Today in Tedium: As is well-documented by the place where this lives, I thrive on bad culture, on moments of mediocrity. Bad culture deserves a home to live, too. And in a world where Whoopi Goldberg can create a movie with a damn dinosaur (just one example, of many, of works that were contractually obligated to be bad), someone needs to be pointing those things out. But this week, something happened that we need to talk about: Bruce Willis’ family announced he was retiring from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia. While admiration for Die Hard and Pulp Fiction springs eternal, Willis made a lot of slapdash films in the past few years, and the reason for that is now more clear. Unfortunately for the Razzie Awards, which went out of its way to “honor” Willis last week, the organization found itself having to publicly rescind its award to Willis as clearly being the product of a different kind of bad taste. I guess this makes me wonder—can mockery culture have empathy, too? Today in Tedium, inspired by this saga, I want to consider the ethics of badness. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“The phrase that I like to use is we don’t consider ourselves a slap in the face; we look at ourselves as a banana peel on the floor. The overarching intent is humorous because all of these people got paid $1 million or more, we assume. And in my mind, if you got $1 million and then you got nominated for a Razzie, excuse me, you still have $1 million—can’t you afford a sense of humor at that price?”
— John J.B. Wilson, a cofounder of The Razzies, discussing the intention of the yearly awards in an interview with Vulture. The ceremony, which is timed to coincide with the Academy Awards, often features name stars in their worst-reviewed roles, and while the model was built around bad movies, it generally sticks to big-name figures. (Hence why you’ve never seen Birdemic or The Room nominated, despite those movies each having significant cult followings.) To put it another way, if the system is working correctly, the award show punches up, not down.
We aren’t privy to the root cause of every single issue that even major celebrities face
A little over a year ago, at a time the vaccine was still brand-new and numbers were way up, Bruce Willis was in a pharmacy in Los Angeles, and his face just happened to not be covered. He was soon escorted out.
This led to a bit of an outcry from Willis fans, clearly upset that Willis was not following the rules. (There was at least one joke about how Rite Aid employees are more adept at getting rid of Willis than Hans Gruber.)
But a few details about the story, in light of the week’s news, suggest that the story was completely misrepresented in the press. First of all, Willis was wearing an outfit that had a bandana attached, which was clearly located around his neck in a way that implied he was wearing it to cover his face. Second of all, he largely seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously; in the year or so before that incident, he had largely stayed in pandemic bubbles with his ex-wife Demi Moore and their kids, along with his current wife Emma Heming Willis and their kids. (The two families have since blended; Moore and Willis still get along well.)
I wasn’t in the Rite-Aid that day, so I have no idea how the mask incident went down. But given the recent information about Willis’ on-set behavior, it seems not unlikely that he might have simply forgotten to put it on, and might not have understood the instructions from the pharmacy staff to comply with the rules. (After all, aphasia affects the brain’s ability to communicate.) That’s not ideal, obviously, but in light of what we’ve seen since, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
But we’ve been calibrated and tuned to think the worst of the people and things we discuss. Looking at the photo of Willis, how was anyone supposed to know? After all, it’s not like we were a party to his life.
In my mind, this incident highlights how quickly punching up can turn into punching down, how a decision to make paycheck movies reads a lot differently when it seems obvious those movies are being made because it’s possible you soon won’t be able to work at all. (Certainly, I didn’t know, and I made jokes about it too. This situation has really forced me to rethink all that.)
If you were to make fun of Willis’ pop music career in the 1980s or his decision to voice the baby in the Look Who’s Talking series, as many have, that would be fair game. Willis’ work during that time, at a point when his celebrity was still somewhat new, reflects someone known as an action star and comedic television actor making choices that might perhaps read as questionable. It would be in the spirit of The Razzies—everyone we’re making fun of makes millions of dollars to appear on screen, and these are the creative choices they made.
The Razzies, by leaning so heavily on Willis this year, made a big tactical error, but at the same time, one hopes that it teaches them a lesson about their aim. At the same time as they rescinded their award for Willis, they also rescinded their 1981 Best Actress nomination for Shelley Duvall in The Shining. It has long been controversial that The Shining was a Razzie nominee, but the reason they did so was not because of any sort of second-guessing of a film the culture had warmed to, but the behavior of its director, Stanley Kubrick, on set towards Duvall.
“Knowing the backstory and the way that Stanley Kubrick kind of pulverized her, I would take that back,” Razzie cofounder Maureen Murphy told Vulture last month.
And so they did.
