I was first introduced to the concept of “guilty pleasure” (one not related to the tribulations of adolescence or ruler-happy nuns thwacking out at the slightest transgression, at least) through the auspices of Film Comment magazine back in the late ’70s. At that time the magazine ran, as a recurring feature, articles written by various luminaries of film—directors and actors, usually, with the occasional high-profile writer or cinematographer thrown in for good measure—who would recount the sodden treasures of their film-going pasts, ones that helped make them the artists they were or in some way retained particular personal meaning for them. Of course the whole point of the series was the revealing of their dirty little secrets, their love for films disregarded, ill-regarded, derided or otherwise forgotten by critics, audiences and film historians.
It was here that faithful readers first learned of director John Carpenter’s illicit appreciation not of the Howard Hawks of Rio Bravo (keen-eyed viewers of his Assault on Precinct 13 would have already connected those dots), but also the Howard Hawks responsible for films deemed too silly even for all but the most rabid auteurists, films like Land of the Pharaohs and Red Line 7000.
Paul Schrader elaborated on his guilty pleasures—the films of Bresson, Ozu and Ford. Certainly not the typical Hollywood B-movie or grind house fare usually cited, but instead films that spurred his loosening of the theological constraints of Calvinism and caused him to plumb the depths of guilt and despair left over from his religious upbringing and rechannel those impulses into a highly personal and controversial career as a screenwriter and director.
But in perhaps the single most well-known “Guilty Pleasures” article Film Comment would ever publish, notorious Baltimore resident John Waters, himself responsible for more intermingling of the concepts of “pleasure” and “guilt” than any other director up to that time (August 1983), would throw into stark relief the whole idea of what exactly might constitute the “guilt” in a guilty pleasure. Imagine, if you can, the filmmaker who unleashed Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble feeling guilty about anything. You can’t? Okay, for the sake of argument, say that you could. What would you imagine inspiring an old-fashioned bout of metaphysical hand-wringing within the not-so-tortured soul of the man who could gleefully stage a mind-twisting rape scene in which the victim (female) and the perpetrator (male) were played by the same actor (Divine)?
Certainly not the odd horror film or neglected film noir that might routinely pop up on most anyone else’s list. No, Waters shocked cinephiles worldwide with his admission that he was secretly a fan of, as he put it, “what is unfortunately known as the ’art film.’ ” Waters summed up his career as making low-brow films for high-brow theaters but admitted that until then he had only acknowledged the influence of the trashiest of films on his oeuvre. By the end of the article (subsequently reprinted in his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters), the director had braved the ire of those who might accuse his selections of being “purposely perverse” and revealed himself to be an art snob in love with Woody Allen’s Interiors, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Ingmar Bergman’s Brink of Life, and anything by either Marguerite Duras or Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
But the shock waves of Waters’ celluloid confessional would not stop within the pages of Film Comment. A scant four years later would see the release of a PG-rated film by the director, itself recently transformed into an equally family-friendly (not to mention Tony Award-winning) Broadway smash. Perhaps Waters’ “guiltiest” admission might have been the desire to, if not become a “mainstream” filmmaker (on his own terms, of course), then at least have access to more of a mainstream audience than would have even glanced at an ad for Desperate Measures, much less paid money to see it.
The 1980s welcomed John Waters’ Hairspray, but by the time of that film’s unleashing upon an appreciative public, forces like Saturday Night Live and, more importantly, David Letterman had already helped pave the way for a world in which the most shocking act a provocateur like Waters might perpetrate would be sneaking in the back door on something like a PG rating and subverting audience assumptions from within. The idiom of irony as epitomized by Letterman had become, for better or worse, even more pervasive and predominant in American pop culture as the 1990s dawned, and it was beginning to become difficult to find any rogue element of the cinema that hadn’t been embraced, accepted or written about in some current of the mainstream. (Even the dabbling by mainstream audiences in ’70s porn like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, certainly a genuine, if momentary phenomenon, pales in comparison to the generally widespread acceptance of porn star celebrity and sensibility found today on sports talk radio, The Howard Stern Show, Maxim magazine and its multitude of imitators, the E! channel, and just about anywhere else except the Pax Network.)
Now when you see an actor like Jeff Bridges write about his guilty pleasures (as he did in an issue of Film Comment published last year), the very title of the series seems a misnomer. Bridges starts off his brief article promisingly with a terrific story related to his inability to shake certain images from John Boorman’s notoriously incoherent sci-fi epic Zardoz. But unfortunately the rest of the list ends up being not so much a tool to illuminate a particular sensibility as an opportunity to rattle off anecdotes about movies made by friends (director Matthew Bright’s Freeway) or featuring father Lloyd (Rocket Ship X-M), brother Beau (Village of the Giants), or himself (The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go, American Heart).
So what now, now that almost every new season sees the unveiling of a $100 million comic book adaptation and horror films that were once perceived as among the cinema’s most vile transgressions (Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) are remade by A-list Hollywood hotshots and gross ten times the original film’s budget in the first weekend? What now, when box-office grosses and Ashton Kutcher’s love life get more press ink than the movies themselves (unless, of course, that coverage consists mainly of sound bite-riddled junket sessions conducted by star-struck “entertainment reporters”)? Are there any films left to feel guilty about?
