“Good bad movies have been around since the dawn of cinema. Logically, they cannot be more common to one era than another. If you’re looking for empty-headed entertainment on a Saturday night, you could pop in an early Chaplin short just as easily as The Cannonball Run (1981), especially once you realize how much they have in common.”
George Orwell once wrote a short but influential essay titled “Good Bad Books” in which he extolled the pleasures of light reading: that is, “the kind of book that has no literary pretentions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”1 He described the hokey thrill of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, championed Anthony Trollope over Thomas Carlyle, and argued that Uncle Tom’s Cabin would outlive the collective works of George Moore and Virginia Woolf. (The jury is still deliberating that last point, but so far he’s been proven at least half right.) Probably Orwell’s greatest insight, however, is this quiet little statement found in the seventh paragraph: “The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.”2 Here is the heart of Orwell’s philosophy, and a good maxim for any aesthete to bear in mind — not only those with a taste for Dashiell Hammett novels — for it resounds well beyond the fiction shelf. Orwell himself applied the same logic to poetry, crowning Rudyard Kipling the champion of the form. “Kipling,” he wrote, “is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life.”3
That Orwell never expanded his series to include cinema is unfortunate, not just because his insights into the world of film would have been a boon to moviegoers, though they undoubtedly would have been, but because by the time Orwell was writing, in the mid-nineteen forties, books were already being supplanted by movies as the popular entertainment of the century. If one were writing on light entertainment, nothing called louder than the cinema. Had he lived but a short while longer, perhaps he would have availed himself of the opportunity. Indeed, a few months after Orwell died in January 1950, MGM, as if to mourn his passing, brought one of his favorite good bad novels to the silver screen: King Solomon’s Mines. One can only guess what Orwell would have thought of the film. It’s rousing stuff, set in the dark heart of Africa, with adventure, romance, booby traps, hidden treasure, and plenty of hair-raising escapes. Considering his taste for breezy amusement, he should have loved it.
Which leaves us to pick up where the master left off. First, though, a definition is needed: what is a good bad movie? This is more difficult to answer than you might think, and easier described in the negative. Good bad movies are not merely bad movies that we love. I suspect that each of us, no matter how discerning we fancy ourselves, has his or her own list of treasured titles that we cherish less for aesthetic reasons than simply out of fond habit. And maybe it’s impossible, when speaking of good bad movies, to untangle cold rationality from personal affection. Anthony Lane, the peerless film critic for The New Yorker, once confided one of his furtively beloved films, prudently burying it in the middle of a review of Saving Private Ryan (1998): “I was nervous about going to see any movie that might make me feel guilty — or, worse still, indifferent — about enjoying Where Eagles Dare, a work of art I revisit with the devout regularity that others reserve for the shrines of saints.”4Where Eagles Dare(1968) is a fine specimen of the species, brusque and brutal, at times almost convincing you that Richard Burton could actually ascend a windy Nazi aerie on his equally daunting liquid diet. It’s not one of my personal favorites, but I could easily see how another could be seduced by its coarse charm. In my case, similar fealty is reserved for Die Hard (1988), the only Christmas movie my family ever owned when I was a child. I can still vividly recall how thrillingly adult I felt tying a backpack strap to a toy machine gun and dangling from the slide at the local playground, feebly trying to reproduce one of Bruce Willis’s stunts from the movie. I’d love to report that the passing of a quarter century has dimmed my affection, though, in truth, my brother and I still trade lines from that film much more frequently that we do quotes from Citizen Kane (1941), a game, in its own way, no less childish than playing John McClane on the schoolyard.
This is not to say that good bad movies can be explained by mere whimsy, either. Some of the most sublime masterpieces of all time have also been the silliest. Just ask William Shakespeare, Noel Coward, or Ernst Lubitsch. The Philadelphia Story (1940) is as fizzy as the champagne Katharine Hepburn sips with Jimmy Stewart, but this makes it no less deserving of our admiration than Schindler’s List (1993). The true good bad movie may well be silly, but its defining factor is less a question of subject matter than of composition: namely, it contains some flaw that, while not ruining its beauty, holds it back from becoming a true gem. Perhaps this is why good bad movies make such rich material for remakes. They provide the fond filmmaker with a solid structure to cling to without being impossible to scale. Why remake something as brilliant as Chinatown (1974) when you know you’ll never live up to the original or, obversely, a picture as atrocious as Mommie Dearest (1981) that wasn’t even worth watching in the first place? The Getaway (1972), on the other hand, is the perfect vehicle, swift and steady, unencumbered by anything of weight — characters, ideas, lengthy speeches — with a plot as straight and unambiguous as the route the heroes travel, leading invariably to the bloody showdown at the end. It made for an exciting journey with Steve McQueen and his wife in 1972, and it did again for Alec Baldwin and his in 1994. If the formula works, why change it?
And then, of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll improve on the original. John Carpenter did it with The Thing (1982), reshaping an already strong scenario — a team of scientists battling an alien in the Arctic — into an even better one: in the remake the alien itself is the shape shifter, simultaneously killing and mimicking whatever life forms it encounters. In the years since its release, the film has become a cult classic, with a prequel of its own, oddly also titled The Thing (2011), trying to cash in on the franchise. Those who try to place the film on a par with horror masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Alien (1979) are stretching a point, but not unreasonably. The team of scientists comprises the standard mishmash of characters: nerdy scientists, earnest doctor, ornery old lawman, taciturn hero, and a stoner for comic relief. And there’s the usual quota of gore, which Carpenter gleefully flaunts, like a child showing off how gross he can be at the dinner table. When dissected, the monster drips pus and blood; when on the attack, it shoots out slithering tentacles or springs arachnoid legs and scampers off like an overgrown black widow. Under sunny skies, these frights might appear a bit silly, but in the grey, icy abyss of the Antarctic (Carpenter switches Poles for his movie), they seems appropriately portentous, harrying the heroes from within their compound while sub-zero temperatures harry them from without. The theme music by Ennio Morricone is superb: a simple, hollow bass line that has the ominous persistence of death. As for the ending, it’s one of the best in cinema history, along with Holly Martins’ striking of a cigarette and T. E. Lawrence’s watching a motorcycle fly by. It’s the kind of wry, stoic affair Hemingway tried to write but never quite could, with two men having a last drink before dying. There’s something haunting about it beyond simple sangfroid, though, something to do with the sight of a tiny fire flickering in a sea of blackness and the sound of that inexorable bass line that invariably chills the soul. Ingmar Bergman, at his most existential, never achieved an ending so profound.
When discussing the parameters of good bad movies, we must be leery of both drifting too low and flying too high. There is, it seems to me, a crucial difference between Romancing the Stone (1984) and Bloodsport (1988). The former may be daft and predictable, but it’s also got some clever banter, plenty of chemistry between its two leads, and a charmingly old-fashioned sense of adventure, combining suspenseful action scenes with romantic comedy. Bloodsport, though blessed with the presence of Forest Whitaker, is as flat and affectless as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s acting style. However, there is a finer but equally important contrast to be made on the other end of the spectrum. It would be an equivalent mistake to put Romancing the Stone on the same level as Rob Roy (1995). Rob Roy may not be a masterpiece in the vein of The Conversation (1974), but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be qualified in any way as bad. It’s got a gritty naturalistic style, a sharp eye for period detail, and a medley of fine performances from Liam Neeson, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Brian Cox, and, particularly, Jessica Lange, all of which are far more nuanced than anything in Romancing the Stone. It’s too good to be a good bad movie, but it’s still a cut lower than best fare on the menu. It is, to use a friend’s apt phrase, a good movie with a minus sign behind it.
