would do. But Larry Fessenden probably wouldn’t underline his themes with a post-screening discussion of An Inconvenient Truth, or have a character whose apartment and T-shirt are emblazoned with imaginepeace.com logos, or introduce a hippie in the third act who lives in a redwood treehouse and proselytizes about bark beetles and global warming. And he definitely would have cleaned up the effects, which may be the ultimate example of overestimating what can be done in post. Not even George Lucas could take open-air shots of actors flailing around without a green screen and seamlessly integrate CGI eagles later. What Nguyen does could charitably be described as collage art:
Unlike the best of bad cinema, Birdemic doesn’t have many layers beyond its surface ineptitude—which, it should be said, is staggering—and thus doesn’t seem as durable as bizarre, endlessly fascinating art objects like The Room or Glen Or Glenda? And enjoying comes with the usual caveats about ironic appreciation, which can be a smug and hurtful enterprise, even in cases like this one, when the director happily toured the midnight circuit behind it, hanger in hand. Then again, after any movie is made, it belongs to the audience, and there’s no use dictating where the audience will take it, whether it’s shading in the ambiguities of a high-art film like Certified Copy or throwing plastic spoons at the screen like a bunch of yahoos. Bad movies often don’t have the courtesy to fail in a compelling way, and by that measure at least, Birdemic is absolutely riveting.
April 21: Slither
May 5: Double Team/Knock Off
May 19: The Vanishing (non-shitty version)