Katharine Coldiron knows bad movies. Her latest book, Plan 9 from Outer Space, zeroes in on the eponymous 1957 film, but she has also written on Death Bed (1977), Cop Rock (1990) and, for Vague Visages, a series of eight movies from the 1940s starring the Teen Agers. I spoke with Coldiron about Ed Wood, Mystery Science Theater 3000, “reclaiming” and Roger Corman.
Andrew Wyatt: Monographs are typically concerned with analysis or appreciation of the craft of a particular film or director, but with Plan 9 from Outer Space, that’s off the table. So give me the sales pitch. Why would I want to read a book-length analysis of one of the most infamously bad movies of all time?
Katharine Coldiron: I don’t think the book is a hard sell to people who know what Plan 9 from Outer Space is already, which is quite a lot of people. However, I also know that selling a certain segment of the population on bad film is difficult from the get-go. So, it’s a fair question, but it’s also not one I’ve ever actually had to consider, because I knew the audience for this book was there before I even started writing it.
The more circumspect answer is that the book isn’t just about Plan 9 from Outer Space, it’s also about the value of bad film. Bad film deserves study, and I can defend that idea all day. Besides, I think it’s pretty difficult to watch Plan 9 From Outer Space and not be charmed by it or endeared to it.
AW: That’s one of the reasons your book is so compelling, that you’re using Plan 9 from Outer Space to articulate a larger thesis about bad movies. What came first? Was it your desire to unpack Plan 9 from Outer Space specifically? Or your interest in writing a book of bad movie theories?
KC: Those both developed independently. When I first heard of Midnight Movie Monographs, I asked myself, almost as an intellectual puzzle, what movie I could possibly write a hundred pages about. The very first movie that came to mind was Plan 9 from Outer Space. I knew I was capable of writing that much about this film specifically. There are other films I love that couldn’t sustain that kind of analysis, and there are films I know well enough to write that much about, but I’m not qualified enough or interested enough to write them. However, I am qualified and interested regarding Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Around the same time I heard about the book line, I had started to develop a theory that bad film was important to cinema studies. I realized Plan 9 from Outer Space was an avenue for me, so I could put all of my ideas about bad film into this one book. The one idea channeled the other.
AW: I do love that core thesis of your book. That’s one of the things I immediately dialed into, bad movies as an important tool for understanding movies as a whole. I don’t want to give the book away, I want people to read it, but could you expand on that?
KC: Here’s an example: it’s impossible to know what the work of a good boom operator looks like, but it’s very easy to see what the work of a bad boom operator looks like. That is so self-evident it doesn’t even need me to explain it. And that type of wisdom is true for just about everything in a film. It’s very apparent when framing is bad, when lighting is bad, when acting is bad — and these qualities are much easier to study when they go wrong than when they go right. The model of an arts education is to study good art, but it’s a lot simpler to study bad art. You can have a checklist in your mind of things not to do, like, don’t hire a colorblind cinematographer, don’t try to light a street in Los Angeles at night if you have 1950s film equipment. It’s apparent. It’s on the screen.
I also believe that a good arts education is an omnivorous one, which means you have to see the best and the worst. Otherwise, you get tunnelvision about art, such that you can only describe things in this very narrow band. Cinema magazines sometimes cover only the best 25% of films that are ever released. That means that the stuff at the 75% mark is rendered awful by critics. When, in fact, it’s fine. What’s awful is Neil Breen, but if you’ve never seen Neil Breen, then you don’t know how bad film can get.
AW: It’s an erosion of the term “bad.” The standards have been lifted up so high that people don’t know what bad really is.
KC: Yes. Exactly. It leads us to misunderstand mediocrity in ways that make criticism worse and thus arts worse.
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AW: There’s another idea you returned to over and over in the book: that a bad movie is a record of a failed attempt at making a movie. As a documentary enthusiast, I found that striking. Can you talk about that?
KC: When you’re watching a film, any film, you are at once watching a piece of narrative, presumably, and you’re watching the record of the creation of that narrative. For instance, you’re watching a scene with Julia Roberts, but you’re also watching the recordation of her performing that scene on a set or on location. You’re watching a record of who lit that scene, and who wrote it, and who did the costumes for it, who did the music and the makeup — all the elements that go into making a film, they all exist in that record. But cinema is kind of a magic show, so any scene has some sleight of hand. You usually just end up focusing on what Julia Roberts is doing in the scene, the fiction of it.
In bad films, the sleight of hand doesn’t work, because nothing in the scene is of high enough quality to distract us from the mechanism of cinema being made in front of our eyes. When we see a gravestone wobble in Plan 9 from Outer Space because someone has kicked it, that is us realizing the actors are on a set and that those gravestones are made of cardboard. Someone stuck it in the ground and an actor kicked it by accident. In regular film, we wouldn’t have to consider any of that stuff. We would just accept that it’s a gravestone instead of thinking through all of the metatextual things that begin to occur in our brains when we see bad film and its failures.
