Most cinematic genres have a clearly traceable trajectory or definition. The term Western was coined in a 1912 article found in Motion Picture World Magazine. The origins of the Horror genre can be traced back to the work of Georges Méliès in the late 1890s. Exploitation has a clear-cut description; a film which attempts financial success through the exploitation of current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. Trash, or Paracinema, has no such clean-cut genesis, definition, or set of guidelines. It can be loosely defined as film genres that typically rest outside the boundaries of contemporary cinema. Its origins are debatable, its breadth boundless, and its appeal at times difficult to explain. But there is interest in Trash, and no longer just in a niche market.
We think of trash cinema, and assume “tasteless.” While this isn’t entirely wrong, it’s also an unfair generalization. Trash takes on many forms – from B- to Z-movies, Exploitation, Euro-Trash, Asian Trash, and just about everything you can think of. Trash is multifaceted. Trash Cinema, in its broadest sense, has millions of fans worldwide. Great critics like Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs have professed their affection for Trash, while academics like Jeffrey Sconce have coined terms in its honor (Paracinema) and founded some of its academic analysis.
But what makes Trash so appealing? Those who adore Trash do so with zeal, and wear their love on their sleeve – sometimes literally. The culture of Trash connoisseurs has been a quiet subculture in the past. However, as of late, Trash has experienced a resurgence, a trickle into the mainstream.
In the mid-90s we saw a shift of Paracinema. Films like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) showcased the work of one of Paracinema’s most famed and notorious filmmakers: Edward D. Wood Jr. The irony of this film was that it saw mass critical praise, where Wood’s films were routinely slammed for their shoddy production value. It won Oscars for Martin Landau’s performance and Rick Baker’s makeup design, and was praised for its wonderful portrayal of an endearing, albeit strange and confused, man. It bombed in the box office, but that seemed irrelevant. This symbolized the beginning of a shift, as Paracinema and Trash began to merge into the mainstream in a way that opened the public’s eyes to it, without compromising on its unique appeal.
Now we have films like Sharknado (2013), Big Ass Spider (2013), or Birdemic (2008), which use kitsch and pastiche to mimic the Paracinematic style. Some more successful films, like Snakes on a Plane (2006), have gone big budget and committed to sleazy, trashy fun. Others, like The Room (2003) or the aforementioned Birdemic, have given it their all to make a legitimate film, unfortunately creating unbearable viewing experiences instead.
When looking at the array of films that fall under the Trash-y banner, you could spend hours just trying to compile a comprehensive list. Films like Miami Connection (1987), Robo Vampire (1988), R.O.T.O.R. (1989), and Megaforce (1982) come to mind alongside classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Pink Flamingos (1972), Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975), or Troll 2 (1990).
One of the godfathers of this movement is Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The show ran from November 1988 until August 1999 on a small, low-budget television station called KTMA before being sold to The Comedy Channel (later to become Comedy Central) as part of their inaugural launch. MST3K was a huge deal then, and remains a big deal today.
For those unaware, MST3K is set in the not-too-distant future on a dog bone-shaped space ship called the Satellite of Love. Mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt have sent Joel Robinson, a janitor, to the Satellite of Love to watch an endless barrage of B-movies. The goal is for Forrester and Erhardt – referred to as The Mads – to compile information through Joel on B-movies in order to create the perfect weapon for world domination. In order to maintain his sanity, Joel creates several sentient robots to keep him company. The most important of them are Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot. To keep themselves from going mad, the trio pokes fun at and wisecracks with the films. Thus the term Riffing came into being.
“The caustic rhetoric of paracinema,” explains Jeffrey Sconce in “’Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and the Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style“, “suggests a pitched battle between a guerrilla band of cult film viewers and an elite cadre of would-be cinematic tastemakers.” Sconce continues:
“Certainly, the paracinematic audience likes to see itself as a disruptive force in the cultural and intellectual marketplace. As a short subject, this audience would be more inclined to watch a bootlegged McDonald’s training film than Man with a Movie Camera, although, significantly, many in the paracinematic community would no doubt be familiar with this more respectable member of the avant-garde canon. Such calculated negation and refusal of ‘elite’ culture suggests that the politics of social stratification and taste in paracinema is more complex than a simple high-brow/low-brow split, and that the cultural politics of ‘trash culture’ are becoming ever more ambiguous as this ‘aesthetic’ grows in influence.”
This was published in the Winter issue of Oxford’s Screen Journal in 1995. It scathingly judges the Paracinematic community for being elitist and exclusionary. It suggests that consumers of Trash just want to flip off the cinematic Canon; that they overtly stand in opposition to the conventions of “good” cinema purely to be oppositional, and not out of any other desire. In essence, it positions Paracinema and Trash lovers as shit disturbers, petulant children who think the old guard is outdated.
As with any cultural product, there is an indentured sense of elitism. The belief so firmly engrained that ones appreciation and enjoyment is above and beyond that of all others, or more honest, genuine, and significant than that of a plebeian or layman. So, too, with Trash comes a form of elitism, the likes of which critics such as Lester Bangs and those at magazines like “Zontar” proliferated around this time.
