Most of the time, the experience of watching a terrible movie is just plain terrible. But every so often, a terrible movie has the rare ability to bring people together, offering its viewers the opportunity to bond through their mutual suffering.
I remember renting Open Range one Saturday night back when it was a new release. About a dozen of us sat around a friend’s living room with pizza and beers, ready to enjoy an action-packed Western. We suffered silently through the first 50 or 60 of the 139 excruciating minutes. Finally, as the aging duo of Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall stared out over the titular open range in presumably deep contemplation for about the hundredth time, my friend Brad called out, “Line!?” We all burst into laughter and the collective tension released at that moment provided a catharsis that eclipsed the climax of the film. We spent the rest of the evening injecting our own dialogue into the numerous gaps ala Mystery Science Theater 3000. We still talk about it as one of the best movie nights ever.
There seems to be a similar reaction from any audience that manages to sit through Birdemic: Shock and Terror, an independent film that has recently given Plan 9 From Outer Space a run for its money as the “worst movie ever made.” Here is the synopsis, which manages to switch tenses five times in just four sentences: “A platoon of eagle & vultures attack the residence of a small town. Many people died. It’s not known what caused the flying menace to attack. Two people managed to fight back, but will they survive Birdemic?”
A quick view of some Birdemic clips clearly demonstrates what all the rage is about, but there seems to be a certain outpouring of love for this movie that would ordinarily receive only ridicule. I suspect this is because of the fascinating story of James Nguyen, the writer/producer/director of Birdemic. He immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975, worked hard as a software engineer and used his limited resources to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. When Birdemic was rejected from Cannes, he drove around in a decorated van promoting the film and hosted his own screenings near the festival. The scorn we reserve for Hollywood flops derives from the fact that we know they can do better; that the studio is intentionally short-changing us. The love for Birdemic stems from the fact that we know this is the best Mr. Nguyen can do; he gives it his all, even if he falls far, far short of the mark.
Jonah Weiner hits the nail on the head when he writes, “There’s a degree to which the auteur becomes a striver we empathize with—someone who has gone out with a camera and made something out of love, after all, on a shoestring budget, inadequacies and ineptitude be damned.” Nguyen embodies a sort of modified American Dream in which traditional indicators of success such as money and power take a backseat to creative fulfillment. The pursuit of the dream is a triumph in and of itself.
Perhaps I am giving Nguyen more credit than he deserves, but for now, I have marked my calendar for June 4-6, the weekend Birdemic’s tour lands in Boston.
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