Nanarophelia and the danger of praising the mediocre
Losing Our Standards
Translated from the original French by Olga Montes (2015)
This essay was originally published in French on Hors Champ, Monday, October 20th, 2008
Nanarophelia 1 , watching film duds (turkeys) whose screenplays and obvious flaws precipitate derision, has become a favourite pastime for many film fans. Mocking Z movies is now so popular that it’s even affected the video film market. In fact, to attract larger audiences, certain film distributors plaster DVD covers with scathing reviews, pointing out just how bad the movie is, promising viewers a good dose of psychotronic fun. There are many websites that praise these companies for bringing viewers such mediocre fare like Don’t Go in the Woods and Troll 2, readily available with the intention of being mocked, preferably, in the company of friends. Today, this phenomenon has gone from the living room to the projection room. While Total Crap offers television’s worst, the team at 70%, a student radio program, broadcasts a weekly spotlight titled, Dubious Viewings 2 . It seems to be a perfectly logical evolution to this phenomenon, for viewing a film dud with a group seems to enhance viewing pleasure. The notion of fun is vital here as organizers set up such public events for a legitimate purpose: to entertain crowds and incite laughter—nothing reprehensible. At least, not obviously so. In mocking and praising, though, a real danger lurks. As fun as it may be, nanarophelia, drastically threatens to greatly transform the meaning of “going to the movies.”
Thanks to one’s cinematic experiences, the standards and comparators required to recognize quality cinema become ingrained in the viewer. The hilarity ensued by watching film duds and Z movies makes it impossible for these films to meet the criteria for excellence. Turkeys are an accumulation of failed efforts to achieve high standards. In as such, the viewer will mock them and feel superior to the film. Not because he feels he can do better than the director but because his awareness of what a good movie should be allows him to look down on the film. It’s admittedly a completely normal reaction toward a movie that you don’t like. Anyone, from renowned critic to the child who is old enough to enjoy a film, experiences this. However, these same people will simultaneously also allow the film to provoke the opposite, meaning; they will contemplate it with a positive point of view. According to Barthes, great movies bring us joy; hence, our standards take a hit because we think ourselves beholding something magnificent that really, is not. If the viewer uses these two approaches when viewing films, if he mocks the mediocrity of a Bruno Mattei film and then is blown away by the beauty in a Kim-Ki Duk movie, there’s nothing unhealthy or abnormal about that. The problem, though, is that nowadays, a great number of viewers, particularly young people, spend more time mocking film duds than silently enjoying great films. The proof? Sold out Total Crap shows and near empty theatres during the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma’s showings of Dumont, Tarr, and Reygadas films. The reason? It’s hard to say, it may well be the result of YouTube where you can watch any mediocre film in clips or enjoy retro television programs. The genesis, as it turns out, is perhaps simpler to find. Let’s not deny that the sense of superiority above mentioned is undoubtedly validating. Validation that’s magnified when experienced in a group setting, in a lighted room where you can be seen while making comments during the screening as opposed to sitting silently in a dark room.
By watching practically only film duds for a good laugh, the viewer in the long run risks developing this attitude toward all movies that do not meet this criterion for excellence—a criterion that will never have the opportunity to grow for lack of watching quality films to help it develop. Is it wrong to worry that psychotronic film fans will look to target movies that, traditionally, are lauded? B film directors such as Jean Rollin and Jess Franco 3 are the most at risk of being targeted because their films verge on being duds. Both of these filmmakers’ movies are often riddled with bad acting, laughable special effects owing to low budgets, and outlandish story lines. Yet beyond these flaws, their films are sublimely poetic. This cannot be noticed if these films are viewed with the intention of deriding them. If Démoniaques or Diabolical Doctor Z are featured at Dubious Viewings, the works of Bresson, Robbe-Grillet or Ford could conceivably be featured as well. After all, the actors in L’Argent are “terrible”, Playing with Fire “does not make any sense” and the symbolism in The Informer is “ridiculous.” Intellectual paranoia? What about the screening at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse where audiences can mock Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? 4 This decent blockbuster is perhaps not in the same calibre as the above-mentioned films. It is lauded by many film fans and critics alike for its entertainment value and outstanding special effects. Critics have enough trouble defending a number of movies to the general public; it will be even more difficult if nanarophelia becomes commonplace. It’s not a question of banning such screenings, it’s going into them with a sense of awareness. Care for 8 ½ followed by Three Ninjas Strike Back?
- For more on this subject: BAUBIAS, Thierry, « La réception au second degré, étude du regard nanarophilique » In Lignes de fuite, number 04 , July 2008; http://www.lignes-de-fuite.net/article.php3?id_article=97 ↩
- Both examples are part of a greater phenomenon that also includes “zapping parties” by DJ XL5—where film dud excerpts are spliced together to make short films—, the “Ici Louis-José Houde” show, and, in something other than cinema, MC Gilles shows that feature tasteless music. ↩
- Jess Franco did merit a retrospective at the Cinémathèque française last summer, though. Perhaps neophytes will grant him certain recognition. ↩
- The screening has been announced here: http://www.originalalamo.com/Show.aspx? id=5567? id=5567 ↩