Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Theatre As Junk Food

Now with all other silliness out of the way, finally, my entry on theatre-as-junk-food...

* * *

I was rereading my copy of Danse Macabre by Stephen King, his nonfiction book assessing the state of the horror genre in media from the 1950s through the early 1980s, and came across his chapter entitled "The Horror Movie As Junk Food." In this brief chapter, Mr. King rationalizes the (small) soft spot in his heart for really shitty horror movies (citing Robot Monster and The Prophecy). The ultimate argument is that when you're a big fan of something, regardless of the genre or medium, you end up developing a taste for really bad entries of said genre or medium.

He's absolutely right.

Part of this is because when you slog through the mire of dreck trying to find rare gems, you need a sense of humor about the whole thing. If you keep going into something believing every time you're going to find the masterpiece of all masterpieces, you're going to find your heart getting broken many, many times before becoming embittered and cynical.

As much as I like to flatter myself in thinking I have refined aesthetic tastes, I also love really delightfully bad movies (you know, those "so bad they're good" movies?), horrendous music (okay, come on. We're all friends here. Raise your hand if you had - or still have - Def Leppard's Hysteria album or even - God help us - Warrant's Cherry Pie), terrible comic books and God-awful television.

Christ, I absolutely love Billy Madison, despite being aware of how awful it is (and trust me, if you haven't seen it, it's really bad, even by the standards of an Adam Sandler movie). If it's playing on late-night television, I ain't going to sleep just yet (no matter how late/early it's on). I can't help but get pumped whenever I hear Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" or even - stay with me - Steelheart's "I'll Never Let You Go." I still have a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I skim through my old Savage Dragon or Punisher comics.

And I think we're all familiar with my feelings towards that trashy TV show "elimiDATE," right?

So Bad It's Good.

As I contemplated this, I realize that what makes theatre unique from most other media is that there really isn't junk food in theatre. I mean sure, there's bad theatre, and sometimes the perverse fun of seeing a truly awful show is relaying the story to others about the nightmare that was said show. But those shows are not looked upon with fondness. They're not "so bad they're good," they're usually "so bad they're awful."

I was ready to consider Broadway fare as the "junk food" of theatre, but that doesn't quite fit the bill, does it? Broadway theatre is too expensive and too extravagant to be considered a "guilty pleasure" and neither tourists nor regular theatergoers enjoy it in a "so bad it's good" vein.

So no, I wouldn't say that Broadway counts as the junk food of theatre.

How about gay camp theatre? Would that qualify as junk food? After thinking about it, I ultimately decided not really, no. Granted, I'm not its target audience, but still, I don't see audience members of its target audience seeing the works of (say) Charles Busch as "junk food." I don't think any gay man after seeing gay camp theatre is saying to a friend, "You've GOT to go see this! It's. SO. BAD."

Then again, I could be wrong (like I said, I'm not its target audience). At the very least, gay camp, like Broadway, is not junk/comfort food for me.

When I was telling Pete from Nosedive about this, he suggested two things. The first thing was that this might have to do with distribution. Junk food is often mass-produced, mass-marketed and pre-packaged in a way that eliminates any surprise. You know what you're getting when you buy a Snickers bar. You know what you'll taste when you buy a Big Mac. Since theatre is by its very nature not mass-produced, mass-marketed or pre-packaged (in fact it defies such things), the ability for it to be served up as some sort of unhealthy comfort food is contrary to the medium's nature.

Theatre simply doesn't have that Mass Appeal (Title Case Intended).

The second thing that Pete pointed out was that, for lovers of musicals, there is theatre as junk food; there are shows that musical-lovers go to simply because they're delightfully awful. The example he brought up was the huge popularity of the touring production of Hello Dolly in the '90s, which featured Carol Channing (who was in her seventies at the time) reprising the role that made her famous in the '60s.

A woman in her seventies playing a role for a woman at least 30 years younger to packed houses.

Theatre as junk food.

So good it's bad.

So, I will concede the latter point. There are some parts of the theatre world where there are cases of the medium being enjoyed on a junk food level. My confessed ignorance of this aspect is due to the fact that I'm not particularly inclined towards musical theatre (I mean, I'm familiar with them, I was known to have performed in one or two in high school, and I even like some of them, but for the most part, musical theatre has never been particularly "my bag," as Austin Powers would say).

Theatre-as-junk food is most definitely not found in the Off-off or indie scene. When's the last time someone suggested you go see a play because "it was really bad" (and offered to come along for a second time)?

Bear in mind I'm really not saying this is good or bad, right or wrong. I'm not suggesting we fix this or change this (and thereby suggesting we mass-market and pre-package theatre). I just wanted to point out a unique attribute of this medium many of us have chosen to focus the bulk of our efforts on.

