Beast of the Month - March 2009
Grade Z Movie Director
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
As March begins, 650,000 more jobs were lost in the USA during February, meaning a total of over four million jobs have been lost in the past year: unemployment stands at 8.1 percent nationally. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones dipped below 7000, a drop of over 50 percent rate, which means any investor in the DJIA who bought on margin at peak would have absolutely nothing left. This may not be the end of the drop: some respectable forecasters predict the Dow Jones will bottom out as low as 5000. It's gotten so bad economically, the disastrous war in the Middle East has become basically an ignored story at this point. But never mind Iraq, Afghanistan, subprime loans or massive layoffs and bankruptcies, clearly there is one story more important than any other: what The Bachelor's sleazy contestant did to those two girls!
Okay, The Konformist can't pretend it's above frivolous stories. But even among the depraved standards of the korporate media, the recent wallowing in the tales of The Bachelor, the Octomom, Alex Rodriguez on steroids and Chris Brown smacking up Rhianna stinks of sheer desperation. It's almost as if the establishment is looking for anything to distract people from the ongoing economic crisis. Oh, look, Dancing with the Stars & American Idol are back on TV!!!
But in the end, The Konformist must relent: there's only so much depressing news even we can surf through on the Internet before throwing up our hands, shouting "No mas!" and turning on the Playstation for another round of Grand Theft Auto or Guitar Hero.
Yes, people need their bread & circuses to feed an appetite for distraction, especially when things go bad. And so it is in this spirit that The Konformist has decided to slack off this month and give the Beast of the Month trophy not to some slimy politician, creepy CEO or swindling Wall Street titan, but rather to someone involved in the world's biggest bread & circus arena, the art of cinema.
Sorry, Michael Bay, but you are no longer the worst director on the face of the planet. (And not just because your last two films - the underrated sci-fi action flick The Island and the shamelessly entertaining summer blockbuster Transformers - were both actually very good.) No, that title is now in the hands of a semi-obscure filmmaker: German auteur Uwe Boll, The Konformist Beast of the Month.
Boll's claim to fame is making schlock with barely coherent plots, acting that is completely unconvincing and filming techniques that show a stunning lack of any basic level of competence. Thanks to this, his films have been a staple of IMDB.com's "Bottom 100" list for worst movies of all time. It doesn't hurt that his movies are made in English rather than his native German, meaning he shoots with dialogue he apparently barely understands. This point was underscored in a hilarious article at SomethingAwful.com by Blair Erickson, a treatment writer for one of Boll's works. In between barking demands for "big gun battles" and "car chases" Boll showed a complete lack of command over English. Erickson concluded after one of Boll's email rants: "Yes, I know English is not his first language, but Jesus Christ, I'm not even sure this man has a first language."
His notoriety began in 2003, when, in House of the Dead, he finally found his niche: adapting video games into really, really bad movies. He followed that formula up in 2005 with what is (for now at least) his master crapperpiece, Alone in the Dark, a movie with badness that can be summed up in one sentence: party girl Tara Reid as an archaeologist and museum curator. (Sorry Tara, you may have been great as porn star Bunny Lebowski in the Coen Brothers' finest masterpiece, but Harrison Ford you are not.) In 2006, he followed it up with yet another lousy videogame-based flick, BloodRayne. All three movies (especially Alone in the Dark) would be on the short list for most bad-movie aficionado’s worst movie of the decade.
In 2008, he had an amazingly productive year in turgid films even by his standards. He had four movies with limited release in US theaters (Far Cry, Postal, 1968: Tunnel Rats and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale) and two (Seed and BloodRayne 2: Deliverance) that went straight to video. Making his output even more impressive, 1968: Tunnel Rats and Seed stretched his cinematic boundaries, as both, rather than being terrible adaptations of video games, were instead merely terrible movies inspired by non-video game material. For such an impressive amount of lousy celluloid output, he was nominated for Worst Director by the esteemed prize of bad filmmaking, The Razzies (which are awarded the day before the Oscars in Hollywood.) He was also nominated for Worst Supporting Actor thanks to his performance playing himself in Postal, which used Boll's limited talents to best effect yet by having him shot in the genitals.
Unfortunately for Boll, he had his huge bowel movement of cinematic gifts the same year as The Love Guru and the Paris Hilton vehicle The Hottie and the Nottie. It seemed quite plausible that Boll, who previously had been snubbed twice for Worst Director, would lose yet again.
