July 13, 2012 On Crap
by Indy Datta
I’ve made my fair share of pointless New Year’s resolutions in my life, but the novels have remained unfinished, the excess pounds unshifted. This year, I set myself what I thought would be an easily attainable goal. All I had to do was stop voluntarily paying money to see films that I knew in advance were very likely to be awful. I made it about halfway through the year before I cracked, on which more later, but I knew deep down I was never going to get through the whole year. The thing is, you see, I love crap.
I don’t mean any old crap: I’m not an undiscriminating cinematic coprophile. I merely tolerate the kind of spandex-clad crap that makes billions of dollars at the box office, or the Oscar-winning damp middlebrow kind of crap. I am downright badly-disposed towards long-take overload arthouse crap, and the existence of so-crap-it’s-good cult movies makes me, in unguarded moments, a little sad.
But show me a low-to-mid budget British comedy or genre flick opening to a slew of vicious reviews and, prior to 2012, I was all, like, SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! before that meme was even invented. The Venn diagram of people who’ve seen all the crummy, half-arsed British movies I’ve seen can surely only include me, and those unfortunate people who were professionally obliged to see them.
The real heyday of the crap British movie was the sale and leaseback era (ushered in by the 1997 Finance Act, and abolished a decade later), when large numbers of truly horrible films were financed by “investors” who had no interest in them other than as tax avoidance schemes. The rules required a theatrical release for films that had been financed through S&L transactions, so for years barely a week went by without the release schedules boasting another barely watchable piece of junk, the vast majority of which were forgotten before the popcorn had been swept from the aisles. You know they made a film of the Fat Slags from Viz? That happened! It had Geri Haliwell and Dolph Lundgren in it!
I should, at this point, write something about some of the key films I saw during those far-off halcyon days, but I can’t remember any of them. I have vague memories of trying to gouge my own eyes out during Rancid Aluminium, but that’s about it. But that seems right, in a way. There’s something sad and self-abusive about the experience of paying over a tenner for a ticket to see a film like Huge, which I did last year (I thought to myself, “wow, the Empire has a screen 9?”), which makes it the perfect accompaniment to the cinema hot dog that the concession stand operator has to stick a probe into to verify that she isn’t about to sell you a glistening log of mechanically recovered poison, and the five quid bucket of Diet Coke (your diet is shame). When you eventually find the tiny screen they’re playing the film in, you try not to meet the eyes of the other patrons. Harder than you think when there’s only two other people in the room. You spend the whole of the film wondering to yourself, has Ben Miller ever seen a film? It’s not the kind of experience you want to remember too vividly.
And yet, it’s an experience I continued to seek out. And, with digital cinema cameras slashing the cost of making something that at least looks a bit like a film, there has been plenty of crap out there in the post S&L years, increasingly often in cinemas for one weekend only, before popping up on disc and video-on-demand. “Not the same, of course”, I thought, “watching it at home”, as I scanned the listings in vain for a screening I could actually get to of Big Fat Gypsy Gangster. Maybe that was the moment I hit bottom.
I kept my resolution for a few months, but in the end it was video-on-demand that was the gateway drug I was sucked back in to. No sane person would watch The All Together (Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer, together at last) on Netflix, but I did. No sane person would pay iTunes actual cash money for the privilege of watching Dougray Scott learning how to love again in Loves Kitchen (sic), but I did.
And then a few weeks ago, somehow, I found myself standing in line (metaphorically – there was no line) to buy a ticket to see A Fantastic Fear of Everything, starring Simon “Run Fatboy Run, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Paul” Pegg, and directed by Crispian Mills out of Kula Shaker – a man who was scorned by right-thinking society as a dilettante in his first career. The reviews, were beyond toxic. “So spectacularly bungled that it leaves the viewer in a state of advanced petrification” (The Guardian), “the worst movie I have ever reviewed” (the Standard), “pure cinematic strychnine” (The Telegraph). This was the mother of all relapses.
It would be great to wrap this post up by reporting that A Fantastic Fear of Everything is an unfairly-maligned gem. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much entirely misbegotten in every stage of its conception and execution. The opening act is heroically inept, with a mannered voice-over from Pegg that takes as its starting point the first person narration of the source short story (by Bruce “Withnail” Robinson – also awful. If anyone wants my copy, shout) and unwisely embellishes and extends it, and then adds plenty of Pegg talking to himself over the top of it, just in case that wasn’t already irritating enough. From there, multiple terrible ideas, lapses of tone and taste, shoddy performances and half-baked visual conceits pile on top of each other and squeeze whatever life the film might have had right out of it.
But, here’s the thing. I didn’t resent the time or money I spent on this nearly as much as the time or money I spent on, say, Shame. And, as the lights dimmed, I was genuinely rooting for Mills to sock it to all the people who had written him off. This time, I was disappointed, but a couple of times in the last few years, I’ve gone to see low budget British films that looked, on their surface, unlikely to be much cop and been knocked sideways. Okay, so I saw Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace in the ICA, but it’s not as if I’ve never seen a crap film at the ICA. And at Raindance last year (which often felt like a sea of crap), and then with the kind of blink-and-you-miss it theatrical outing and quick home video appearance that is the hallmark of the shoddy and opportunistic low-budget flick, there was Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe’s Black Pond – a really terrific film that I could have easily written off before seeing it (Come on, Chris Langham and Simon Amstell?).
So, I think I’ll ditch the resolution. There’s always the chance that I’ll see something in the next unpromising little film that I wasn’t expecting to. But I’m relieved to have made this decision after Noel Clarke’s Storage 24 has safely slipped off screen.