MOVIE REVIEWS (2014): L. Blamire’s (2004) The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

20 April 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

The will-to-kitsch represents on the one hand a thoughtful person’s attempt to live in a world of faecal cultural offerings but on the other (and for the same reason) an annihilation of the impulse to artistic resistance to those unpalatable offerings.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to watch more movies more promiscuously. Toward this end, each weekend, my partner and I each get to pick a movie, and neither of us have any veto power (so far!) over the choices. I’ve decided to reply, like I reply to books, to the movies chosen.

A Reply To: L. Blamire’s (2004)[1] The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

My idea of a great laugh-out-loud comedy invokes Airplane or Being John Malkovich, even Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. This movie: not so much.

My partner chose it again—we’ve watched it before—because (I think) he loves the line “I’m a scientist, I don’t believe in anything” in it. Synopsis:

Mad scientists, bug-eyed monsters, alien invaders, and black-clad women who perform interpretive dances battle for center stage in this parody of ’50s sci-fi flicks. Dr. Paul Armstrong (Larry Blamire) is a scientist studying alien rock formations that have crashed to Earth. When Armstrong and his wife Betty (Fay Masterson) learn that a cache of Atmospherium, a radioactive mineral found in meteorites, has been found in the desert, he sets out to find it, but he has competition — Dr. Fleming (Brian Howe), a rival scientist who plans to use the high-powered substance to bring a cave-dwelling creature back to life. Meanwhile, Lattis (Susan McConnell) and Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) are aliens from the planet Marva who have crash-landed on Earth and need Atomspherium to get their spacecraft back in the air. Hoping to foil the plans of Dr. Armstrong, and aware of the arrival of the aliens, Fleming steals a “Transmutaron” from Kro-bar that allows him to create Animala (Jennifer Blaire), a sultry neo-beatnik who will crash the Armstrong’s cocktail party and sow the seeds of marital discord between Paul and Betty, making it easier for Fleming to recover the valuable rock formations. Larry Blamire also served as writer and director for The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

The movie seems a trizophrenic thing of three minds. On one hand, it offers a very broad and lazy parody of “bad” science fiction without actually rising above the goo it parodies. This, in part, because the two prime actors (and most of all the writer/director/actor Larry Blamire) simply can’t wrangle the material into anything consistently charming. Neither can the principal villain, or the material proves simply too lame. Meanwhile, the three side characters—the husband and wife aliens Kro-Bar and Lattis, and the delightfully slink Animala, a human-bodied concoction of different forest creatures—provide about 98 per cent of the movie’s laughs and charms.

Perhaps someday I will stray across whatever originals inspired Blamire’s parody as far as the alien couple and Animala go, but in the meantime they seem fresher in part because they remain unweighted down by the writer’s sense of parody or need to write parody, which he seems ill-suited for. In general, this seems a case where splitting up the writer/director/actor roles would have benefitted the movie generally. At the very least, I find myself not just a little annoyed watching Blamire slouch blandly through a scene while Animala (Jennifer Blaire), and the alien couple (Susan McConnell and Andrew Parks) obviously have a much better sense of what they should do and put more effort into it.

To paraphrase the opening to one of my favourite books,[2] a blog-post devoted to the study of a tenth-rate movie stands in need of some justification. One may still make a “stupid comedy”, e.g., Herek’s (1989)[3] Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, without actually devolving to actual stupidity; I’d say, in fact, that the best explicitly don’t. So to take the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra to task for missing the boat seems small-minded or trivial or even cruel. Critics think less of it than fans (52 vs. 85 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes), but then critics idiotically rave about Gravity with fans more sanguine (97 v. 82 per cent). The point of mentioning bodies of responses: to stick a dipstick in the general run of reaction to the intentionality of the film.

It seems the overwhelming amount of focus centres on the leads and/or the parodied elements of the story, and less on the spirited goofiness of alien couple and Animala, which seems a bit strange (and sad), since the quality of acting by the three stands out so markedly compared to the rest.[4] One reviewer note that D-movies “aren’t made, but discovered”—as Wiseau’s (2004)[5] The Room proves (despite the director’s claims otherwise) and as Sharman’s (1979)[6] The Rocky Horror Picture Show disproves—and this certainly underscores the prevailing ineptness of attempt in this case; Blamire might have benefited from knowing more clearly the distinction between kitsch and camp before setting out to pen this critter.[7]

The wider theme of this concerns the will-to-kitsch in the first place. By (a) definition, camp describes “conscious” kitsch, while kitsch per se remains unconscious, unaware of its kitschiness. Moreover, parody need not always or only aim for camp. And Blamire’s inattention to this seems to have helped create a less than stellar piece. Camp tends toward a manner, a style, whereas parody (at least ideally) describes a kind of structure, a genre unto itself.

Or, if we would split hairs further, we can imagine parodies of style (camp instead of kitsch) and parodies of substance (structural), and what exactly the distinction amounts to becomes tenuous. Both forms of parody take some aspect of the (literary) object and play with it, and only because of some authority like Aristotle’s (for example) it seems does “structure” (i.e., plot) seem a more thoroughgoing form of parody than a parody of style (or diction, in Aristotle’s usage).

