Saturday, May 14, 2011

Popcorn Cinema and the Myth of the Guilty Pleasure

A guilty pleasure is something that someone enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilty for enjoying it.  I would call it something that someone considers bad, yet not truly, because they still take part in it anyhow.  It is something we are indulging ourselves in, usually under the pretense that we do not do so regularly.  This brings up a number of problems.  If something is truly bad, why are we doing it?  How can something be simultaneously wrong, but acceptable? If it is not truly bad, then why do we call it bad?  There are a number of problems with our notion of guilty pleasure in general and as it applies to movies.

I don't believe in guilty pleasures, especially in my own case.  I feel that no matter what mood I am in, there is an actual good movie that fits my mood.  One movie that many consider a guilty pleasure which I enjoy is Dumb and Dumber.  I do not consider it a guilty pleasure.  I believe it is a genuinely good movie, albeit one that engages us in a different way than what we normally consider great art.  I think comedy, laughter and even silliness are valid.  Entertainment is valid.  Where we draw the line, so as not to uncritically accept and like everything, is still vague to me.  I mostly do this for myself on a case by case basis, especially with my moral standards at hand.  People are too insecure to stand by their taste because they are unsure if they have good or bad taste.  This causes a form of phoniness.  Turn up your car radio with pride and ride down the street with your windows down!  People should decide on their principles instead of slipping and sliding in any direction. 

If we truly believe something is bad, why are we doing it?  Perhaps we don't find something to be immoral but perhaps just having no strong uplifting value.  It's like a piece of chocolate cake.  It tastes good, but is not good for you.  Is there any harm in having just one piece?  Usually not, but when we consistently "indulge" ourselves with breaks from our diet, it becomes problematic.  It's so obvious that guilty pleasures at the modern American movie theater are not "occasional indulgences," but the rule.  When we look back at our lives, if we could do so honestly and with a close lens, all the time we spent on guilty pleasures, cinematic or otherwise, spent as though this was the only way to truly relax, will have added up.  Should we not feel genuinely guilty for this huge waste?

One of the problems with the notion of guilty pleasure is how it changes the way we relate to commercial entertainment cinema.  A movie can entertain without being mind-numbingly terrible.  Look at the case of Singin' in the Rain.  This is a movie that was a commercial success in its day, continues to be a critical favorite to this day and is still the right antidote for many on a rainy day indoors.  It's entertaining; it's fun, but it's also a formal masterpiece, features amazing dancing and is a clever self-reflective look at Hollywood.  Why is it that now, when someone makes an entertainment movie, they feel they have the right to make it as indulgently terrible as possible?  Michael Bay was noticeably annoyed at the critical response to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  He claimed that the critics had the "anti-fun gene."  Perhaps they were merely anti-terrible.  An entertainment movie is like a hamburger.  It may not be the fanciest type of meat, but there is still a right and wrong way to cook it.  You don't serve a burnt hamburger because whoever eats a hamburger must have bad taste anyhow.  There are different valid types of movies, but nothing is above or below being judged or having some sort of criteria applied to it.

National Treasure, grossly inferior to its "father"
Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

I mark three stages in the acceptance of "decadent" art.  The first stage is one of occasional consumption.  A person watches junk from time to time to have a break.  They just want to relax and be "entertained" every now and then.  The second stage is one of high consumption.  They find these movies fun and consume them often, while realizing they are dumb and lowbrow.  This would include someone who goes to the video store often and rents the worst movie for the sake of making fun of it rather than renting the best movie to appreciate it.  They mostly watch movies ironically and even the movies the consider genuinely good have probably been degraded at this point.  They don't wish to be judged for their "harmless" enjoyments.  Much has been written about irony.  It is both a defense mechanism against admitting we truly like something, but it is also a free pass to consume crap.  The third and final phase is much like the second except that it is no longer self-aware.  The person in the final phase no longer gets that they are watching a guilty pleasure, but they believe that what they are watching is good.

In 20 years, people will think this is a genuinely good song.

Lastly, I believe that people can be entertained and relaxed by a multitude of activities, not all of which have the same degree of value.  Viewing great cinema, as with many activities, is an acquired taste.  Once you've acquired it, though, you may derive the same pleasure from watching something great as something terrible.  Is this not a virtue worth attaining?  A society is judged by the quality of its leisure time.

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