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April 28th, 2010 12:00 am AARON MESH | Movie Reviews & Stories

Theater Of Cruelty

Birdemic and the war against movies.

BREAD AND CIRCUSES: Non-birds attack non-actors in Birdemic.
IMAGE: Courtesy of Severin Films

A funny thing happened in Portland last Friday night: In two movie theaters on opposite ends of town, two audiences gathered in anticipation of laughing at movies gone wrong. Cinema 21 was hosting another midnight screening of Tommy Wiseau’s turgid fiasco The Room, while at the Bagdad Theater, the Bridgetown Comedy Festival premiered Birdemic: Shock and Terror, a catchpenny avian-attack picture hyped as the latest contender for kitsch supremacy. Camp, it was safe to say, had reached a new summit.

Then, at the Bagdad, an awkward thing happened. The Blu-Ray player broke down—once again, something had gone wrong at the movies, though this time no one was laughing—and Bridgetown organizers filled the delay by bringing up Birdemic’s director, James Nguyen. Even with much of the crowd firmly inebriated, it was still fairly excruciating to be confronted with the artist whose work you were about to fillet with derision. A tiny, serious man, Nguyen has—in a feat of extraordinary masochism or indomitability—begun touring with a movie he clearly still believes to be good. He took questions from the audience, including how it felt to be compared to Ed Wood. “Ed Wood’s films were not popular when he was alive,” Nguyen said. “They only became cult hits after he died.” Ed Wood was the luckier man.

The tradition of bad-movie ridicule has of late metastasized to grotesque proportions. Maybe it’s the tawdry legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, maybe it’s an unfortunate side effect of Portland’s sudsy film culture, but audiences in this city buy tickets even for good movies with the intention of mockery. Witness a recent crowd at Dan Halsted’s recent Cinema 21 showing of Dario Argento’s authentically unnerving Phenomena—the kids in the balcony were catcalling through every scene. My friend and fellow Beer and Movie Fest curator Jacques Boyreau has a saying he applies to these situations: “Let cinema win.” Crowds here are increasingly rejecting that advice, and waging war against the movies.

I’m trying my best not to sound like Captain Grumpy here, but the culture of schoolyard bullying has gotten ugly. With fame now immediately achievable without the constraints of time or talent, the ironic cult movie has become our revenge on the presumption of nobodies. This is the underbelly of instant celebrity: the instant laughingstock. Our empire doesn’t throw Christians to the lions—we throw true believers in their own genius to the midnight scoffers, who rip them to shreds. How fitting that the latest prey features vultures.

As for Birdemic, which opens for a weeklong run this Friday: While profoundly incompetent, it is somehow not nearly bad enough—I’ve seen far worse films accepted for competition in local festivals. It is, basically, The Birds remade in the style of a late-night infomercial. Only after a good hour of romance and road trips do the kamikaze eagle flocks arrive (in fairness, Hitchcock’s version had a lot of insupportably long travel sequences, too), and I’ll say this for James Nguyen: The man is nothing if not thorough. If he’s giving you a reaction shot, he’s giving you a separate reaction shot from every single actor in the room. But arrive the birds do, and by God, they are magnificent. Hovering in place like 1990s screensavers and honking in time, the expressionless fowl often seem to be humping their victims, and suggest that Nguyen lacks basic spacial awareness. (Other things he has trouble understanding: how forest fires work, how to remove traffic sounds from a post-apocalyptic highway, how people talk.)

But then a funny thing happens: At a certain point—I’d say the 90-minute mark—Birdemic: Shock and Terror exerts its own revenge. It keeps on being bad in the same ways, until the exhausted audience is finally cowed into silence. The crowds leaving the Bagdad screening looked defeated; the movie had flown below their artillery. As every kvetching critic knows deep down, even lousy art endures after its naysayers fade. Let cinema win. If you don’t, it will beat you into submission.


SEE IT: Birdemic: Shock and Terror screens at the Clinton Street Theater at 7 and 9 pm Friday-Thursday, April 30-May 6.
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