Well, certainly the answer has to be “yes.” But if the denizens of pop culture have become excessively forgiving when it comes to what can be embraced, then it’s time to shed the self-aggrandizing aspects of putting together such a list and get back to exposing the hard-scrabble nuggets at the bottom of the cereal box. Any attempt to justify one’s personal junkyard dogs of cinema can be agonizing and embarrassing, particularly if you’re keen on cultivating some measure of intellectual respectability or credibility among those involved in the conversation. So just forget the attempts to impress your film savvy friends, because they’re not likely to be impressed by much at this point anyway.
At this point on the chronometer of pop culture, better to just come clean. Regardless of genre, style or subject matter, the films that make up my “guilty pleasures” list are those that, like Waters’, might cause some genuine embarrassment on my part at their revelation during casual conversation; films that would expose me as an irredeemably pretentious fake if I tried to justify them on any level other than their basest appeal (no deconstructionist arguments in defense of The Love Bug, please); films that I like or enjoy despite the fact that they are, on one level or another, indefensible and/or plainly bad when held to any rational standard of taste or judgment.
Compiling my list, then, signifies a threefold purpose: 1) To identify those films that insist on a certain degree of genuine shame folded in with their appreciation, not just movies of ill repute that are actually wonderful but that everyone else is just too “stupid” to value; 2) To once again examine the guilt in the guilty pleasure; 3) To engage in a simple act of soul-cleansing admission. But let’s not get too heady here. The bottom line is, like most list-making processes, the very act of attempting to justify personal, irrational responses to largely impersonal cinematic artifacts tends to rather easily devolve into a somewhat indulgent and onanistic enterprise. So what better exercise, then, than harvesting (and perhaps exorcising) reel after reel of movie guilt?
Abyss-diving with Altman
Robert Altman is a director, I would say, with scant familiarity with guilt. He would score points for flying in the face of logic, demographic evidence and studio interference at just about any point in his long career. But when he cashed in the critical cachet he’d earned with 1990’s The Player and Short Cuts, he earned a place on the list of the most purposely perverse directors of all time. While not exactly replicating the artistically dubious incoherence of Quintet, a film which finds little favor even with the most ardent Altman cultist, the director returned to the large scale free-form canvas of Nashville, Brewster McCloud and O.C. & Stiggs and used it to create what plays like the most slapdash seat-of-the-pants train wreck of his career—the fashionista wet-dream comedy Prêt-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) (1994).
Filmgoers who seemed ready to participate in another big Altman party laced with the same kind of acid insider bite that suffused The Player seemed confused and put off, that is if they decided to attend a screening during the film’s short theatrical run at all (few did). As a card-carrying member of the Altman cult myself, I found myself enchanted by what most found undisciplined and unfocused in Altman’s approach, that is, his enjoyment of the people he shovels in and out of the frame and his tendency to let them play out their improvisatory strings until they teeter just on the brink of making fools of themselves (some, like Danny Aiello in an agonizing and apparently heavily truncated plot line that finds him in drag for no discernible reason, topple right off that brink while the director looks the other way).
To some this streak of indulgence comes off as a sly form of misanthropy. But Altman loves his actors and showcasing the unpredictable impulses of their behavior. And the misanthropy charge is too familiar and flimsy. At this point it registers simply as a convenient albatross hung around the director’s neck by lazy entertainment reporters who like to parrot familiar refrains rather than observe what’s right in front of them. And what’s in front of them in Prêt-a-Porter is without doubt a claustrophobic Parisian pile-up, a “satire” of the colossal vanity and gossamer relevance of the fashion world that at times barely seems to have a point of view itself. It’s easily the messiest film of Altman’s shaggy career, dogged perhaps by its director’s indifference to the shadow of folly and the whims of expectations.
But, like Brewster McCloud with its occasional visitations of raven doo-doo upon unsuspecting heads, Prêt-a-Porter is carefree enough to risk self-satire (not to mention a giggle over the sanitary standards of the City of Lights) by introducing the motif of its sophisticated actors continually trotting through dog shit. It’s also a lot more fun than its reputation suggests, although I’ll be damned if I’ve ever been able to convince anyone of it. The bottom line is, any film that finds an opportunity for Sophia Loren to recreate (with a twist) her lingerie-clad seduction of hammy-to-the-end Marcello Mastroianni from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow could otherwise have completely collapsed on itself and would still get a round of applause for me.
Steiger, Peck and the other white meat
On the subject of cured flesh, the history of theatrical ham has many legendary performances that live on in the memories of those lucky enough to have actually seen them—Zero Mostel’s Tevye, Ron Leibman’s Roy Cohn, Quentin Tarantino’s Harry Roat—but largely their grandeur is preserved through first-and-second-and-third-hand accounts by writers striving mightily to perpetuate even a degree of the actor’s over-scaled achievements. Ham on film, however, comes packed with preservatives, and for every actor who has appeared on film, there is an actor who has, at one time or another, scaled that Olympian pork roast and lived to regret the non-disintegrating properties of digital film preservation and, of course, the DVD.
