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Sep 12

Shamefaced at the Movies: Confessing My (oh my!) Guiltiest Cinematic Guilty Pleasure

Film theorist David Bordwell, author of such notable books as Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) and Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1987), identifies four key features of film criticism: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Of the fourth critical activity, he asks that we consider the following slight, yet consequential, distinction:

[Evaluation] encompasses both judgment and taste. Taste is what gives you a buzz. There’s no accounting for it, we’re told, and a person’s tastes can be wholly unsystematic and logically inconsistent. Among my favorite movies are The Hunt for Red October, How Green Was My Valley, Choose Me, Back to the Future, Song of the South, Passing Fancy, Advise and Consent, Zorns Lemma, and Sanshiro Sugata. I’ll also watch June Allyson, Sandra Bullock, Henry Fonda, and Chishu Ryu in almost anything. I’m hard-pressed to find a logical principle here. (2011, p. 57; italics in original)

Judgment, on the other hand, operates beyond the subjective realm of personal preference, and within the (comparatively) objective realm of technical and artistic criteria. To have a productive discussion about film, Bordwell explains, that exchange must mainly (but not necessarily exclusively) base itself on “intersubjective standards and discernible things going on in [a] movie” (e.g., technical ability, thematic depth, creativity, emotional structure), as opposed to “whether you got a buzz from it and I didn’t” (p. 58). Indeed, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it at all” won’t get you very far conversation-wise.

Films we enjoy but that aren’t considered particularly good when measured against higher-order criteria are collectively referred to as “guilty pleasures.” Many of us have them; few of us admit to having them. But if someone as distinguished as David Bordwell can say he’ll watch almost anything with Sandra Bullock in it, the rest of us can certainly do the same without shame. And so, in this spirit, I dedicate this post to my favorite guilty pleasure of all time. The question is: which one to choose? I could go with Miner’s delightfully kitschy Lake Placid (1999), or even Meyer’s delightfully corny The Holiday (2006). Or how about Hill’s equally silly Muppet vehicle Muppets from Space (1999)? No, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. So let’s go with my granddaddy of all guilty pleasures: Wolf’s The House Bunny (2008). You must understand: this is difficult for me to confess. While I’ve never shied away from, say, admitting I’ve watched pornography in my life, I’ve purposefully avoided ever talking about watching (not to mention *gasp* owning) Wolf’s irresistibly terrible film about a Playboy Bunny with a good heart. What movies have I seen recently, you ask? Why, I’ve just gone through all ten films from Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989), being such a fan of his subsequent Trois couleurs trilogy (1993-1994). Oh, and what else? Um… OK, ok: The House Bunny. For the seventh time.

For reasons that will become clear shortly, The House Bunny doesn’t really lend itself to interpretation. Thus, I instead focus my review of the film on description, a bit of analysis, and, save for a few ventures into judgment, the “taste” component of evaluation. First, though, how did The House Bunny fare with critics? The comedy currently holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What do my two favorite film reviewers have to say about it, specifically? Roger Ebert didn’t even bother seeing it. As for James Berardinelli, who awarded the film one star out of four, his review starts like so:

The House Bunny has a screenplay written with ten-year olds in mind about a subject that deserves an R-rating. The resulting hodgepodge of unfunny, sophomoric humor and PG-13 T&A, frosted by a sheen of appallingly nauseous “drama,” makes for such a noxious brew that it’s amazing viewers stay in their seats for the entire production. Then again, it takes absorption of the full 100 minutes for the movie’s vomit-inducing power to become evident. (Berardinelli, 2008)

There you have it. This is the film that somehow managed past my quality filters.

The screenplay to The House Bunny, which Berardinelli so voraciously tears into, was penned by screenwriting duo Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz. (Incidentally, this is also the pair behind the lawmedy Legally Blonde, Luketic, 2001, which spawned Legally Blonde: The Musical, Mitchell, 2007, my top theatrical guilty pleasure). It tells the tale of Shelley Darlington (Anna Faris), who is living the good life in the Playboy Mansion. While she is only now a lowly Playboy Bunny, she dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged Playboy Playmate. One morning, she is rather inexplicably ordered to leave the Mansion. At first devastated, she eventually finds a new home in a sorority house, where she must act as “house mother” to a bunch of socially awkward and drab-looking sisters. Being so unpopular, the sisters have brought their sorority to the edge of extinction: their university is threatening to shut them down if they don’t find more pledges. With her knowledge of what it takes to be cool and throw awesome parties, Darlington vows to help her new family find new members and save their home.

The House Bunny features an absurd storyline that unfolds in an entirely standard way: girl is happy, first obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl finds new and better source of happiness, second obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl is happy again. What else can be said of The House Bunny? Its soundtrack is laden with popular tunes, one of which plays over, of all aberrations, a makeover montage. And its message is borderline sexist: if you’re a woman and want people to pay attention to you, perhaps even respect you as a person, you better be pretty and wear sexy clothes.

And yet, despite all this, I keep coming back to it. Why? Because of how the film makes me feel. Whatever its faults—and I am the first to admit there are many—The House Bunny is a friendly and good-natured movie. It means so well, it is hard to blame it for being so bland and misguided. There is also one scene in The House Bunny that makes me laugh, and laugh hard. (I’m not kidding: harder even than the kitten that thinks of nothing but murder all day.) Every time I watch it, I end up rolling on the floor. I won’t say anything more about the scene, except that it involves a guttural mnemonic device Darlington uses to remember the names of people she meets for the first time.