I also realize this I'm talking more about the spectator, not necessarily the object itself. In other words, I'm not exactly saying there isn't bad theatre out there that can be seen with a fun sensibility, but that the typical theatergoer that sees said theatre with such a sensibility is rare, perhaps rare to the point of being nonexistent.

Now, those of you out there reading this, by all means, correct me if I'm wrong. If there's a show, author or genre of theatre you go to simply to relish in its awfulness, by all means, let me know. Unless, of course, this means hurting a close friend's feelings by revealing that you only like their work on a shitty, campy level.

Anyway, I need to chat with my fellow Slow Children at Play about Saturday's upcoming show. After that, I'm heading home (to my apartment which has mercifully gotten its electricity back) to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.


Grabbin' a Snickers,

James "Winger Fan" Comtois


Anonymous Lucas Krech said...

It's too bad really. I would say that this is a current cultural trend rather than a universal truth. Vaudville is a perfect example of theatre as junk food. In fact the old school 19th/early 20th century small tour would also be this.

There was that brief berlesque revival a few years ago, but that doesn't quite cut it.

I think that role of junkfood entertainment has largely been taken up by television. I would love to see more of it to be perfectly honest. The show I lit for the $ellout festival earlier this summer would be a perfect example of this "so bad its good" kind of theatre.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Vaudeville was the junk food of the late-19th/early-20th Century, wasn't it? I read some article (and I can't remember where...it may have been in Backstage, but I can't be sure) where someone opined that the TV sitcom was the modern equivalent to the vaudeville show, something I would probably agree with.

And yeah, I think you may be right about the resurgence in burlesque not quite cutting it (that seems to be a more kitsch thing).

Of course, now I am reminded of a weekly midnight show in the Lower East Side I would watch back in '99, 2000 that could qualify (I'll keep it anonymous, although any Jamespeak scholar squirrels who peruse the archives will probably figure out of which show I speak). Super-trashy, very low-budget, lowbrow low-quality brilliance. Pete and I went a number of times. I haven’t been able to find anything like that since.

At any rate, it is a bit of a shame that there's little-to-no examples of junkfood entertainment in the medium (which could, Im assuming, allow us to have a little more fun as theatergoers), since we only really judge shows as being either good (rareish), passable (most common) or bad (pretty common). Let's hope you're right; it's more of a cultural trend than a universal truth.

I'm now kicking myself more and more for missing the $ellout Festival.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Jesus fucking Christ, James, I thought I was the only person in the world familiar with King's DANSE MACBRE - I have a copy on my shelf right here, I first read the motherfucker back in the 80's and this is the first time I've met anyone who even KNEW about the book, much less read it.

It's a good read, and I like your post, I'm still blown away that you've dug this book as much as I have.

It's a bit weird to go on about, I guess, I mean, it's not like King hasn't had any success with his OTHER books.

but still. Cool.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

Joshua -- are you serious? Is nobody reading "Danse Macabre" these days? That's a shame. I guess, maybe, since horror isn't nearly as big these days that kinda makes sense, but that book changed the way I think about storytelling. I've re-read it every couple of years since High School because it's just so great. It's the best history and deconstruction of the entire genre that I've ever found.

Now I'm kinda sad . . .

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Steven Gridley said...

I just had a freind make the argument that there is no such thing as a movie that is "so bad it's good". He said if the movie is enjoyable then it's just enjoyable. I think he started feeling this way cause he saw too many bad movies that wern't in any way enjoyable. And I guess it bring up the question, can camp ever become a viable 100% sucessful genre or will we always distance ourselves from it by saying that we like it because it's terrible?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

That's an interesting point, Steve, although I'd have to disagree with your friend. There are some really shitty movies out there that out of sheer ineptitude become enjoyable, usually for the exact opposite reasons that the filmmakers intended (i.e., serious dramas that make you laugh til tears stream down your face). An example that immediately springs to mind is Showgirls (although personally it's far too long for me to enjoy it the way many of my friends do; after the first hour, I'm all "laughed out" and getting kind of bored). Based on the interviews I've read (and based on the overall tone of the movie), It's clear that neither Paul Verhoeven nor Joe Eszterhas intended for this to be a "laugh till you cry" kind of movie.

But I think it’s true that bad movies made nowadays are no longer as enjoyable as they were when they were made in the '60s, '70s and '80s. I guess this may have to do with ballooning budgets of movies, which force more studio interference (remember when exploitation flicks cost less than $60 million?) and thereby draining any sense of fun in watching a low-budget inept picture.