Perhaps such distinctions are picayune. Further from the fringe, though, the differences become more obvious. The gulf between The Professionals (1966) and Casino Royale (1967), for instance, is almost too wide to measure. The first can be watched time and again without ever losing its flavor, while the second is more like an exercise in mass torture. It took me a phenomenal effort just to make it through the opening credits (rendered with the same garish bombast as the rest of the film) without throwing in the towel. None of which is to say that The Professionals is a pristine work of perfection: far from it. But it is one of the most effortlessly enjoyable films of the nineteen sixties. The plot revolves around four American mercenaries (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, and Robert Ryan) who are hired by a railroad tycoon (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his wife from a Pancho Villa-like generalissimo during the Mexican Revolution. Accomplishing this feat naturally involves much shooting, explosions, clever escapes, and derring-do on the part of the heroes. Since the movie emerged on the fringe of the counterculture, the twist is that the real villain is not, as we thought, the Mexican warlord but the greedy American railroad tycoon who enlisted the protagonists in the first place. Thus, our heroes get to have their cake and eat it too, guiltlessly slaughtering lots of brown-skinned baddies while getting to remain fun-loving rebels at the end.
Clearly, cultural sensitivity, even by the mid-sixties, was still in its infancy. (Eli Wallach could play a Mexican, or Alec Guinness an Arab, without raising any eyebrows.) Thus, it’s not Jack Palance’s atrocious accent that offends as much as all the lofty philosophizing he has to do: “La Revolucion is like a great love affair …” Unfortunately, he’s not alone. To further enhance Lancaster’s aura of cool, the filmmakers saddle him with a lot of jivey dialogue, most of which probably seemed fashionable in 1966 but now sounds like a desperate bid at hipness. Here are a few of the more egregious offenders: “Not yet, baby.” “There’s something dicey about this setup.” “Maybe there’s just one Revolution, the good guys against the bad guys.” And after some speechifying on what sounds like the Big Bang theory, “Peace, brother.” It’s hard to decide which of those two words hurts more, the contemporaneous use of the word “peace” or, considering the fact that he’s speaking to Woody Strode, the only black man in the party, the awkward noun that follows it. When Quentin Tarantino decides to make a movie about the Mexican Revolution, this is how everyone will talk.
The curious thing is, despite the flabby dialogue, the film still has plenty of energy to throw a good one-two punch now and then, particularly between Marvin and Lancaster, who seem to get all the best lines:
That’s rather good, I think, clipped and manly, made all the stronger for not being an outlier. Every now and then, over the course of a fairly standard action scenario, the movie shifts from its rather predictable course and delivers an unexpected piece of wit. “So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, ninety-proof whiskey, and fourteen-carat gold?” Marvin asks. “Amigo,” Lancaster replies, “you just wrote my epitaph.” Ben Hecht would have been proud to have thought of that.
On the other hand, some good bad movies only need a pair of shears to trim away their stray branches. Few people today remember Sorcerer (1977), yet it might have been a seventies classic were it not for a glut of unnecessary exposition and a curiously misleading title. Considering the fact that the film was directed by William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist (1973), you would be forgiven for suspecting that the film was another horror flick. In fact, it’s about driving trucks — trucks loaded with dynamite needed to put out an oil well fire — through the South American jungle. The movie is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), which has long been hailed as a masterpiece; Pauline Kael called it “the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s. “The inescapable dilemma of the original is that, despite taking place in South America, the film was shot in Southern France, which, considering how dry and rocky it looks, might as well be Crete or Morocco. The ending, likewise, has a tacked-on feeling, a sour twist that bears the distinct scent of a deus ex machina.”5
Sorcerer has no such problems. The film has a splendid sense of squalor — the bemired streets, the prune-faced barmaid, the shambling tin houses nearly too tired to bear up under their own weight — that tells you, more than any line of dialogue, how much a man would risk to get out. Such a foul landscape can only support certain movie stars. Paul Newman or Steve McQueen would have looked incongruously beautiful in such a place. Roy Scheider, on the other hand, seems right at home. In the mid-nineteen seventies, Hollywood flirted with making Scheider a star. He had a quiet, sturdy, Gary Cooper-like dignity that made him seem at once both manly and vulnerable, ideal for the hydrophobic sheriff in Jaws (1975), but with a small, sinewy body and a rather rat-like face: an everyman who, for once, actually looked like an everyman. It is this quality that lets him slip so effortlessly into Sorcerer. In the film, he plays a getaway driver who was dumb enough to help stick up a mob-run money-laundering operation. He’s a lowlife, a loser on the lam, reaping what he sowed. But he’s a loser we can identify with.
