Guilty Pleasures

Allen observes that movies are different from poetry in their capacity for inducing guilty pleasure. I think he's right, and I believe the difference can be even more sharply drawn along the lines of the relationship between mainstream and independent systems. The movie mainstream does not have a clear parallel in the poetry mainstream. The only point where categories truly coalesce between the two mediums is the extreme indie-experimental realm. A film by Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger has a lot more in common with a poem by John Cage or Kenward Elmslie, for example, than a film by Jerry Bruckheimer or Quentin Tarantino has with a poem by Louise Gluck or Philip Levine. One way of putting it is that the divide in film between independent and mainstream is replicated in poetry only at the level of publishing, and there only in a loose structural sense, since even the highest-profile poetry books make little money. So whereas in film you have at least three categories (experimental | independent | mainstream), in film you really only have the middle one split into two factions that might as well be indistinguishable to anyone looking in from the outside. If the experimental/mainstream dichotomy in poetry were superimposed onto film (so to speak), you would have a world where the only movies were either 12-minute super-8 montages of ants crawling through wool, or heartfelt but wryly ironic urban coming-of-age narratives. You wouldn't have anything like Anchorman, The Matrix, or Dreamgirls. You wouldn't have Dr. Zhivago, Bringing Up Baby, or An American in Paris. You wouldn't have The Godfather, Annie Hall, or Vertigo. You might have Gummo and Like Water for Chocolate.

It's worth making the oft-repeated distinction here between different types of badness in movies. No one really thinks Plan 9 from Outer Space is a bad movie anymore, or Showgirls, or Reefer Madness. Movies like that essentially enjoy the status of Art Brut. Nor is it worth picking on unsuccessful films that are inept, but not in any interestingly deviant way, like Gigli, Heaven's Gate (which actually has elements of brilliance), or Ishtar. The kind of radioactive badness that actually makes money and manages to fool some people into thinking it's good is the real problem. Titanic, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting. To show up on the red zone of my bad-o-meter, a film has to have some currency as a valid vehicle on some level, and then abuse it in a big way. Worst film of all time: You've Got Mail. It's got charismatic leads with good chemistry (Hanks and Ryan), a plotline lifted from one of the best romantic comedies ever (Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner), and sublimely talented supporting actors (Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear). But not only does it manage to squander all these elements and congeal into a banal mass of pablum, it presents us with a heinously immoral "comedic" resolution: the struggling independent children's bookstore owner falls in love with the slimy corporate ogre who's buying her shop out and shutting it down. Principles abandoned, conflict settled. The End. This movie isn't a guilty pleasure for me--it's just an abomination. I hope I never have to see one second of it ever again. But movies that are true guilty pleasures do in some way broach the kind of badness I've just described. You feel bad for enjoying them because you feel in some way you've compromised your ethical integrity by submitting to their pleasures.

Allen's point is that guilty pleasures in poetry don't involve as much guilt as guilty pleasures in film. An appreciation for Whitman's expansiveness is hardly cause for self-recrimination. Feeling guilty for enjoying Whitman is approximately like feeling guilty for enjoying Once Upon a Time in the West. Ogden Nash is in some ways a good example, but even here, the pleasure comes ultimately from those qualities in Nash that are genuinely deserving of admiration: wit, irreverence, absurdity. Then there are cases like Pound or Spenser, where the poet's personal politics are heinous, but I would claim that what most people respond to favorably in poets like these is somewhat detachable from the offensive contexts. It's not the fascism in Pound that sucks one in, nor do most readers come away from him with an increased sense that Mussolini really had something after all, or that maybe those Jews really are ruining everything. If one indulges Pound, one generally does it in a way that acknowledges and attempts to compartmentalize his faults (D. W. Griffith would be a similar case in film). For a poem to be a true guilty pleasure, it has to be capable of offering something truly insidious and seductive: some false, soothing, fattening tonic that you want to sip on the sly. Something like When Harry Met Sally or Grease or Kindergarten Cop. The closest thing I can come up with is Billy Collins.

Is it a good or a bad thing that poetry doesn't offer distractions as powerful as the cinema? Both, I'd say. One the one hand, there's the Wordsworthian argument that poetry should offer a space for contemplation free from sensationalism, that it's exactly because poetry doesn't try to compete with the spectacular productions of the culture at large that it has value. The idea of poetry's uselessness as a safeguard against cooptation is persuasive on many levels. On the other hand, there's a timidity to this position that's off-putting. What would it look like if poetry were capable of producing popular mass-culture entertainments on a par with Lord of the Rings or American Pie or even Nacho Libre? The very idea is laughable, sure--but wouldn't even the failed attempts be a welcome change of pace from much of what is currently out there (and not just in the mainstream, either)?



Old comment thread for this post:

Jonathan said...

For me a guilty pleasure in film would be something like "Death Wish" with Charles Bronson, where the "pleasure" is inseparable from the rather dumb politics and overall clunkiness of the movie. I agree about Once Upon a Time in the West. It's far too intellectual a pleasure for it to be a guilty one. By intellectual, I don't mean involving abstract thought, but "part of the habitus of contemporary intellectuals."
2/22/07 11:17 AM

Icepac said...