(Making it even more difficult for Boll is that there are many bad film snobs who insist he is no longer the worst director on the planet, that the title has already been taken over by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. The tag team auteurs behind the ultralame "Blank Movie" series, it is the worst collection of alleged humor found outside a Police Academy marathon on Comedy Central or a Paulie Shore film festival.)
Not to be deterred, the Razzies decided to make sure he didn't go home empty-handed: even before the award presentation, it was decided he'd receive a Lifetime achievement award. As it turned out, he needed no such special prize, as he won the Worst Director trophy after all.
Of course, two awards from the Razzies is just part of his infamy at this point: there is actually a website named UweBollIsAntichrist.com in his honor. As far as Internet cults for bad directors go, the only name that compares to Boll at this point is Ed Wood of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame.
Yes, poor Ed Wood, a name who until Boll was always the punch line inserted when giving a director the ultimate insult. Being portrayed by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's 1994 masterpiece (based on the Feral House book Nightmare of Ecstasy) perhaps finally earned him some belated respect, but the unfair mockery continues. Indeed, allegedly some defenders of Boll insist he is merely a misunderstood modern day Wood. (The Konformist says "allegedly" here because, as far as we can tell, there aren't any Boll defenders who actually exist.)
And to be fair, there is a nugget of truth in comparison. After all, say what you will about Michael Bay at his worst (or the wannabe Michael Bays like McG and Brett Ratner) but he and his clones are at least technically proficient. Boll, like Wood before him, certainly can't claim any such gifts.
But there are two noted differences between Boll and Wood. To begin with, Ed Wood had a good excuse for his technical incompetence: he never was provided with anything besides the most meager of budgets to make his films. Compare that to the financing Boll has been given as a blank check: House of the Dead, $12 million; Alone in the Dark, $20 million; BloodRayne, $25 million; and In the Name of the King, an astounding $60 million. How does Boll continue to get funding for his flicks, even though none of them have had any box office success? Some may suspect it has something to do with the bad taste of his homeland Germany, a nation that's had as its two most beloved men over the past century David Hasslehoff and Hitler. Alas, it isn't German tastes which are to blame, but rather their tax laws: the nation's tax code allows investors in German productions to write off all losses completely, creating the perfect tax shelter. So it seems that while Boll may lack cinematic genius, he is a visionary businessman.
The bigger difference between the two is more elemental: as noted at UrbanDictionary.com about the comparison between the two, "Wood was enthusiastic but inept, an earnest director whose vision as an artist greatly outstripped his meager abilities as a filmmaker. Boll's films are driven by cynical exploitation of German tax law that allows a movie to make money even when it fails at the box office. He is better thought of as a real-life Max Bialystock from The Producers, a movie in which a Broadway producer attempts to make money by intentionally staging a massive flop, Springtime for Hitler." Allen Varney in EscapistMagazine.com compared the two further: "Though both Wood and Boll are often described as totally inept, Wood is, in fact, selectively inept. Films by truly incompetent directors are hard to follow and boring. Wood's movies, with their nutty plots and miserable production values, nonetheless flow smoothly from scene to scene; his storytelling is, for the most part, technically decent (that is, you know where you are in the narrative); and his ludicrous lack of taste can be mesmerizing. Show Glen or Glenda to an audience. Their initial stunned disbelief quickly turns to joy. They watch with enthusiasm throughout and rapturously cheer the ending. Boll's audiences sometimes cheer too; they're relieved the film is finally over."
Faced with such nasty criticism, Boll has responded in a rather innovative way: specifically, by beating his critics to a bloody pulp. Boll actually did this in 2006, challenging some of his critics to a boxing match and punching them silly in a PR stunt. (Granted, a profession that has included Rex Reed and Leonard Maltin isn't filled with the most intimidating guys ever, but it still was an undefeated run.)
Which leads to a little devil advocacy in defense of Boll, for reason's which include the plausible fear he may try to kick our ass if we don't. After all, as incompetent of a buffoon Boll may be, is he really what is wrong with the movie industry right now? Isn't he just a scapegoat for an even greater evil brewing from Hollywood? (And no, we're not talking about Larry the Cable Guy.)
The real answer to what is wrong with today's movie industry can be found, in all places, a mildly positive review by Roger Ebert of the 2004 biker flick Torque. (A pretty underrated movie, BTW, and worthy of a spot on your Netflix queue.) While Ebert enjoyed the movie for what it was, he couldn't help but make this observation: "Hollywood genres have undergone a fundamental flip-flop. Low-budget pictures are now serious and ambitious and play at Sundance. Big-budget exploitation work, on which every possible technical refinement is lavished, are now flashy and dispensable and open in 3,000 multiplexes."