I first saw Rod Steiger in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) on the ABC Sunday Night Movie when I was perhaps only 10 or 11 years old, and I thought it could possibly have been one of the most terrifying movies ever made or that could possibly ever be made. Just the idea of a serial strangler who uses his craft as a stage actor to worm his way into the good graces of his potential victims was enough to stoke my movie-fed nightmares, and I was in awe of Steiger’s ability to warp his image into so many different configurations—a kindly neighborhood priest, a jolly German electrician, a dowdy transvestite barfly—all of which go from relatively benign to insinuatingly evil in a corrupt twinkle of the actor’s eye. Then, some 20 years later, I saw the movie again and was somewhat disturbed to find out it was, in fact, a slightly creaky, more-than-slightly black Oedipal comedy, and while Steiger was obviously in on the joke it clearly never occurred to him that modulation in the pursuit of actorly effects was any kind of virtue at all. For this is the Oscar-winning actor, never known for his subtle approach, pounding the pipe organ of his craft with all stops pulled and rattling the rafters at top volume. It wouldn’t be until his cameo role in The January Man, some 21 years later, that he would again come as close to blasting a capillary on-screen as he does in his wild death scene in this picture. Credit director Jack Smight for turning Rod loose on the scenery and letting him graze like the Tasmanian Devil, and credit Rod for gulping down as much at one time as he does, for his thespian gluttony here is truly remarkable to behold.
But what about a movie so populated with memorably bad acting that, no matter how hard I try, whenever it shows up on cable I simply have to stop what I’m doing and see it through to the besotted, bloody end? And given my inability to resist the rancid pull of The Boys from Brazil (1978), what am I to do now that I own a copy on DVD? Am I cursed to watch this bloated Sir Lew Grade international prestige production again and again until the very indestructible nature of the DVD begins making mockery of my increasingly enfeebled body and mind? And what responsibility should Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Mason, or director Franklin Schaffner shoulder in furthering that enfeeblement? (Actually, this is probably not a question that would have bothered them much even when they were all alive…)
Mason provides the most grounded of the thrills here, mincing about the Amazonian hideaway of Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck!) in a very large scarf and fedora, insinuating many potentially negative things about the doctor’s prospects for continuing his loopy attempts to clone Adolf Hitler. “Your operation has been cancelleddddddd…” he hisses to Mengele at one point. “No!” comes the rather emphatic, curiously stilted reply. “Your…operation… has… been… cancelled!” Peck’s decision to have Mengele sound as if he’s speaking phonetic English instead of simply German-accented English, or of course just plain old German (this is, after all, a Sir Lew Grade international prestige production, where all English seems phonetic and overdubbed) lends a stodginess to his entire presence, a sense of his being uncomfortable in his own skin that adds layer upon layer of weirdness to the performance, but precious little credibility (I blame his shellacked hair and makeup too).
Peck was never what I’d call an actor of tremendous spontaneity, but the way he barks at an old biddy who screams for a doctor after he hurls her apparently traitorous husband to the floor during a ballroom celebration (“I… am… a doctor… you… idiot!”), or the way he woodenly attempts to cajole one of the little Hitler boys of the title into accepting his true ancestry, all while an angry Doberman waits impatiently poised to clamp down on his crotch, makes him seem the most ossified representation of Third Reich evil ever presented on screen.
As for Sir Laurence Olivier, suffice it to say that this is the pinnacle of his many late-career paycheck performances in which he basically let loose his inner imp and let it run wild with an accent (this time, a slightly sibilant Austrian one). His Nazi-hunting Ezra Lieberman will live in glorious testimony to a great actor’s desire to push the inherent silliness of his calling right up to the edge of the abyss and blow raspberries to those already plummeting into the void who had not the discipline to know how far to go or even how to get there (paging Danny Aiello!).
And while I’m at it, one final shout-out to Jeremy Black, the neophyte actor given the task of embodying at least four of the boys from Brazil, the little Hitler clones who would, if Mengele’s darkest machinations were to see light, each repeat the circumstances of the dictator’s youth and similarly flower into the charismatic power of his tyrannical adulthood. The Internet Movie Database assures me that this is the only time young master Black’s talents were ever put to use on film, and connoisseurs of Wretched Performances, Youth Division ought to mourn this particularly cruel turn of cinematic fate and regularly revisit his one lasting piece of acting fury. His may be the most astonishingly witless and thoughtlessly unshepherded performance by a child actor before or since, although Spencer Breslin (of Disney’s The Kid and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat) seems to be gearing up for a career-long challenge to Black’s status as king of the heap. His nasally congested rejoinder to Mengele’s climactic delineation of the nefarious genetic goings-on into which he is inexorably entwined—“Oh, man you’re weird”—is a hallmark of the involuntarily deadpan, and the only sane response to someone who loves this movie as much as I do.
There are pleasures worthy of guilt in just about any genre you can name, and some, like The Boys from Brazil, are prime examples of strange genre subsets all their own—what other movie so clumsily and without conscience warps historical and political tragedy into the rich narrative manure of pulp science fiction and cheap suspense? (And I’m not merely posing a rhetorical question here—if anyone knows of another steaming pile of this ilk that satisfies and expands the boundaries of the big-budget/international cast/historically derived schlock thriller so thoroughly, please contact me.)