I cannot guarantee The House Bunny will make you feel the way it makes me feel. Given this, is there anything observable about the film that makes it worth seeing? Most of what is on display within The House Bunny makes it very difficult to recommend as a worthwhile rental. That is, except for one thing: Anna Faris’ performance as Shelley Darlington. Ultimately, I don’t think I would keep returning to The House Bunny if Faris weren’t in it. She infuses Darlington with such bubbly optimism and genuinely good intentions, it is hard not to fall for both actress and character. (While she is not the only aspect responsible for the film’s affable quality, she remains a major source of it.) A welcome bonus, the cast also features another delightful actress, the striking Emma Stone. While Stone has gone on to play in much better films, like The Scarlett Letter-inspired Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Faris has unfortunately not been so lucky. Still, she can always count on me to watch any title carrying her name.

Just in case you think less of me now—and I wouldn’t blame you if you did—I am going to conclude this post by saying smart-sounding things, things which will hopefully boost your brain’s newly adjusted measure of my IQ. In Act II of The House Bunny, Darlington undergoes an intellectual makeover to impress a boy she fancies. By the end of my conclusion, I hope to have salvaged your impression of me to the point you think me at least as smart as Darlington, v.2.0! So here we go…

We have so far encountered in this post two sorts of films: a) films that we like but aren’t good (otherwise known as “guilty pleasures”) and b) films that are good (often referred to as “masterpieces” or, in time, “classics”). But, what of the role of enjoyment in that second category? I submit that this second class of film can further be divided into two subordinate categories: a) films that are good and we like, and b) films that are good and we don’t like (either at all or enough to revisit).

The second, mixed experience can occur when a good film provokes within us an unpleasant experience, like disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain. (While there is nothing wrong with not liking a film because it made us feel unpleasant things, this outcome should never bear on whether we judge the film to be good or bad. For those who are turned off by films which create uncomfortable states of feeling, and who wonder whether they can distinguish how a movie made them feel from how good or bad it is, Solondz’s brilliant, but challenging, dark comedy Happiness, 1998, happens to provide a perfect test of this ability.) For me, however, this second, mixed experience occurs for one reason only, and a nebulous one at that: I just didn’t “connect” with the material, however good it may be. Feelings of disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain will usually not prevent a sense of connection; in fact, they may very well promote it. Thus, by “connect,” I suppose I mean I feel like I have been impacted in some meaningful and seemingly permanent way.

Generally, the extent to which a film appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities (i.e., to which its many disparate, but interconnected, components are dispassionately perceived as technically and artistically accomplished) will determine whether I believe it to be good, and the extent to which a film appeals to my emotional sensibilities (i.e., to which it causes me to feel, or even think, passionately) will determine whether I like it. Films that only accomplish the former task are usually films I believe to be good, but do not like; films that only accomplish the latter task are usually “guilty pleasures”; and films that accomplish both tasks are usually films I both believe are good and that I like.

Of course, failings relating to the first task may overwhelm successes relating to the second: for example, while certain moments within Hadashi no Gen (Nakazawa, 1983) successfully compel the audience to consider what it was like to live in the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, these deeply affecting moments are regrettably embedded within an overall clumsy narrative that ultimately diminishes their post-credits resonance (and certainly renders any comparisons to Hotaru no Haka, Takahata, 1988, absolutely moot). How the first task is carried out may also directly impact the success of the second: for example, the carefully constructed eerie mood of the gothic chiller The Innocents (Clayton, 1964) results in a more textured and ultimately satisfying sense of dread than the cheap scare tactics of most modern horror flicks. (The House Bunny’s infectious cheerfulness, on the other hand, appears miraculously immune to the contrived workings of a worn-out plot.)

An additional complication: because what speaks to us often varies depending on what is happening in our lives at the moment, films I don’t connect with now, I may connect with later. I predict, however, that films I connect with now, I will always connect with in some way or another. Even if a film stops speaking to me like it once did, the nostalgic memory that this film once left an impression on me will forever remain, indirectly satisfying my emotional sensibilities when re-watching it.

Just a few months ago, I compiled a list of films I both think are good and enjoy enough to revisit in the future. While I’ve never judged a film to be good and also not liked it at all, I’ve judged many films to be good and also not liked them enough to revisit them. For example, while watching Godard’s Bande à part (1964), my knowledge of standards regarding what constitutes competent filmmaking told me this film was impressively close to perfection. While I now fantasize about running through the Louvre in less than 9 minutes and 43 seconds, the film however didn’t speak to me on a deeper, more personal level. And so, I decided not to include it in my list of “good films that I also like.” The same reasoning excluded Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), Fellini’s (1963), Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1984), etc.

While each of these films was undeniably aesthetically satisfying, I didn’t, as Bordwell puts it in an earlier quote, get a buzz from them. Of course, I still believe that a life lived without having once experienced each of these films has, in some small way, been wasted. According to my records, however, I watch over 100 new films a year, which leaves very little time for repeated viewings. And so, when I do find time in my schedule to watch films again, I typically prefer to revisit those I have so far connected with. The visceral sense of satisfaction these films provide compels me to choose them over films I am only able to appreciate on a cerebral level. And because I’ve connected with both good and bad films, these return visits may very well include anything from Haneke’s Der siebente Kontinent (1989), a powerfully cogent indictment of modern living, to, well, The House Bunny.

Reference

Bordwell, D. (2011). In critical condition. In D. Bordwell & K. Thompson (Eds.), Minding movies: Observations on the art, craft, and business of filmmaking (pp. 53-62). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Chapter also available on David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema.)

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