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The psychology behind why we love bad films so much

“It makes you feel like an expert film critic.”

Once a month, London’s Prince Charles Cinema is home to a cacophony of raucous laughter from a room full of people. Many of them interject occasionally to yell a particular line of dialogue and others throw spoons in the general direction of the screen. The film they are watching is The Room, which is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made.

Despite its obvious lack of quality, The Room is a cult phenomenon that has spawned dozens of YouTube compilation videos and awards season prestige picture The Disaster Artist, starring James Franco, which explores the real life of the bizarre, enigmatic man behind the whole spectacle, Tommy Wiseau. Screenings of the film regularly sell more tickets than the average multiplex blockbuster and Wiseau has legions of fans who queue for hours to take selfies.

The Room is the ultimate example of movie making often referred to as “so bad, it’s good”. It is filled with non-sequitur dialogue, mysteriously discarded plot threads and toe-curling sex scenes set to excruciating R&B music. The Room and its notorious bedfellows are films people flock to see precisely because they are bad, like a 90-minute Christmas cracker joke or a silly pun pasted next to a picture of a dog and retweeted thousands of times online.

The same is true of other infamous examples of “so bad, it’s good” cinema. Troll 2, which bears no relation to any film named Troll and actually features goblins rather than the eponymous creatures, has gained a real cult following since its release in 1990. The film’s child star, Michael Stephenson, went on to direct documentary Best Worst Movie, which traced the film’s rise to the status of camp classic. Such is the popularity of these films that franchises like Sharknado have made money from a deliberate embrace of the “so bad, it’s good” ethos.

Audiences are innately drawn towards the spectacle of bad films like The Room, Sharknado and Troll 2, says Dr Adam Galpin, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford.

“These films are humorous because they are incredulously awful and you can’t believe that anyone could produce something that bad and think it’s OK,” he says. “The other thing is it gives you a sense of superiority and a sense of mastery and competence because if you can recognise why it’s bad, you have expertise in this area of film consumption. It makes you feel like an expert film critic.”

Galpin says the fascination with a truly bad film can be passed on in the same way that viral content spreads on social media. There’s a communal feel to sharing the experience of a bad film, in the same way as a meme on Facebook or Twitter.

He adds: “There’s something in there about the experience of sharing emotions, which has been demonstrated in loads of other areas of media. If something gives you an emotional experience, you have an innate drive to share that with people.”

This fascination with communal viewing of “so bad, it’s good” films leads to the kind of repeat performances that have become the stock-in-trade of venues like the Prince Charles,. Wiseau himself, along with co-star Greg Sestero, to attend a number of screenings.

Timon Singh runs screenings of notorious bad films, including The Room, Birdemic and Troll 2 as the founder of the Bristol Bad Film Club. Their monthly events often sell out the Bristol Improv Theatre, filling it with more than 120 patrons who want to experience the unique spectacle of a terrible film.

Singh says the cult success of The Room is largely down to Wiseau’s decision to work “against every cinematic rule that had been established” and push towards his own ideas, against the advice of those around him.

He adds: “Bad films are generally one person’s vision. One person who often decides to do the opposite of what the film industry generally does, in order to share their unique vision with the world. Bad films are often someone’s dream that, despite their earnestness, failed to translate to screen in the way they hoped.”

Whether it’s a result of morbid fascination or a genuine love for auteurs whose ambition exceeds their talent, there’s something that keeps movie fans fascinated with “so bad, it’s good” films. Like motorists rubbernecking as they pass the scene of a crash, film fans continue to flock to see the worst of the cinematic medium — and throw spoons at it.


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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist