B is For Beautiful Disaster: A Psychologist’s Take on the Appeal of B-Movies

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I have a colleague and friend, Josh Jensen (co-author of the movie pairing book (Cinemanalysis) who is a bit of film nerd.  I mean that in a respectful way, of course, because I sincerely admire how he can appreciate the artistic merit of, say, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a film that, try as I might, I just couldn’t slog through to reach the end.  Of course, as a psychologist, an intersubjective discrepancy like this intrigues me.

 

At one point I challenged Josh to make me reconsider my decision and I have to admit that he provided some rather compelling arguments.  I admittedly can’t recall these well-argued points at the moment, but I DO remember that at the time his points felt quite convincing overall.   I think there was something about the metaphorical richness of the film, and, uh, some other such deep thoughts like, “Art imitates life!” or something to that effect.

 

So anyway Josh has since turned the tables on me on at least a couple of occasions, particularly when he saw me animatedly gushing over some contemporary B-movie like Turbo Kid, which many critics hailed as “Mad Max meets BMX.” So here I am to finally set the record straight and to provide some insight into why B-movies can have their own inherent appeal and value as well.  Perhaps my analysis will reveal something about me and the other fans of schlock and cheese.  Like, is there a type of person who naturally gravitates to such fare?  Read on and find out!

 

Full disclosure: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a film student, teacher, or historian.  Furthermore, there are many diehard fans much more knowledgeable about the topic.  I could accurately be described as a casual fan of B-movies.  Having had access to cable and Video Dimensions, a video store within biking distance of my home in the 80’s, exposed me to a TON of these corny treasures.

 

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There are certainly many, many more B-movie horizons yet to explore, both modern-day and classic.  Finding lost gems is part of the fun – it’s akin to tracking down every last secret in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (my current addiction).

 

In the eighties viewing B-movies used to be more of a word-of-mouth kind of endeavor: a VHS tape shared among friends or covertly watched at a sleepover, lest your parents freak out about the effects of such (allegedly) mindnumbing garbage.   In all fairness, there WAS a lot of crap out there, but then again some of it was just, well, craptacular.

 

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Fast forward to November 24th, 1988.  This was the date when Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) premiered on KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It was only when it hit the Comedy Central airwaves and word of mouth spread online that it started to take off in a major way.  Viewers who caught the late night broadcasts were rewarded with humorous “riffing”, which is snarky commentary that just so happened to be dolled out by a fictional space janitor and his two roughly crafted robo-buddies, Tom Crow and Servo.  Here was a show that, although silly in premise, managed to capture the feeling you get when you watch a horrible movie with some of your best buds.  Consider what people normally do in those situations: they poke fun and endeavor to make it entertaining and thus, bearable.

 

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MST3K provided that in spades and looks to recapture the magic when the brand new Kickstarter-funded 11th season premieres this week on Netflix!

 

At this point, I should probably clarify what I mean when I use the term “B-movies”.

 

I’m sure there are official definitions and various film student theses covering this, but suffice to say that I’m referring to a type of film, lovingly made, usually with a restrictive or modest budget (though not always) that is made with the intention of entertaining the viewer in a completely unabashed, unrestrained, visceral, or surreal way. It often embraces style over substance.  Bombast over subtlety.  Absurdity over propriety.  The knee-jerkiness of the id over the contemplative nature of the ego.  It’s generally less talky and more shlocky!  I think you get the gist.

 

In Hollywood B-movies, like the B-side of a record where the other film tacked onto a double-feature, usually paired with a more renowned film to add perceived value as in “Buy One, Get One Free!”  Nowadays B-movies are often referred to as a cult or genre film or even a camp classic.  It may be any genre, however, you most often see films of this ilk in the action, sci-fi, and fantasy categories.  B-movies may feature big ideas poorly executed because of budget constraints or perhaps it might cover small ideas that are so dang compelling because of completely inane dialogue, for instance, or perhaps nonsensical edits.