“We seek the explanations for the decline of Hu-Manity [sic] in the most debased and misunderstood manifestations of the IDIOT CULTURE [sic]” explains one “Zontar” author in issue no. 8, January 1989. “The search for BADTRUTH [sic] is only for the brave few, like you, whose all-consuming HATE [sic] is powerful enough to resist the temptations of REFINEMENT, TASTE, and ESCAPISM [sic] – the miserable crumbs tossed from the table by the growing mass of REPUBLICAN THIRTYSOMETHING COUNTRY-CLUB CHRISTIAN ZOMBIES [sic] who now rule this wretched planet.”
The Paracinema doctrine in the ’80s and ’90s was elitist and exclusionary to a fault. Thankfully, that trend has dissipated, if not faded entirely from the contemporary media-conscious mindset. As shows like MST3K gained momentum and popularity, the concept of sharing VHS treasures became mainstream. Interacting with “bad” films that still entertained became participatory and engaging. Through MST3K, Joel Hodgson and, later, Michael Nelson encouraged viewers to record their show on VHS and “keep sharing the tapes,” as the disclaimers read in the first four seasons of the show on Comedy Central. Even now, with MST3K’s contemporary younger sibling, RiffTrax, they encourage donations, recognizing full well that digital copies are downloaded.
As a result of MST3K and RiffTrax, an entire generation of moviegoers and film consumers have arisen, and given birth to a community for Trash. Now in Toronto, the Carlton Cinema has its Midnight Society, which showcases some Paracinema greats, as well as classic Kaiju films, monster movies, and action films. The Royal Cinema has taken great pride in recent years in programming outstanding film that falls outside the definition of mainstream success, with their Retropath series focusing on genre pictures from the ’50s and ’60s, and Neon Dreams which focuses on neo-noir cinema of the “’70s, ’80s, and beyond.” Eyesore Cinema has their Second Story Screening Series, which tends to consist of an odd array of Paracinema, which the video store is known for.
One such series that is currently on hiatus is the engaging Video Vengeance run by Modern Superior hosts and creators Dan Gorman, Greg LeGros, and Casey Lyons. Together, Gorman, LeGros, and Lyons have curated a selection of “only the best of the worst movies ever made,” and all on VHS. Screenings are free, and encourage participation. The guys give an intro, and then actively encourage their audience to riff on the film as they feel inspired, not unlike MST3K or RiffTrax. The entire experience is immersive, and allows for a genuine sense of community amongst people with divergent tastes. As a kid, you may have done this in your basement with some friends, laughing hysterically at Megaforce (1982) or gawking at the magnificent splendour that is the Barbarian Brothers’ Think Big (1989). But here, you congregate.
“It’s cool when you discover there’s a community for your weird interests,” LeGros mentioned via Twitter. Lyons added that Video Vengeace started “as a way to contribute to the film scene in a low-brow way that made us comfortable.” When asked to list of some of their Trash favorites, the titles came fast and plentifully: R.O.T.O.R. (1987), Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002), Megaforce, Cherry 2000 (1987), Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983), Bloodthirst: Legend of the Chuppacabra (2003) (Lyons professes it’s “the best movie made for $7”), Death Spa (1989), Miami Connection (1987), Christmas Evil (1980), Just Before Dawn (1981), and Mr. No Legs (1979) are just some of those mentioned.
Their repertoire is boundless. Yet, despite their adoration of Trash and riffing, they bring up an excellent point. “[I] love MST3K [and] joking on movies,” says Gorman, “but [I] also think every movie should be given a chance to be taken seriously.” “I love ripping on dumb movies,” adds Lyons, “but my first love is movies made with legitimate artistry.” “And sometimes genre movies can have an outsider art quality to them,” Gorman continues, “and become worth legitimate thought.”
Some actively detest the notion of a genre dedicated to highlighting bad film, but not because it’s unworthy of attention. Rather, there’s the notion that dubbing a film Trash, whether as a formal genre or pejorative opinion, is cynical and unnecessary. Don Thacker, the filmmaker behind Motivational Growth (2014) and game designer behind “Starr Mazer”, loathes the notion of Trash. “It’s not a genre until it’s done ironically [or] cynically, and enjoying art ironically is for dicks.” I bring up Miami Connection and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS as examples of Trash and Exploitation that are enjoyed honestly, and without agenda. Thacker, not mincing words, says: “I don’t think either of those films were made to be trash. I think if you honestly enjoy both [or] either, you don’t think they’re trash. […] I think an artist who pours herself into her work would feel like shit if you called it trash no matter the capitalization. […] You don’t just allow your art to be called trash because we all agree it’s a hip term […]”
At the end of the day, true Trash, whether pejorative or not, is based on audience reaction. Our perception and interaction with the material is what ultimately categorizes it as such. Miami Connection is a perfect example, as a film released in 1987 to terrible box office returns, and being critically panned. It fell into obscurity until Drafthouse Films restored it for proper release in 2012. Since the restoration, which included DVD, Blu-ray and limited-edition VHS releases of the film, as well as screenings at Alamo Drafthouses across the States, it’s garnered a cult following. It’s been widely heralded as one of the greatest pieces of Trash cinema ever made. Its current praise and adoration is as a result of audience participation. The community rallied behind an obscure little film, shared it with their friends, and propagated its legacy. They shared the tapes as MST3K would encourage, and brought it back from home video oblivion.
This is, perhaps, the fundamental crux of Trash or Paracinema: the greatness of a film isn’t measured by its artistic merit, canonical clout, or universal acclaim. Instead, the gauge is that of enjoyment, allowing film to let you feel something genuinely, whether that’s awe, shock, humor, or disbelief. Trash brings people together.