Monday, 11 March 2013

Value, Intention, and the Aesthetics of 'So Bad It's Good'

Below is a version of the paper I delivered last week at SCMS 2013, on the panel 'So Bad It's Good' (alongside excellent talks by Richard McCulloch, Nessa Johnston, and Phil Oppenheim). It is based on a much longer, currently unpublished piece I have co-authored with James Zborowski.
- James MacDowell

Firstly, a word about ‘bad’. I won’t here be using ‘bad’ to mean media that is simply ‘critically disreputable’ or offends ‘mainstream tastes’. Instead, my focus is specifically aesthetic artifacts valued for their incompetence: what in film studies is often called ‘badfilm’ (Sconce 1995). I will indeed be largely focusing on film in what follows, though I hope my ideas might also have broader application.

What I will suggest today is that media widely praised for being ‘so bad it’s good’ is capable of prompting a revitalization of two very old, but vital, questions for aesthetics – specifically, value and intention – and not necessarily in the manner we might usually imagine.

Let’s start with intention…


Of course, artistic intention is a subject that has been granted short shrift in the last 60 years or so of the humanities. In his introduction to a recent special issue of the journal Nonsite, Charles Palermo, for instance, recounts a familiar narrative of intention’s conceptual sidelining. He begins with Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s infamous ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ in 1946; proceeds through Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author,’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’, via Derrida and de Man, going on to say that,

If one adds […] developments in structuralism, semiotics, reader-response theory and hermeneutics, the effect is of something like a broad and general effort to minimize or eliminate reference to authorial intention in the practice of interpretation. (2012: 1)

Emerging during the last couple decades, scholarship on so-called ‘cult’ or ‘paracinematic’ texts – which includes those viewed as ‘so bad they’re good’ – has in some way epitomized this trend. And initially, this would seem to make absolute sense. As Mathijs and Mendik put it in their book The Cult Cinema Reader:

‘while traditional fandom remains largely respectful to a film’s interpretive integrity, [cult fandom will often] involve challenges to its interpretation [by] imbuing it with meanings that may counter its intentions’ (2008: 5)

We can agree that the phenomenon of audiences enjoying, say, films for their apparent badness demonstrates their ability to read texts in ‘unintended’ ways. Yet we should also acknowledge what this phenomenon makes equally clear: how fundamental assumptions about intention are to this very process.

Indeed, mentions of intention tacitly haunt a number of canonical discussions of cult. Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’, for instance, distinguishes between naïve and deliberate Camp, arguing that ‘pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying’ (Sontag 1966: 282). In his important piece ‘Trashing the Academy’, Jeffrey Sconce writes that badfilm viewers take pleasure in a ‘deviance born, more often than not, from the systematic failure of a film aspiring to obey dominant codes of cinematic representation’ (Sconce 1995: 385).

Having touched upon intention, however, such accounts tend not to make it a central term in their debates. Yet, the reason it needs to be touched on at all is that appreciating a cultural artifact as ‘So bad it’s good’ fundamentally requires the presumption that a text’s original intentions have been discerned. As Allison Graham says, speaking of Ed Wood’s films: ‘It is the appearance of Wood’s intentions that so engages cult audiences – the perceived distance [...] between his desire to create compelling narratives and his inability to do so’ (Graham 1991: 109).

Because it demands this kind of engagement, I claim that – far from adding fuel to the theoretical sidelining of intention – ‘so bad it’s good’ culture requires us to revisit a fundamental aesthetic problem: how can we presume to infer artistic intention, given that we necessarily do so regularly? (See, for instance, Gibbs [1999] for an extended treatise on the argument that the recovery of communicative intentions is an essential part of the cognitive processes that operate when we understand human action of any sort’ [1999: 3-4]).

Before addressing that question, though, let’s first move on to value.


Of course, the quest for objective evaluations of art has often been dismissed as futile. In 1957 Northrop Frye wrote that ‘the demonstrable value-judgement is the donkey’s carrot of literary criticism,’ and yet it ‘always turns out to be an illusion of the history of taste’ (1957: 20). Again, as with intention, such conceptions of the ultimate instability of artistic value have often accompanied cult studies. The phenomenon of ‘so bad it’s good’ appreciation is thus frequently viewed through just such relativist approaches to value, and thus often accompanied by claims like Mathijis’ to the effect that ‘when bad films are hailed – tongue in cheek or not – as masterpieces [...], notions of what counts as “good” are problematized’ (Mathijs 2009: 366).

However, it’s my contention that, far from problematising ‘what counts as “good”’, ‘so bad it’s good’ culture in fact has the potential to make demonstrable (one version of) what counts as bad, and offers a challenge to the proposition that we should conceptualise aesthetic evaluation as nothing but a historical illusion of taste. Explaining why involves returning to an old, but still vitally important, debate concerning the place where considerations of intention and considerations of value may meet.