Can camp become a viable 100% successful genre or will we always distance ourselves from it by saying that we like it because it's terrible? Hmmm...yeah, I don't know the answer to that. Of course, it depends on how you define "successful." If a ton of people come see it and have a fun time and want to come back, then I guess that would mean, by it’s very definition, that it's "successful." Will it ever be high art? I'm guessing not, but then again that isn't it's goal.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Actually, Steve, I just thought of something with regard to the difference between delightful trash and camp, and it’s the difference between the movie Road House (another movie that, if on TV, I’m turning off the phone for) and the Road House Off-Broadway musical. Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen the musical version (and I most likely won’t), so I can’t comment on its quality or entertainment value. However, by its very nature, the Off-Broadway musical was made with tongue-in-cheek camp sensibilities, whereas the original movie was made with…oh, who the hell knows what it was made with? The debate goes on whether or not that movie was intended to be a comedy or not.

Regardless, the Patrick Swayze movie is one of those gems that has to be seen to be believed (and seriously, everybody, if you haven't seen it, go out and rent it right effin' now). That’s why fans of the movie (me being one of them) probably see it multiple times: they have to convince themselves that they actually saw what they thought they saw.

There really is no way for an adaptation (in any form or medium) can compare to the original in this case. The creators of the musical, because it’s a self-aware remake, can’t recreate the spontaneous “Buh-whaaaaaaa…?” feeling within the audience (that said audience gets when watching the movie). The musical has built-in ironic defense mechanisms in place. And that’s camp, not junk food. Like the modern-day musical remake of Reefer Madness.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Ian W. Hill said...

I didn't think Tim Haskell's version of Road House onstage was a musical, actually.

I had been thinking of doing Road House onstage for years myself, and was bugged when Tim got there first. I'm not sure I would have liked Tim's version, because it does seem to be about a "campy" approach (that is, what "campy" has come to mean rather than the more serious and possibly profound "camp" aethestic can be), and I thought the film should be done onstage rather straight (I also looked forward to playing the Sam Elliott part myself).

There is a difference in the qualities of various "junk food" art, and not all "so bad they're good" works are created equal. I've adapted a couple of "bad films" to the stage that worked well because there was a basic integrity, a hypnotic intensity, a VISION to the original work that a cheap, abstracted 3-dimensional staging somehow brought out when the idea of "good film form" was stripped away.

I once showed Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda? to the actors in a show I was directing to give them an idea of the specific quality of "bad" acting I was looking for. One of the actors, Tim Cusack, referred to the film as a "rich text" and defined the acting style in it as "commitment without talent," that is, the actors in the film were putting as much into it as any "good" actors would, but didn't have the skills or tools to express themselves in "good" acting. (I later adapted Glen or Glenda? for the stage and it wound up being a facinating piece of experimental theatre on its own -- the film, an accidental masterpiece in my opinion, is also, honest to god, one of my favorite movies of all time, with no irony whatsoever)

Glen or Glenda? is indeed a "rich text," as is Road House. Showgirls, I think too, but not as rich, as successful. Debbie Does Dallas is not a rich text -- nor are many of the original films behind most of the other campy stage adaptations that have appeared in the past few years. Mostly, these have been chosen for the title recognition or popular reputation of the original film (and "ha-ha, isn't it funny to do this on stage?" quality), not any inherent richness of the original film.

One of the best uses of Road House I've seen (or rather heard) was when a WFMU DJ got his listeners to cue up their DVDs of the film at home and play them on his cue, with the sound down, and he did the entire soundtrack for the film on his own over the radio. I enjoy watching my DVD of it with the French dub track on and English subtitles -- Voila! It's an action-art film!

Actual camp, as opposed to what "campy" has come to mean (something like "self-consciously-kitschy-funny"), is at it's best a serious-minded use of irony and satire in a celebratory way -- not so much "so bad it's good" but "bad, and yet fascinating and lovable, and here's why I love it . . ."

Sometimes, it winds up being the line between smugness and art.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, no, sorry. You're right, Ian. I thought it was done as a musical. I was mistaken.

Your "rick text" theory is also interesting. Even though something was made ineptly, there was a lot of love and a lot of heart in the making of it (like in most of Ed Wood's films), which the audience sees. They shoot for the moon and fail spectacularly.

Something like Reefer Madness would not count as part of something with that "rich text" but I definitely see the appeal in watching it (mainly for the, "Jesus Christ are these people SERIOUS? experience). I also haven't seen the musical version that was made of this, but I'm assuming it wasn't made for any sincere fondness for the material, so that may be more in the campy/smug vein. Then again, I haven't seen/read the staged version of it, so I can't say for sure.

You adapted Glen or Gelnda? for the stage? I'm intrigued.

4:11 PM  

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