Ebert isn't exaggerating. While Boll's In the Name of the King $60 million budget is nothing to sneeze at, it hardly represents an abnormal amount. Most blockbuster films now have budgets of over $100 million, and that is before the marketing costs are factored in.
Nine figures is a huge amount, and a very risky investment. How has Hollywood dealt with the giant gamble that is behind big budget movies? The most obvious way is through repetition via the creation of franchises and multiple sequels. Granted, sequels weren't created in the 21st century, but the usage of them has become far more widespread and concentrated. As a result, no film since 2002 has topped the annual North American box office chart that wasn't a sequel, and that was the franchise-creating Spider-Man. Indeed, you have to go back to when Clinton was president to find a non-franchise film that topped the annual BO charts. Even more telling, of the top 25 films in North American gross this decade, only two are non-franchise flicks. (And even those two exceptions prove the rule, as one is Finding Nemo from Pixar, an animation studio that can be viewed as a franchise in its own, and the other was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, based on the New Testament, which - sorry The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight - is, hands down, the most successful sequel in the history of mankind.)
The Konformist doesn't mean to sound like cinematic snobs here: after all, the 2008 summer was dominated by three quality franchise films in The Dark Knight, Iron Man and the unfairly maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And certainly both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings trilogy have huge deserved followings in their own right. But all this money and energy being devoted to derivative works is unprecedented. Indeed, the 2007 summer was so loaded down with lesser third parts of the Shrek, Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises that a Michael Bay film inspired by eighties-era robotic action figures seemed like a breath of fresh air for its originality in comparison.
True, there's a few directors (among them Michael Moore, Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood and, though he's been a tad desperate to win an Oscar, Martin Scorsese) who've consistently made great movies the last ten years. Still, though it is hard to judge an era artistically while in the middle (or even the end) of it, it is fair to say that the zeroes are the worst decade in film of the modern day era that began in the sixties. This is no accident: whatever the flaws of Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his basic thesis was correct, that Hollywood executives became so clueless about what was popular in culture, they gave directors more of a free reign than ever before, to the benefit of movie fans everywhere. Forty years later, and the pendulum has clearly swung too far in the opposite direction, as the suits now have way too much control. Which is why The Konformist suspects this decade won't be remembered for the franchise flicks but the low-budget movies that took a chance: Donnie Darko, About Schmidt, Fahrenheit 9/11, Brokeback Mountain and, from last year alone, The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire.
The irony is that even in the franchise films, you can see how rebellion against the system can lead to success. Two noted examples are the favorite movie hero and villain of the decade, Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow and Heath Ledger's posthumous turn as The Joker. At first, Depp's unorthodox character decisions in Pirates of the Caribbean freaked out producers who feared it would ruin the movie's commercial prospects: as it turns out, his gutsy performance won him a Screen Actors Guild prize for Best Actor and was central to the billion dollar success of the series. Meanwhile, Ledger's violently anarchic take on The Joker was even more daring than playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, and his Oscar-winning performance has passed even the likes of Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero and Mark Hamill as the definitive Joker. And, like Pirates of the Caribbean, commercial success was the reward, as The Dark Knight is the decade's biggest box office hit.
Of course, there's only so much originality that can come from movies inspired by comic books and amusement parks. And that's why we suspect (or at least hope) a big change may be coming to Hollywood sooner rather than later. The high concept franchise blockbuster is about as tired as a hair metal ballad in 1991. Eventually, someone is going look at the state of Hollywood and notice something that smells like teen spirit. And maybe along the way someone will have something to say about the current state of affairs, from the mass manipulation of 9/11, the failed Iraq War, and the current economic crisis. Until then, Uwe Boll may be the least of our problems.
In any case, we salute Uwe Boll as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Uwe!!!
Thanks to IMDB.com, RottenTomatoes.com, BoxOfficeMojo.com, Razzies.com, RogerEbert.com, UweBollIsAntichrist.com and Wikipedia.org for research help on this article.
Erickson, Blair. "Behind the Scenes: Uwe Boll and Uwe Boll's Alone In the Dark." Something Awful 2 February 2005 <http://www.somethingawful.com/d/feature-articles/behind-scenes-uwe.php>.
"Uwe Boll." Urban Dictionary <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Uwe+Boll>.
Varney, Allen. "Boll vs. Wood." The Escapist 23 January 2007 <http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/67985-Boll-vs-Wood>.