🎥 I Can See By Your Eyes You Must Be Lying...
I love bad things. For the last few years I've spent New Year's Eve marathoning bad movies. I did an entire year-long blog series about movies, TV shows, books, and more than I don't like. (It was, frankly, a little exhausting.) Why do I do this? For the irony? For the schadenfreude? For the LULZ? No! Well... maybe a little. But, really, what fascinates me about horrible things is the mental autopsy of trying to understand what the vision was for the project, and how the execution went so horribly wrong. It's pretty common for ADHDers such as myself to have an exceptionally strong desire to understand how things fit together. And for me, I want to know how storytelling works, and that means understanding how it fails.
Watch Bad Movies
The first step to becoming a writer is reading, so they say. Read classics. Read what's new and hot. Read up on your genre. Read outside your genre. Read so you can figure out what works for you and try to osmose some of that into your own writing. The best way to learn good writing is to consume good writing. This is sound advice--you should definitely be doing this--but here's something else that you hear from established writers. Many, myself included, will tell you that one of the biggest improvements to their craft came when they started reading slush.
"Slush" or "the slush pile," for those that don't know, is a colloquial term for the unsolicited submissions that come into a literary magazine, agency, or publisher. The slush pile will have new writers and established writers. It will have high quality work and it will have absolute word salad, all mixed haphazardly together--hence, "slush." It is the "rough" from which you will find the diamonds. Magazines will typically have volunteer slush-readers, people that go through the slush pile to identify the "pretty good" ones for the editorial board to review in detail and further narrow down which ones they want to buy.
When you're a slush-reader, you get to see everything. The good, the bad, the amazing, the god-awful, and the solidly mediocre. You get to see trends in what people are submitting. You can tell which themed anthologies have just sent out rejections, because suddenly you have a dozen sci-fi stories about the Beatles. Furthermore, you generally are leaving notes for editors or other slush-readers, and the slush pile tends to be pretty dang huge. So you're reading a variety of stories, summarizing why you do or don't like them, and doing all of this at scale.
One thing you quickly learn is that most of the stories in the slush pile are... fine. They're fine. They're not bad. Some are even pretty good. But the fine ones and the pretty good ones don't sell. If you want to stand out in that volume of submissions, your story really has to pop. And the more you go over things that aren't working for you, the more you start to recognize patterns to help you more quickly bail on a story that isn't worth your time. Because, frankly, bad writing is usually pretty obvious early on. I mentioned in a previous post a friend who told me he won't finish a story if he doesn't know the protagonist's stakes in the first three paragraphs. That's because those stakes are how you get invested in a story, and if you're not invested, then it doesn't matter how exciting the final action sequence is.
So, to be sure, reading slush is an education. It's just not an opportunity that is available to most people. As a rule, magazines want slush-readers who've sold a story or two of their own. But, you know what is available to most people?
Shitty movies. They're just one HBO Max subscription away.
Okay, in all fairness, garbage abounds on any of the streaming services. But by virtue (or not?) of being affiliated with Warner Bros, HBO has an unrivaled library of high-profile stinkers. The DC content alone is legendary. Yes, there's the hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss DCEU, but you've also got the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, all Superman movies not directed by Richard Donner, Green Lantern, and Halle Barry's Razzie-winning turn in Catwoman. They've also got the Hobbit trilogy, the Fantastic Beasts franchise, the worst Fantastic 4 movie and one of the worst Transformers movies. You've got some classic James Bond flicks in there too, the most recent Space Jam, the Matrix sequels, and... Elektra for some reason? Look, it's a big studio with some very high-profile films and a not-great track record of managing its intellectual property. These things happen.
But their loss is your gain, frankly, because if you want a deep dive into how storytelling fails, bad movies are great. Better than books, I would argue. Reading a book is something you have to actively engage in and it's a substantial time investment. It gets to be very not-fun very quickly. Bad movies, on the other hand, can be a hoot. Sometimes a bad movie is fun to watch because it's a trainwreck, but sometimes it's fun to watch because it has fun moments that rise above the storytelling. Michael Bay's Transformers may be narrative drivel that flaps between adolescent cringe humor and military-worshipping jingoism, but it sure as hell delivers on the spectacle and sometimes that's enough.