The foundation of the movie, however, are the scenes on the road, as the trucks, bearing boxes of leaky dynamite, crawl down crumbling mountain roads, through sodden jungles, and across dilapidated bridges. Friedkin’s métier has always been automobiles. The car chase he engineered for The French Connection (1971) was so riveting that few today remember much else about the film. It made you almost despair that anyone would ever be clever enough to top it. But Friedkin did himself, little more than a decade later, in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), another enthralling good bad movie, if ever there was one. In Sorcerer, perhaps for the only time in his career, Friedkin had enough canvas to pursue his passion for more than a few minutes, essentially turning the whole second act of the film into an extended car chase across the most unforgiving terrain on earth. If you’re curious to see how suspense can be stretched out that long, watch the scene where Scheider and his partner, clawed by wind and rain, guide their elephantine truck inch-by-inch across a rotting rope bridge. Afterwards, you’ll wonder how the director can match it, but then Friedkin does, sending the second truck across in no less dramatic fashion. As with The Wages of Fear, the film closes with a grim twist, but this time it feels apt: just another rock in the path but one that Scheider should have seen coming all along.
The problem with the film, like those colossal rust-covered vehicles the heroes drive, is that it’s overloaded. The movie doesn’t really shift into gear until the oil well explodes, thrusting the plot in motion. The director gives us extended introductions to all four main characters, when all we really need is Scheider’s, as well as a somewhat overly long introduction to our South American setting. What the film really needed was a more ruthless editor. This can be approximated fairly easily with a channel changer. Start the movie at the sixteen-minute mark, let it play for ten minutes, then skip forward another ten minutes or so once Scheider lands in South America. From there on out, it’s action-adventure at its best.
Needless to say, the line between good bad movies and good movies can, at times, be a bit confusing, even for high-minded critics. Many still don’t know quite what to make of Alfred Hitchcock, a director of peerless technical craft, capable of daring narrative experimentation — including, once, filming an entire movie on a lifeboat — who nonetheless thought nothing of making a film about the existential threat posed by seagulls. But, of course, it is this balancing act of high and low tastes that makes Hitchcock so continually fascinating to watch, delivering us delectations of pristine perfection while still sating our desire for a scrumptiously unhealthy meal. Take, for instance, North by Northwest (1959). There’s hardly a greatest-films list from the past thirty years that doesn’t include it in the ranking. In 1998, the American Film Institute rated it the fortieth best film of all time, outdistancing The Third Man (1949) by seventeen spots and Bringing Up Baby (1938) by fifty-seven. But how good a movie is it? That depends on your definition of “good.” The story is absurd, propelled by some microfilm buried in a statue that we don’t even learn about until ten minutes before the closing credits. The exposition of vital information is often clunky, at one point cutting to a room full of government agents so they may elucidate all the unexplained plot holes in a single conversation. Some scenes are laughably silly: the one, for instance, at UN headquarters, where a man is killed by a thrown knife while at least thirty bystanders look the other way. Others make little sense at all, including the most famous sequence of the movie, in which Grant flees from a fiendish crop duster in a deserted cornfield. Why, having lured Grant into the middle of nowhere, did the bad guys attack him with something as ungainly as a biplane? Wouldn’t a couple of hit men with submachine guns have worked just as well?
