Aesthetic Masochsim

English: Double Stuf Oreos, by Nabisco.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many philosophers, I am rather drawn to science-fiction movies. One of my colleagues, Stephen, deviates from this usual path-while he does not dislike science fiction, his experience with the genre was somewhat limited. After learning that I was “big into sci-fi” he asked me for some recommendations. While he did like some of the films I suggested, he regarded some as rather awful. As should come as no surprise, this got me thinking about the enjoyment (or lack thereof) of bad films.

As my colleague pointed out, one common approach to explaining the enjoyment of bad films is to appeal to the notion that something can be so bad that it is good. On the face of it, bad would seem to be, well, bad. As such, there is a need to sort out what it could mean for something to be so bad that it is good.

One possibility is what could be called accidental aesthetic success. This is when a work succeeds not at what it was intended to be, but rather in being an accidental parody or mockery of the genre. Using the example of science fiction, this commonly occurs when the work is so absurd that although it is horrible science-fiction, it succeeds as an unintentional comedy. Thus the work is a failure in one sense (to borrow from Aristotle, it fails to produce the  intended effect on the audience). But it succeeds in another sense, by producing an unintended but valuable aesthetic experience for the audience.

While this view is certainly tempting, it can also be disputed by contending that the work does not actually succeed. To be specific, while it does produce an effect on the audience, this is a matter of accident rather than intent and hence to credit the work with success would be an error. To use an analogy, if someone intends to defend himself with a devastating martial arts attack, but slips on a banana to great comic effect, then he has not succeeded. Rather, his failure has caused the sort of mocking amusement reserved for failures.

That said, I am willing to extend a certain sort of aesthetic success to works that are so accidentally bad that they are good. There are, of course, works that endeavor to be good at being bad (such as the film Black Dynamite). These works can be assessed at how well they succeed at being good at what is attempted. Intentionally making a work that is good at being bad does open the possibility that the work could fail at being bad in such a way that makes it good in another way. But perhaps in that way lies madness.

Another approach to good badness can be used by drawing an analogy to junk food. Junk food is, by its nature, bad food. At least, it is bad food in terms of its nutritional value. However, people do rather like junk food and regard it as good in regards to how it tastes. The reverse holds for other types of food. For example, as a runner I have tried a wide variety of food products designed for athletes. While such food is often rather good in terms of its nutritional content, the taste is often rather bad (leading to my bad jokes about junk food and anti-junk food).

Going with the food analogy, some works that are so bad they are good could be rather like junk food. That is, they are deficient in what might be regarded as aesthetic nutritional value, yet have a certain tastiness-at least while they are being experienced. As with junk food, the after effects can be rather less pleasant. For example: for me, watching True Blood is like eating a mix of Cheetos and Oreo Cookies washed down with Mountain Dew. Somehow it is enjoyable while it is happening, but after it is done I wonder why the hell I did that…and I feel vaguely sick.

In such cases, I am willing to grant that such works have some sort of aesthetic value, much as I am willing to grant that junk food has some sort of value. However, the value does often seem rather dubious.

One counter to this is to contend that valuing “junk food” aesthetic value is just as big a mistake as valuing actual junk food. While a person might enjoy such experiences, she is making an error. In the case of food, she is making a poor nutritional choice that is masked by a pleasant taste. In the case of art, she is making a poor aesthetic choice, masked by a superficially pleasant experience.

It could be responded that a work might seem to be junk, but that it is actually better than it seems (or sounds, to steal from Twain). Going back to the food analogy, this could have some appeal. After all, food could be bad in one area (taste) but excel in another (nutrition). So, a food could actually be much better than it tastes. However, this sort of approach only works when the thing in question does actually have the capacity to be better than it seems.

In the case of aesthetic experiences it would certainly seem that a work cannot be better than it seems. After all, the aesthetic experience would be the seeming and it is exactly what it is. For example, consider a song that sounds awful. To claim it is better than it sounds would seem to be an error. After all, the song is what it sounds like and if it sounds bad, it is bad. There is nothing beyond the sound that could be appealed to in order to claim that it is better than it sounds. After all, it sounds what it sounds like. This is, of course, in contrast with many other things. For example, it makes sense to say of a wound that it looks worse than it is-the appearance (lots of blood, for example) is distinct from the seriousness of the wound. As another example, it makes sense to say that a car is better than it looks-it  might look like a junker on the outside, but the engine might be brand new.  Naturally, if it can be shown that art has these multiple aspects, then this matter could be properly addressed.

