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Goblins, Trolls, Irony, and the Death of Art

Last week I watched the documentary Best Worst Movie, which chronicles the cultural and artistic aftermath of the cult train wreck film Troll 2. There is a lot going on here that we need to talk about.

I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 on a tiny television set in my aunt's basement in 1997, while the rest of my family was upstairs having a normal, conversation-based, non-movie-oriented Thanksgiving, for which I was (and still am) ill-suited.

Since then, I have proudly identified myself as being a member the subculture which values (in our own way) movies which fail to live up to certain artistic and aesthetic standards.

Best Worst Movie holds a mirror up to this subculture. It forces us to look at our community and our ways of seeing the world from the outside, and I found that it has been a fascinating and unpleasant anthropological journey.

This documentary could be said to show is the human cost of the "bad movie" subculture. Or maybe it shows the human cost of bad (or misunderstood) art in general.

Or maybe it shows just how diseased our whole culture has become, that we have begun to eat our own artistic tail. We have built an industry around turning the product of thousands of hours and dollars worth of artistic effort into a hollow and offensive Elephant Man sideshow. Because the way in which we value these movies is literally offensive, to somebody.

Those of us in this community spend a lot of time thinking about and rationalizing our treatment of films like Troll 2 and Manos and Plan 9. Sometimes we say that it's better for these movies to be experienced in some way rather than remaining forgotten. We remind the filmmakers that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Sometimes we say that art is a meritocracy, and if you make bad art, I am allowed to express my displeasure at it. And if I express my opinion by making art in response to it (such as performing comedy), the culture is enriched by our "dialogue".

Sometimes we take the South Park approach: Yeah, sure, we laughed at Troll 2, but what’s wrong with laughter? Just because we laugh at something doesn’t mean we don’t care about it. Troll 2 made us smile, and making Troll 2 made the filmmakers smile, and so where’s the harm in that? The people that are wrong are the ones that think Troll 2 should be protected and kept out of the public’s eye. The cool thing about Troll 2 existing is that it is in your face and you have to deal with it whether you laugh or cry or feel nothing. That’s why Troll 2 rules.

Claudio Fragasso, the director of Troll 2 expresses a similar sentiment in Best Worst Movie:
"...whether it makes me think or makes me cry, whatever the feeling is, the movie has to give me an emotion...I believe that all of the fans that support this movie are people who are emotionally moved by it."

This is all, of course, completely wrong.

A movie is like a person who wants to have a conversation with you. Our modern practice of "irony-watching" is like sitting and listening to that person, and laughing at his accent the entire time. And then getting defensive when someone calls you an asshole. "What do you mean? The person wanted me to listen and I listened." It is this defensiveness that I find most despicable, because it comes from a place of presupposed intellectual and moral superiority.

The ends do NOT justify the means, not in human relationships and certainly not in art.

I am not advocating the abandonment of this pastime. It would be a much worse thing to turn our backs on the work of MST3K and RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic and Joe Bob Briggs, and all the rest of these comedic pioneers. The art of comedy has been stretched and enriched by this odd new direction, and thousands of people have great big wads of fun with it.

What I'm saying is that those of us in this subculture must accept the inherent immorality of our artistic temperaments. That's it. Just accept that this pastime is a vice. Like alcohol, or pornography, it has redeeming cultural and aesthetic qualities, while at the same time remaining unmistakably untouched by the better angels of our nature.

We are, at least in part, bad people because of our reasons for watching these movies. This is fine. We have  much precedent and much company.

But what is not fine, is for us to pretend that we occupy some sort of protected high ground just because everyone's having fun and everyone's getting paid. We need to get real about the fact that people don't like getting laughed at, and we should carry with us our share of shame. Not so much that we stop having fun, but enough to right our moral compass and bring us back in line with what is expected of normal civilized human beings.

Or is that asking too much?

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