Not for Hitchcock. In his world, suspense always trumps common sense; it’s just that his sleight of hand is so deft that we rarely notice the switch. Hardly anyone today remembers what the Nazi scheme was in Foreign Correspondent (1940) or what exactly Claude Rains was up to with those wine bottles in Notorious (1946). What we remember instead are the little visual cues that Hitchcock scatters about his oeuvre like Easter eggs: handcuffs, keys, matchbooks, lighters, wedding rings, necklaces, pillow cases, a poisoned glass of milk, a missing pinky finger; the way the camera bores in through the window of a moving plane or, during a party, glides from chandelier height to a woman’s palm; and, of course, the director’s own fleshy physique, ponderously plodding out of one film and into the next. Plots were about as important for Hitchcock as they were for Raymond Chandler: something dull and functionary, best kept out of sight, upon which to hang his style. Not that he was a lightweight, in any sense of the word. The only time he seemed small was when he grasped for big ideas — as in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), and Rope (1948) — but he pretty much got that out of his system in the nineteen forties. His moments of greatest depth come when he’s merely out for fun, throwing Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll together on the moors or sending Grace Kelly scurrying up Raymond Burr’s fire escape. Rear Window (1954) is about as close to a perfect movie as has ever been made, but it’s not at all above lowbrow comic relief. That’s why Hitchcock cast Thelma Ritter as Stella, the insurance company nurse, so that she could spoil Jimmy Stewart’s breakfast with her homicidal hypotheses: “He better get that trunk out of there before it starts to leak.”
Today, we tend to look back on the sixties as a period of grand artistic ambitions, and certainly it was, witnessing a deluge of bold new experimentation from Europe, Japan, and even the United States. Yet it was also one of the most fecund periods for the good bad movie, churning out a bevy of deliciously vacuous brain candy, including The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963), Harper (1966), The Chase (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Point Blank (1967), Bullitt (1968), and, of course, the James Bond franchise. There are a couple of possible explanations for this. The first is structural, a byproduct of the slow demise of the studio system. One of the advantages of the all-powerful studios was their tight grip on quality control. Producers like Irving Thalberg and Hal Wallis scrutinized nearly every detail of production, from the first draft of the script to the final cut of the film. The downside of this, critics of the system would argue, was the cookie-cutter look of the films, which, at times, could seem to vary only from studio to studio: MGM made glossy pictures; Warner Bros. working-class ones; Universal made horror movies; Republic did Westerns. But on the plus side, high standards were assiduously maintained. Oddballs and risky ventures were discouraged. As the studio system crumbled, however, and producers grew ever more desperate, power was increasingly ceded to directors who, naturally enough, followed their own idiosyncratic instincts, not studio profits. Toss on shifting social mores and a surfeit of avant-garde films from Europe, and you have a recipe for quite a bit of experimentation: jump cuts, split-screen shots, musicals with Lee Marvin. It wasn’t quite that the lunatics took over the asylum (that happened a decade later) but that, for a brief period, they ran it in partnership with the guards, making what were essentially conservative pictures but with a savory foretaste of the rebellion to come.
The counter-argument, of course, is that good bad movies have been around since the dawn of cinema. Logically, they cannot be more common to one era than another. If you’re looking for empty-headed entertainment on a Saturday night, you could pop in an early Chaplin short just as easily as The Cannonball Run (1981), especially once you realize how much they have in common. The first Tramp pictures were often little more than comedic vignettes, with plenty of bawdy innuendo, drunk jokes (the Wilson-era equivalent of stoner humor), and goofy chases. Indeed, cinema began not as a medium of quiet cogitation but as a cheap, frivolous entertainment for the masses. Serious-minded people preferred the theater and the opera. It was the uneducated working poor who flocked to the movie houses each week. “By the lights of high culture, motion pictures certainly didn’t qualify as art,” writes Neal Gabler, in his history of Hollywood, An Empire of Their Own. “Melodramas were balanced by comedies, which were as often as not simply a pretext for a chase, a prank, or a fight. Plots were scarce. At best, one got selected scenes from familiar plays or popular novels. The audience troweled in the gaps.”6
Though films may have grown more sophisticated as the years went by, the market for simple thrills and laughs never vanished. Indeed, if any era rivals the sixties in its output of good bad movies, it is the twenties. It took about thirty years from the time that the Lumière brothers projected their first movie for the early filmmakers to figure out the language of cinema. Their early efforts were often clumsy, but gradually they began to crawl and then walk. By 1926, the year Buster Keaton made The General, they were sprinting at Olympic speeds, reaching an apex of skill right before the invention of sound. They moved so fast, in fact, that oftentimes imagination outpaced basic storytelling technique. Plotlines of the period were very often slapdash affairs. Buster Keaton generally knocked together his stories over hands of cards with his buddies or in front of the camera itself.7 (This is partly why his career crumbled at MGM.) The twenties thusly produced some of the most technically adroit tales of whimsy that one will find. There are literally dozens from the decade: The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922), Monte Cristo (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Plastic Age (1925), and It (1926), to name just a few.