But the actor that can represent his own subgenre of crap classic is a find indeed. I’m not talking about your John Waynes or your Schwarzeneggers (or Seagals or Van Dammes or Dudikoffs) or any of the countless other actors who virtually defined the particular genres in which they succeeded at the box office. In addition to being identified almost solely within a specific genre or type of film, each one of these stars has at least one credit that could in most circles be recognized as a good movie—Wayne’s The Searchers, Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator, ahem, Seagal’s Above the Law, Van Damme’s (damn, I sense my thesis starting to fall apart here—gotta get out, quick), uh… Double Impact, and Dudikoff’s… okay, there is no good Michael Dudikoff movie.
However, few actors have challenged the time-honored requirements of comedy, domestic drama, romance and action with such woodenly consistent results as the inimitable Patrick Swayze, the man who would be, and I would suggest eventually became, the ’80s answer to Jan-Michael Vincent. Swayze’s career often paralleled the blush of romantic folly embodied by Vincent films like Sandcastles, Buster and Billie and Baby Blue Marine with the likes of Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Three Wishes and Father Hood. Some were hits, some were flushed from popular consciousness in a little less time than it took to read their universally negative reviews. But all were attempts to cash in on the romantic soulfulness the actor’s handlers persuaded several tabloid TV shows and magazines that he had in spades back in the Reagan/Bush era.
Patrick was more per-Swayz-ive in action clunkers like Youngblood and Next of Kin. The latent hostility behind the actor’s vacant, vaguely bovine stare, a definite liability amidst the shameless suds of Ghost, worked better when he was allowed to wield a shotgun and swear occasionally. But two Swayze efforts from the late ’80s-early ’90s, both of which tread a path also taken by earlier Jan-Michael Vincent works, would set the bar inordinately high for what I’ve come to fondly think of as the Idiot Epic (known on cable as “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies”).
Swayze’s sleepy turn as the NYU philosophy major who works as a bouncer in a rough-and-tumble bar (you’ll have to insert your own joke here, because the movie refuses to) in director Rowdy Herrington’s relentlessly asinine Road House (1989) was the actor’s correlative to Vincent’s B-movie classic White Line Fever (1975). That movie, designed to quickly cash in on the trucking/CB radio craze that was sweeping the country at the time, had a down-and-dirty exploitation picture pedigree courtesy of director Jonathan Kaplan, a veteran of the Roger Corman school of creative low-budgets, and an unbridled energy that didn’t allow the viewer the time or the desire to contemplate the sillier elements of the story.
Herrington is a far less talented director than Kaplan—Road House is lumpy and lurchingly paced, whereas the more stripped-down Fever hurtles along with the unstoppable force of an 18-wheeler with no brakes on a steep downgrade. But it turns out the director wasn’t named Rowdy for nothing. He plops Swayze down in the midst of one spectacular fistfight after another, risking severe and mind-numbing repetition and virtually jolting his nearly somnolent lead actor into a constant state of agitation. And damned if Swayze doesn’t come alive (well, almost) as he pounds and punches and kicks and snaps bones in scene after scene. The movie, and the actor, finally take on a kind of shit-kicking glow, the radiance of which can reduce a viewer like me, who in the real world wouldn’t be caught dead (or more likely would be found dead) in the kind of barroom brawls staged here, to a state of gleeful yahoo-itis, where a kick in the groin is as good as a kiss on the cheek. Road House could be the best Idiot Epic ever made, and it must have made Hal Needham green with envy.
Swayze would seal his unspoken bond with Vincent just three years later in near classic form. JMV searched for the perfect wave (along with best buddies Gary Busey and William Katt) in Big Wednesday (1978), director John Milius’ ode to end-of-an-era male bonding among the surfer subculture. But Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), cresting just ahead of the burgeoning popularity of the “extreme sports” movement, would take Swayze well past the rose-colored nostalgia and relatively sensitive bravado of Milius’ vision and straight through to the uncut adrenaline rush that would come to define an entire generation’s approach to fun in the sun.
Bigelow’s sensibility is serious, and the lean, spectacular set pieces she stages are among the best that can be found in modern action cinema. But her propulsive attitude toward the story, the narrative structure of which could be most generously described as ridiculous, is typically shaken up by her cast’s various ineptitudes, deficiencies and excesses. As Bodhi, leader of a band of bank-robbing thrill-seekers, Swayze, alternately stoic and loony, embodies the movie’s corruption of Milius’ macho-philosophic worldview. Cast mates Keanu Reeves (whoa-ful undercover F.B.I. agent Johnny Utah, who infiltrates Bodhi’s commune of crime), Lori Petty (Bodhi’s hard-as-nails girlfriend who, naturally, falls for Johnny), John McGinley (chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s apoplectic boss) and Gary Busey (again, chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s meatball sandwich-scarfing partner—“Gimme two!”) ultimately merely frolic in the shadow cast by Swayze’s somewhat ripe, sun-damaged baddie—Bodhi is a deceptively whirligig psycho best friend and mentor who justifies his violent crimes through his pursuit of the ultimate wave and, cursed practicality, the need to fund it. The actor revels in the extremes of the character and his director’s willingness to indulge them in his performance, and he has hardly a moment in the movie, right up through the deafening conclusion where Bodhi is not saved from drowning under the wave he’s been after all along, that he doesn’t look foolish. But it’s a foolishness armored by conviction. That may not be enough to keep me from cringing whenever I revisit Swayze at work here, but at least makes me believe it’s probably his finest hour on screen.
