Author Katharine Coldiron on how we watch Junk Films
Katharine Coldiron’s new book, Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter, is out this week from Castle Bridge Media in paperback and on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. It’s best enjoyed in a binge-read, to the exclusion of everything else entirely. Junk Film’s 13 essays explore “the failures of specific works created between the 1940s and the 2010s […] from mixing incompatible genres (Cop Rock) to stacking a screenplay with sociopaths (Staying Alive).”
Much like intermissions during a midnight movie marathon, Coldiron’s book discusses just what makes these films so terrible, using a Mystery Science Theater 3000-inspired approach that takes down bad movies by pointing out the readily-apparent flaws. Beginning Junk Film with a monograph on Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and going scene-by-scene through the notorious turkey sets the stage perfectly.
From there on, the book moves into shorter essays, and not one is a celebration of a bad film. For the most part, Coldiron isn’t talking so much about the content but how they’re constructed. It’s a fascinating and interesting way to point out just how inept these films are. Speaking with the author via Zoom, I asked how Coldiron initially came to some of these movies.
“I definitely started with Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and also from my dad’s extremely weird DVD collection,” says Coldiron. “He owned movies like They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Donovan’s Brain and other brain-related movies. He loved bad movies, I think, in the same way that I do, and that inspired me to watch them more often and to appreciate them for being bad, as opposed to trying to reclaim them.”
As Coldiron goes on to explain, many people who write about bad movies—especially serious critics—tend to present them in a manner that a particular movie is almost irredeemable except for this one thing that they think is awesome.
“For me, I’m like, ‘No, it’s pretty bad,’” says the author. “’It’s pretty awful.’ But you can still enjoy watching them. You can learn a lot from them. And every now and then, there’s one that’s actually good.”
This goes to Junk Film‘s final essay, “What We Like: Safe Haven and Girl In Gold Boots,” which discusses Coldiron’s love for the latter movie, a 1968 Ted V. Mikels movie about “the seedy underworld of go-go dancing.” In the essay, the author brings everything that she’s written about in the book prior to it into focus by exploring the idea that she doesn’t know why she likes it, nor is she trying to justify it. Interestingly enough, Coldiron says that film critic Leonard Maltin appearance on an episode of MST3K helped her come to that conclusion.
“That little snippet where he says he actually likes Gorgo—it changed the whole direction of the book toward the end,” Coldiron says. “I also found that there were a handful of movies that I wanted to write about because I knew there was something there in terms of my chemical reaction when I watched the movie.”
The more Coldiron tried to sit down and write about these movies, the more she realized she couldn’t write about them in the same way that the rest of the essays were built, and she couldn’t figure out why.
“The reason is because I liked them, and I couldn’t justify that,” she says. “So I wound up writing about them, trying to talk about how what we like doesn’t define us as moral beings or aesthetically sound critics.”
That essay was really hard to write, she says. What she wanted to do with that final essay was reflect back on the rest of the book and say, “There’s a theory of art going forward where we can talk about work that’s not that good as something that still appeals to us, no matter what we think with our with our more critical brains that can watch Godard and appreciate it.”
And then there’s Cop Rock, a 1990 police drama with musical numbers created by Steven Bochco and William M. Finkelstein for ABC. For those who weren’t around to experience it during its brief, brief, brief, initial run, it seems like a hallucinatory fever dream. The show was widely mocked and reviled, even as it was airing each week. I asked Coldiron what it was like, devoting herself to watching it all, even as she knew that it wasn’t going to be good.
“’Somebody’s gotta do it,’ is what I have to say about that,” Coldiron says. “Very infrequently do I watch stuff that is so unpleasant that I have to turn it off or that I can’t. My favorite movie to yell at is Staying Alive. I love putting that movie on and yelling at it. I know that I have an adversarial relationship with this movie, but I love that. I love that relationship, and I wouldn’t trade it for appreciating it the same way that I appreciate a better movie.”
Cop Rock is quite hard to watch, and it’s difficult to enjoy the experience of its badness because mostly you’re just cringing and horrified and bewildered, Coldiron explains, and yet, that combination of experiences is precisely why she felt she had to watch the series.
“I’ve seen so many movies that it’s really rare that a movie can horrify and bewilder me,” Coldiron says. “A lot of bad movies are bad along the same lines, so they’re not useful or interesting to write about, whereas the films that I chose to write about in this book were all either representative of something that was a trend in bad film, or they were totally unique in the world of bad film.”
Thus, Coldiron didn’t write about the “colossally incompetent” Birdemic because its incompetence is “actually kind of normal in terms of bad movies,” but did look at the Teen Agers series of films from the ’40s. These were films that fit into this idea of movies which were meant to be fodder for the time and place in which they were made, but ultimately disposable. Coldiron sees a parallel for this kind of disposable art playing out on screens today.
“Netflix action movies are a great example,” she says. “These kinds of middle-of-the-road movies are neither very good nor very bad, but they’re a great way to kind of pass the time. Michael Adams, who wrote this book called Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies–he calls those ‘bus movies’ because you can just sit on the back of the bus and watch them, and they’ll pass the time.”
Coldiron says that terms really help her define what can fall out of her head, and it’s not a problem, but she says that it might be hard to see that unless you watch a ton of movies from all eras of cinema history, the reason for that being because movies are marketed as if every single one of them is unique, and every single one of them is special and worth watching.
“That’s simply not true,” Coldiron says. “And over time, you can start to see, actually, this is just like the movie that came out last month. This is another Tom Cruise movie. This is another Chris Hemsworth movie that’s gonna go straight to Netflix, and 300 people are gonna watch it, and then it’ll never be watched again. It’s hard to see that as it’s happening, but, over time, with a critical eye, I think you can start to see it.”
Katharine Coldiron’s book, Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter, is out this week from Castle Bridge Media in paperback and on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.