Value as achieved intention

Addressing the role of the reader in the evaluation of texts, Wayne C. Booth has argued that there are different kinds of questions we may ask of a text, including ‘those that the object seems to invite [...]; and those that violate its own interests or effort to be a given kind of thing in the world’ (Booth 1988: 90). ‘So bad it’s good’ appreciation specialises in this last kind of relationship with a text. And yet (unlike a ‘misreading’) it also presupposes that the reading which a text ‘invites’, will have already been discerned. But, if we are wary of invoking the intentions of flesh-and-blood authors (as we tend to be these days), who or what do we say extends this invitation to a reader?

Umberto Eco has argued that, ‘between the unattainable intention of the author and the arguable intention of the reader there is the [...] intention of the text’ (1992: 78). A useful concept for aesthetics – similar to the notion of a text’s ‘preferred reading’ (Brunsdon/Morley 1999) – the intention of the text is, in Eco’s words, ‘the result of a conjecture on the part of the reader’ (1992: 64). It seems obvious that making such a conjecture is essential for the viewer undertaking to appreciate a film on the grounds of its incompetence. So, on what basis might this be done?

Important here is what Booth called a text’s seeming ‘effort to be a given kind of thing in the world’; Eco writes:

‘to recognize the [intention of the text] is to recognize a semiotic strategy. Sometimes the semiotic strategy is detectable on the grounds of established stylistic conventions. If a story starts with “Once upon a time”, there is a good probability that it is a fairy tale.’ (ibid.: 64/5)

Or, we might say, that it intends to be a fairytale. Something that will often guide our sense of the intention of the text, then, is the existence of pre-existing cultural genres and categories, and their accompanying conventions. One film scholar who has argued that categorisation is fundamental not just to interpretation, but also therefore to evaluation, is Noël Carroll, who writes: [knowing] the category (or categories) to which the artwork belongs […] provides us with a basis for determining whether the work has succeeded or failed, at least on its own terms. (2009: 93-4)

It is my contention that ‘so bad it’s good’ appreciation necessarily relies upon such a determination – resulting in something like the following process: (1) identifying that a text has certain intentions, before (2) evaluating it as ‘bad’ for failing to achieve those intentions, and then (3) ironically recasting this badness as ‘so bad it’s good’.

To help me expand on this, I’ll now turn briefly to a recently hugely popular badfilm, the 2003 movie The Room.

The Room

The Room stars, and is both written and directed by, Tommy Wiseau. Its broad intention as a text seems very much to be a convincing and affecting melodrama - its plot revolving round Johnny (Wiseau), a San Franciscan banker, whose life unravels when his fiancée, Lisa, begins an affair with his best friend, Mark.

In order to succeed passably as a melodrama – the film would need to deploy familiar generic conventions, which include – crucially – narrative coherence and comprehensible emotional trajectories for its characters. However, around its central premise, the film constructs an array of elliptical sub-plots, and bafflingly superfluous scenes.

Indeed, baffling narrative superfluity is a major feature of The Room, and key to its failure to successfully inhabit the category of coherent melodrama. In one early scene, Lisa’s mother, Claudette, casually tells her daughter ‘I definitely have breast cancer’. 

In almost any other melodrama this would be a very alarming revelation; here, however, both characters airily dismiss the illness (‘Don’t worry about it, everything will be fine…’), the subject is changed, and Claudette’s cancer isn’t returned to again for the remainder of the film.

At another moment, a major character, Denny, is suddenly threatened at gunpoint by a drug dealer... 

In the second half of this dramatic scene, after Denny has been saved, we learn that he bought drugs from this dealer, and – tantalisingly – that he ‘needed some money to pay off some stuff…’ However, again, this scene is entirely self-contained - Neither the violent incident, nor Denny’s money problems or possible drug habit, is ever mentioned again.

The Room’s narrative coherence as melodrama is further compromised by its approach to temporal organisation. One scene, for instance, ends with Lisa going upstairs to ‘wash up and go to bed’, despite a preceding shot having established that it is broad daylight outside.

In another scene, between Lisa and her best friend, many details establish that an aforementioned surprise party for Johnny will be occurring later today: while preparing the apartment, Lisa comments that ‘People are going to be getting here soon’, and that ‘All I have to do is put on my party dress’. However, after this scene there follows: a panning of the Golden Gate Bridge; a sequence of Johnny and Mark jogging in a park; a brief night-time shot of the city; a scene in the apartment in which Johnny kisses Lisa as he heads out of the door, dressed for work; a sequence showing Johnny walking through the city at dusk. Then, after this a digressive passage depicting a miscellaneous set of moments from a dramatically inert 24 hours – we have the party scene.

