Friday, July 12, 2013

This is Why We Fail: SharkNado, Schadenfreude, and Schlock

There are no words. There just aren't.
I did NOT want to watch SharkNado. I didn't. I barely glanced at it when the blurb hit FaceBook. I saw a picture of a CGI shark, inside of a CGI tornado, and weirdly, was able to put the entire movie together in my head in the span of a nanosecond.

But then, Wil Wheaton started tweeting his excitement. I noticed he wasn't the only one. Many of my friends, professionals in their industries, and known for having a modicum of taste and common sense, were enthusiastic--nay, giddy, about watching the movie. I looked again. Yes, it was a "SyFy Original," which is code for, "we spent no money, time, or effort on this movie."

I've long had a problem with SF fans who insist on watching everything that the SyFy channel pumps out (or for that matter, any of the big network channels) that has even a whisper of science fiction and/or fantasy elements to it. "We have to watch," they tell themselves and others. "If we don't, then Hollywood will never, ever make another science fiction television show for as long as it lives, and we'll have nothing to watch, then." And oh, the gymnastics they go through to try and convince themselves to keep watching the show. "Well, see, the first season, all twenty-four hour-long episodes of it, is pretty much just the set-up for the premise. It doesn't start to get good until the second season, about mid-way through. But in the third season, that's when the show takes off! Of course, they cancelled it after the third season, so you have to read what happens next on the website. But the next hit show that SyFy vomits out...that'll be the good one!" Yeah, right.

I am apparently the only person who is bothered by a television network called "SyFy" that consistently produces the worst kinds of shows in the name of Sci-Fi, or SF, or whatever we've decided to call it this week. It's garbage, all of it. From the reality shows, to the ghost-hunting shows, to the original series, to the special "movie, um, well, SharkNado."

There's this production company in Los Angeles called The Asylum that produces these made-for-tv monstrosities. They also produce direct to video movies that are specifically designed to trick the unwary into picking up their movie instead of the actual film they were looking for. Here's a good example of what I'm talking about.

Here's the poster (and presumably the DVD box cover) for Paranormal Activity, a mega-hit that was made for $15,000 dollars. It was widely seen and most people who like that sort of thing really liked it.

Here is the poster for The Asylum's Paranormal Entity. It very likely had the same budget as Paranormal Activity, and was only seen by the people who foolishly went into Hollywood Video, glanced at the cover, and then snatched it up and screamed, "Hey, Enid! Here's that Paranomal movie you was wantin' to see. You wanna get it tonight?"

This is the kind of stuff they do, on purpose, all of the time.

Of course, there's a rich history of production companies that latch onto the success of their peers like a remora and feeds on that bigger, better company's ideas. The television career of producer Glen A. Larson comes to mind (we used to call him "Glen Larsony"). So, I'm not down on The Asylum for their lamprey-like exploitation of Shark Week. I understand. There's a rich tradition of douchebaggery in Los Angeles, and they are just upholding that tradition.

I'm down on The Asylum because they have given up. The writers, directors, PA's, post-production staff, all of them...they have given up. L.A. has beaten them, and they are lashing out at L.A. and taking us with them in the process.

I won't bother to recount SharkNado for you. Not when there's someone willing to play along and gleefully tick off the plot points like a Middle School Queen Bee with a case of the Gossips. I'll let her tell you all about it.

Now, presuming that you either watched this...I hesitate to even call it a movie...or you read the synopsis, let me tell you what this, um, production is really all about. It's hate mail for Los Angeles.

The film "stars" a guy from Beverly Hills 90210, Tara Reid, and John Heard in the Steve McQueen Money Shot role. None of them are taking it seriously. How can they? SharkNado is a mass of stock footage, terrible computer-generated sharks (and I mean terrible--not "oh, it's CGI, I can tell" or "Oh, this looks more like a video game," but truly terrible as in, "I don't know much about the animation software being used by amateur filmmakers these days, but I'm pretty sure that given an hour or two, I could draw, render, and animate a more realistic looking shark using only my feet."), and a story that ignores logic--even movie logic, physics--even movie physics, and science--even movie science. It's got the appeal of a sociopathic five year old's imaginative drawings, but it never delivers on any of the above premises. All it does is bitch and moan about L.A.

I get it, L.A. is a terrible place to live. Yes, we know, the 405 is a soul-sucking monster. Right, I know, people in L.A. are crazy, and they complain incessantly. Yes, everyone is Beverly Hills is deluded. Douchebaggery abounds. Is the solution, then, to flood L.A. with ravenous, terribly-drawn sharks who can devour these people whole in a matter of seconds? Apparently so.