Ken Russell and the fine art of historical bastardization
Speaking of foolish conviction, it’s difficult to imagine a rival in all of cinema to approach the overripe, headlong, giddy and gasping pretense of the oeuvre of director Ken Russell. This British director, who never encountered a subject he deemed inappropriate for the excessive whirling-dervish fantasias that comprise his personal style, has made peculiarly entertaining mincemeat of a multitude of historical and biographical subjects—the ghastly horrors of religious and political hysteria in 17th-century France (The Devils); the flamboyance and emptiness at the heart of the life of a legendary screen idol (Valentino); the bombast and grotesqueries revealed in heavily fictionalized accounts of the lives of the composers Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) and the titular Mahler. But these triumphs of questionable taste, impure testimony and narrative lunacy pale compared to the kaleidoscopic incoherence of Lisztomania (1975).
I can’t imagine another filmmaker who would even momentarily think that an outlandish “biography” of Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey!) which posits the reluctant celebrity of the Viennese composer as a kind of pioneering instance of rock stardom was a good idea. But the brio with which Russell invests this bizarre enterprise made those few who took him up on his challenge and actually paid to see this madness genuinely question his sanity. If singular achievement is any director’s goal, then Russell, in a career filled with films that could not be mistaken as the work of any other artist or hack, truly came into his glory with Lisztomania.
Patchy details of Liszt’s life are intermingled with phantasmagorical musings on the roots of nationalistic evil—Wagner, Liszt’s chief rival, is depicted as a literally vampiric predator who claims Liszt’s daughter and whose Aryan musical ideals come lumbering to life in the form of a Hitlerian Norse god of a Frankenstein’s monster. When Russell tires of this theme, he flits off and indulges his predilection for treacle or otherwise clumsy sketches—Liszt’s romantic longings are cast anachronistically in the iconography of a silent Chaplin comedy, and the movie opens with an tryst interrupted by a jealous husband that devolves into pixilated parody of silent-era swashbuckling action. And then there’s the real showstopper, a one-of-a-kind sequence of grandiose sexual panic that encapsulates the movie’s recurrent phallic iconography—Liszt’s insatiable appetites and incumbent paranoia fuel a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number beginning with our hero being engulfed in a massive vagina and culminating in his sprouting a nine-foot erection, which is promptly straddled and danced upon by a bevy of wild-eyed, high-stepping dance hall girls… just before it’s inserted into a guillotine.
I’m sorry—did I forget to mention that I love this movie? I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie whose “ideas” are so supremely silly, so obviously the product of a sophomoric lack of discipline, whose “vision” is so robustly, ingloriously tawdry and downright ridiculous, yet which I find so unaccountably engaging. I also know of absolutely no one who will back me up in my fondness for this one-of-a-kind folly, and I think I prefer it that way. It’s a gigantic load, to be sure, but it’s my gigantic load. And of course Russell’s, who probably jettisoned for good what little of the cultural cachet he’d secured for himself with well-regarded films like Women in Love and The Boy Friend by unleashing this wonderful monstrosity on the world. And as willfully strange as this director seems through his films, he probably prefers it that way.
Somewhere Al Capp is smiling…
Finally, it’s time to admit my weakness for stereotypical representations of a particular social group with which I have a more-than-passing familiarity: white trash. I’ve always had a kind of nostalgic attraction to the (for me) primal pull of the rural fantasy of the Ma and Pa Kettle series. Though she resembled her not a whit, Marjorie Main’s Ma seemed to embody so many of the rough-and-tumble characteristics of my own grandmother that it was (and still is) easy for me to transpose the fictional woman with my memories of the real one and allow Ma Kettle to take on a kind of vitality that she might not necessarily have for anyone else. And Pa Kettle is only Pa Kettle if he’s played by Percy Kilbride, who turned the depiction of sloth into a down-home art form. Parker Fennelly, replete with anachronistic Pepperidge Farm-type accent, replaced Kilbride as Pa in the last film of the series, The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, but he never approached the kind of easy charm with which Kilbride so effortlessly imbued the character.
Regional filmmakers Ferd and Beverly Sebastian created product for the drive-ins of the deep South throughout the ’70s and ’80s, their most widely hailed work being the sweaty vigilante programmer Gator Bait (1976). Swamp sexpot Claudia Jennings (and all of her pulchritudinous charms) made this ketchup-and-cleavage drama a huge hit nationwide, but the Sebastians’ little-seen sequel, Gator Bait 2: Cajun Justice (1988) is the one that, for my money, seals their status as nonpareil purveyors of bad behavior (and questionable breeding strategies), Southern division. Your bodacious heroine is killed in the first movie? No problem. See, she has a big, burly brother with a redheaded Daisy Mae for a wife, who can get sexually assaulted and otherwise tormented by every known variety of swamp rat and toothless gas station attendant until big brother has just… had… enough! GB2 is distinctive largely in its mise-en-scene, which makes the undeniably tacky Billy Jack look expansive and visually choreographed, and in its cast of apparently authentic local “talent,” which probably looked an awful lot like the folks who saw out the twilight days of outdoor picture shows in their pickup trucks watching incredible heaps like this one. If you’ve got a taste for it, it’s a little bit of redneck heaven.
