Critical clichés come and go. Twenty years ago, I noted that “an absolute gem”, “razor-sharp dialogue” and “reminiscent of the world of David Lynch” were all current, and I daresay those lines still crop up from time to time. Today we get a lot of mileage out of “makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre look like a Sunday School picnic” and the ever-popular title + drug formula (“this movie is like Die Hard on crack”).
But of all the clichés regularly trotted out in the 21st century, surely the most heinous and overused is “guilty pleasure”.
The phrase has history. In 1978, the American magazine Film Comment launched a series of articles called “Guilty Pleasures” in which eminent film-makers or critics listed favourite films which – at that time – fell outside the rigid critical consensus of what were deemed by eminent cultural commentators to be “good” or worthwhile. In the first of the series, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The notion of the ‘good bad’ film has, I think, just about had its day. It implies a kind of apology – as if in an ideal universe all films would be made by Bergman or Herzog.”
Hence, Ebert confessed to admiration for “Russ Meyer’s overlooked masterpiece” Mudhoney, and Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s slasher reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. A few issues later, Martin Scorsese admitted to liking not just Howard Hawks’ critical favourites, such as Bringing Up Baby or Rio Bravo, but his kitschy (albeit glorious) Land of the Pharaohs (“I watch this movie over and over again”). Today all these films have their apologists – indeed you would be hard-pressed to find a film that didn’t have its defenders. But in the 1970s sticking up for such titles would have raised a few chuckles in high-minded film study circles.
Then in 1983, Film Comment invited John Waters, director of such deliberately tasteless cult favourites as Pink Flamingos, to contribute to the series. And his list blew the entire concept out of the water. “I blab on about how much I love films like Dr Butcher, M.D. or My Friends Need Killing, but what really shames me is that I’m also secretly a fan of what is unfortunately known as the ‘art film’.”
Waters’ secret viewing vices, in other words, turned out to be the films of critics’ darlings Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Marguerite Duras. “Miss Duras makes the kind of films that get you punched in the mouth for recommending them to even your closest friends,” wrote Waters. “Her films are maddeningly boring but really quite beautiful.”
But his selection suggested there is no such thing as high or low art in cinema. There’s not even good or bad, let alone “good bad films” or films “so good they’re bad”. Basically, there are films that succeed in engaging your heart or mind (or even both) in some way, and then there are others that send you to sleep. It’s not interesting whether or not you like something – what’s interesting is why.
As early as 1986, Robin Wood poured cold water on the whole idea of Guilty Pleasures in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, writing that he found the feature “an entirely deplorable institution… The attitude fostered is essentially evasive (including self-evasive) and anti-critical: ‘Isn’t this muck – to which of course I’m really so superior – delicious?'”
I should confess that I have used the words “guilty pleasure” while writing about films as diverse as Cocktail, Knight Moves, Disclosure, Fortress 2: Re-Entry, Basic Instinct 2, Deep Blue Sea and The Devil Wears Prada. But lately I’ve been steering clear of the term, because I now find it embarrassing. It’s a yellow-bellied euphemism, and its use smacks of feeble-minded prevarication. It says more about the user than the film.
Why not say instead, “A film I’m too insecure in my own judgements to admit to having enjoyed on its own merits.” Or “A film everyone except me hates.” Or “A film I somehow feel is beneath me, even though I found it a lot of fun, because it’s not serious-minded drama with a redeeming social message.”
In any case, unless you’re a devout Catholic and are obliged by your religion to own up to your sins in the confession box, why on earth should a pleasure be “guilty”? Why not just enjoy it for what it is? Time for a moratorium on Guilty Pleasure.
ADDENDUM: These are screengrabs of Roger Ebert’s Guilty Pleasures article in the July/August 1978 issue of Film Comment. I am posting them here purely to illustrate the article. Copyright, of course, belongs to Film Comment and to the estate of Roger Ebert, and if either of these parties wishes me to remove these images I will gladly do so. (If Film Comment ever decided to collect their Guilty Pleasures articles into a book, I am sure it would sell wonderfully well.)
This piece (without the addendum) was first posted on the Telegraph website in April 2014.