Friday, July 12, 2013

Sharknado and SyFy's Instant Mix

According to urban legend, when Betty Crocker first introduced their instant cake mixes, the kind that only needed water, initial sales were disappointing. The executives were confused at this, since by all reports housewives across America wanted a quicker, less time consuming process for baking cakes. Then, one executive got the idea to take out the powdered egg already in the mix and make the customers add their own fresh eggs to the process. The reasoning behind this was that people wanted to still have the experience of making "homemade" cakes, so by forcing them to add their own egg, they would feel more accomplished and satisfied with the results. It worked, and Betty Crocker became a household name.

The "so-bad-it's-good" movie has been having something of a comeback in recent years, thanks to the Internet and the ability to access almost any movie with a few clicks of your fingertips. Troll 2, The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and others have found new life as the next evolutionary step to the midnight movies of old, watched by a bunch of friends crowding around a laptop, or shared via YouTube supercuts. The participatory nature of these movies, whether it's giggling at viewing parties or sharing through social media, are essential to their success. We don't just want to watch these misfires, we want to joke and quip about it with others, asking disbelievingly how it's possible this thing got made, or how they possibly missed this and that and the other thing.

But these types of movies are usually the exception, not the rule. It takes a special blend of elements to make a beautiful trainwreck. Yet the SyFy network wants to force this. They recognize the internet's obsession and want nothing more to indulge and cash in on this. These are not people trying to make the best with what they got. This is a cold, calculated, predatory approach to trick profitable demographics into laughing at purposefully bad art. It's appropriate, then, that the channel is so obsessed with sharks, such as their latest attempt at internet mockery, Sharknado. This piece is not a review, because of course Sharknado is terrible. Rather, this is a look at SyFy's attempts to make bad movies on purpose in the hopes of people MST3King it, and how by doing this they are potentially killing the genre.

The real crime of Sharknado and it's ilk is that it's effectively killing the Roger Corman film school approach for up and coming directors. Roger Corman is the most obvious influence on these movies, to the point where he produced one himself for SyFy. Back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Roger Corman employed many hungry directors willing to prove themselves, among them Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathon Demm, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. He gave them the premise and a budget then sent them on their way. Now, none of the movies these guys came up with were masterpieces (though Dementia 13 is pretty neat), but it gave them a playground in which they could experiment and hone their craft before they were sent up to the big leagues.

SyFy's original productions could be a worthy successor to this approach, giving young directors a platform to show us what they can bring to the table. But thanks to movies like Sharknado this is a thing of the bast. The focus isn't on showing what young artists can do, it's on making everything purposefully bad. There is not a moment in these movies that doesn't have big quotes over them. It's not even spoofing or making a parody, it's making moments like the one in the header image and getting people to make a thousand .gifs of it on Tumblr.

It's exploitation of the ongoing memeification process everything must go through now. Short, punchy premises with ridiculous titles, guaranteed to make Redditors chortle and upvote it. "A SHARKNADO?? Oh my god, that sounds SO bad!! I have GOT to see this, that sounds sOoOoOo crazy and ridiculous!" Nevermind that the movies themselves are just empty hollow shells, made by people purposefully taking the film handbook and doing everything wrong. They ignore the fundamental rule of cheap horror movies: if it's bad on purpose, then the joke's over. It's not a funny mistake made by guys who don't know what they're doing but darn it they're gonna try anyway. It's just, well, a bad movie.

So why are people falling for this? Everybody who has ever watched these have got to know they are explicitly made to be bad. They don't try to hide it, they WANT you to know. All of these movies are constantly winking at the viewer, as if to say "Heheheh can you believe this shit I'm doing?" One-liners even Schwarzenegger wouldn't touch are littered throughout. The cameraman seems to want to fuck every female character in the movie, creepily lingering on their chests and asses in a way that makes me feel a discomfort only rivaled by watching my Uncle Stewie drool over Miss America. Everywhere characters will keep commenting on how stupid and unbelievable everything going on around them is. It doesn't try to hide it's seams, it's trying to rip them open on camera.

Paradoxically, this is why the same audience will keep swarming to these movies over and over again. SyFy is basically making Cult Movies For Dummies. They make sure that YOU yes YOU know that what's happening right now is like soooo dumb, right? Oh man, you have GOT to tell everybody in your immediate vicinity how dumb this is! Guys, you have to tune in right now! A guy is chainsawing his way out of a shark's belly! Hahahah, can you believe this?

Essentially, they are making you add the egg to the mix. Artificially they are creating the sense that your snarking is totally unique and special. It's a comedy movie that provides the easiest possible setups and has you say the punchline. You've done nothing that the film hasn't wanted you to do, but you get the satisfaction of feeling clever. You didn't just watch a movie, you provided your own running commentary that was scripted for you. The film itself is completely secondary to your own sense of accomplishment at mocking it. This is just an unhealthy attitude to approaching media, where your own meta-take on the film is more important then what it's creators are trying to tell you.

Recently I watched the great 1985 B-movie classic The Stuff, about killer ice cream/yogurt that turns humans into zombies. Obviously part of the fun was in mocking it. This is, after all, a movie where  personal favorite camp movie actor Michael Moriarty has lamp oil dumped on his face then set aflame to rid it of killer yogurt. But the movie also clearly has something to say about consumerism and corporate espionage. It does so in a roundabout way, with the occasional wink at the camera, but there is something at it's core. There is a reason somebody wanted to tell this story.

SyFy movies like Sharknado have none of that. It was made so you could laugh at it and then feel good for laughing. It's filmmaking at it's most crass and superficial. On the Wicker Scale even Nicolas Cage is looking at it and saying "Wow, that's pretty bad."

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