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Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Cliffhanger: An Appreciation

When I lived in Seattle, the theater company I'd helped found decided to put on a night of original shorts. We put out a call for submissions and, being a bunch of unknowns without the money to pay playwrights, we did not receive the latest from Stoppard and Mamet. What we did get seemed to have been written by the least talented students in the most cut-rate continuing education playwriting class ever. The stuff was just so pathetically bad that you could not read it without cracking up.

It was so bad, in fact, that we wanted to share it with an actual audience. It was decided, by those in the group who were more conscientious than me, that it might be a bit cruel to perform someone's work in order to mock it. And so we decided, instead, to write our own short plays and to make them as shitty as we could.
And so A Night of Shitty Theater was born.

My company in Seattle did Shitty Theater as a fundraiser for three years, writing new stuff each year. When I moved to New York, I brought the idea with me and I've written two more shows of shit. In that time, I've become a connoisseur of shit. I've developed a pretty good eye for what differentiates a merely bad movie or play from a true work of shit.

And, in that spirit, I'd like to say a few words about what is, in my opinion, the Shittiest Movie of All Time: Cliffhanger.

A truly shitty movie doesn't just ladle on a hackneyed story or cliched characters. It revels in them. If there is a tired, worn-out line that could be used in a situation, the shitty screenwriter works that motherfucker in there. The plot to a shitty movie should not make sense when you stop and think about it. If the characters acted in a rational manner, the movie would have some degree of verisimilitude, which is the antithesis of the shitty aesthetic. A shitty movie can only get so far, though, with a shitty director and a shitty screenplay. To reach the apex of shititude, you have to have a cast of really, really bad actors. Cliffhanger has all of this. And more.

Cliffhanger came at the tail end of what might be called Sylvester Stallone's "successful years", before the
craptacular box office implosion of Judge Dredd and Demolition Man taught him that he was not a God and drove him to try to find some pathetic redemption in Copland. So in this flick, he's just got hubris pouring out of his ass. He thinks he's the Alpha and Omega of action heroes here, and, with his co-writing credit on the screenplay, you just know that he beefed up his share of "good" lines. And he plays opposite Janine Turner, in a film performance that helped insure she wouldn't give very many more film performances. Then there's Michael Rooker, who's character, I believe, is named Angry Best Friend. And the cast is topped by John Lithgow, who seems to be in on the joke and actually parodying the movie he's in.

The "plot" of Cliffhanger involves a delightfully over-complicated theft of government bonds by Lithgow and his band of each-creepy-in-their-own-cliched-way villains. The theft goes awry and they crash land (in a fantastic sequence shot with twigs and model planes) onto a mountain, where they face off against Stallone and Rooker. But Stallone and Rooker's relationship is complicated, you see, by the fact that Stallone failed to save Rooker's girlfriend in a beautifully heavy-handed opening sequence that haunts the two men until about half an hour into the movie, when they both forget it happened.

Stallone dispatches the villains, one at a time. He rides one like a sled down a mountain. He shoots another one with a magical fires-when-submerged gun while he's swimming below the ice in a frozen lake. He impales the lone black villain on a stalactite after the fiend implies that he's going to take sexual advantage of Turner.

All this happens while people say some of the worst lines ever spoken on screen. Lines like:
  • "Hard times, man? What do you know about hard times? You did it your way...and she died."
  • "There were times when I didn't know what I wanted to do you...or hate you."
  • "Walker, you resilient bastard, you're still alive."
  • "We like it extreme!"
  • "The fight's not here, dammit! It's out there!"
  • "Damn you, Walker!!!"
All this and more. The thing ends with a Man vs Helicopter sequence that utterly rewrites the laws of physics. Lithgow's expression as he rides the chopper down to its inexplicably explosive destruction is worthy of the great Expressionist actor Max Shreck.

Dear God, I love this shitty, shitty movie. I have dreams of some day turning Cliffhanger into a Broadway musical. I've even written the exciting opening number, sung by Stallone's character as he's climbing the sheer face of a mountain. Sigh. If you have not yet had the pleasure of seeing this masterpiece of the Shitty Movie genre, I highly recommend you do so.

