When I was a teenager, I used to get ill every year around Good Friday. It was like having stigmata, but in the form of tonsillitis or earache, and in retrospect, I think I may have been doing it for the attention. One year, I got a virus that manifested itself in about 60 simultaneous mouth-ulcers. I had to paint my mouth with some vile antibiotic glue which tasted of boiled cow, and couldn’t eat at all, but only lie sadly on the sofa with my giant swollen face in my hands, so my brother decided to cheer me up with a film fest.
He introduced me to what is still my favourite movie, The Princess Bride, and then put on The Tall Guy starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum. It contains, perhaps, the least generous spoof of those super-serious Les Mis musicals ever made. Goldblum’s character wins the lead role in a musical about the Elephant Man, the final number of which is set after the title character’s death. And as the chorus sang, ‘Somewhere up in heaven there’s an angel with big ears,’ I laughed so hard my mouth started bleeding from, let’s say, 60 places. It was then that I realised that bad musicals, bad films, or bad telly were occasionally more fun than good ones.
It was a theory we went on to test with perhaps too many examples. By the time I left school, I had never seen The Godfather, but had a working knowledge of the output of Troma, from Toxic Avenger 2 to The Class of Nuke ‘Em High. It took me years of working in a video store to catch up on the ‘proper’ films I’d missed. Even now, when I review about a hundred films a year, I feel vaguely unqualified, because I’ve never got round to watching Metropolis but I do know the plot to the long-forgotten Hell Comes To Frogtown, a movie which addressed burgeoning fears about declining fertility and nuclear war in a story about radioactive frog-mutants and a harem. Like Margaret Atwood’s seminal feminist novel, A Handmaid’s Tale, in other words, but with less feminism. And more frogs.
So while I’m willing to accept that everyone else may not be looking forward to the new cartoon series and movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Governator, following his unlikely adventures to save the world since he stood down from gubernatorial duties in California, I am delighted. In the first trailer, released at Cannes this week, he’s riding what looks suspiciously like Batman’s bike, he’s fighting Transformers, plus he has green laser vision. And it’s Arnie. He was Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando. The man was elected to public office on the strength of having once said, ‘Hasta La Vista, baby’, which frankly undersells his rather better ‘He had to split’ (said after slicing a villain in two with, if I haven’t entirely misremembered, a chainsaw).
Now, I know you could spend Saturday night watching a worthy Stephen Poliakoff drama and you’d probably be better informed about the world, but think how much more fun you’d have if you asked friends round, dialled a pizza, cracked open the medicinal brandy from under the sink and watched cartoon Arnie on the rampage. Because this is the real distinction between properly good entertainment and so-bad-it’s-good entertainment. If you watch something brilliant, it will move you even when you’re alone.
When Rip Torn describes a network executive in Larry Sanders with the words, ‘I’m sure I killed her in Korea,’ I will laugh even if I’m the only person watching. The West Wing or MASH can always make me cry. But I wouldn’t dream of watching M Night Shayamalan’s The Happening alone, because the story (evil trees make us kill ourselves using only the power of their tree pheromones) is one which needs to be shared if it is to be properly enjoyed. I say this as someone who laughed so hard at the press screening for it years ago that The New York Times reviewer got in a huff with me, which sadly made it funnier still. I occasionally re-watch it with friends in a tree-centric double bill with either The Guardian (nanny feeds babies to evil tree) or From Hell It Came (evil tree stump terrorises island community).
And the communal power of the bad film has reached its zenith with Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Next weekend, The Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Square will give this legendary film its monthly outing. Fans turn up to watch a movie which mesmerises with the sheer molten awfulness of its script, its acting and even its set-design. If you want to go along, don’t forget to take plastic spoons with you. Then when the audience shouts ‘Spooooon’ and begins hurling cutlery at the screen, you won’t feel left out.
Wiseau plays the lead role, Johnny, and the film is made up of scenes like the one where he stands in front of a shop assistant, talking to her, for several seconds before she randomly delivers the line, ‘Oh hey, Johnny, I didn’t know it was you’. Or where a girl working at a coffee shop, clearly improvising while having only a limited knowledge of baked goods, starts frantically offering every customer a piece of cheesecake. In case you’re wondering, the spoons are because there are picture frames on the walls of Johnny’s house. Rather than find actual pictures to go in them, they have simply left in place the picture which was clearly all in the frames when they bought them – of cutlery. The screening sells out every month, as a room full of people enjoy the shared experience of a cripplingly bad plot enlivened with truly awful sex scenes, and spoons.
So while I wouldn’t recommend that you watch The Governator every night, I think that it has its place. Despite the occasional hand-wringing that television is all formulaic nowadays and that all the films are for teenage boys, we live in a golden age of pop culture: ok, Mad Men won’t return till 2012, but Aaron Sorkin is writing a new pilot for HBO, and season 2 of The Killing is due in the autumn. And sometimes, we need a night away from the good stuff to remind us how lucky we are. With the reality show Steven Seagal: Lawman (featuring everyone’s favourite chubby martial arts expert looking at a broken tail-light), suspended pending investigations into its star’s dubious private life, it looks like Arnie is stepping up. So I’m glad that he’ll be back.