 

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Everything about the film might scream amateur and yet there is often a degree of heartfelt sincerity and craft about it too.  Whether the filmmaker was delusional about the impact of his or her film, whether it was purposely created with a certain style in mind to serve as an homage, or whether meddling producers constrained the writer or director’s vision in odd ways resulting in what some would recognize as celluloid trash is not really the point.  It’s arguably more compelling to think about how some of these oddities ever come to see the light of day and, ultimately, find a fervent following.

 

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I’d venture to say that most people would probably categorize a B-movie as “So bad it’s good.”  That’s a pretty fair statement, albeit somewhat oversimplified.  It could certainly be argued that some B-movies are so well made or ahead of their time that an audience doesn’t quite know how to process it at first.  Such movies are usually the ones that go on to become “Cult Classics.”

 

Look at John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, for instance.  When it debuted it was pretty much a colossal flop.  Fast forward over 30 years later (the film just recently celebrated its 30th anniversary) and you will find many fans who hold that film with the utmost reverence.

 

One of my favorite sci-fi B-movies hands down is Flash Gordon.

 

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My go-to description for this gem of a film is: “The Wizard of Oz, but in space!”  What a spectacle to behold!  The colorful sets!  The ostentatious costumes!  I mean, you can’t go wrong when you’ve got rock gods Queen crafting the brilliant score!  The most notorious excerpt being, “FLASH….AH ah…..he’ll save every one of us!”  Be sure to check out my colleague Craig Pohlman’s podcast Blew My Mind where he and I join Juliet Kuehnle to cover this camp classic as well as Big Trouble in Little China and Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child.

 

These days B-movies have become more and more accessible.  You have organizations like the Alamo Drafthouse dedicated to screening cult/genre/B-movies or at least various film festivals like Austin’s Fantastic Fest or the Toronto After Dark Film Festival which seems to provide our neighbors up north with a gonzo experience.

 

Here in Charlotte, we can always rely on the Back Alley Film Series folks to provide all forms of visceral cinema and the Mad Monster Party is known to skulk through town providing opportunities to hobnob with hobgoblins and watch all manner of horror-themed B flicks.

 

The fundamental question still remains – what separates the B-movie fans from the arthouse crowd? I don’t know of any specific research that explores such an “important” quandary because honestly how would one obtain the funds to finance any such study? Anyway, I  believe it comes down to one’s personality type.  I’m thinking of a few dimensions or preferences of personality in particular that I’ve culled from the Myers Briggs, a personality assessment tool based on Jungian theory.

 

I would venture to say that either type of fan likely displays varying degrees of Introversion or Extroversion so I’m hypothesizing that this is not an important differential criterion.  The dimensions I believe to be most important in identifying B-movie fans from their arthouse counterparts include: Sensing (S) versus Intuition (N), Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F), and Judging (J) versus Perceiving (P).

 

B-movie fans are, in all probability, ISFP or ESFP whereas the other camp is likely INTJ or ENTJ.  It might be stereotyping to say so, but my theory is that B-movie fans, at least ones whom I’ve encountered, generally seem wired to favor experience and perception.  The arthouse crew, on the other hand, seems to prefer metaphorical richness, introspection, and thoughtful analysis.  To distill it down to its fundamental parts I’d say this is an issue of body versus mind.  Do you tend to be in the moment or are you in your head a lot?

 

So where do you fall?  Are you more the Oscar straight A student or the B-movie class clown?  Keep in mind this doesn’t make one type of cinema fan correct or superior.  It furthermore doesn’t suggest that filmgoers can’t alternate between preferences, of course, I just think it’s fun to think about what might drive someone in either direction.

 

Whatever your preference, I heartily encourage you to open your mind to new entertainment horizons.  Because sometimes we need to think about those impactful and compelling pieces of cinematic art, and sometimes we just need to be hit upside the head with awesomeness.

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