Movies are also expensive to make and even more expensive to re-shoot, and even a bad one will make some money, so it usually behooves studios to release their clunkers anyway--whereas a publisher is likely to sit on a book that it doesn't think will sell, because printing the physical media is a huge cost center. So it's just easier to find high-profile bad storytelling on screen than in print. Movies are also a much more collaborative effort, and frequently directors, writers, actors, and producers will be working at cross-purposes, so there's a lot of opportunities for creators to accidentally sabotage each other. And if a movie studio knows they've got a turd on their hands, they typically edit it down to as short a run-time as possible, because they make their money based on the number of screenings, not the number of tickets sold. Which means bad movies are often a very consumable 90 to 100 minutes. And because film is a compressed format anyway, we're looking at usually simple plot lines involving one or two main characters with predictable story beats. This means you can focus on the fundamentals when analyzing a bad movie.
And what are those fundamentals? For our purposes they are theme, narrative, character journey, and audience expectation. We're going to look at these individually, but first we're going to take a moment to eliminate the things we don't care about.
We don't, for instance, care about plot holes. This will get its own post later, but for now I want you to trust me that plot holes don't matter. We also don't care about things that are very specific to filmmaking like acting and shot composition. They're important for the artform, sure, but not for the story. It's useful to keep in mind, though. Sometimes a movie with weak storytelling can get by on vibes or a particularly charismatic performance (he says, casting a wicked side-eye at Wonder Woman). Sometimes a great actor can elevate vapid meaningless putrescence (cough, cough, JOKER, cough, cough). And sometimes a miscast actor can destroy a great script. These things are interesting, but not germane.
You know what else we don't care about? Special effects. Bad effects can make a bad movie worse, but it's not all that important and there are plenty of good movies that look lousy. For instance, Green Lantern is a dark, dingy movie with fake-looking special effects, but that's not what makes it bad. It's bad for other reasons we'll get to down below. But do you know another movie that's dark and dingy with fake-looking effects? The original Ghostbusters. Oh, it looked great in 1984, but by modern standards it's pretty drab. And it doesn't matter--the movie holds up because it's a good story with engaging characters first and a special effects showcase second. And if what I just said is upsetting to you, do yourself a favor and don't revisit Toy Story.
The next thing to keep in mind when evaluating bad movies is that you need to make sure it's actually bad. It's easy to get caught up in hot takes and blowback. Twilight, for example, is not a bad movie. It's not a great movie, but it's definitely not a bad one. But it was a very successful movie that was geared towards women, and when something like that becomes a cultural talking point, it will attract hate campaigns and "think pieces" about how it's actually awful. This is inevitable and should be ignored. Actually, you should just ignore most think pieces, because while they're very good at pointing out things that are noticeable, what's noticeable is seldom what's actually wrong. Story is the main thing. If it works, the movie works. If it doesn't work, sometimes the movie works anyway. But if the movie is a flop, dollars-to-donuts says that there's a bad story at the heart of it.
So for our purposes, a movie that's very successful does not count as bad, or at least not bad enough. At the other end of the spectrum, there are movies that are such colossal trainwrecks that it's hard to even know where to begin an autopsy. So while it's extremely fun to roast Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it's not a good place to start your bad-movie-watching-as-educational-tool experience.
Okay, so how do we evaluate a bad movie to figure out how the story doesn't work? We're going to ask ourselves these questions. And one thing we're going to find in practice is that bad movies rarely fail on only one axis. And, indeed, since theme and plot are both related to character arc, there's going to be a lot of overlap. But these are the areas of interrogation from which to start sussing out why a movie does or does not work.
First, we want to know if the movie is thematically coherent. What is it about? What does it think it's about? Does the movie successfully communicate it? Is it tied to character journey? Movies with incoherent themes tend to be surprisingly boring--that is to say, you will be surprised that you're bored because there's an awful lot going on, you just don't care about it. You may also find yourself being blindsided by moments that the movie thinks are important but that come out of nowhere. One caution, though: from a craft standpoint, we must not confuse thematic incoherence with thematic repugnance. For example, Braveheart is thematically coherent, it's just that its themes are awful. It's a Libertarian power fantasy about the vital importance of not being cuckolded, but that doesn't make it a bad movie, it just means I don't like it. From a craft standpoint, it's fine.