And now my question to you: What shitty movie is your favorite? I'm not talking, by the way, about a "guilty pleasure". I'm not talking about the Adam Sandler DVD you've got tucked away behind your Fellini collection that you watch because you think it's actually kind of funny. I'm talking about a movie that is so awful that you actually love it and are willing to say so proudly. C'mon, let's drag these films out into the daylight and love them for what they are.

Hmm. Dungeons & Dragons? I especially like the part where, for no reason at all, they turn into pure energy at the very end. Or maybe Van Helsing, which nobody else seems to realize was one of the worst movies of all time (I've actually had people tell me it was merely mediocre, the philistines).
"...hubris pouring out of his ass."

This line is priceless, and not one that I'll forget anytime soon.
Oh, man. Where does one begin? I'd say that the shittiest film I watched multiple times was Hudson Hawk. It might give your Cliffhanger a run for its "craptacular" title. Danny Aiello & Bruce Willis singing some standards, a bunch of 'secret agents' named after candy bars... such lines as "I guess you never f*cked with anybody from Hoboken before..." Andie MacDowell screeching like a dolphin... Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant as eccentric, rich evil-doers...

Opening sequence - DaVinci, painting the Mona Lisa, gazes at the model who smiles at him, revealing a set of teeth that would make an Englishwoman look like a candidate for a Pepsodent model. He shakes his head and moves on... downhill shenanigans from there.

Damn you, Joe. Time to add to my Netflix queue.
I don't watch many movies (and actually, Eddie Izzard is tucked behind my Fellini), but there's one item in my collection that stands out as a very good bad movie:

The Beguiled walks a precariously thin line between sublime and ridiculous. It's Clint Eastwood as you've never seen him before.
I'm not sure if these qualify more as "guilty pleasures," but they're certainly all shitty movies that I feel rather guilty about actually enjoying...

Once upon a time, pre-LOTR, they also made epic special effects-laden fantasy/sci-fi films. And they pretty much sucked. Two of these were Krull and Clash of the Titans. And I loved 'em both.

What do you get when you combine Peter Frampton, The Bee-Gees, Steve Martin, and George Burns? Why, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, of course. I must have watched this movie a dozen times. Even begged for the soundtrack for Christmas. When I was given the actual Sgt Pepper Beatles LP instead, I was sooooo disappointed.

Jackass: The Movie. No redeeming value whatsoever. Yet somehow awesome.

Barbarella and Xanadu deserve special mention based on the outfits alone...

But my #1 favorite shitty movie is probably Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed and co-written by my man Bill Shatner. That (ehem) sexy performance by Uhura... the unintentionally hilarious pseudo-religious overtones... Kirk's classic line: "I just wanted to ask a question. What does God need with a starship?"... Kirk, Spock, and Bones around a campfire singing "Row Row Row Your Boat"...

Glorious shittiness indeed...

(Sorry -- that was a long comment... next round's on me...)
I'm not much of a movie person and I stay away from bad movies by waiting for people to be guinea pigs and tell me how they were. One of the worst movies I can think of is the only one I've fallen asleep at, (granted it was after a night of latenight studying). It had Kim Basinger and Richard Gere and I think it was called Final Analysis, about a psych patient who obsesses over her doctor, (I think). It was so bad, I forgot the storyline!
Well, there's always Flash Gordon . . .which was directed, inexplicably, by Mike Hodges, the hard-boiled genius who did Get Carter (the REAL one, from 1972), Croupier, and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.

Red Sonja, anyone?

The Postman would be a perfect example if it weren't 3 hours long--my sense of humour about the thing deflated at the 90 minute mark.

Mr. Funk - Star Trek V is not only one of my favorite bad movies, but it's one of my favorite Star Trek movies because it's so bad. It's like drinking PBR and eating Totino's frozen pizzas with friends you're always happy to see despite the fact that you speak ill of them in their absence. But Clash of the Titans can't be a TRUE shitty movie, 'cause it features some of Ray Harryhausen's finest work.

I love Hudson Hawk, but I almost find that more of a guilty pleasure, bordering on misunderstood masterpiece. Am I kidding? You be the judge.
Secretary, starring the (lovely) James Spader and the (creepy icky) Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was so bad I enjoyed the experience of watching it unravel. Sadomasochism? I'd like to hurt her, too, but it would involve a chainsaw, not a spanking.

