Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I wallow in trash: A manifesto for loving unlovable art

In 1984 Donovan released a studio album that included self-covers of his ‘60s classics “Sunshine Superman” and “Season of the Witch” updated with 1980s-style production. Reading that sentence, most people would have one of three reactions: “That’s interesting,” “Who cares?” or “Donovan sucks.” Of those responses, only the third is objectively incorrect. Considering that those re-recordings probably exist only because a weary Donovan realized that revisiting former glories was the most likely path toward getting anyone to care about a new Donovan album in 1984, a curious shrug is about all the response anyone could be expected to muster.
But me, when I stumbled upon the existence of these tracks, I couldn’t get them queued up in my Grooveshark (R.I.P.) playlist quickly enough. They're as bad as you'd expect, but this doesn't bother me one bit. This is my curse. When I learn about an absurd, ill-advised or quintessentially inessential piece of art, I simply can’t help myself. I need to incorporate it into my vocabulary. Zager & Evans followed up “In the Year 2525” with a song about a rapist crucifying himself in a jail cell? One of the guys from Jan & Dean recorded a pro-Vietnam answer track to “The Universal Soldier”? The Royal Guardsmen laid down a decades-late sequel to “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” in which Charlie Brown and Snoopy hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden? Yes, I am going to listen to these songs. I am going to listen to these songs many times over.
It’s more than just curiosity for me. Knowing about songs like this inspires a peculiar drive in me. The same applies to bizarre film productions like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!  I’ll let any number of certified classics and new gems go unheard while I track down a recording of Jim Backus singing “Cave Man.” Given the choice between experiencing something perfect and beautiful and something flawed and inimitably weird, I’m siding with strangeness at least six times out of ten.
This might sound like ironic appreciation, the calling card of the dreaded hipster, but I think it’s something quite different. In my younger days, sure, I’d watch bad movies and buy novelty albums for the sole purpose of mockery, and I’m always going to love Mystery Science Theater 3000 above most things. But as I’ve grown older the irony has ebbed and I find myself appreciating these things in their own right. I’d say I love them for what they are, but that’s not quite it. I love them because they are. Knowing that these things are out there, that someone took the time to create them and shepherd them into existence despite their obvious lack of broad appeal, is a fascinating, inspiring thing to me.

And it isn’t only the weird stuff either. I just finished watching Treasure of Jamaica Reef (aka Terror in the Deep), a very cheap, very boring 1975 movie about a group of divers (including Cheryl Ladd and Chuck Woolery) trying to salvage a fortune from a sunken ship. It isn’t good. It isn’t “so bad it’s good” (a phrase I loathe). It doesn’t even have the same weirdo appeal as the aforementioned novelty songs and trash films. It’s just a movie that exists, badly made and eminently forgettable. There is no reason I should have watched it, and that’s exactly why I did. (If I might digress for a moment, I've had some debates about the term "trash." Some fans of this type of stuff feel that term devalues the art. I suppose it rather literally does, since trash is by definition material of little to no value. But I think it's appropriate, inasmuch as most of the public absolutely regards these songs and films as worthless. Also, a lot of the art that gets tossed under the "trash" umbrella was specifically designed to be disposable - quickie singles recorded by session musicians to cash in on a passing fad, no-budget genre films intended as background noise for teenage drive-in patrons, hasty projects knocked out to fulfill a contract or qualify for a tax break. I'm fine with using "trash." In fact, I consider it a badge of honor.)
I want there to be some evidence that movies like Treasure of Jamaica Reef are out there. I want art to be eternal, no matter how uninspired or poorly made. My Letterboxd account is a hall of low-budget obscurities ranging from the incompetent to the derivative to the inexplicable, most of which are unloved and unknown by the world at large. Obviously not many people want to watch these movies, or listen to late-period Donovan albums, or obsess about the musical careers of Dino, Desi and Billy. Honestly, most people shouldn’t. But I think it’s important that someone does, because these artifacts are a part of our artistic heritage too.
Are they as vital to our shared experience as their canonically classic contemporaries? Of course not. But we do ourselves a disservice if we leave the ugly and the unremarkable to molder in the grave. I feel my artistic life has been deeply enriched by the time I’ve spent in the company of these misfits. I can make a lucid argument for scabrous trash auteur Roberta Findlay being one of the most important female directors in American film history. I can sing every word of The Coasters’ On Broadway album, the novelty band’s unjustly ignored assay into straight-up Southern funk. I know who LeSesne Hilton and Bennie Robinson and William Metzo are, and why each of them deserves a place among the great cinematic villains of the 1970s. I also know that there are many, many worse movies than Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room or Birdemic or whatever the de facto “Worst Movie Ever Made” is at the moment. I’ve subjected my eyes and ears to a lot of irredeemable, uninteresting, soul-deadening dreck over the years, but I don’t regret a second of it. These things are out there and they need to be kept alive, even if only inside my cluttered brainpan.
All those classics of Western Literature can just slide to the back. We need that space for Shriek of the Mutilated.