Before moving on, I must note that I am aware that a work of art can be good or bad in various aspects. For example, a song could have great lyrics, but be sung poorly. As another example, a film could have terrible special effects, but a brilliant story. This is, however, a different matter-in the above I am considering the aesthetic experience as a whole. To use an analogy, while a hamburger might have good cheese but a crappy burger, what would be considered is the overall experience of eating the hamburger.

Like other folks I know, I will sometimes indulge in watching a bad sci-fi/horror/fantasy movie that I recognize as being awful and hence prevents any appeal to the idea of good badness. As might be suspected, my colleague asked me why I would waste my time on bad movies that I actually admitted were bad.

My initial response was a somewhat practical one: there are only a limited number of good movies in those genres and when I get a craving for a genre, sometimes the only option is something bad. To use an analogy, this is like getting a craving for a certain food late at night and the only place that is open is rather bad. So, the only options are going without or going bad. In some cases, just as a bad burger is better than no burger, a bad film is better than no film. However, in other cases nothing is better than something bad.

My second response arose from conversations that my colleague and I had about running. While we are both runners, my colleague is the sort of runner who runs for himself and has no real interest in training for or competing in races. I am, however, very much into training and competition. In addition to enjoying the competition, I must admit that I enjoy the painful experience of hard training and running. That is, I obviously have some mild sort of masochism going on in this area which my colleague lacks.

This difference seems to extend beyond running and into aesthetics-I can actually enjoy suffering through a bad movie. Since I know other folks who are the same way, I believe that there is a certain aesthetic masochism that some people possess. I have not worked out a full theory of this, but given the volume of bad films and shows, this does seem like a promising area.

Test your aesthetic masochism on My Amazon Author Page.

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  1. The true sign of a hard-bitten intellectual is a willingness, a craving, to accept a bad theory rather than to have no theory. There is no help for this mental condition even if it is not mental. But there’s a theory for that too.

  2. I think that the analogy with junk food is a good one.

    While I don’t watch science fiction movies, I do sometimes see bad or junk spy movies or detective movies and my feeling afterwards is more or less that I have after having eaten junk food.

    I feel swindled, that the experience is less than it promised to be. I dislike myself for not foreseeing that the superficial attractiveness of the movie was only that, sexy makeup with nothing behind it.

    Whenever I finish a hard, but rewarding book or listen carefully to a difficult work of music, I applaud. I applaud the book (or music) and myself for having made an effort which was worth it. I applaud the universe for having given us that author or composer.

    Feelings that are singularly absent after finishing junk fiction, seeing a junk movie or reading junk news in the media. Rather than applauding the universe, then, I loathe it.

  3. You’re forgetting the extra-aesthetic reasons why someone would watch a bad movie. Watching a movie could be part of a ritual. I watched Planet of the Apes many times with a certain group of friends in college. Referencing the movie became one of our things and allows me to enjoy the movie much more than the quality of the movie itself would. There’s also the feeling of superiority that some people get in watching a bad movie and pointing out how bad it is. And finally, there is the movie’s place in culture. For instance, I hated 2001, but I don’t regret seeing it since I wouldn’t understand Airplane 2 or many an episode of the Simpsons without it.

  4. Ive often wondered about this. The best ‘bad’ movie for me is Road House.

    I cannot explain how it does it but it is so bad that it ends up being extremely enjoyable. Other films of that genre (80s action) are just bad and pretty much have little redeeming qualities. But there is something about Road House that, around the half way point, you just start enjoying.

    I do think there is something special, or unique about that type of movie that is so bad it becomes good in an unintended way.

  5. I trained at a dojo for many years where a bunch of us would get together after the Friday evening class and watch something from the dojo’s VHS library of martial arts films.