The year brothers and Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss produced The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, a book that helped to kick off the phenomenon of mocking all things bad. (They popularized the criticism of Plan 9 from Outer Space, for example.) Two years later, Harry was joined by his brother Michael in writing a follow-up book, called The Golden Turkey Awards, which was largely based on reader submissions. This trend the duo started can be seen in the Razzie Awards as well as works like Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Michael Medved, today, is known as both a film critic and a conservative commentator.)
The tension hiding in the work that we mock
Now, to be clear, the world has wrinkles, and sometimes those wrinkles take us into strange places. And those strange places lead to interesting stories.
But there’s always a tension to these stories, a sensitivity that deserves a discussion. Simply put, the bridge between appreciating the cultural gifts of a person and punching down to get there is narrow.
That’s especially the case if the work is considered “outsider” in nature.
One could argue, for example, that Moondog wasn’t initially noticed for his sizable music gifts, but his willingness to dress strange in the middle of New York City, no matter the temperature. Any discussion about Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, or Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, no matter the quality of their respective outputs, has to make clear that mental illness is a significant part of the discussion.
And perhaps some of the passages in Songs in the Key of Z, a key text of offbeat music, feature a few musicians whose interesting music represents interesting backstory, but also potential issues with mental health or within their personal life. This may not necessarily be the case—for example, B.J. Snowden, who I’ve seen in concert before, came to embrace her outsider music status for her unusually patriotic songs about the U.S. and Canada.
“At first I wasn’t too happy about it, but now I like it because I’m getting a lot of press,” she said.
Not every story is like that of Shooby Taylor, the former U.S. Postal Service employee whose workplace injury (and the pension it earned him) allowed him to try a second career in the music industry, as a “human horn.” He intentionally chose an offbeat direction, and while he didn’t get what he wanted out of it, it gained him a cult following nonetheless.
Sometimes, the story might read closer to that of Farrah Abraham, a reality TV figure whose entire career arc can feel exploitative, and whose musical output was widely mocked—but received a few sympathetic readings from outlets as notable as The Guardian and The Atlantic.
There is an issue of calling something bad, or trashing on it, or highlighting its questionable nature.
On the other hand, plenty of low culture deserves these readings. For example, Mac and Me, a movie literally developed in the late ’80s by McDonald’s as a feature-length advertisement for the chain, deservedly gets mocked by Paul Rudd on a near-annual basis, including just this week. And I think you could make the case that James Rolfe, the Angry Video Game Nerd, is correct to call out many of the early Nintendo games he features on his YouTube channel, which have reputations as shovelware, originally built for audiences of young children but with little regard to how the creative works held together for their target audience.
I am a fan of “bad” culture. I am the kind of person, upon learning that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is putting on a new season via Kickstarter, that will happily chip in. But that show clearly reflects this tension as well—after all, it’s not like most of these productions even had the money to pay Bruce Willis, or his cultural equivalent at the time they were made, for a 10-minute cameo.
In my mind, I think the differentiator is that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is generally mocking what was made—that is, the final creative product, and the movie-goer’s experience in watching that product—while something like the Razzies focuses tightly on mocking the people who made the product. That is an important distinction.
I guess the reason I bring this up is because, in our culture that’s full of massive cultural failures like these, it’s all too easy to go on the attack and mock someone’s creative work with in a mean-spirited way.
A situation like what happened with Bruce Willis and The Razzies is rare. But the circumstances that created it are common.
Look, I’m not going to tell you to stop enjoying The Room and its spoon-throwing zaniness because something happened that makes mocking badness a little uncomfortable in one particular case.
At some point, culture leaves the hands of the people who created it and it’s up to the audience to decide how this culture will be accepted.
What I will say, though, is that you shouldn’t be afraid to go into any cultural work, even a bad one, in a spirit of empathy—what did the person do to create this work? What did their life look like at the time? Would you have made the same choices?
I think a lot of the reason I see things like RiffTrax and MST3K as in somewhat of a different category as the Razzies is because they don’t exist to trendjack. They exist to remind the audience, hey, you have a stake in the things you watch, and if it’s bad, that’s fine, we can do things to make it slightly more palatable.
We can have a sense of humor about what was made and how it was made, while still having empathy for the creative choices on display. There is room for both—and I think that ignoring that tension puts us in a spot where we’re just cynical all the time and working in a mean spirit, rather than appreciating a work for what it is—even if what it is seems to lend itself to jokes.
Just because something is bad doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal. And to Bruce Willis’ family—we hope for the best as Bruce moves into the next stage of his journey. He is obviously better than his recent output, and everyone knows it.