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Wednesday, July 04, 2012


Guilty pleasures and obscure quality

Taking a break from literary analysis because, well, I have a toddler and I'm knackered, I was reflecting the other day on guilty fictional pleasures.

You see, it's sort of a truism that everybody has books or films that they know they shouldn't like but kind of can't help enjoying. And hearing people say this, I always felt somewhat torn, because there's no way to say this without sounding either arrogant or depraved: I really struggle to think of things I feel bad for enjoying. I mean, I the stuff I enjoy occupies a fairly broad range up and down the brow - I love me some Toni Morrison, but I'll also curl up with a Donna Hay and not feel the least bit bad about it - but that's the point: I don't feel guilty. I just don't.

But then something occurred to me that probably should fit on the list. Have you ever seen Death Becomes Her? If not, well, I'm not sure my describing it would help. It's probably best described as a black comedy; the story revolves around two aging beauties, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, competing for the love of Bruce Willis and fighting out a lifelong rivalry with the aid of an elixir of immortality brewed up by a nubile old witch who apparently wears nothing but jewellery and lives surrounded by strapping manservants. Violence, special effects, slapstick and hysteria ensue.

And as films go, it would seem like an easy target. It's silly and overblown and freakish; it is entirely devoid of likeable characters; its portrayal of women as catfighting competitors over men and beauty is enough to put my feminism card up for review; it is, or it should be, a really dumb film. To enjoy it at all, you kind of have to go beyond camp and forsake your reason entirely.

The fact that it stars real actors is part of this: if the performances were hammy it would seem as silly as it actually is, but square off Streep and Hawn and you have the air of an epic and tragic struggle set against a background of wild, ridiculous farce. This might, of course, be one reason why I liked it as a teenager, because for all its silliness it was a story in which women's feelings and desires loudly occupied the centre stage and drove the plot, and if you're a girl you have to take what you can get. (Particularly as the fight between them isn't really over a man; it's a best-friends-worst-enemies rivalry and man-stealing is just one way it's acted out.) The talent of the actors should clash with the story, but somehow they don't ... and I'm really not sure why.

But in the end, considering why I will watch this film without shame even though I probably should be embarrassed, it came down to this: it works on its own terms. Its own terms are crazed, but if you can accept the tone and go along with the melodrama, it's actually a well-structured story. Each of the central characters has a neatly-realised arc, each gets the ending their choices have created; the plot is solidly constructed and delivered with sound timing and all the changes are set up and played through with a fair and steady hand.

So in other words, despite the manic gloss, there's some real intelligence buried in there somewhere.

And that brought me to think about something else I'd see recently: Quentin Tarantino introducing the chixploitation film Switchblade Sisters with the observation that you began by laughing at the melodrama, but found yourself caring about the characters despite yourself by the end of the film. And that's an interpretation I'd agree with - or at least, I don't tend to watch films to laugh at the camp, I just watched it because I was curious, but the solid storytelling (lifted pretty much wholesale from Othello, in this case) managed to create some real feeling and build to a satisfying conclusion.

(Plus, again, Switchblade Sisters is a film that treats a struggle between girl and girl as worth placing centre stage. You take what you can get.)

Which is leading me to wonder: is this true of other people? Is there a solid, guilt-free base to your favourite guilty pleasures?

I don’t have much guilt over my pleasures, on the whole. That said, there are books and films that I love because they fill a particular need for me. For example, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. They have things in them that I really don’t like—there’s the main character/narrator’s “chivalrous” tendencies that annoy me, there’s the fact that ‘m pretty sure the author doesn’t really get what he’s doing with regards to things like consent (not rape if it’s a guy) and some bits of the kind of mostly-okay-but-occasionally homophobic (you know the sort of thing—there’s nothing wrong with being gay, but stereotypes/long hair on men/pretending to be gay is ha ha funny). They have the thing some fantasy and urban fantasy books do with religion—the “There are a lot of gods and faith is what gives them power, but Christianity keeps coming up trumps” thing). They’re not awful, but they are problematic in ways that I can identify quite clearly.
Nonetheless, I really, really like them. They work for me in a lot of ways. I like the guy that is battered and damaged and keeps trying to do good, to treat people like people. I like when main characters have a thing about knowledge. I like magic and werewolves and adventure and I like it when someone takes a kicking but keeps on ticking.
Plus, the reading I have of the books makes them better for me. The books actually work really well if you accept the first person narrator as deeply unreliable, especially with regards to what he acknowledges of his own past and what he refuses to admit happened to him.
It’s a bullet-proof kink, as they say—the rest can be awful, but it can have that thing that just works for you every time, and you don’t get to pick and choose what you read that has that because there’s not so much books or movies that you can afford to be picky. It can be families-of-choice thing, it can be female-friendship-matters, or siblings-that-are-weird-about-each-other, or power-imbalance -in-a-relationship, it can be mentoring or fun with identity or noir-in-other-settings.
And oh, the bad films and TV I’ve seen because it has a strong core of best friends in it.
Hmm, I don't think it's weird to not feel guilty about liking some lowbrow stuff--at any rate I don't either. I think of "guilty pleasure" more as a shorthand for "something I know has little to no literary/artistic merit, but that I enjoy anyway." No actual guilt required!
I have a passel of "guilty pleasures" since I own, read or saw a lot of books and movies for the purpose of identifying their explicit and implicit "problematics." So, at the same time I have watched (and enjoyed) many books and movies that others would have turned away from long before the end and I an deeply aware of their issues.

For example, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" series of films are brimming over with misogyny and racism and The Honeymooners is not only deeply misogynistic there is always a hint of actual physical violence lurking in the shadows -- and yet both I and my students would find ourselves enjoying them.
I have what I call "id stories" -- books and films and other media that bypass critical appreciation and social merit and aesthetics and aim straight for the lizard brain: "Oooh! Pretty explosions! Sexy nekkid people! Violent revenge! Tawdry melodrama!"

I wouldn't say I feel *guilty* about enjoying them, because I pretty much approach them on their own terms. It would be like feeling "guilty" over enjoying a corndog at the county fair, because it isn't an exquisitely prepared salmon risotto.
I have two types of guilty pleasure. The first is stuff that's really technically badly written--blatant "as you know, Bob" dialogue, metaphors that just don't work, etc--but which has a story that presses my particular buttons. I don't feel guilty about liking it so much as I feel the need to explain to anyone watching that no, I actually know how to construct a sentence.

The second is...well, Gone With the Wind. And its ilk. Stuff where so much of the content is blatantly racist or sexist or otherwise Not Okay that enjoying the rest requires putting my fingers in my ears and going LA LA LA LA, but...I read it when I was twelve, and I got attached, or the author really *can* turn a phrase, or the idea is very cool.

There I do feel guilty, especially if the author is alive and getting whatever tiny portion of profits come from my secondhand purchase or library rental.
Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (http://www.vanguardcinema.com/darkarc/darkarc.htm), and is currently
debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the glam/punk tunes "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst" and "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire", and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.

TRAILER : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPeG4EFZ4ZM

***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
"Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque
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