Finally, there’s the issue of the affective inducements we expect from melodrama. In perhaps The Room’s most famous moment: Johnny, distraught by Lisa’s continued callous treatment of him, exclaims “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!’ (See below, from 00:06 to 00:55).

I don’t have the time to demonstrate this in detail, however: to me, it is clear that the playing of this moment, and its contexts, make it unavoidable that we should conjecture that this outburst is intended to be a sincere and moving expression of pained emotion. It is likely to fail in this, however, in large part because by this point the film’s inept filmmaking (including performance) has been forced so prominently into the viewer’s conscious awareness that we are likely to be distanced from the diegetic reality of the scene, and are rather paying attention to all the extra-diegetic aspects of the moment – Wiseau’s mechanical yet laconic acting style, for instance, or the oddly awkward framing. 

This is what we often have on display in The Room: the spectacle of a putative melodrama inviting yet failing to find a form capable of soliciting an intended emotional response.

So, what can we take from all this?

Intention, convention, and evaluation

Though I’ve only begun the process here, I hope my brief discussion of The Room has started demonstrating that we can indeed say that it fails to achieve basic levels of coherence that thousands of examples of popular narrative filmmaking have taught us to take for granted. And, until evidence is provided that the intention of the text is to abandon these conventions knowingly, our best conjecture must be that the film’s failures are precisely that.

Using the intention of the text as our framework, then, we can indeed agree – with the film’s many fans (for whom this point is crucial) – that The Room is bad; and, furthermore, that we can use this word without inverted commas. This evaluation, furthermore, is not a matter of historically-contingent taste, nor does it involve holding coherence up as an inherent good: it is simply a question of judging a text against what we can most reasonably conjecture to have been its intentions.

This raises the further question: should the phrase ‘so bad it’s good’ be taken literally? I suggest that to appreciate a badfilm for its failings is to say: ‘It is in fact, demonstrably, bad, but nevertheless...’ A more accurate inflection might be, then: ‘so bad it’s pleasurable’.

This distinction does some justice to the fact that no claim is being advanced for a text’s intrinsic value (that is – its internal aesthetic properties), but rather its potential instrumental value – that is: the experience it can provide for the viewer (see: Budd 1995, Kieren 2001, etc.). Yet what, we need then to ask, might allow us to value intrinsic aesthetic badness, instrumentally, as ‘so bad it’s pleasurable’? I want to end by suggesting two possibilities.

Instrumental pleasures: 1. Critique

First, there’s obviously the pleasure of ironic critique. We might say that a potential appeal of The Room is simply the sheer number of times at which it fails to achieve whatever it aims to achieve. One answer to why the film is ‘so bad it’s good’ thus lies in the word ‘so’. It can be thrilling simply to experience such an overwhelming quantity of failed intentions. In one sense, this – ironic – thrill can flatter the kind of viewer prepared to indulge it. A key outcome of extreme and obvious ineptitude is that it virtually guarantees that any viewer possessing even a passing familiarity with ‘mainstream’ cinematic conventions becomes able to notice and critique elements of style, storytelling and performance. We might say that in this way such a film provides something like a democratisation of the pleasures involved in being a critic.

Still, there is something else pleasurable at stake in appreciating the film as being ‘so bad it’s good’.

Instrumental pleasures: 2. ‘Closeness’

I would argue that another outcome of the fact that The Room pushes failures of style, storytelling and performance to the forefront of the viewer’s awareness is that – at the same time as it’s likely to create an affective ‘distance’ between us and the fiction – also allows for an imagined closeness to the extra-textual. More specifically, it affords a sense of perverse closeness to the film’s ostensible auteur, Wiseau. Let me give an example via my favourite line from the film.

Immediately after Johnny explodes with ‘You are tearing me apart, Lisa!’ (see above clip) he demands desperately of his fiancé: ‘Do you understand life? Do you?!’ 

This line is one of many in The Room which seem to constitute not simply a failure to embody a convention, but something more strange. Whereas a failure to establish whether a scene takes place at day or night is a conventional failures we can readily critique, this ‘failure’ is far more mysterious. Rather than mere ineptitude, what seems important about this moment that it is so idiosyncratic - at once bafflingly weighty, inappropriate to the conversation at hand, and yet indicative of a kind of fraught emotional logic. As such it permits the possibility of imagining that only this writer/director, Wiseau, would or could write and deliver such an incomprehensible line in this way, and that it might thus offer a small insight into the unusual way Tommy Wiseau’s mind works.

