Show your students awful movies

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I would rate Tommy Wiseau’s The Room on par with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I mean that seriously. Obviously, I need to qualify that a bit: The Room is one of the worst movies ever made and 2001 is one of the best. But not only do I rank my personal enjoyment of them equal, I think they are equally great opportunities for students to learn about visual storytelling.

Of course, in every classroom there is a finite amount of time. You can’t show them everything, so how do you pick? Before the rise of streaming services and the ready availability of media, I might have answered this question differently. However, the question is easy to answer now: show them bad movies. Show them the worst movies you can find.

Before Netflix, it was much less likely that students had a chance to see great movies. They’d probably heard of them, but getting to watch them was a different story. Selling the family on renting a complex, old movie versus the new Adam Sandler film on a Friday night was unlikely. But now there’s no real cost to watching whatever you want. Even if they haven’t seen Citizen Kane yet, they will. Why? Because now that they’re in college, they’re hanging around with other cinephiles and have access to all the greats. So let them do it on their own.

What they might not do on their own is explore the worst cinema has to offer: the strange, poorly conceived, horribly executed, and clumsy films that are lost to the annals of time. I mean, come on, they’re in school to learn how to make great visual storytelling media. They aren’t going to watch any Joe Don Baker film (other than, possibly, Walking Tall). And that’s a missed opportunity.

I want to make my classroom a place where students not only learn, but feel inspired and empowered. I’m sure it’s the same for any educator. My concern of showing my students great examples of cinema history is that they’ll be intimidated. Showing students Dr. Caligari implies that is the benchmark that they need to achieve in my classroom to be worth anything. Besides, they already have insecurity in spades.

A bad movies not only communicates what not to do clearly and repeatedly, but as they’re watching it they’ll inevitably think “I can do better than Plan 9 From Outer Space!” And yes, yes they can. And if Plan 9 was made, then they have a shot too.