There is, however, a third explanation, and that is that it wasn’t the movies that changed so much in the sixties, becoming better or worse, but how we see them that changed. Before the sixties, critics dealt with cinema in fairly objective terms. Good films announced their importance unambiguously, elevating themselves on the shoulders of high literature (Gone with the Wind , All the King’s Men ), august social themes (The Life of Emile Zola , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ), or both (The Grapes of Wrath , The Lost Weekend ). Humor, suspense, and romance took a backseat to high ideals, and reviewers generally treated personal enjoyment as just so much unnecessary baggage. Granted, there were exceptions — Graham Greene, James Agee, and André Bazin among them — who rejected this cookie-cutter mold of explication, but their voices were generally drowned out by the chorus of schoolmarmish reviewers who often acted as though film quality could be quantified as definitively as algebra equations. To wit, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for nearly thirty years the most powerful critic in the country: “Any critic writing for a large publication cannot be extremely personalized. He must realize that other persons have their own opinions.”8 In other words: here’s my objective analysis, so make up your own minds.
In the sixties, though, tastes started to shift, facilitated in no small part by the critics — Kael and Sarris in America; Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer across the Atlantic — who took a much more individualistic approach to film appreciation. The French championed directors like Hawks and Hitchcock, who had until then been generally dismissed as enjoyable entertainers, whilst in the United States Pauline Kael took unconcealed relish in muddying previous notions of what was good and bad in cinema. She applauded Pretty Poison (1968), for instance, while cutting to ribbons The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and cheered for Planet of the Apes (1968), while hissing at Lawrence of Arabia (1962). She thought little of the artiness of Blowup (1966) but adored the bawdy innuendo of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), which she called “a slick, whorey movie, and the liveliest American comedy so far this year”: “It’s true it’s not a work of depth that would yield up more with subsequent viewings, but it’s almost schizophrenic for the movie critics to attack a movie for having just those entertaining qualities that drew them to movies in the first place. It’s so damned easy to be cultured.”9
For Kael, pure pleasure served as a better guide to the cineaste than vague notions of what should and shouldn’t constitute high art. “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art,” she wrote in 1968. “Keeping in mind that simple, good distinction that all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art, it might be a good idea to keep in mind also that if a movie is said to be a work of art and you don’t enjoy it, the fault may be in you, but it’s probably in the movie.”10 In Kael’s mind, the most important question for the moviegoer to ask herself was not Was it good? but Did I enjoy it? Last Year at Marienbad (1961) served you little if it merely excited your intellect but left your baser instincts (lust, humor, excitement) cold and listless. Better to watch something shamelessly entertaining like The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and at least have a little fun. Her intention, though, was not solely to be contentious — she found time to praise such canonical classics as Breathless (1960), L’Avventura (1960), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) — but to extend the boundaries of film discussion. She herself pointed out that, at the time of its release, Shanghai Express (1932) was not considered an artistic masterpiece. Audiences and critics of the time thought it mindless entertainment, just as they did scores of other pictures we now exalt. It took a later generation of reviewers (her generation) to turn it into a classic.11 Films, she argued, were not merely good and bad but, more often than not, good and bad, and sometimes the films that were thought of as bad were actually a lot more enjoyable than the ones that were supposedly good. In effect, Kael, whether she knew it or not, was the first full-fledged exponent of the good bad movie.