The time has come for fans of Ishtar to boldly proclaim their appreciation for this wonderful movie - not as a guiltly pleasure, but a guilt-free one!

This is going to be a great year for Ishtar

2/22/07 4:28 PM

Wade said...

Sorry to focus on one small element of your discussion, but I don't think that Heaven's Gate was inept at all, except that it failed financially. It was beautifully shot, and I think underappreciated.
2/22/07 9:41 PM

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Wade, I agree that Heaven's Gate is underappreciated, and "inept" was the wrong word to use in regard to it. In some ways it's brilliant on an almost visionary level. The first twenty or so minutes alone are unlike anything else I can remember seeing in an American film, the roller-skating scene is inspired, and as you say, the cinematography is awesome. All the same, I'm sorry, it goes seriously wrong at times. For long stretches it's totally inert, and not in an existentially evocative way either. The political subtext couldn't be less subtle if it were machine-gunned into the audience's skulls. And that old-age makeup at the end is straight off the K-Mart Halloween shelf (the same flaw mars Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, which, come to think of it, shares a lot of the same weaknesses as Cimino's movie).
2/23/07 12:36 AM

Wade said...

Guilty pleasures for me are movies that obviously manipulate me in some way and yet I allow them tp do it. An example is School of Rock, which I'm embarrassed to say I loved. Of course, Jack Black made that movie.

Another example (of a really bad movie) that I loved a long time ago is Made in Heaven. This movie is godawful, but at the time it pulled all the right strings for me. I watched in HBO three or four times. I think I must have been lovesick or depressed or something at the time. The worst guilty pleasue I ever had.

By the way Kasey, maybe you should start a movie blog. You're getting a lot of action with these discussions.
2/23/07 8:32 AM

K. Silem Mohammad said...

School of Rock rocked! I'd say that one was actually a good movie. Richard Linklater got some flak for going totally commercial with it, but it's a well-constructed comedy. Also, it's a genre I'm a sucker for: the new, unorthodox teacher who comes in out of nowhere and blows everyone's mind. I guess I identify with it. Ar ar. Oh wow, no kidding, I guess I must have some total fantasy "To Sir with Love" self-image complex. But yeah, all those flicks where the new teacher/coach/priest/whatever shows up and shows how it's done ... love it.

I haven't seen Made in Heaven. There are several movies listed at IMDb with that title--do you mean the Alan Rudolph one with Tim Hutton and Kelly McGillis? I'll watch anything with Kelly McGillis in it. Hell, I'll watch anything. Obviously.

I think I have started a movie blog.
2/23/07 8:55 AM

Wade said...

Yeah the one with Tmothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis. don't watch it. It'll lower your opinion of me.
2/23/07 9:42 AM

Mike Young said...

Re: the "To Sir With Love" genre exercise love:

I'd be curious to know what you think of "Half-Nelson," which dismantles that "brill teacher" cliche. Okay, so it effectively replaces it with "innocent child saves the fuckup," but still.

Why the hell is no one talking about the possibility of Anchorman poetry in this comment space? To start: most of Anchorman's best lines came improvised. Maybe the first problem is that there is no poetry equivilant of Second City.
2/23/07 1:58 PM

Ray Davis said...

I can't think of any movie that I'd call a guilty pleasure -- in that form, my hedonism seems ungrudging. But reading the best work of John Berryman and James Wright feels compulsive, icky, and embarrassing in a way that must count. (Another example is when Matthew Sweet songs get stuck in my head and I can't come up with replacement lyrics fast enough.) Some day I suppose I'll figure out how to expand my critical range to include those experiences or narrow my taste to exclude them.
2/24/07 4:26 PM

kyle said...

yes to the half-nelson comment. interested in your take.

the problem you have with You've Got Mail is the problem i have with Shallow Hal. at the end of the movie, nothing is resolved or addressed, but the conflict that causes the movie simply persists into a sudden happiness. the delusion persists. that's not a movie, dammit!

this is the second straight comment i've left on your blog hating on jack black flicks, but honestly, i generally like his work.

i hate to say it, but in some weird way i find this blog's growing focus on cinema very satisfying.

keep saving young minds.
3/1/07 8:42 PM

Z. B. said...

I don't know, I find something convincing in the fact that You've Got Mail engages the faceless-corporation-devours-tiny-local cliche, but then willfully abandons it, there is no dilution of Hanks' conglomerate, or his stepping down to pull espressos (as we might've expected from the traditional, rather dismal socialist version of the movie).

It unabashedly triumphs saccharine over politics. Love (with AOL sound effects) conquers all, even self-righteous small-business vitriol. Of course it couldn't be more explicit on this point (that would have been too morbid for public consumption), but one can only imagine how great it would have been, if it could have been written to admit the Ryan character's change of heart, etc. And their conjugal empire of identical megastores.
3/5/07 8:27 AM

No comments: