Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was re-reading Nathan Rabin’s takedowns of Ed and Bucky Larson, where he discusses “shitty miracles”: “In a shitty miracle, everything goes awry. It’s not a matter of one sorry element dragging the rest down; it’s every terrible component amplifying the awfulness of everything else. These shitty miracles represent the perfect storm of bad ideas and miscalculation. Everything must line up perfectly for a shitty miracle to occur.” In other words, works where every aspect is wrongly executed, yet it never had the plug pulled. I wondered what other shitty miracles the A.V. Club staff has encountered? —Colin
This question has been in the AVQA hopper for months, but it was abruptly brought back to mind recently when I saw Upside Down, the almost incomprehensibly stupid Romeo and Juliet story about two boring people in a dynamic world that makes no sense, from the arbitrary rules about magical gravity pulling them in opposite directions to the endless convolutions involving amnesia, interplanetary pink bees, spontaneous clothing combustion, a convenient blimp carcass, and much more. It’s one of those projects where it’s hard to believe none of the hundreds of people involved in making it happen ever once spoke up to say “Does no one realize that none of this, not one piece of this, makes any coherent sense?” See also M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (“There appears to be an event occurring”), wherein a plague of awful acting causes people to spontaneously commit suicide and try to run away from the wind. It’s a hugely enjoyable bad movie, to my mind, but the stiff writing, awkward acting, preposterous story, boring progression, and incredibly unsatisfying ending all compound each other to make the whole thing especially hilarious. More recently, Nathan’s poleaxed response to the Jessica Alba vehicle An Invisible Sign prompted me to watch it with friends. Holy cats, is that a miscalculated, staggeringly bizarre film. The highlights include a teacher who takes a cutely decorated axe to school as decor, an elementary-school classroom full of kids with the vocabulary and demeanor of disaffected twentysomethings, and a love interest who’s actually drawn by Alba’s character’s creepy arrested development and profound dysfunction. There’s another major way to recognize a shitty miracle: When you spend every single moment of a film or album or book thinking “How on earth did this get made, let alone released?”
I was actually crazy enough to accompany Nathan to his first screening of Bucky Larson (along with his lovely wife and AVC freelancer Kevin McFarland). That certainly tops my list for movies, but I do have a candidate from the literary world: Zombie by J.R. Angelella may be the worst book I have read in my entire life (and yes, I’m the guy that reviewed Pete Wentz’ Gray, another candidate for this list). I reviewed Zombie for Paste Magazine last year, and wound up typing 1,500 words about how it failed at every single level of storytelling. Not one thing in this book makes sense (and not in the fun, “this is an absurdist text” kind of way): the characters drastically change without rhyme or reason, the plot veers off in the worst directions, the prose is terrible and inauthentic, and it doesn’t even manage to stick to its rather obvious theme of zombies. When people asked me about it, I started going on 10-minute rants about how writing like this should never see the light of day, much less get published. Some of my friends thought it might be fun to read, just to see how much of a train wreck it was. I refused to lend it to them, since I believed (and still do) that no one deserves to be subjected to that horrible miracle of shittery.
I used to have a job reading the slush pile at a literary agency, and another that involved reviewing anything that came over the transom at a film festival’s office, so I’ve spent a lot of time admiring the scenery out there where the creative buses don’t run. So far as ambitious projects that were made by respected professionals with highly regarded track records, whose work was fully funded and actually given an official release, nothing I’ve ever seen tops 1985’s Revolution, Hugh Hudson’s epic vision of America’s birth pangs, which opens with Annie Lennox (as “Liberty Woman”) emceeing the kickoff to the Revolutionary War, builds to a prolonged climax in which Al Pacino proudly declaims, “My mouth belongs anywhere I put it!”, and has not a sane or watchable moment between. It’s not one of those “fun” bad movies, either: It’s like having a $28 million elephant stand on your foot for two hours and five minutes. But it makes me smile a little to think about it, just because, as has not always been the case even with sulfurous fiascoes, there were consequences. For a four-year period there, after Chariots Of Fire won the Best Picture Oscar, Hudson was widely taken for a serious filmmaker to whom attention had to be paid, and this movie stopped all that in its tracks. And Pacino took four years off before returning to do Sea Of Love, as if he were a kid who’d been instructed to go to his room and think about what he had done. I’m not even aware of any major movement to re-evaluate Revolution as a misunderstood classic, a remarkable thing in a world where even Heaven’s Gate refuses to stay dead.
