Film thoughts: everyone has a guilty pleasure film, and it's okay

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/23/19 2:00am

Everyone loves bad films. We may pretend not to or try to justify this preference, but at the end of the day, we all have at least one guilty pleasure film. Of course, the very notion of a “bad film” is contentious because no method of film criticism has the capacity to be purely objective. That being said, I still contend that everyone has the tendency to love films that we personally deem to be “bad” but elicit a distinct sense of enjoyment in us nonetheless.   

Indeed, last spring, I risked lighting my non-existent reputation at this illustrious college newspaper on fire by writing an extended apologia for the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy (“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” and “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”). Yet that’s just the tip of my “guilty-pleasures iceberg.” Lest you need any more fuel for that fire, allow me to assert that I also love “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions.” I have seen each of the seven films listed here multiple times, whereas I’ve only seen Best Picture winners like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” only once each. 

Although it may be fun to write a self-effacing article in which I expose my occasionally “poor” taste in films, my interest in this topic is actually a little more abstract. My articles for The Dartmouth have increasingly transitioned away from straightforward film criticisms toward paradigms related to film history and film theory because the latter two approaches need not care about the quality of any given film conceptually. Moreover, given that my interests pertain to understanding the ideological and psychological impact of cinema on individual spectators and society, I think it’s essential that we don’t limit our application of these paradigms and models to films that cultural discourse has deemed the worthiest.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people should be allowed to love and hate whatever film they want, no questions asked. There’s definitely a problem if, for example, you claim to enjoy a film like “The Birth of a Nation” despite its blatant racism or fail to acknowledge the historical importance of “Citizen Kane” just because you don’t happen to like it. It is always essential to critically examine that which you love, lest you unreservedly consume and internalize any of its less savory ideological elements (to be clear, all film is always ideological). Nevertheless, outright dismissing people’s enjoyment of films that may typically be viewed disdainfully is bad film scholarship. Thus, it is both reasonable and worthwhile to ask: Why do we occasionally love films that we know aren’t very good, while simultaneously having trouble engaging with certain films that we know to be quite excellent?

Let’s start by examining my own love for the seven films I mentioned above. At first glance, one might notice that the “Star Wars” prequels, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels and the “Matrix” sequels all have a key characteristic in common: they are follow-ups to beloved films that were surprise hits upon initial release. Moreover, each of these seven films was also made by the creative team that produced the original. In response to a demand from studios and audiences, each of these filmmakers opted to build on their original vision with sprawling, epic and messy tales that disappointed fans precisely because they were needlessly convoluted. 

This observation might point to my personal preference for convoluted speculative fiction. But I don’t think my odd taste does all that much to illuminate any broader cultural paradigms at work here. After all, I despise “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” yet that film is also a clear example of convoluted speculative fiction. The difference between “Batman v Superman” and the seven films listed above is that “Batman v Superman” is broken at its very core. 

Allow me to explain. Essentially, all bad films have a “best” version of themselves embedded deep within their DNA — an ideal that the film wanted to be and/or could have been, yet the final product failed to live up to, thanks to a concoction of poor filmmaking choices. Of course, sometimes that “best” version still isn’t very good, like the case of “Batman v Superman,” which aspires to be a film that would have been terrible regardless of the wrong turns made in production. By contrast, the “Star Wars” prequels, the “Pirates” sequels and the “Matrix” sequels although also “bad,” aspire to be thoughtful, ambitious films indelibly marked by the very specific, idiosyncratic and frankly admirable visions of their respective filmmakers which makes them appealing. 

Furthermore, these seven “bad” films contain a host of positive elements that are readily available for appreciation but tend to get overlooked. By contrast, “good” film classics have their flaws overlooked. For example, there is a scene in the midst of “The Wizard of Oz” wherein Dorothy and the Scarecrow stumble upon some talking trees and the Scarecrow has to figure out how to trick them so he can get some apples. From a narrative perspective, this scene contributes next to nothing, but no one would be inclined to question it because, well, it’s “The Wizard of Oz.” The willingness of so many people to turn a blind eye to these kinds of moments in beloved classics while ceaselessly probing equally ambitious but less admired films suggests to me that there are two distinct modes of spectatorship at work here: viewing films as opens systems or viewing them as closed systems. 

To illustrate, popular discourse tends to frame classics like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca” as “closed systems.” Even elements that we may not like we tend not to question because we just assume their existence a priori. The “Star Wars” prequels, however, tend to be framed as “open systems.” We acknowledge that the films are works of art created by human decisions, manipulations and inclinations, thus we wonder to ourselves why director George Lucas decided to use so much CGI or incorporate a character as insufferable as Jar Jar Binks. 

My contention here is not that we should simply view all films as closed systems. Though approaching films as open systems has its flaws, it also ensures that we hold ourselves appropriately accountable when it comes to who creates the media we consume. For instance, a closed-systems approach would regrettably never allow us to contemplate that the filmmakers behind “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” decided to retain actor Johnny Depp even after his repulsive domestic abuse allegations. Likewise, the medium of film has no room to grow if we don’t approach individual works as open systems that all have the capacity for improvement.

However, only through a closed-systems approach can we properly acknowledge that easily dismissed films often have more to offer than we realize. The political subplots interwoven throughout the “Star Wars” prequels have rightfully received criticism for their poor pacing and tonal dissonance relative to the rest of the films. Yet as I noted in my apologia, when taken on their own terms, these subplots are conceptually fascinating and reflect Lucas’s left-wing politics and his subsequent fear that fascism poses a genuine threat to the stability of democracy (which feels awfully relevant right now, wouldn’t you say?). 

At the end of the day, I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy to overly monitor which approach you use when watching a film. But once the dust has settled and the time has come to think critically about the experience, I contend that a compromise position might be ideal. Be sure to probe the film; ask why certain decisions were made and what impact those decisions had on the film’s narrative, technical and ideological elements. But also spare a thought for meeting the film on its own terms. Because narrative, technical aspects and ideology exist there too, just not always in the way you might have originally anticipated.