AW: It’s a great way of thinking about bad films. Something like The Godfather is too immersive. It’s not a very good record of the making of The Godfather because we’re too swept up in the narrative to look at the record. We’re too seduced by it. You need a documentary featurette on the DVD to explain how it was made. But in some ways, Plan 9 from Outer Space is the featurette of itself. It’s in the movie. You don’t need to watch a behind-the-scenes film about Plan 9 From Outer Space because–
KC: You’re watching it, yes! It’s not distinguishable from the final product.
AW: One of the things that makes Ed Wood such a fascinating figure 70 years later is his weird combination of incompetence and enthusiasm. His own films are terrible, but he seems to like movies. His work doesn’t feel like he’s a cynical, mercenary hack. Are there places in Plan 9 from Outer Space where you can see that movie lover side of Wood peeking through the technical ineptitude?
KC: Well, I don’t think he was ever mercenary. I only say that because he never made any money.
I think he saw the frame inside which a movie takes place as a completely magical realm where anything was possible. The same way that kids’ imaginations are, that’s the way I think he saw what you see when you sit down in a movie theater. Because of that, it’s hard for me to single out a moment when I feel like his love of cinema is particularly apparent. I’d like to point to the best parts of Plan 9 from Outer Space, but I don’t think that’s really it. In fact, maybe my least favorite part, the montage sequence, demonstrates this best. It doesn’t give us the information that a montage should, and there’s so little about it that is useful to the viewer. However, Wood plainly intended for it to do what a montage does. To me that expresses how he saw this rectangle as an incredibly magical, transformative space that could make anything happen — it could turn stock footage and an empty backdrop into a real scene that makes meaning for the viewer.
That’s inspiring to me, the fact that he failed so badly to do this thing that’s relatively simple. Making a montage isn’t that hard. He thought he was doing a good job because he thought anything was possible in this rectangle.
AW: Yeah. With Wood’s films, a lot of things I get stuck on are because I don’t have any sense for where things are in space or time. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about, the idea that he didn’t need to worry about cinematic grammar, or where these people are in relation to each other. He just throws it up on the screen and somehow it’ll all magically work.
KC: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s right.
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AW: We’re in a strange place critically now where films are constantly being reclaimed and reassessed and resuscitated. There’s a lot of “actually, X film was really good.” Do you think there’s some comfort to be found in a film like Plan 9 from Outer Space where the decades of opinions about it remain basically unshaken? This movie is as terrible as everybody says and you’re not trying to convince the reader that it’s not terrible.
KC: I don’t really hold with reclaiming. In part because I have not read a single reclaiming piece that convinced me. Not one. The only thing that’s close is Tony Zhou’s defense of Michael Bay for Every Frame a Painting, which for me was utterly convincing. But he wasn’t reclaiming there, he was asking us to look at Michael Bay in a different fashion.
The “this thing is good, actually” movement to me is much more about nostalgia than it is about meaningful cultural criticism. There are things I like with nostalgia that I would never defend with my critical hat on. And I don’t understand why people want to mix these attitudes. I don’t think it’s harmful exactly, but it’s a mistaken idea that because you’re a critic, everything you like has to be good. That’s just not so, and to try and make it so is, to me, more about your ego and your memories of a thing than it is about your actual critical sensibility.
That is to say, Citizen Kane may not have been recognized for what it was in its time, but opinions of it have remained basically the same for 70 years. That Plan 9 from Outer Space was always considered bad is to me unsurprising in the same way.
Stuff that becomes bad because the context changes is a whole different thing than stuff that is just made badly. Like Forrest Gump. At the time, everybody fell in love with Forrest Gump because it waved the flag of Boomer supremacy. It put together everything about the white Boomer experience that was good and sentimentalized it in such a way that it was very popular. But now we look back and go “Wow, that was not a very good movie.” It’s wracked with nostalgia of exactly the kind I’m talking about. It’s no technically better or worse than it was then–
AW: Zemeckis knows how to make a movie.
KC: Right. Perfectly competently made. But our idea of what we want out of a movie about Baby Boomers has changed radically in three decades. The way we look at is different. The way we look at Plan 9 from Outer Space is almost no different from the way audiences looked at it in 1959.
AW: Throughout the book, you talk about the role of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in nurturing interest in bad movies. There’s been some pushback in the cultural discussion about the way Mystery Science Theater 3000 encouraged a generation of filmgoers to engage ironically instead of genuinely with older genre films. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote pretty scathingly about people’s rejection of From Russia with Love, and there was a seminal rant in LA Weekly about people laughing at Hercules in the Haunted World at a repertory screening. What are your views?
AW: I mean, to avoid that minefield, what are the essential qualities of being a good bad movie lover?