I’ve got to return to one of my first reviews for The A.V. Club—the miniseries Coma on A&E, which took up four whole hours of my life last Labor Day weekend. It’s not just that it’s bad—it’s stunningly atrocious, a kind of masterpiece of demonstrating exactly how bad television can be. “Shitty miracle” is exactly right. Coma didn’t lack for money, talent, or material, and yet the result is a staggeringly boring waste of space, in which even Ellen Burstyn is absolutely terrible. Every piece of the miniseries that should have made it good instead works against it. Of course someone green-lit it—it sounds like a thrilling medical drama, mixed with pithy observations about the dehumanization of the modern hospital system and life as a young resident. Instead, it turns into a farce of itself, where the only feeling it renders to viewers is mild discomfort. It’s a conflagration of bad decisions about narrative structure, a cautionary tale about televisual pacing. I sometimes wonder whether it was a joke—a way to troll the whole world, in a quiet, disturbing way. If it is a joke, though, I don’t get it.
I almost feel like I’m cheating in responding to this email, since one of my specialties as a writer is shitty miracles, whether they are to be found in My World Of Flops, Dispatches From Direct To DVD Purgatory, or Silly Show-Biz Book Club. I make a living writing about crazy shit that shouldn’t exist, so it takes a staggering level of fucked-upedness for something to really impress me, and oh sweet blessed Lord, was I ever blown away, in the best and worst way, by A Talking Cat!?! It’s hard to know where to begin with that one. What can you say about a film where the casting of professional crazy dude Eric Roberts as the voice of an adorable kitty that solves everyone’s problems only represents the 20th strangest and most problematic aspect of a children’s film? As an expert on shitty miracles and a man who saw Oogieloves in the theater, unaccompanied by a child, I can say that A Talking Cat!?! is the real deal, a bona fide shitty miracle worth seeking out.
In the New Cult Canon entries I’ve written on so-bad-it’s-good favorites like The Room, Troll 2, and Birdemic: Shock And Terror, the common thread is something I think of as “cinema as a second language,” i.e. movies where the cultural differences between a foreign director and an American milieu wreck all sorts of havoc. Combining an Italian director and writer with a Utah-based cast and crew in Troll 2, for example, resulted in a movie-long failure of communication. But to me, there’s no shitty miracle more perfect than The Room, because its failures are personal and completely authentic, in spite of hasty attempts by writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau to reframe the film as a “black comedy.” The technical ineptitude of it is legendary, as are certain immortal lines of dialogue (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”), but it’s more mesmerizing still as a bizarre, breathtakingly narcissistic reflection of Wiseau’s way of seeing the world, from his aggrieved perspective on women to his alien take on the rituals of male friendship, like tossing the ol’ pigskin around. And I think that’s what keeps midnight audiences coming back to The Room again and again: The great and stupefying mystery that is Tommy Wiseau.
When I received a press release last fall for NecroFusion, a collaborative album by Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans and Lords Of Acid leader Praga Khan, I felt like I needed to wage a one-man campaign alerting people to its terrible, terrible existence. I tweeted it, I sent it to our friends at The Soup (who love to mock Bagans), I included it in our least essential albums of 2012. It never felt like enough, because it has to be heard to be believed. Bagans uses EVP, “electronic voice phenomena,” which are dodgy “recordings” of spirits “talking” to him. Khan treats Bagans’ interactions with the spirits like samples, chopping them up and repeating them, and providing the soundtrack below. Each song is devoted to the story of one spirit, and the press release touted it as “one of the most intriguing music releases ever produced.” That’s one way to put it. In practice, NecroFusion is a hilariously self-serious mélange of mushy, incomprehensible audio and electronic music, all presented as if it were unlocking mysteries hidden from the physical world. It’s mind-glowingly awful, a miracle made of 100 percent feces.
Every few years, I return to the worst album by one of my favorite bands, in an effort to connect with it in a way I haven’t before. But time after time, R.E.M.’s dismal Around The Sun disappoints—and then actively grates. It’s damn near unexplainable how a band with such a solid track record and easily identifiable sound could create a group of songs this dull, then record them with absolutely no spark, then actually release them to the world. At some point, somebody should’ve spoken up and said something like, “This session is out of gas. We had no ideas coming in, and we are doing a terrible job faking it. Let’s shitcan this whole endeavor and start over.” Instead, somebody said, “Let’s call Q-Tip and have him rap on this song, because clearly we are in a terrible place, and that couldn’t possibly make everything even worse.” It did. (And before you all jump on me and tell me there are a couple of good songs on Around The Sun, I will pre-emptively admit that the first two songs are almost halfway okay.