Certainly, complaints against Blamire’s film often critique its length—the gag can’t sustain itself over the length of the film. This objection points to a failure of the structure (the plot) to remain joyfully parodying enough. It suggests that Blamire’s film simply falls to the level of a bad plot, its parodying intentions aside. Other critics (similarly to the one noted above) note that the attempt to recreate an Ed Wood-like stiltedness of dialogue do not succeed. This points to a piece of inept camp, and also throws into relief the genuine campiness of the alien couple and the curious oddness and delightfulness of Animala: rawr.

But if this sorts out to some degree where the pivot points hide in this film that make it pivot onto its face, we can still wonder why a market exists for this sort of thing. Or, more precisely, what function a film like this has in the current market where a will-to-kitsch prevails.

This sort of film offers two (not mutually exclusive) basic ways to “enjoy” it: (1) simply on its face, just as it presents itself, and (2) as a (deliberately) “bad” film. The latter being only discoverable not makeable, part of the backlash against the film involves precisely the conceit of deliberately making a bad film.

But why does one deliberately seek out a “bad” film (deliberate or otherwise) to watch. Why this will-to-kitsch.

A perennial problem in moral philosophy involves the brick will of trying to explain evil; on a pragmatic view (and to some extent, even in metaphysical terms), no one commits evil because, simply by virtue of electing to do the act, it takes on some aspect of the desirable, and thus the good, however inexplicable that “good” seems to anyone else. The psychopath who tortures his victims positively desires to do so, whatever he (or she) claims later.

In the same way, we end up using various tortured locutions to describe the pleasures of “bad” movies, but perhaps we should simply discount this as unnecessarily coy or disingenuous. At the watching of the movie, we positively desire to do so (and enjoy it), whatever we (or they) later claim about the film. We can’t not remain very well aware that The Lost Skeleton falls short of the mark hit by Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and we pretend to excuse ourselves by saying, “Yeah, I know it’s bad, but it’s so good at being bad.”

I suspect that this involves a pretence or claim of camp on the part of the viewer but actually involves mere kitsch. And thus I call this a will-to-kitsch.

Of course, this tends mostly to occur amongst more reflective movie-watchers—it’s not simply a matter of intelligence or education or event haute tastes, but all of these factors have their own jargon and spin. Most of know someone either very intelligent (seeming) or very versed in movies (or both) who nonetheless enjoys watching crap.

I could imagine calling bullshit on that. And doubtless one might find some inferiority complexes hiding out in the trash-theatre to avoid getting shown up in the art-theatre. But I think the actual circumstances more tragic or ugly still: on the premise “you are what you eat,” to feed oneself on a diet of shit will change one’s tastes. Mass culture in general rises barely (and sinks often below) the faecal, so the reflective soul has little choice—or will feel she has little choice—but to develop a taste for shit. This, they then defend adamantly or vehemently, because not to do so exposes their craving for something other than faeces: but, alas, one finds little of that.

An so the will-to-kitsch amounts to the sort of intellectual castration that Jung used to describe one of the Church Fathers (maybe Tertullian). And a film like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra aims to meet that will, although consensus suggest it generally fails. Still, where you find someone who does not simply find it amusing at face value but defends it with hearty guffaws as “so bad it’s good,” then you may well have discovered a beleaguered soul.

Most mass culture faecal by design, the reflective or thoughtful soul must either reject culture wholesale (and become alienated, an outcast, incapable of recognition by anyone but the rare other outcast) or develop a taste for shit, which amounts to saying they must permit themselves to become co-opted by the very thing they seem best suited to resist—especially when an artist. This neutralisation of the reflective personality makes for a critical piece of technocratic capitalism provision of docile bodies, &c., and thus requires out resistance.

A bad movie like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra makes this sort of neutralising gesture, it just happens also to fail at it.

Endnotes

[1] Tri-Star Pictures., Valenti, F. M., Blamire, L., Masterson, F., Parks, A., McConnell, S., Transom Films., Fragmighty Pictures., Valentino Productions., & Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (Firm). (2004). The lost skeleton of Cadavra. Special ed. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

[2] Tompkins, JMS (1961 [1932]). The popular novel in England, 1770-1800. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press.

[3] Nelson Entertainment (Firm)., Herek, S., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Carlin, G., Interscope Communications (Firm)., & Orion Home Video (Firm). (1989). Bill & Ted’s excellent adventure. New York, NY: Orion Home Video.

[4] In fairness to fay Masterson, her material may simply have so little spirit that she can do less than nothing with it, or Blamire directs her into the ground with it.

[5] Wiseau Films., Wiseau, T., Sestero, G., Danielle, J., Haldiman, P., Minnott, C., & Chloe Productions (Chloe Lietzke). (2005). The room. Los Angeles: Wiseau-Films.

[6] Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation., Sharman, J., White, M., Sarandon, S., Bostwick, B., O’Brien, R., & Curry, T. (2002). The Rocky Horror picture show. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

[7] Presumably one cannot accomplish deliberate kitsch.

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