KC: The most central one is to avoid mocking, and especially mocking stuff that can’t be helped. That’s a very broad way to say that, but I mean, don’t make fun of a character’s lisp. Don’t make fun of their weight. It’s being a bully — beating somebody up because they wear glasses. That’s not cool.
The process for Mystery Science Theater 3000 is to engage with the movie and draw humor out of that engagement, whereas I think a lot of people who watch bad movies to laugh at them are not engaging with the movie. They’re looking at the surface of it. And it’s funny to them because they’re accustomed to old things being funny.
I don’t know that I would scold an audience for laughing at a mid-century genre movie. If the outfits and the slang and the acting style are funny to them, that’s a genuine reaction. I wouldn’t feel good if they were laughing at The Incredible Shrinking Man, because that has an ending that’s so moving I think it would be difficult not to take it seriously. But that doesn’t mean the special effects have stood the test of time.
In The Lost Weekend, which is an absolute masterpiece of addiction, there’s a scene where he [Ray Milland as Don Birnam] hallucinates a bat flapping on the wall. It’s a fake bat, and it’s very obvious, because it’s 1945. The effects have not stood the test of time. However, the rest of the movie is still there. So if you laugh at the bat, I don’t think you’re laughing at the movie, but at what effects they had available then. I think what you’re talking about is people who laugh at everything.
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AW: If you sit down to watch a film that is not a comedy and everything that appears on screen elicits a snicker, what are you doing there?
KC: I think that’s a closed mind. You’re seeking something to feel superior about, which is not the point of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But it’s a fine line, because they also do this thing where they do not care if you get their obscure jokes. They’re not joking about it to be superior, though, they’re doing it because it’s funny to them.
They’re engaging with the movie not to feel superior, but to see “What were they thinking? What does this mean? What does it mean to us? What did it mean to them?” This might sound too grand, but honestly the more I study bad movies and “riffers” of bad movies, the more I find this to be true. The engagement with the movie is the real thing.
AW: Do you think Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its descendants taught an entire generation how to react to older movies, though?
KC: I’m not sure. You could claim that newer generations find all old movies silly, and I don’t think those kinds of people needed help feeling that way. I know people whose attitude is “I won’t watch black and white movies.” What is the matter with you? But that’s a thing nobody at Mystery Science Theater 3000 was going to change, for better or worse.
AW: For me, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made me more interested in old movies. I like what you said about things you can snicker at, like low budget constraints, that were beyond the control of the filmmakers. Other aspects can still be successful. A lot of it has to do with how those films taught me [how] to read between the lines of the crappiness. There are aspects of Bert I. Gordon films and Roger Corman films that are emotionally potent. You just have to be willing to look past the crap.
KC: I see your point, but looking past it is really not how I do this. The way I do it is to take it all at the same time. Corman is a terrific example, because no filmmaker is more checkered than Corman. He had some astoundingly artistically successful movies, and then he had so much absolute crap. When I watched Bucket of Blood, I was shocked because it’s so good, and it makes so much of its $45 budget. Whereas some of his other movies are “Throw together this idea this week and shoot it.” I’m thinking about The Undead, which is inspired partly by the story of Virginia Tighe, this woman who claimed to have recovered a past life in Cork. It was a bestselling book at the time. Corman took that and said, “I know! I’ll attach this ridiculous story to a prostitute on one hand and a princess on the other.” So, we’ve got this King Arthur movie–
AW: I defy anybody to flowchart that movie. I have no idea what’s happening.
KC: It’s a difficult movie. What I’m trying to say is, to take Corman only at his best or only at his worst is to miss Corman. To me, his checkeredness is part of what makes him a fascinating figure.
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AW: Well, to bring it back around to Wood, a guy who does not have any genuine masterpieces in his filmography, what would you say is his best film?
KC: Plan 9 from Outer Space.
KC: Yeah. The Sinister Urge is maybe a little better, but it’s not as entertaining. Plan 9 from Outer Space was his most enthusiastic, most joyful movie. And even though it doesn’t hold together, it certainly holds together better than Glen or Glenda.
AW: I think I prefer Bride of the Monster.
KC: Plenty of people do. I think I’ve only seen it twice, and both times I was thinking “When is this going to be over?” I did not enjoy it. I always enjoy Plan 9 from Outer Space. Last night I watched it for the millionth time and I was still laughing.
AW: And you said your friends’ reactions were very positive.
KC: Oh, they loved it. They loved it. In the very middle of it, my friend was like, “I love this movie!” And why not?
Plan 9 from Outer Space is available to purchase at PS Publishing.
Andrew Wyatt (@arachnophiliac) has been writing about cinema, television, video art and culture since 2007. He is currently a film critic, programmer and presenter with Cinema St. Louis, organizers of the St. Louis International Film Festival. Andrew serves as managing editor of the Cinema St. Louis blog, The Lens, and has been a contributor to St. Louis Magazine, Alive Magazine, The Common Reader, The Curator and Temporary Art Review. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.