Second, we want to know if the movie is narratively coherent. Does the story make sense? Are there plot threads that arise or disappear without warning? Does the plot service the story, or is it just setting up sequels? If the plot is complex, do we have anchors that we can follow to carry us through it? On a related note, does it have the right amount of plot? Is it burning through it so fast that it's exhausting, or is it dawdling because there's just not much there there? Does the viewer have the information they need to make sense of the story, and is that information presented clearly and interestingly? Does it feel naturalistic or overly contrived? Does it insult your intelligence? And again, we're not concerned with plot holes or minor continuity gaffes. Plot is less important than character journey, but if the plot is incoherent, then everything that sits atop it gets undercut. This raises an interesting corollary: Is the plot there to service the character arc, or is the character's journey there to justify plot machinations?
Third, we're concerned with our protagonist. Are they driving the story with their decisions? Do they have a goal or some kind of personal stakes in the outcome? Is their journey mirrored in the themes? Are they actually making decisions or is the story just happening to them? Do their actions seem motivated and reasonable? Are their reactions believable? Do we want them to succeed? This is all Character Arc 101 stuff, but you'd be surprised how easy it is for a movie to fail at this without you necessarily noticing.
Finally, we want to look at audience expectations. Is the movie keeping the promises it makes? Is it asking questions that it never answers? Is it setting the proper tone for the story it's trying to tell? On a related note, is it trying so hard to subvert your expectations that it breaks narrative cohesion? This goes to things that people bring into a movie that are outside the diegesis of the film. Do we expect plot twists from this director? Are we looking for specific moments from the book it was adapted from? So yeah, this is kind of a grab bag.
Okay, that's a lot of preamble. Let's watch some bad movies. (Oh, and as a bonus mental exercise, we're going to try to come up with a quick fix.)
M. Night Shyamalan's first bad movie gets forgotten now that he's made Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender and the second half of The Happening. But for a while, this was the movie that people shook their heads at. It has some high points, but everyone gripes about how the twist at the end is stupid. Which is not exactly false, but kind of misses the point. The twist doesn't work for two reasons. One, it raises more questions than it answers, which is not what you need to be doing in the final ten minutes of a movie. Second, and probably more importantly, it is completely superfluous to the protagonist's character journey. She never even finds out about it. The audience learns because characters in a completely different location start expositing to the room. This just highlights that the movie is more concerned with the plot than with any of its characters, and that their stories are a contrivance so the director could deliver a shocking surprise.
The fix: It's pretty simple, actually, just remove the twist. Make it exposition instead. Then the tension becomes about whether Bryce Dallas Howard is able to keep her idyllic innocence while she's on the other side of the wall. You could even have her make a decision about whether to stay and learn more or to return. That's wouldn't make the plot uncontrived, but it'd at least give it something to be about.
The Cat in the Hat
Unlikeable characters, weird tonal issues, and an utter dearth of story. The movie is only 82 minutes, and it still feels like it drags--there's a reason the older adaptations of Dr. Seuss run half an hour even after they've added a song or two. Instead of building out the story, Mike Meyers just keeps riffing and yes-and-ing all over the place. There is no protagonist to follow and the movie has, for the most part, nothing to say. It is an empty vessel for comedy, and it might have worked if any of the jokes were funny.
The fix: don't make the cat the protagonist. Focus on the children, recap the book in the first act and then have it play out in their everyday lives until they confront the cat and then he turns out to have been a kindly helpful agent all along. In short, write the danged script before you start filming.
Meet the Robinsons
In last week's post I said that you could usually trust a movie with four or more credited screenwriters to be completely narratively incoherent. Well here's your go-to example. Seven people are credited with writing this movie and it makes not a lick of sense. It just piles on nonsensical characters, all of whom you get the impression were some writer's darling, but none of it matters and nothing they do feels motivated by story or anything resembling reality. The main plot twist at the end is so hilariously telegraphed that it's kind of shocking that the movie expects you to be surprised.
The fix: this one may be unsalvageable, but a single writer doing a page-one re-write would be a start. But honestly, it's probably best to just cut losses and make another movie.
Man of Steel
Is it an ultra-violent dour take on a beloved symbol of positivity? Yes, but that's not what makes this movie bad, although it does speak to audience expectations. But really, the reason this movie is so inexplicably unengaging is because it is thematically incoherent. What's it about? Not much, really, but it thinks it's about how saving people is great and all, but real heroism is the willingness to kill bad guys. And this, it should be noted, is a horrible take on Superman, or it would be if it was communicated with any kind of competence. For all his talents, Zack Snyder is consistently bad at working theme into his movies, which is less of an issue when you're making stories about nearly-naked Laodiceans, but he keeps trying to be theme-rich, so you can bet we're gonna hear more about that.