The Room is thus often described by fans in terms of its ‘misguided authorial honesty’ (Semley 2009: 7), the supposition being that it offers an ‘exploration of life through the eyes of an incompetent mentor’ (‘Walmart’ 2011: 1), and thus ‘a tantalizing glimpse into Wiseau’s mind’ (‘Miss’ 2011: 1). The instrumental pleasure involved in this supposition, while still ironic at base, is nonetheless supplemented by something other than critique alone.

This seems to be another potential appeal offered by badfilm. The fact that these films permit us to presume we can see filmmakers doing their jobs, and doing them artlessly, can permit us to feel a greater sense of closeness to the inner workings of filmmakers’ minds than might be afforded by a more accomplished mode of cinema.


So, I want to leave you with two preliminary conclusions.

(1) Since the cult process of taking pleasure in a film like The Room relies upon the certainty that it is indeed intrinsically bad, far from problematising regimes of aesthetic value, ‘so bad it’s good’ culture rather seem to clarify them; any instrumental pronouncement of such a film as a ‘masterpiece’ by a cult viewer can, in this sense, only ever be ironic; see, for instance, ‘Walmart Goth’ writing on ‘Why The Room is a Masterpiece’ while also acknowledging that its qualities stem from ‘blind drive and enthusiasm paired with inconceivable incompetence and bad luck’ (2011: 1). As such, this ironic appreciation is scarcely threatening to even the most traditional standards of aesthetic evaluation

(2) In order for a viewer to feel that they’re taking pleasure from the film’s failings s/he must first feel sure that the film’s original intentions have been divined; in this sense this process poses no challenge to familiar understandings of the ways inferences about intention govern our responses to works of art.

Therefore, far from encouraging us to leave behind what might sometimes seem old-fashioned critical concepts, one of the benefits of examining badfilm is that it forces us to return with renewed vigor and evidence to still-vital issues for aesthetics – intention, evaluation, and indeed, as I’ve suggested towards the end, authorship – which we can sometimes be too quick to presume we have moved beyond. Furthermore, if we can agree that we can indeed reasonably infer intention and make value judgments without quotation marks here, then perhaps these films have something to teach us about the place of intention and value in the interpretation of film, and art, more broadly.


Booth, Wayne C. (1988), The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Brunsdon, Charlotte and David Morley (1999), The Nationwide Television Studies (London: Routledge. 1999.

Budd, Malcom (1995), Values of Art: Pictures, Poetry, and Music, London: Penguin.

Carroll, Noel (2009), On Criticism, London: Routledge.

Eco, Umberto (1992), ‘Between Author and Text’, in Stefan Collini (ed.), Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frye, Northrop (1957), Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gibbs, Raymond W. (1999) Intentions in the Experience of Meaning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Graham, Allison (1991). ‘Journey to the Center of the Fifties: The Cult of Banality’, in J. P. Telotte (ed.), The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Kieren, Matthew (2001), ‘Value of Art’, in Berys Gaut, Dominic McIver Lopes [eds], The Routledge Companion To Aesthetics, London: Routledge.

Mathijs, Ernest and Xavier Mendik (2008), ‘Editorial Introduction: What is Cult Film?’, in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik (eds.), The Cult Film Reader, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Mathijs, Ernest (2009) ‘Review’, Screen, vol. 50, no. 3: 365-370.

McCulloch, Richard (2011), ‘“Most People Bring Their Own Spoons”: The Room's Participatory Audiences as Comedy Mediators’, Participations: International Journal of Audience Research (November 2011), <> [Accessed 25 November, 2011], p. 201.

‘Miss Media Junkie’ (2011), ‘So Bad It’s Really, Really Good!’, Miss Media Junkie, [accessed 27 June, 2011]

Palermo, Charles (2012), ‘Introduction: Intention and Interpretation’, Nonsite, 

Sconce, Jeffrey (1995), ‘“Trashing” the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style’, Screen vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 371-93.

Semley, John (2009), ‘“Oh Hi, Movie!”: The Unironic Aesthetics of “So Bad it’s Good” in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room’, Paracinema, Issue 8 (December 2009), pp. 5-8.

Sontag, Susan (1966), ‘Notes on “Camp”’, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York, NY: Anchor Books.

‘Walmart Goth’ (2011), ‘Why The Room is a Masterpiece’, General Depravity, < > [accessed 20 June, 2012]


  1. Thanks for posting this here. I missed hearing your talk at SCMS, so I'm happy to have the chance to read it here. Really an excellent paper!
    In case you're interested, I've posted my own SCMS talk here:

  2. I want to reduce my breasts with breast aesthetics. Need a good plastic surgeon from Turkey.
    Meme estetiği