Of course, the only way to accomplish this is by having waterspouts and waves appear, like magic, out of nowhere, to destroy everything behind the heroes at just the right time. Waves and waterspouts--full of sharks, mind you, that crash down on these poor sinners and freaks and creeps and guys who stop on the 405 at Rush Hour because COME ON, MAN! AREN'T WE ALL IN ENOUGH PAIN WITHOUT YOU GETTING OUT OF YOUR FREAKING CAR? And what a coincidence that the sharks are conveniently swimming in these crashing waves, mouths open, to descend right straight down on the people that most need to get eaten. Mother Nature at work, y'all. What comes around, goes around.

I kept expecting the guy from 90210 to look at the camera and wink every time someone said "Beverly Hills." His character's name is Fin, by the way. Clever.

Yes, that's Beverly Hills 90210's Ian Ziering, Yes, he is
holding a chainsaw. Yes, he is, in fact, about to jump into
a flying shark's mouth. Spoiler Alert.
In the end, L.A. is devastated by waterspouts full of sharks, which was, I suspect, the original nugget of inspiration for the movie: a waterspout that picks up a deadly sea creature and deposits it on an inland coast somewhere. I think I could have and would have preferred that as a premise. One creature. Not, um, every shark in the friggin' ocean.

After all of the people that have in some way offended the writer have been killed, the final showdown happens and it's laughable. Not just in concept, but in execution. Once all of the principles are reunited, they look out over the new waterlogged sharkscape that L.A. has become, and, I don't know, make a silent promise to rebuild the city without the 405?

Taking Responsibility

Look, I'm just as guilty as the rest of you, okay? I watched it. I started it late, because I just had to finish watching Jason and the Argonauts on TMC. You folks might like it. See, in that movie, the special effects actually look like they are interacting with the live-action actors, unlike SharkNado...BOOM! Harryhausen Slam! In your Face, SharkNado! As I watched, incredulously, zipping through the advertising that was bought so that this collection of scenes could be inflicted on the viewing public, I felt a real sense of shame and embarrassment for the actors, all of whom took the job so they could pay rent in shitty apartments in L.A. for another two months.

I watched it, and it made me sad. It made me angry and sad. Well, the ending made me laugh, but it was a cathartic laugh, like the joke that someone told you at your father's funeral that broke the tension and gave you a break from your grief.

Think I'm overstating it? I know that some of you right now are thinking that I missed the point entirely. "But Finn, it's so bad, it's good!" you're probably saying to your screen. I respectfully disagree.

I've mentioned Schadenfreude before. I think most of you know what it means: it's getting pleasure from witnessing the misfortune of other people. It's the Germanic tendency that is single-handedly propping up reality television right now. The literal german to english translation of the term is "Fail-Joy." Isn't that perfect? I think that most of the people watching SharkNado were doing it to activate their "fail-joy." No one really liked SharkNado. In the back of your mind, somewhere, you were thinking, "I could have done a better job at this." You were probably right, but in the tweetscape's desire to make funny that which should never have been produced in the first place, we have lost a piece of our soul in the process. And we may never get it back.

Let me tell you what my definition of "So Bad It's Good" means. I think there are measurable criteria.  This article here is spun out of a whole book on the subject. Our definitions differ slightly, but the point is still the same. A movie is considered so bad it's good when:

1. there is something in the movie that transcends its meager offering; Plan 9 From Outer Space is the quintessential example of this. Ed Wood's earnestness can be seen and felt in the whole movie. It's like watching your seven year old nephew put on a play that he believes wholeheartedly in.

2. you can see a real viewpoint hiding under the subject matter; A great example of this is the movie, They Live. There's a cool, cool idea hiding under that godawful, cheese-riddled flick.

3. the movie's parts are greater than its sum; A perfect example is the movie, Lake Placid. The script is what holds the movie together. Every scene has Bridgett Fonda trying to upstage Bill Pullman, who is trying to keep up with Oliver Platt, who is trying to outdo Betty White. They are bringing it, and while the delivery falls flat on the special effects, you end up kinda liking and caring about everyone onscreen.

There are tons of other movies that make this cut or don't, based largely on intention. The only reason why Robot Monster is on any of the lists is not because it's "so bad it's good" but because it's just bad, period. I like it as an example of how things used to get thrown together back in the olden days, when they had a couple of pretty actors and actresses, some stock footage, and a suit for a guy to wear. They would write the script around the elements, rather than write a story and try to make something good. So, it's on my list as a first alternate. Not as a prime example. But it does sound an awful lot like, well, SharkNado. Are you following me?

SharkNado doesn't rise above its intentions. There is no ancillary viewpoint to consider. Even the artistry is lacking--no one said, "I know this is shit, but dammit, I'm going to make the best-looking sharks I can render and really try to make them seem real!" No one said that. No one did that. No one wrote a brilliantly pithy script in spite of the craptastic production values. The actors deliver all of their lines with the grace and pomp of Leslie Nielson in Forbidden Planet. That's great, if you're watching Forbidden Planet, but when you're watching SharkNado, you get the feeling that they just signed on to the film for the sweet, sweet craft services lunches. There's nothing to connect the characters with one another, nor to the audience. They don't even bother to follow the rules of disaster movies. This isn't even disaster-porn. It's not even shark porn. There's nothing to see, here, folks, except people trying to earn a S.A.G. card.