The pitfall of this approach, as Kael appreciated — though she didn’t always avoid it in print — is that it can lead the reviewer into extolling some genuine rubbish simply to play the contrarian. “If it was priggish for an older generation of reviewers to be ashamed of what they enjoyed and to feel they had to be contemptuous of popular entertainment,” she wrote, “it’s even more priggish for a new movie generation to be so proud of what they enjoy that they use their education to try to place trash within the acceptable academic tradition.”12 This seems to be an ongoing problem for Quentin Tarantino, who in his quest to celebrate the films that he loves has imposed upon the world some brazenly shoddy pieces of cinema over the past ten years. So devoted is he to the B-movie genre, in fact, that, like a painter meticulously reproducing works of art, he has deliberately inserted into his films continuity errors, historical anachronisms, scene-missing cards, and, for his titles, the washed-out shade of crimson common to seventies slasher movies. His recent film Django Unchained (2012) purports to be about slavery in the American South, though for practical purposes it is much more concerned with spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation movies of the seventies, and the entire revenge genre. This is, of course, endearing in a way, revealing an unabashed adoration of cinema that most adults are reluctant to expose so nakedly. Tarantino has no such qualms. With a nudge like a wrecking ball, Django Unchained pays tribute to his heroes of the past, including Gordon Parks, Richard Fleisher, Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and D. W. Griffith, among others, though whether he appreciates the differences between them is a matter of some doubt. Not that Leone is a bad role model, per se. His westerns of the sixties are the quintessential good bad movies, stylish, exciting, and as insubstantial as cotton candy: good, bad, and ugly all rolled into one. But to rope him together with D. W. Griffith would be a grievous error. For a Few Dollars More (1965) is a fun film, but it’s nothing compared to The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss Tarantino’s point entirely. Fun movies, silly movies, lowbrow movies, good bad movies, whatever you call them, are worth appreciating, just as long as we can maintain our perspective. Critics today, no less than their grandparents during the Crowther era, get so wound up in notions of high art sometimes that their senses are numbed to genuine pleasure. Personally, I couldn’t understand what motivated all the recent fuss over The Master (2012). Sure, the performances are superb, and the evocation of fifties America is indeed impressive, but the film, for all aspirations to grandeur, is a thoroughly lifeless affair: icy, rudderless, and tedious enough to put Stanley Kubrick to sleep. I’d take Point Break (1991) over it any day of the week. While the latter film may be as airheaded as its handsome star — for those who haven’t seen it, it’s about a gang of bank-robbing surfers — at least it doesn’t pretend otherwise. The Master, on the other hand, is more like the Kevin Kline character in A Fish Called Wanda (1988): a dolt convinced of his own genius.
This, I think, is where good bad movies earn their keep. If they serve any purpose, it is to cut our own pretensions down to size, forcing us to ask ourselves what it is that drives our tastes, our heads, or our hearts. We like to think that the two are generally in agreement, that our hearts simply follow where our noble heads lead us, but so often that’s not the case. We load our Netflix queues with Bergman and Dreyer but then shuffle them back behind the Tony Scott. There’s no shame in that. The airiest confections are sometimes the sweetest. “All art,” as Oscar Wilde once observed, “is quite useless.”13 And he, more than anyone, was on the side of art. It was his life. For myself, I’ve gone back and forth on how to classify China Seas (1935). My mind tells me it’s inconsequential stuff, a tangle of clichés knotted together from a dozen high-seas adventures: pirates; gold; a salty captain; a sexy, hot-tempered gal; a drunk tossed in for laughs. But my heart adores it more than I can ever put into words. Something about it stirs my imagination every time I see it, something to do with the moon on the water and all those elegant passengers dining on fine crockery while pirates scuttle up the gunwales. I think it’s a great bit when the steamroller gets loose on deck and Clark Gable has to re-secure it, and I think it’s an even better bit when the pirates put his foot in a vice, and Wallace Beery, playing both sides, tries to get him to talk. Sure it’s inconsequential, but I love it.
- Orwell, “Good Bad Books.” [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling.” [↩]
- Lane, p. 241. [↩]
- Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, p. 821. [↩]
- Gabler, pp. 55-56. [↩]
- Lane, p. 565. [↩]
- Kellow, p. 35. [↩]
- Kael, Deeper Into Movies, p. 8. [↩]
- Kael, Going Steady, pp. 102, 107-08. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 113. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 112. [↩]
- Wilde. [↩]