    Some were good, some were bad, some were so bad they were good. I liked the ultra-bad ones even more than the good ones because we’d usually end up laughing and cracking jokes the whole evening, which was a lot of fun.

    Some of the stuff was just bizarre, like one where they kept filming dialog from slightly behind and between the hero’s legs, angled up at whoever he was talking to. I have no idea what was going on with that.

    Then there’s stuff like Return of the Five Deadly Venoms which was probably the most hilarious movie we ever watched. I could never decide how much of the humor in there was intentional or accidental, so maybe it’s ultra-good rather than ultra-bad…either way, the deadpan English dub was essential.

  6. “Another approach to good badness can be used by drawing an analogy to junk food. Junk food is, by its nature, bad food. At least, it is bad food in terms of its nutritional value.”

    The classic junk food is a burger and fries, a combination which is nutritionally fine: protein, bread and vegetable.

    “In the case of food, she is making a poor nutritional choice that is masked by a pleasant taste.”

    Fail. A “nutritional choice” cannot be discussed without the context of a diet. Oreos and Mountain Dew is fine a part of a varied, balanced diet.

    So an argument by analogy to junk food must fail because “junk food” cannot be defined except in the context of a particular diet and lifestyle.

  7. @Keith

    Nice troll.

    You bring up an interesting point with the idea of context. ‘Junk food’, of course, doesn’t need a specified context because it has a two-part implicit context that supplies what you accuse it of lacking.

    What’s interesting there is what kind of implicit context ‘junk art’ has. Junk food is defined by typical human metabolic needs and limitations, in comparison to the content relative those needs and limitations of other typically available foods. What is junk art defined by, though?

  8. “In the case of aesthetic experiences it would certainly seem that a work cannot be better than it seems.”

    Seems to who? How do the arguments put forth in this post deal with difference of opinion in what is actually junk? When it comes to nutrition, there are what look like legitimate claims as to what food is actually good for you. I certainly have my own ideas about what makes good acting/directing/writing, but it can be difficult to convince others sometimes, without just sounding pretentious.

    For the record, one of my favorites is Starship Troopers. A lot of people think that it’s a horrible movie, a lot of people think that it’s so bad it’s good (an idea you discussed) and I actually think it’s a really well done film. How do I know if it’s junk or not?

  9. @Dregs: “Nice troll”

    Tone was unintended: regret the use of the word ‘fail’, which was unnecessary.

    “‘Junk food’, of course, doesn’t need a specified context because it has a two-part implicit context that supplies what you accuse it of lacking.”

    I’m assuming your “impicit context” is your “typical human metabolic needs” but there are no such “typical needs”. It is, of course, possible to calculate an average but, like the “average family”, this may well apply to only a small percentage of the population. Common definitions of junk food are as much political as nutritional.

    I don’t mean to hijack the thread but an argument from analogy will not succeed if the analogy is poorly chosen; as I think it is in this case.

    And, for the record, I do think movies can be so bad that they are good. And I also think Michael F makes a good point.

  10. A question:

    Can a movie be so bad that it’s good if you watch it alone and never comment on it to anyone?

    In my experience at least, movies are so bad that they’re good because one watches them in company (or comments on them afterwards) and what is good is the shared experience, not the movie itself.

    Just wondering by the way. Others may have different experiences…..

  11. swallerstein,

    “Can a movie be so bad that it’s good if you watch it alone and never comment on it to anyone?”

    I think so. Most of the time, I think the shared experience makes it more enjoyable, but the keyword is the ‘more’–there is still something intrinsically enjoyable about the bad movie itself.

    If the movie is bad enough in the right ways, I think it could definitely be enjoyable as a solo experience. On the other hand, I think some of the movies I’ve seen have been enjoyable only because of the shared experience.

    So, maybe the shared experience essentially lowers the threshold at which a bad movie becomes good.


    “I’m assuming your “impicit context” is your “typical human metabolic needs” but there are no such “typical needs”…Common definitions of junk food are as much political as nutritional.

    Human biology is more homogeneous than you seem to think. There are certainly outlier populations where generations of restricted diets have led to meaningful adaptation, but this is almost exclusively in terms of healthy fat-protein-carb intake.

