Michael Knutsen on curating Bad Cinema at the Central Library
The bad-movie connoisseur discusses what makes a cinematic failure worth watching.
The growing phenomenon of bad-movie connoisseurship raises some thorny psychological questions, especially as it extends far beyond the this-is-horrible-and-we're-all-in-on-it canon of Troll 2 and The Room. Why do so many people enjoy watching the products of terribly misplaced creative energy? Is it the sweet taste of recognizing irony in a situation, the schadenfreude of seeing good intentions blow up in a filmmaker’s face, or a darker need to feel superior? Perhaps it’s the simple delight in not having to take something seriously—kick back, relax, and enjoy someone else's miserable failure.
Whatever the roots of this warped appetite, film curator Michael Knutsen and the Madison Public Library try to feed it on the third Thursday of every month with the free Bad Cinema series, which continues this Thursday, August 20 with Kinki Fukasaku’s 1968 sci-fi schlock-fest The Green Slime. Knutsen hosted a bad-movie night at his home for five years before Madison Public Library asked him to curate one on a more official basis, with each screening followed by an informal discussion of the film. Recent selections have included the killer-rats-take-Toronto caper Deadly Eyes, the bizarre and grotesque sci-fi film Xtro, and the crass E.T. knock-off attempt Mac & Me. Knutsen spoke with me recently about his curation techniques, what he thinks about the so-bad-it’s-good genre of film consumption, and Bad Cinema's fall selections.
Tone Madison: With so many people now into the bad-movie phenomenon, what do you think makes you especially qualified to curate the Bad Cinema series?
Michael Knutsen: I had been doing that movie night at my house for about five years. We watch two movie almost every Friday. I'd say maybe one in four movies were acceptable to watch. What's the math there? I've seen over a thousand of these movies looking for the good bad ones. I think I've found them.
Tone Madison: What do you think about the growing interest in watching bad movies to actually enjoy them as bad movies?
Michael Knutsen: Yeah, it is definitely something. Well, I was right there with them. I don't know why it came about now. Maybe we've just gathered so many movies that it’s come time where people can find enjoyment of a new field, I guess.
Tone Madison: Do you think it is a niche audience interested in the bad or a widespread phenomenon?
Michael Knutsen: I don't know. When I tell people about it, they don't quite get it—the enjoyably bad. It is a contradiction, so it's hard for people to understand that. I think once they get past that, most people can find if they watch Troll 2 they'd enjoy it for the reason we are all enjoying it. But that said, it probably is more of a specialized interest.
Tone Madison: Is there a community built around this series in Madison? If so, what does it look like?
Michael Knutsen: I get my regulars coming. Younger people usually, but not all. It might have something to do with growing up in the ’80s. I think that was a prime time for enjoyably bad movies. I don't think any other decade is dated as much as the ’80s. Most of our movies have come from the ’80s so far.
Tone Madison: What have some more of the popular titles been?
Michael Knutsen: A lot of people came to Troll 2. It is one of those modern classics. Troll 2, Birdemic, and The Room—I would call that the trilogy. Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo and the similar Roller Boogie. I don't know—dancing. Something about musicals breaking out in the ’70s.
Tone Madison: What does your curation process look like?
Michael Knutsen: I've done a lot of the grunt work, with having the bad movie night at my house. Right now the library only has rights to show movies with the company they have a contract with. So I am limited to those. I just plugged in every movie we've ever watched into the database and looked through the best of those. And also some keywords—you look for “ninja,” “zombie”—you'd be surprised on how many movies I've enjoyed that have the word “thunderbolt” in them. So I look for movies like that.
Tone Madison: Do you think that you are targeting a certain audience with your curating?
Michael Knutsen: Honestly, I go for my favorites and we are focusing on mostly ’80s movies, but I wouldn't want to actually limit it. Everyone should come.
Tone Madison: What do you think categorizes a bad movie?
Michael Knutsen: Well, I always call these enjoyably bad movies. People will tell me, "Oh, I saw this terrible movie, you'd like it." And it's like Pixels. And [I would respond], "I don't think I'd enjoy that. That's just a bad bad movie, isn't it?" So it has to be this magical, enjoyably bad. It kind of has to involve being enjoyable on a different level than the director intended. But even that, I've seen every degree of really good bad on purpose, not on purpose, and every degree in between and now I don't even care anymore. [They tend to be] something that is usually genre, a little crazy, maybe a little low budget, a little amateur, but still enjoyable.
Tone Madison: Is there some sort of cutoff, as in, “Yeah, it's kind of a bad movie, but not quite bad enough”?
Michael Knutsen: I'm trying to think of a movie that is just missing bad. I've definitely encountered movies that are just not bad enough. I'd say enjoyably bad movies need to be a bad movie with three or four breakout scenes that you will talk about later. Sometimes some movies will have one or two of those moments that are really funny, but are not worth going through the 90 minutes.
Tone Madison: You have a screening this month of The Green Slime. Any thoughts on what people can expect from future Bad Cinema programming?
Michael Knutsen: They make me come up with the following year pretty far in advance. So I curated this whole year last October. One thing to expect is that the screening in September is cancelled, Death Wish 3. That will definitely be bumped into next year.
So, we've got The Green Slime. I talked about the ’80s so much.This is our oldest movie we've screened. It's from 1968. It is by the guy who did Battle Royale, which was a recent well-regarded movie. This one, not so well-regarded, but it has fun aliens in rubber suits. September we might be off. Then we are back in October for the Halloween movie Creepers, which is the American edit of the Dario Argento movie Phenomena, where Jennifer Connelly has power of the insects. It also has a killer monkey and Donald Pleasance. It is kind of insane. Oh, I have a movie called Hell Squad [on November 19]. I don't know if the library knows what they're getting into with this movie. That might be my most indulgent movie. It is very low-budget. No one has ever heard of Hell Squad. But I enjoy it. And incredibly, the library has the rights to show Hell Squad. A lot of these movies, no one cares about them, so they lose their rights holders because no one cared to hold on to those rights. I'm surprised someone owns Hell Squad. And then in December, the Christmas movie Jaws 4: The Revenge.