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Guilty Pleasures - 'B' Movies 

by Marty Demarest

Take pleasure where you find it. For some people that means a steady diet of masterpieces. But I can't do that. Life is short. I don't always have time to read several thousand pages of Proust when I need a lift, the budget to pay daily visits to the Louvre for inspiration, or the skill to perform all of Bach's keyboard music when I want to smile. A movie takes approximately two hours, costs somewhat less than $10, and asks me to do nothing more coordinated than sitting down.

That's not to say that films can't leave a lasting impression. (I'm still recovering from Battlefield Earth.) But how many of them really reach the status of a timeless masterpiece? Most of the time, a good film is one that accommodates the medium's limitations: it's nothing more than colored shadows, made by entertainers, that can at best hope to make our hearts beat faster for a moment. Acknowledging these limits, and the opportunities that can be found within them, marks the difference between a flawed but delightful film like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and joyless media clutter like Kangaroo Jack.

If you like any films starring David Hasselhoff, William Shatner, Elvira, Lorenzo Lamas, or singing nuns, you probably don't need any help sorting the guilty pleasures from the just-plain-guilty. But what about your friend who is mistakenly convinced that if Europeans made it, it must be high art? Start them out with a test screening of Pippi Longstocking. But don't just get any Pippi -- make sure it's a film from the Swedish series that was filmed in the 1970s and stars Inger Nilsson as the iconic heroine. Not only do the characters talk with dubbed Brooklyn accents and sing silly songs without a shred of self-consciousness, but in Pippi on the Run -- my personal favorite -- they have a monologue devoted to the pleasures of stuffed cabbage. And if your friend wants to know what it's about first, just tell them the film's tagline: En sommarsaga i sol och regn f & ouml;r sm & aring; och stora full av & auml;ventyr och & ouml;verraskningar.

A little more exotic perhaps would be a selection from the wide world of Hong Kong. Master of the Flying Guillotine is deservedly a classic. Not only is it filled with plenty of acting that you either consider deliciously bad or ceremonial depending on your familiarity with traditional Chinese and Japanese theater, but it has some of the most astonishing Kung Fu performances ever committed to film. These were actors who usually worked without wires or special effects, and who made their reputations by developing personal and highly sophisticated styles of fighting. A bit more cheese -- okay, a lot more cheese -- can be found in Drunken Wu Tang, a movie with so many actors flying around on very visible wires, attacking what are so clearly stuffed dummies, that you won't care that it makes absolutely no sense. Particularly strange is the monster that resembles a watermelon.

If low-budget, poor production values cinema turns you off (sometimes you just don't feel like squinting in order to see what's happening onscreen), you can't get much flashier than Showgirls. I vacillate between thinking that director Paul Verhoeven (who hid the razor-sharp military satire of Starship Troopers under the surface of a special-effects action extravaganza) knew what he was doing with Showgirls, and thanking the heavens that he has given us one of the most unintentional comedies in years. Showgirls got plenty of attention for its tits-and-ass topic (strippers in Las Vegas), but what stole the show was the wide-eyed, earnest performance of Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone. (Yeah, the girl from the Saturday morning show Saved by the Bell.) Not only is it alternately horrifying and hilarious to watch her splashing viciously around in a swimming pool with Kyle MacLachlan, but you eventually have to start laughing just at the idea that anyone would ever, in a million years, find the scene arousing. James Cameron sunk ships with less water. It's reminiscent of bathing a three year-old with a sugar high. Fortunately, nobody told Berkley, and so in another scene, when she grabs a stray monkey that's running through her dressing room, and turns, topless, towards the camera and exclaims with lip gloss flashing, "I got one!" you laugh, but you almost feel guilty, because the poor girl just had no clue.

Even bigger names abound in guilty-pleasures cinema; almost every star has made a movie that develops a cult following for unintended reasons. But it's the behind-the-camera talent that seems to have the most fun cutting loose from time to time, probably because their actions often go unobserved. Check out the rightful classic Evil Dead to see where Sam Raimi, director of Spiderman and A Simple Plan, got his start. And if you ever get a chance to rent a video of Meet the Feebles when the kids aren't home, you might be surprised by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's depraved, psychotic puppet show which makes "South Park" look banal. His Dead Alive! is another delightful surprise, complete with body-part dropping zombies (right into the soup!) and a lawnmower-wielding hero. But the ultimate in guilty pleasures comes from tracking down a bootleg copy of Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes' Superstar, which uses Barbie dolls to tell the tale of Karen Carpenter. It a chillingly effective skewering of media and body image, and because of legal action from the Carpenter estate, it's also illegal. How much guiltier can it get?

Publication date: 02/20/03

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