Take that, you simpering, mousy bitch!
This is a tough one... I am generally successful at forgetting the truly shitty movies, so coming up with one or two that I've watched multiple times--much less love--is a big challenge!

I suppose my best answer is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. LOVED it when I was a kid and couldn't wait for it to be on during the holidays.
Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon. Come on, former Prince-hanger on Vanity as the ingenue, soundtrack hits from El Debarge, a barely comprehensible chop-socky plot, and a villain named Sho Nuf, the shogun of Harlem. Can't resist.

The Warriors, though many a paean has been written for this movie of late, it's hard to ignore the comic book charms of the original cut. My equivalent to Mr. Wack's obsession with Cliffhanger, on which I shan't comment further.

The Last Starfighter, we've all seen this, non? It's probably the biggest piece of video-gamer wish fulfillment ever. Wargames is also on this list, but not exactly craptastic enough for the topic.

Wild Things. Yes, it is presented in Skin-o-rama (including the famous shot of Kevin Bacon's wanger), but beneath that is one of the pulpiest pseudo-noir surrounding Floridian white trash on film. Delicious treat, and featuring a hilarious take from Bill Murray.

Big Trouble in Little China. Not sure if it belongs on this list, but in terms of purposeful crap, ya can't beat this.

That's all I can come up with for now, goodness knows I've seen plenty more, though.
Waterworld, bad Road Warrior rip off that's more entertaining than it has any right to be.
John Watne's The Alamo. It was a little kid's thing - your heroes up against terrible odds, neat uniforms, yadda yadda yadda, and you didn't have to worry about political correctness because - hey - you're SEVEN ok? get over it!

Now as an adult, of course, I realize it is a bogus piece of crap but I don't care.

Remember the Alamo!
John WATNE of course, has no bearing whatsover on the John Wayne version. Watne's version includes a gender-bending Santa Ana.

Steve--Van Helsing is really, really wretched. I DVR'd it one day and I couldn't stop watching as it wrecked like a train. Definite shit.

Prego--I like to think Danny Aiello makes most any movie shitty.

Stephen & Lyam--Clash of the Titans is my second-favorite shitty movie of all time. Yes, there's Harryhousen goodness, but my fucking God! The over-acting is beautiful! Laurence Olivier basically took a giant shit on his acting career for a huge paycheck. And the film features what is quite possibly my favorite line from any movie ever: "Give us back the eye-eeeee!" I wrote a sketch for my group for the sole reason that I wanted to say that line onstage.

Sereena--I'm gonna tell you, a lot of heterosexual men have a fondness in their heart for Secretary and didn't notice anything shitty about it.

Beigey--I agree with most of your selections, but I take issue with your inclusion of The Warriors, because I happen to know that you don't think it's the least bit shitty.

RW--I'm a huge fan of John Watne. I think the definitive Watne film is 1976's The Shoutist, in which he played a cowboy who shouts a lot.
I think Maggie Gyllenhaal looked pretty hot in The Secretary. And she's not so weird, or didn't seem that way on one of the late night talkshows I saw her on. Sometimes an attractive actress can make a bad movie somewhat worth watching.

My verification codeword is "penpog". How cool.
The Green Berets.
yeah that one, with john wayne?

its been fetish flick since i was in high school. my pals and i would meet at a different house every other week, bring beer,food and smokes, and have great time cursing the gooks, high fiving during the 'light em up' scene (where a batch of gooks get fried on the wire).sometimes, we would rewind and watch it again.

i recently saw again two weekends ago, to much personal delight.

it was, and is, such a bad example of film craft.
"The Color Purple". An awful movie and one that confounds as much as it irritates. There are some wonderful pieces in that thing: The set in general, the sense of time and place conveyed by costume and setting is transforming. The indeciferable plot and "look-at-me-I'm-an-actress" characters are impossible to overcome and make the experience just bad.

Also, pretty much anything shown on "LifeTime" and anything with the idiot actress Julia Roberts in it will win a prize as well.

Now I need a shower.
So bad that I actually own it: Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo

Ain't no stoppin' us!
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a brilliant choice. Was that Suzanne? Anyway, good call.