When I’m feeling more introspective and I want to indulge in white-trash stereotypes couched in a base of reality, garnished with genuine talent and/or relatively serious intentions, two films immediately leap to mind. Few documentaries feel more whimsical, so honestly inquisitive, yet at the same time so back-door condescending as Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida (1981). The non-fiction specialist’s curious visit with the citizens of a small backwoods town, highlighting their various eccentricities and downright oddities, is undeniably hilarious, moody and charming. But Morris also coasts on loads of smirking subtext, and his use of the camera and techniques of editing maximize the sense of an outsider (Morris, us) standing back far enough from these local yokels so that we can’t miss how not just eccentric, but downright weird they are compared to everyone else. Morris’s sense of empathy would expand profoundly by the time of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), but this is his most complete journey so far into an actual community and if it yields fascinating, troubling results, the later work would prove out the lessons learned by the director during his time in this little town.
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed up their devastating journalistic documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), chronicling the hysteria of an Arkansas town desperate to pin guilt for a triple murder on three local teenagers, with the even more disturbing Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). The film depicts the teenagers bereft of the flippancy they displayed in the face of murder charges in the first film. Here they are behind bars, convicted of the crime and serving time, despite increasing evidence that points to the stepfather of one of the victims. In tracking events in the wake of their conviction, though, the film ends up raising serious questions about the imposition of the filmmakers into the very case they’re observing. Like Morris, they get seduced by the elements of life in this environment that play up to a sense of superiority on the part of the viewer. But unlike Morris, they have a truly charismatic, and possibly psychotic, person at the center of their inquiry in that stepfather, who often addresses the camera directly with his tortured observations, justifications and various attempts to discount the mounting suspicion swirling about him. This is one of several recent documentaries (including Capturing the Friedmans, any film by Nick Broomfield, and Berlinger and Sinofsky’s own Brother’s Keeper) that implicate the audience, and their own filmmakers, to an uncomfortable degree and make us believe we’re being given access to aspects of lives to which we have no right. Couple that with the skill and urgency of this film’s approach, its inexorable narrative pull and its (perhaps inevitable) emphasis on elements of a social group many non-Southern urbanites might find disturbing, and you have the very essence of a guilty “pleasure.”
The journey toward the restoration of the guilt in my guilty pleasures, though amply primed by the previous entries, can ultimately only be fulfilled by consideration of the two great experiences in the dissection of white-trash culture of my formative movie-going years. When I was 13 years old, I conned my dad into accompanying me to a screening of Deliverance at our hometown theater. By the time it arrived there, the movie had already been in release for about a year, and through the grapevine of locker room whispers and classroom chatter I knew full well what horrors it held when I began suggesting to my dad that we catch that new outdoors movie (the local movie calendar highlighted only the image of four men in silhouette carrying a canoe, so my attempt at reductive encapsulation of the film’s plot seemed to have some basis in reality). But I didn’t count on my mom coming along, and consequently having to sit between them for the duration of the feature. By the time Ned Beatty was forced to begin his pathetic porcine impersonation, I truly knew what it was to squirm with the helpless desire to be anywhere else, and I could feel the laser intensity of my mom’s gaze burning a tiny, white-hot hole through my temple. But even after all that, Deliverance was still a great movie, and I think so to this day—I just never mention it to my mom.
Greatness is not an accolade likely ever to be bestowed upon the film version of Kyle Onstott’s epically lurid sex-and-slavery page-turner Mandingo (1975). But my (non-Kettle) grandmother was a big fan of the book, and when I became interested in it because of what I’d heard about the movie, she inexplicably conspired to lend it to me so I could read it unbeknownst to my parents (who were probably still stinging from being taken on that whole Deliverance deal). I could lie and say I had some overriding sociological interest in the subject matter, given that the mid-’70s of my youth were a time when the fruits of the civil rights movement of the ’60s were being given a chance to either ripen or rot. But truth be told, being a fan of the idea of the blaxploitation explosion in American movies (I had yet only seen Super Fly and Shaft, but kept up with the latest developments in this particular phenomenon through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian), and being a typical 14-year-old boy, it was, yes, the lurid aspects of the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
So imagine my surprise when the movie showed up at the local theater and my grandmother asked me if I wanted to go see it. With her. That surprise was topped only by my mom’s indifferent shrug when I floated the idea to her. “What the hell,” she seemed to be saying, “If you’re not already corrupt or otherwise warped by what I’ve allowed you to see myself, then I guess you’ll be okay—either that, or watching this stuff in the presence of your grandmother will be the back-breaking straw that sends you merrily on your way to a fulfilling career as a racially motivated sex criminal.” (Thanks, Mom!)
So we went off to the movies, Grandma and I. Those milling about the tiny lobby of my hometown movie theater, the Alger, who had an inkling of what the evening’s entertainment held in store offered us an assortment of odd, uncomfortable glances. Nonetheless, we marched right on up to our seats in the front row of the balcony and settled in for whatever the Motion Picture Association of America deemed inappropriate for children under 17 unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian. And Mandingo did not disappoint.