SharkNado gives Movies So Bad That They are Good a Bad Name.

Here's the real tragedy from this: according to Hollywood, this is a success. Everyone's talking about the explosion on Twitter. Thunder Levin (the writer) quipped that he'll need an agent now. SyFy, make no mistake about it, is delirious. I'm sure they feel that there's no such thing as bad press. They are, as we speak, framing these films as "event pieces--things people watch in real-time, like a smart-mob mode--the new digital paradigm for 2013 and beyond."

And this, right here, is why Hollywood thinks we are stupid. They don't consider that we could possibly want a better story, not when everyone is willing to tweet about SharkNado. They think we don't know the difference between Schindler's List and Z-grade Schlock. This is the same group of people that have speculated on why it looks like The Lone Ranger is set to fail at the box office, and why, they wonder out loud, in print, Pacific Rim looks like it'll tank, as well. This then gets picked up by the fake-news blogs in the Geek Nation and the Nerdiverse because they think that by linking to it somehow legitimizes something about anything. It all becomes a white noise of self-fulfilling prophesies, because if said it, even if they are repeating what Variety said, then it must be true. In fact, it's all false. It's meaningless babble in a slow celebrity-scandal week. That's all.

When did we decide to let those people over there tell us what we like and don't like? Who asked for SharkNado? Did anyone say that title out loud? Who was at that pitch meeting? Who thought it would be a good (as in, so bad it's good) idea? Why aren't we advocating for better television?

I just feel bullied by Hollywood at this point. I don't think they get me. I don't think they ever did. I don't think they get many of you, either. And while I appreciate your concerted effort to make lemonade out of lemons with your genuinely funny tweets and your absolutely appropriate sarcasm about SharkNado, I think we're better off going thirsty for a while and demanding better for ourselves.

Oh, and I know some of you are probably thinking that there's a component of jealousy in my disdain for this film and the subsequent event. Let me clarify it for you: it's not jealousy. It's envy. I'd love to be able to write low-budget films for a company and have them get made and seen by hundreds of people. That would be great. Really, it would.

But not at the expense of compromising my art and my craft to intentionally make crap. If I was told that I could make, what, fifteen thousand dollars writing shark-themed scripts, but they would have to include X, Y, and Z, I would turn the job down. I know you don't believe me, but it's true. Especially where I am now, industry-wise. I wouldn't want to write anything that could confuse someone looking at it into thinking that I don't care about my audience, that I phone things in for the money, or that I have a total lack of regard for my own reputation. I know Hunter Levin thinks he's got a streak of hits going now, but he's in a bubble. When it pops, he'll be the guy who wrote SharkNado, and good luck with that one, pal. Personally, I'd rather set myself on fire.


Adventuresfantastic said...

Good analysis, Mark. I hadn't heard of this film before today, when all of a sudden it seemed to be everywhere online. Now I know I want to avoid it anything associated with it. (I haven't watched SyFy in years.)

I've always tried to support the quality products coming out of Hollywood and stay away from the crap. That way maybe they will get the message and raise their production values. Maybe, but I'm not holding my breath.

Mark Finn said...

Yeah, me neither. I always treat an intelligent SF/F film or series like the unicorn that it is and try to cherish it for as long as I can.

Unknown said...

I didn't watch it but I heard about it a few weeks ago. From what I heard, SyFy just bought and stamped their name on this movie after the finished product was presented to them. I was pretty much expecting everything you wrote. I got excited a few years back when they released Marvel's Man Thing as a SyFy original. Boy was that a super let down. Even worse than Daredevil And Ghost Rider.

Taranaich said...

I could see Sharknado working as a Far Side strip. Or an early Simpsons Troy McClure movie. Or, at an absolute stretch, a fake advertisement in a comic. But an entire film seems unreasonable.

Mark Finn said...

Al, you're right. As a bit, it's funny. As a joke, it's amusing. As an SNL sketch, it's probably taking it too far. Anything beyond that is hurting people on purpose.

Anonymous said...

At worldcon, if there is Karaoke, I expect-- nay I demand-- that you be allowed to take the mic and read this rant aloud, working up to full on chest-thumping rage that would make Musolli blush!

Brad Denton will play base during all this. I will film it. We will then release it on youtube and it will be better than Sharknado.

Hell yeah!

Mark Finn said...

I like it. I'll do it like Word Jazz. Ken Nordine, eat your heart out.

Anonymous said...

What's even scarier than the whole "Oh, I don't care" attitude among the filmmakers is how Skiffy continues to play that this somehow improves entertainment as we know it. Or, as I'm fond of joking, the fastest way to cut off Skiffy head Bonnie Hammer's dangling, festering hemorrhoids is to kick her VP Craig Engler in the chin.