    Their vitamin and mineral needs, however, are essentially the same as everyone else’s. Moreover, these are almost by definition small, isolated population groups inhabiting extreme environments.

    Both contact between population groups and inhabiting similar environments exert homogenizing pressure on nutritional needs. Contact between populations promotes genetic similarity and exchange of foodstuffs and food production techniques. Likewise, similar environments tend to have similar available foodstuffs and hence to promote similar nutritional adaptation. It’s just a fact of human history that the overwhelming majority of living people are neither genetically isolated nor nutritionally adapted to an extreme environment.

    What is junk food for me will be junk food for you and just about everyone either of us have ever met. And everyone they have ever met.

    Similarly, I don’t see a significant political as opposed to nutritional influence on what constitutes junk food. The definition seems stable: food with little to no vitamin and mineral content, but high proportions of fat, salt, or sugar.

    The only healthy use of junk food is to fill what would otherwise be a critical calorie deficit. To say that junk food can feature as part of a healthy, balanced diet is just to say that a healthy, balanced diet can absorb its damages in limited quantities.

    The diet is neither healthy nor balanced in virtue of the junk food; suggesting otherwise is disingenuous.

  12. DiscoveredJoys

    I wonder if truly good-bad films are like shaggy dog stories. Usually there is some real problem with a bad movie (the acting, the dialogue, the special effects etc.) but a good bad movie is ‘redeemed’ by some other factor. Like some humour the impact is a mash up of conflicting feelings.

    I offer our families favourite good bad film ‘Tremors’ as an exhibit. The acting is uneven, the characterization shallow, the story plods along, the romance light, the special effects are very good but improbable. It’s not junk food, but it is only a buffet. Subsequent Tremors films just became bad films, they had no (Kevin) Bacon.

  13. Gene,

    Good points-I did overlook the social aspects of Aesthetics when writing this piece. The audience aspect is certainly worth considering, especially with an active audience (such as MST 3000).

  14. Matt,

    The 80s did bad well. Sadly, many attempts to capture the 80s’ bad are just bad bad.

  15. Matt,

    Escape from New York is one of my favorite 80s films-in many ways it is bad, but bad in ways that make it work for me. Sadly, Escape from LA was broken bad.

  16. Keith,

    I think you showed that a burger need not be junk food. As you pointed out, a burger could actually be good food (well, aside from what is claimed about all red meat).

    While the overall diet is important, it seems that we can compare food to food. So, while a person with a generally good diet is not going to be harmed by an Oreo or six, it seems to make sense that an Oreo is junk food when compared to broccoli. This would involve doing what you actually presented in your burger example: one can look at the food itself to see what sort of nutritional value it possesses.

  17. Michael F,

    You do zoom in on a key problem. In the case of food, we can make a fairly objective analysis of the composition of the food and our biological needs in regards to nutrition and thus get a decent handle on what is good food and what is junk food. While people do argue about what is or is not healthy food, there seems to be an objective fact of the matter. But, as you note, we do not have a comparable analysis of our aesthetic needs and what would be nutritional art and what would be junk. Tolstoy tries to sort this out in his essay on art, but he did not seem to succeed in creating a science of art.

    Although I like the book better, I do like the movie. It has what I consider key factors in aesthetic value: guns, explosions, and giant bugs.

  18. Mike, you’re making exactly the same error people make when talking about morality, you take a concept ‘good/bad’ and somehow think that this mish-mash of hundreds of individual metrics is somehow universal because you and some close friends value enough of those metrics to make them seem universal – they’re not.

    You have a whole article here trying to describe how a bad movie can be good when in actual fact all that has happened is that one or more of the metrics people generally consider important for a bad movie is being overridden for you by some generally unimportant metric(s) that happens to be of value to you.

    You’re trying to objectify a subjective experience and appealing to the exception to prove the rule. It doesn’t make sense.

  19. Keddaw,

    Relativism and subjectivism regarding values are both pedigreed views. However, they are not the only options. As you point out, if either is true then there is no objective way to discuss good or bad beyond the individual or specific group.

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