Turns out, the first time I ever saw a man simulate an orgasm on screen was right there with Grandma sitting next to me. It was Ken Norton, the impossibly muscled titular figure, lured upstairs for a vengeful tryst by and hovering over the lady of the plantation, played with prodigious teeth and gums perpetually and frightfully bared by Susan George. Norton groaned and shuddered like he’d just taken one in the kidneys from Muhammad Ali, and Ms. George seemed suitably impressed as well. Strangely, I never flinched with embarrassment (except perhaps a little bit for the actors), and neither did my grandma.
We giggled into our popcorn at some of the lines given to James Mason as the old massa, whose physical deterioration—he seeks respite from the tortures of rheumatoid arthritis by setting his bare feet on the belly of a slave boy laying at the foot of his rocker—is echoed by the rotting, unkempt condition of his plantation house. We reacted with appropriate revulsion at the fight staged at the auction site between Norton and another slave who ends up with a large chunk of flesh missing from his shoulder. And we had the same reaction upon Norton’s flogging at the hands of his master, Perry King, while hanging upside-down in a barn. The twist of the scene comes from the knowledge that King has been somewhat respectful of and relatively friendly with Norton’s character up to this point, his savagery tempered somewhat by his ambivalence. No such respect remains, however, when King realizes the color of his newborn son, connects the dots between Norton and George, and promptly forces the slave into a boiling pot of laundry water before he fatally perforates him with a pitchfork.
When the lights came up, Grandma and I were, for the moment at least, ashamed to be white, ashamed to be implicated in the perpetuation of attitudes that once enabled and endorsed such atrocious crimes against human beings, and we discussed with some seriousness the ghastly tragedy of slavery as we drove home. In the almost exclusively Caucasian confines of my little hometown, this constituted some sort of revelation, a vivid experiencing of some degree of truth that had only been abstract or textbook in nature before. I expected to groove on some sex and violence during Mandingo, and I’d be lying if I said those expectations went totally unfulfilled (I can’t speak for Grandma on this point, God rest her soul). But what I didn’t expect was to be moved by it in any way, serious or not.
I saw Mandingo again in my early 30s, and I was able to appreciate the attempts by the screenwriter Norman Wexler to inject some allegorical wit into Onstott’s narrative, some threads that might lead the viewer to connect a time when American society openly dealt in the enslavement of a race of people to a period some 110 years later when much lip service was being paid to the easement of race relations with little actual progress on display. And though the actors and Richard Fleischer’s direction are little better than pedestrian (that may be a generous assessment of Norton’s acting talent), and though the movie may at heart be simply a piece of exploitation (it was certainly marketed as such), I was struck by the fact that it comes off as pointedly, and powerfully, anti-racist as it is lurid. The more permissive context of a theatrical film allows the cauldron of Mandingo’s concerns, both violent and sexual, to boil at a more confrontational temperature than decorum might otherwise allow. As a result the movie, despite the participation of Anglos Wexler and Fleischer (not to mention Onstott, whom I’ve always rather presumptively imagined, with no prior knowledge or available research to confirm it, was also white), is much closer to the unchecked anger of blaxploitation, particularly Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, than to the sober mainstream TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.
As a white adult reflecting on Mandingo in 2005, I wonder about the basis of the emotions that inform the movie. It certainly displays some of the uncut anger of the urban blaxploitation cinema of its time. But I suspect it also sometimes tip the scales toward a sort of reverse-racism laced with extra added heaping teaspoonfuls of white liberal guilt, a rage much different from the kind born of firsthand oppression in which van Peebles’ film trafficked. By fueling the fires of such potentially contradictory emotions with campy performances by the likes of Mason and George, while simultaneously existing as a politically correct and morally confused satire of the ongoing tragedy of race relations, Mandingo defines itself, for me, as the guiltiest pleasure of them all.
The challenge of the guilty pleasure
Film critics routinely complain about the lopsided ratio of bad films to good in any given season. And whenever asked, most usually claim that writing about good films is more challenging. The critic’s ability to document his own responses to a film, evoke the intangible elements of the viewing experience, and use language and imagery to express what it is that the writer found remarkable, is what often elevates criticism into an art form of its own. Often those same critics will suggest that writing about bad films is, conversely, not as stimulating, either for the writer or the reader, because there isn’t as much to say about an abject failure or a filmmaker caught in a cycle of repetition and self-parody. As a result, they end up resorting to wisecracks and condescension to deal with bad movies in an expedient manner, all the better to flush them if not from the cultural consciousness, then at least from the critic’s purview.
But it seems to me that approaching bad films with intent equal to the way one approaches good films is the more appropriate attitude. This is not to say that critics should abandon their senses of humor. Instead, they should recognize when that humor begins to exist for itself rather than to expand upon the experience of a film in a way that is enlightening to the reader. If not, then writing about bad films becomes exclusively about showing off to readers just how clever the writer is, and how superior he is to that about which he is expending so much personal creative energy. There are cinematic pleasures worthy of guilt, if guilt is an emotional response that is to be taken at all seriously, and it deserves consideration within the context of that which inspires it. For me to write off Mandingo or Lisztomania with a couple of flip comments would be to deny considering what it is about them that I find compelling, beyond recognition of their status as films that register as “failures” based on some unknowable “objective” standard of taste and achievement. It ought to be as great a challenge for a writer to illuminate that which is complex, contradictory and, yes, insufficient or offensive about “bad” films as it is to wax rhapsodic about the good ones.
