Every so often mathematics or philosophy collides with culture. I was thinking a while ago about the few truly unwatchable movies I have seen, and yes, compiling a list. Then it struck me that such a list is in fact a Russell paradox, since if it only contains truly unwatchable films, noone would have ever watched said films to know whether they were in fact really unwatchable or not… you get the idea.
Now, I hear the astute among you saying, ah, but if films were really really truly unwatchable, noone would have ever gotten through them, and only those films should go on the list. Sorry. Not good enough. I want to know that there is not some hidden redemption buried in the end of the film, even if only 30 seconds long, that just saves the film. Someone needs to watch films all the way through to be sure of their genuine claim to unwatchability.
Criteria for unwatchability
Now, there are lots of ‘bad’ / ‘unwatchable’ etc films lists out there. But most of them concentrate on badness rather than true unwatchability.The first part of my quest here is: criteria for unwatchability. My ideas so far, below (I await your input):
- you feel like you really want to be somewhere else for at least 50% of the film. E.g. in bed and/or doing your tax return (if it’s both, you are watching a world class brain deadener, and you should seriously consider either hospital or a pub crawl after leaving the cinema.)
- by the half way mark you know that there is no hope whatever of the film redeeming itself in any way by the end. You just know it. It’s the feeling not just of being on death row, but of already having the noose around your neck while teetering on the edge of a chair to which is tied a juicy steak, and watching a large, hungry dog racing toward you…
- there is no substance which you can think of taking that would make any difference. Pick anything you like, from £1000/bottle cognac to LSD to crack cocaine. In one of these films, you know there is no point, and that if you had your tumbler / wine glass / joint / line in your pocket, you would not reach for it because it would be a waste.
There are also two additional requirements:
- Destroyed Expectations: the film has the pretension to be a ‘real’ film. The unwatchableness has to come out of left field: we have to feel beforehand that there was some merit in the film, some slight promise, some expectation of quality, however tiny, for someone, if not you. The truly unwatchable film wll destroy those expectations with the force of an aircraft carrier full of black plague grounding itself on a family beach during a 5 year old’s birthday barbecue with everyone there…
- No Appeal to Technical Incompetence: obviously there are various B and C and Z grade films made by semi-professionals and amateurs that are simply unwatchable due to being incompetently made by people who have no clue of the language of cinema (not even Arnie action films). Here we are only interested in films made by technically competent people, with real budgets, that are still unwatchable, because that’s got to be art.
A View from an Industry Veteran
Brendal McCaul, friend & family, and also a veteran with 51 years in movie distribution in Ireland/UK has a story of awfulness that just goes to show unwatchability ain’t new:
After 51 years in movie distribution my stand-out unforgetably bad movie was called “The Angel and the Trumpet” a black and white costume piece circa late forties/early 50’s – British of course. And why you might ask did I think it so bad – well, it was slow and boring to the point of tedium and the audience stood up on at least two occasions thinking it was over but wasn’t – they booed on the 2nd occasion with disappointment. When it eventually finished they clapped – Gods truth. The bad unwatchable films nominated [below] are classics compared to this.
This gives us a new unwatchability criterion:
- the audience gets up to leave at least once, thinking (hoping?) the film is already over…. but it’s not.
Examples of Unwatchable Films
I don’t actually have a lot of experience in the unwatchable film business. But two films do come to mind. First, George Lucas’s 4th Star Wars instalment, i.e. Episode 1: the Phantom Menace (Ep1PM). Obviously this satisfies the ‘technical competence’ requirement, and arguably the ‘destroyed expectations’ one as well (although looking back at Lucas’s output over the years… hmmm). Anyway, Ep1PM I found mawkish, syrupy in a way that would engender envy in a soft drink factory, and worst of all, its many great actors seemed to have been instructed (a la comedy theatre) to deliver their lines ‘in the manner of an elevator voice synthesiser’. I felt particularly bad for Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson. I did actually stop watching this film (DVD or TV I think) about 50% of the way through, so it definitely gets on my unwatchable list. (I had to interrogate others to be sure there were no good bits lurking after the points where I gave up. There aren’t.)
The other example is more recent: any of the ‘Twilight’ series films. I was … let’s say convinced (while under the influence) by very close friends to watch one instalment. It may have even been more than one, because I do remember my incredulity that there might be another film equally or more awful than the first one, and I think I may have lasted some 30 minutes into number 2, with the sort of expression on my face one researves for a train wreck performance on a teen talent show. These films are so repulsive in every aspect – a real achievement given all their sexy young teenager stars – it is hard to know where to start. So I won’t, other than to say: nothing actually happens. At all. I did actually find myself drifting to thoughts of doing a tax return during these films, which obviously nails it.
These are my two. Part two of my quest is for you to help me build a list of veritable neuron-destroying, anaesthetising films.
Unwatchable versus Bad
Unwatchable is not the same as bad. I thought Thor was pretty bad, (see here for the reasons), but I have to admit I didn’t get to the point of walking out, and on the redeemability criterion, I was hoping for some final acting flourishes from Hopkins et al by the end which did not go completely unaddressed. Even the worst of the Rambo genre is not completely and utterly unwatchable. I know it’s hard to find much redeeming in such films, but the unintended comedy button is usually pressed pretty hard, and with enough wine under the belt, and NO OTHER DVDs available, they might be ok. Alright, for me, personally, that’s not true, I would just play my guitar in the dark or listen to a mediaeval chorale. But if I could not do those things, and wasn’t in the mood to contemplate life, and I had had a terrible day working at the NHS, then just maybe…
There are other bad films, almost without exception from the US, in what I would call the Police Academy #7 genre. They don’t make the list, because there can be no expectations for them at the outset. You know you are going into the cinema to see a putrid waste of celluloid (disk space, these days), and you actually get some satisfaction when it delivers the truckload of wet dung on your lawn, as expected. I don’t do this myself, obviously. And I know you don’t either. But there are people out there.
So, dear friends. I need help. Please comment below with either or both of your input to the unwatchability criteria list and the actual list of unwatchable films.
Candidates for the List
Here we go…
- Dr T and the Women – dir. Robert Altman
- Australia – dir. Baz Luhrman
- Alexander – dir. Oliver Stone
- Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – George Lucas
- the Twilight films – dir. who cares
- The Last Airbender ($150m) – dir. M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan