“Tommy thought long and hard about his decision to show his ass. ‘I need to do it,’ he told me. ‘I have to show my ass or this movie won’t sell.’”
– Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist
In college, I was in a “Shitty Movie” Club with some friends. Once a week or so, we’d get together in one of our living rooms, order Papa John’s (because shitty movies warrant shitty pizza) and watch movies that are commonly accepted as, well, you know.
This started with The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s madman masterpiece of cinema crudité, and continued for two and half years, casting a surprisingly wide net of terribleness.
In that time, our ragtag group of masochists witnessed the mediocre (Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever); the infuriating (Battlefield Earth, Showgirls); the chintzy, but ultimately harmless (Mac and Me, Howard the Duck, Strange Wilderness); and then films that are so strange and bad as to become transcendent: Vicious Lips, Vampire’s Kiss, Caligula.
Of these films, I can’t think of any that has had as deep of an impact on the way I live my life as Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Please bear with me on this, because if you think that I speak ironically or with my tongue in my cheek, I promise by the time this essay is over you’ll understand how this masterclass in crummy film-making has helped me live a better life.
In an attempt to engage with cinematic landmarks like The Birds and Vertigo, the issues that writer/director James Nguyen wrestles with in the film are large. They include global warming and climate change, which is quickly becoming the most urgent problem of the modern age; the troubling symbiosis of said climate change and capitalism; the dullness and vapidity of Silicon Valley and our tech-obsessed culture.
It also contains a small shred of autobiography, for Birdemic’s main character, Rod, is an environmentally conscious software developer who spends his days dreaming of an end to his office ennui. Nguyen’s own background is in the tech industry, in which he sold software and saved money to self-finance his films. When Rod starts and then subsequently sells his own company for a ton of money, it is not too much of a stretch to parallel the liberation with the grandeur and freedom that results when one makes a paradigm-shifting film.
This earnestness, begat from a filmmaker whose eyes and heart were open to big ideas, is what distinguishes Birdemic from some of its “bad movie” compatriots — including its own sequel. Birdemic 2: The Resurrection insists to its audience that it’s in on the “bad movie” joke, but in Shock and Terror there is an undercurrent of total conviction, a genuine belief on behalf of its creator (a professed lover of Alfred Hitchcock) that the film could change the world.
This is not, by any means whatsoever, to say that Birdemic is actually a brilliant, underappreciated film. It isn’t. It fails in just about every way that a film can fail, and consequently it possesses perhaps the most lopsided ambition-to-quality ratio of any film in existence.
Our hero’s name is appropriate, as the character and the actor portraying him display about as much personality as a steel rod. The rest of the acting is not much better. Even if the film contained an undiscovered Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep in its lead roles, though, it wouldn’t matter; a healthy portion of the dialogue is indecipherable due to bad audio — a scene on a windy street, for example, where the white noise assaults the viewer’s ears, or another in which a board-room round of applause restarts on every cut:
The heavy-handed script rewards the viewer with completely goofy moments like Rod proudly proclaiming that his sportscar gets “one hundred miles to the gallon,” or this baffling dance scene. It also punishes its viewers with some of the worst pacing I’ve ever seen in a film. Though it should go without saying that bad pacing is more or less a bad movie’s bread and butter, I cannot overstate just how awful it is in Birdemic — the titular “birdemic” doesn’t even begin until after half of the film’s runtime has elapsed.
Once the birds finally attack Rod and his lover Nathalie, the movie’s real insanity begins. One way of saying it is that the birds don’t exactly look convincing. In terms of quality, the bird-CGI flaps just one skosh above Super Nintendo, and roughly on par with lesser Sega Gensis titles. Bear in mind that, whether the graphics themselves are objectively bad or would look better suited for, say, a video game released in the late 80s, are impossible questions, because they appear superimposed on the screen like a schoolteacher’s blurry overhead projector. Even if this film starred the hypothetical undiscovered Day-Lewis or Streep, one struggles to imagine them counterbalancing all of this other mitigating badness. I’m not sure there’s enough acting talent in the world for such a feat.
The opinion that Birdemic: Shock and Terror is a bad movie — perhaps the worst ever — is widely held enough to seem universal. With no shortage of validating thinkpieces, tweets, “bad movie” podcasts, and other ephemera to support this notion, Birdemic has become a target of frequent mockery. Even now, close to a decade since its virility, you can’t have a conversation about bad movies without someone mentioning this one. The film, on its own terms of being a major artistic and cinematic event, is an unambiguous failure.
Failure, though, is as important to our culture as success. At least, it should be. By holding it at an arm’s length and only allowing ourselves to experience it through the lens of “so bad it’s good”, we’ve deprived ourselves access to the greater substance of this film. We should look failure in the face when it presents itself to us as baldly as it does with Birdemic.
James Nguyen, a passionate fan of Alfred Hitchcock and an environmentalist, a man bored of his life who desired change, decided to give his filmmaking hobby a serious shot. His film had no studio behind it; he funded the thing entirely from his own finances. Anyone who has ever attempted to make a film — to make art at all, for that matter — can tell you these are no small hurdles.
Witnessing someone else’s failures can be embarrassing or, for all the wrong reasons, gratifying, but it also provides an outline for growth. Seeing someone aim for the stars and fail as hugely as Nguyen did is worth celebrating.
For one thing, failure is life. Failure plays a role in everything. I fear that this essay will fail to make its point, like, for example, if the magazine to which I’m submitting it declines to publish. (Side note: several magazines have declined this piece, hence why it now has a home on my website.) I fear equally that everything I’ve ever written or will ever write is turd soup. It’s exceedingly likely that you, the person reading this essay, are also afraid of failure.
The empirical truth, which most of us continuously deny: we’re all failures at something. It’s perhaps even possible that we’re failures at the things we enjoy doing most. I wonder about the point of giving up just because the thing we care about might not work out, or even if we’re not good at it. If this conclusion seems a little hackneyed or worn, it’s because it is. Everyone from John Cena, to the writers of motivational posters, to a sprawling, lucrative sect of the publishing industry wants to tell you to never give up on your dreams. It’s almost the law, if you’re above the age of five, to roll your eyes at such schmaltz.
Why, then, is the advice so fucking hard to follow?
It could be that the advice and encouragement we receive, even or especially that which we receive with good intentions, tends formulaic. Sentimental. Non-specific. It presents the general concept of pursuing your ambitions, rather than the actual reality of it.
Films like Birdemic: Shock and Terror give us the real thing. If the greatest films ever made show us the rewards of artistic pursuit, Birdemic and its kin show us the worst sums of unhindered ambition. I understand that not everyone can self-finance their feature films like Nguyen and Tommy Wiseau. But there’s something kind of beautiful, and moreover translatable to our own pursuits, about knowing these people are out there, making their batshit art and hoping to change the world, isn’t there?
As a postscript, I have a confession to make: I don’t think The Birds is a great movie.
And remember earlier when I said I wouldn’t try to make the case that Birdemic: Shock and Terror is actually brilliant? Well, I lied to you. I do think the film is brilliant. Yes, it is a bad movie, a failure in every technical and aesthetic way. But the one way in which it does not fail, in which it succeeds far greater than a lot of “decent” and even some “good” films, is how it lingers in the viewer’s mind long after it ends.
I have watched Birdemic four times in my life, which ranks it in times-viewed above every other film in the universe except The Lion King, Amadeus, and The Room.
What makes a film repeatable varies between individuals, but for me these four have some kind of depth to them that keeps me wanting to return. The Lion King is both my favorite children’s film and my favorite adaptation of Hamlet; F. Murray Abraham is among the greatest actors who’s ever lived. As for The Room and Birdemic, these films fascinate me because they are sub- and meta-conscious ruminations on ambition. They are the unflinching, chaotic byproduct of unhindered, and subsequently misguided creativity.
The Birds, on the other hand, is a fine film but has never inspired in me the same kind of fervor that these other four movies have — I’ve only seen it once and don’t have much of a desire to see it ever again. Am I insane to get more excited about the work of James Nguyen than that of Alfred Hitchcock? Does it mean I have bad taste? Maybe. There’s just an indefatigable humanity about bad movies I can’t shake.
There’s an interview with Nguyen I keep going back to as I work out this conclusion, in which the reporter asks him about the comparisons between his film and The Room. Despite in no uncertain terms claiming that his is superior to Wiseau’s, the rest of Nguyen’s response strikes me as one of the kindest things I’ve ever read an artist say about another:
“What I and Mr. Wise[a]u have in common is we’re both indie filmmakers and we dared to make a movie with what we have. I respect him because he dared to make his vision, win or lose.”
Good, bad, mediocre, transcendent, or otherwise, a brilliant film has to have substance. For my money, few that I’ve encountered embody the shitty but often beautiful substance of the human spirit better than Birdemic. Regardless of how ripe or rotten the fruit of Nguyen’s efforts is, we should all be so committed to our passions.