I'm not sure that The Warriors or Big Trouble in Little China are truly shitty enough to qualify. The Last Dragon, however, is inspired: a movies so shitty I'd literally forgotten it existed, even felt sure that I'd made it up.

I adore Secretary, and frequently have a dream in which I'm nestled between both the Gyllenhaals.

Yes, Joe, you're right about the acting and lines in Clash of the Titans; I think I just turn those receptors off when I watch Harryhausen animation (hence my great love for the wildly amateurish Valley of Gwangi, which should probably be somewhere on my list if I'm honest with myself).
Wall Street by a mile. Brutishly over-eager charmless Charlie Sheen? Smarmy Michael Douglas? Sean Young as Douglas's wife? The way Darryl Hannah decorates the apartment? Charlie Sheen walking around on the beach talking on the world's biggest, oldest cell phone? James Spader's ridiculously huge glasses?


whenever I watch it, I laugh so hard I fall off the couch.
I can't believe no one has mentioned Rocky IV yet.

The training montage cutting between Dolph Lundgren in a laboratory and Sly in the Siberian woods is the standard against which all training montages before or since must be measured. Sly's empassioned/mildly retarded speech to the Soviet crowd about not killing each other is one of the greatest moments in Cold War history.

"I must break you." Classic.
I've discussed Secretary with two only men (both of them heterosexual), and neither of them liked it or Gyllenhaal. I'm sure she has a lot of fans, but she's just too limp and dreary to be considered "hot." And her interpretation of the character was radically pathetic, in a very unsexy way, which is what made the movie laughable. Vulnerability is one thing; a virtual "kick me, I'm a mess" sign is something else altogether.
Two only men: Men with an abundance of testosterone?
Some of these don't need explanation:

Clan of the Cave Bear, ugh uhhh ruungh ughhn Daryl Hannah.

The Heavenly Kid, greaser dies only to be brought back as a guardian angel for his own kid. How would the Fonz react to aerobics broadcast on TV. Amusing, no?

My Science Project. Came out around the same time as Weird Science. That's about as much as I can remember about this movie.

976-EVIL. Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund's directing debut.

Critters, between this and the last, I have to wonder if a special category must be made for cheaply made horror. Most efforts are bound to be horrible, it's part of the nature of the beast. Throw C.H.U.D. in here too.

Days of Thunder, Con Air, Armageddon (which features a scene completely lifted from DoT), anything from the 90s that features Bruckheimer...repetitive, loud, obnoxious and dull.
I loved Secretary...An S&M manifesto? No. Kinky, (maybe vanilla-y so, but this is Hollywood) and, I thought the performances were good...A female Spanking The Monkey, without the troubling Oedipal stuff.
Beigey, I have to say that I don't think you're being discriminating enough. Are you saying that you can sit down and enthusiastically watch Armageddon or Days of Thunder? There are movies that have all the right elements to be brilliantly shitty, and then there's just plain shit. I would have to lump both of these movies in the latter category.
The guy who loves Cliffhanger is telling me I'm not discriminating enough. HAHAHA!

both of which movies?
Armageddon and Days of Thunder, Mon Frer. They're huge steaming piles of unwatchability.
I wish I had any so-bad-they're-good movies to list, but my brain caves in at the first sign of badness, crippling my sense of irony and (or?) fun. Is there any hope for me, Abby?

Two quick comments, though:

There is one movie I think Danny Aiello didn't ruin, and that is "Do the Right Thing." Not only did he not ruin it, I think he actually helped carry it--and that's saying a lot for a movie that had so many great people in it.

The main reason I didn't like "Secretary"? Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the few actresses I would prefer not to see nude. Ever.
They're huge steaming piles of unwatchability.

No argument here. I left out the "enthusiastically sit down to watch them" bit on that one. I was forced to on one, and not sure what I was thinking on the other.
New here, but I have to chime in with the fact that I'm a quasi-heterosexual woman(married to lyamhound), and I L.O.V.E.D. Secretary. It is perhaps one of my favorite movie explorations of sexuality and S&M ever. I think Maggie is one of the hottest pieces of ass working in Hollywood. And I think the chemistry between she and Spader was spot on. I haven't seen James that good since Sex, Lies and Videotape.
As they say: To each their own.
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