I hope I’ve achieved some measure of that approach here. The challenge of the guilty pleasure is not simply to acknowledge the guilt, shrug one’s shoulders and laugh it off, but to determine the source of the guilt, understand it, and begin to find ways to redefine the parameters of the pleasure that the guilt inspires. Hopefully, for the critic and the thoughtful cinephile, that process becomes its own pleasure, perhaps a more profound one than guilt over any one movie could ever be.
When I read this article again, I realized there were several things about the way it was written that I would have approached differently—I would have tried, for instance, to scrub it of some of the Entertainment Weekly-style snark that seeped into my sensibility, even when I wasn’t necessarily aiming for it. When Keith proposed reprinting the piece in the 24 Lies a Second series I was initially skittish about it for this reason. But I finally decided that it would be better to see the piece as it was written, without close to five years of fresh writing experience, than to open a Pandora’s box in trying to gussy it up. Besides, the writing style is, to me, the less important element about what’s different now than when the piece was first written. The one thing that has really changed for me in regard to the movies mentioned in this article, and indeed to movies in general, since I wrote “Pleasures Worthy of Guilt” back in 2004 is that my concept of guilt as it relates to movies has almost entirely evaporated. For me the notion of the guilty pleasure has become, even more than it was when I read Jeff Bridges’ Film Comment article, outdated and irrelevant. The “guilt” I may have felt about admitting to enjoying, on any level, movies like Pret-a-Porter, Lisztomania or The Boys from Brazil was never all that overwhelming to begin with, and certainly shame is far too strong a word altogether.
If anything (and I think this is clear from reading the article through eyes about to switch over to their 2009 model) the twinge I feel upon mentioning these movies, either in general conversation with “regular” folks or in the relatively more erudite circles of cinephilia to which I’m more privy than I was in 2004, is more closely akin to a kind of perverse pride than anything else. It’s the kind of pride that comes from having grown up in a small-town culture which did not share my enthusiasm for movies (or the arts in general), where I learned to enjoy the peculiar pleasures of eagerly promoting movies I knew would cause the pupils of the unwashed to roll back and disappear into their sockets. The difference I see as an adult is that the movies I talk to people about may sometimes elicit that reaction, but not because I’m throwing the titles out there for their shock value. (Well, maybe Pret-a-Porter...) One does not have to crawl away in embarrassment as a result of talking about these pictures, even if I think it would still be wise not to try to make cases for them as a collection of masterpieces. In any case, if you, or I, or someone insists, then a slight degree of embarrassment is a far more honest and valuable frame to set around movies like this than one constructed of guilt. Honestly, I don’t feel any guilt over enjoying Point Break or Road House, even if I recognize their bedrock silliness. And in the years since I wrote this piece I’ve offered up guilt-free appreciations of bastard stepchildren like 1941, New York, New York, and even “disreputable” fare like Seed of Chucky and Revenge of the Cheerleaders, which sprung purely from the unique pleasures these movies and others like them have to offer.
Indeed, the pleasure I deemed most guilty back in 2004, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, has in my estimation undergone an almost complete transformation out of shame and into the ranks of one of my very favorite films, and in the most sincere fashion imaginable. It retains, for most people, its reputation as a schlock camp classic, what I deemed a pleasure worthy of guilt four years ago, but I can no longer endorse that point of view. For me Mandingo is probably the most potent and unflinching look at this country’s history of institutionalized racism and the reality of slavery, blessedly free of Margaret Mitchell-style adornments, that the American film industry has ever or is likely ever to produce. Even the performances, from James Mason to Ken Norton, no longer inspire guilt-spawned giggles as they intone the linguistic arcana of the Confederate South’s rotting soul; that language, however odd or offensive, sounds genuine to these ears, and the actors well-grounded in their attempts to represent a slice of history that might seem exaggerated to supposedly enlightened audiences who would feel more comfortable if the movie’s plantation masters referred to their stock in trade exclusively as blacks, or if the movie had traded verisimilitude for political correctness and said “N-word” instead of that other nasty epithet whenever the occasion arose. Mandingo is no guilty pleasure; it’s a movie landmark dressed up in exploitation rags, and it deserves better than to have its reputation as worthless junk perpetuated even in an article like mine, which denigrated it even as it tried to seriously deal with its repercussions, even as it ignited the spark of an interior monologue in this writer that would result in a major reassessment. There was another result that arose from revisiting this article as well: the realization that for me there is no more guilt related to the movies. There are only the movies themselves and the conversation that should—must—ensue, even when the movies themselves don’t seem worthy of serious consideration.
Dennis Cozzalio lives in Los Angeles, California, where he works as a DVD subtitle and caption editor. He attended the University of Oregon in Eugene where, as a freshman, he was cast as one of the Delta pledge extras, and also employed briefly as a stunt double, on the set of National Lampoon’s Animal House. He graduated from the Oregon film studies program in 1981 and dabbled in radio as a disc jockey/music director/program director before moving to Los Angeles in 1987, where he met his lovely wife, with whom he collaborated to produce two lovely daughters. Dennis also publishes a blog entitled Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which provides a forum for his writing about film and baseball—the two loves in his life that don’t have big brown eyes.