The fix: We need some Act II business of Clark actually being a hero to the people of Metropolis. Lose most of the flashbacks and focus on the conflict between his two fathers' ideologies, only have Jonathan Kent be the one who's pro saving people instead of a danged nihilist.
While we're shitting on DC, this one's an interesting failure. Leaving aside how ugly it is and how badly it wants to be a Michael Bay film--all the interiors are blue and orange and only lit from one side--it has two big issues. The first has to do with our protagonist. Hal Jordan has no stake in what happens. He just wants to get the girl. But the second problem has to do with audience expectations. This is a superhero movie about a guy who can manifest anything he can imagine, and not only is it bereft of any joy or fun, Hal Jordan has a painfully boring imagination, apparently. They do one gag with him creating a Hot Wheels track and that's it. This came out before Marvel really nailed down the formula, but it's not that hard to figure out. These are wish-fulfillment fantasies, so we need to see the hero enjoying having superpowers, and then getting in over their head only to realize that heroism is about making personal sacrifices for the greater good (and not, Zack Snyder, about killing people). It's pretty basic.
The fix: Make Hal care about justice more than planes or nookie, and then ask a panel of school-children what they would do with a Green Lantern ring and write at least a few of those ideas into Act II.
Iron Man 2
Hey, let's spread some of that comic book love around, shall we? Marvel may have nailed down the superhero formula, but they sure struggled with sequels for a while. The problems with this one really come down to narrative incoherence. How does a tech expo go on for an entire year? Why are we devoting such a huge chunk of Act II setting up sequel bait? And the resolution in which Tony creates a new element by symbolically reconciling with his father is thoroughly underbaked. The thematic link isn't strong enough to carry it through the nonsensical plot element. Hilariously, there's a deleted scene for this movie that gets more into the mechanics of "creating a new element" that solves some of the Act III problems, but it now resides on the cutting room floor. They would eventually get better at this, but not until after making Thor: The Dark World.
The fix: move the stuff about The Avengers Initiative to the post-credits where it belongs, and put the deleted scene back in.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Does this movie even need to exist? No. Is the lead actor miscast? Absolutely. Is the origin of the name "Solo" dumb? Indeed. Is the sex-crazed robot kinda unsettling? Yeah. Did they kill off all of the most interesting characters in the first third and also really do wrong by Thandiwe Newton? You bet. None of these are the reason this movie is bad, though. They don't help, but they're not the reason. The problems have to do with our protagonist. First off, this is a scoundrel origin story in which Han Solo makes exactly zero ignoble choices. This is because--and this is our second and larger problem--this is a scoundrel origin story in which Han Solo makes exactly zero choices of any import whatsoever. He has no agency. The plot just sort of happens to him. There are two really pivotal moments for his character: when he leaves Qy'ra at the beginning and when she leaves him at the end. And in both of those cases, she is the one who makes the decisions for him. Now that's just bad writing, and it's equally frustrating to think that you could fix that all with about ten or twelve re-written lines of dialog.
The fix: Make Han the one to leave Qy'ra in the beginning, and then suddenly his guilt is a motivating factor for the rest of the movie until he leaves her again at the end because he hates what she has become. Let him make bad choices and have to live with the consequences.
Okay, one more...
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Where does this one fail? I mean... D, all of the above. It's bogged down with prequel nonsense that does nothing to advance the plot and is only relevant to The Lord of the Rings--a story that was already told and didn't need any of said nonsense in it. It's not intelligibly about anything. It has too many characters. Bilbo has no personal stake or goal. The pacing is bonkers; nothing happens for the first forty minutes. It ends in the wrong place. And it just wants sooooo badly to be another installment of The Lord of the Rings that it forgets to ever be an installment of The Hobbit. And that's before you get into the ugly production design and misguided frame rate business.
The fix: This one needs focus, and I think the obvious choice is to emphasize the contrast between Thorin and Bilbo and really lean into the guilt of Bilbo having a home, and a rather nice one at that, and the dwarves not. Lose the prequel business, lose the White Council, lose the Kili love-triangle, lose Legolas, relegate most of the dwarves to the background so you can get on the road faster, and then don't stop the movie until at least Lake-Town. And I know they wanted a named female character in there, but is there a good reason they couldn't gender-swap one or more of the dwarves?
Next week, we're going to deep-dive into plot holes and why they don't matter...
In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.