by: Calhoun Kersten
Being a film school kid, I’ve seen my fair share of movies. I’ve seen Citizen Kane in at least five of my undergrad classes. I’ve all but memorized Casablanca in its entirety. I’ve even found myself, on more than one occasion, with the sudden desire to watch Sans Soleil. After all, film school teaches you to appreciate the classics: the dramas, the avant garde, and just about everything in between. But anyone who has been to film school knows that there are some movies that are simply off-limits; the sort of trashy movies that everybody seems to conveniently forget how many times they’ve watched whenever somebody asks them, “what is your favorite movie?” I’m guilty of the same thing. My answer is usually something like The Night of the Hunter or The Awful Truth. Don’t get me wrong, those movies are great, but in terms of sheer rewatchability? The appeal is a little more limited than even I care to admit. Granted, rewatchability doesn’t guarantee the “greatness” of a movie, but there is something to be said about those movies that we return to time and time again.
Although film school tried to beat the shame of my affinity for bad movies out of me, I’m finishing my Masters and it just hasn’t worked. In fact, as somebody writing his thesis on horror franchises, I think it’s safe to say there’s no risk of me turning my back on the B movies and crap-fests of yesteryear any time soon. But how do we talk about these kinds of movies? We’re so conditioned to use terms like “guilty pleasure,” but what exactly are we guilty of by liking these movies? Is taste really a crime these days?
Well, if it is, I’ve got a great deal to repent for. So, dear readers, consider this my confession. I own Dick on DVD. You know, that one movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Oscar-nominee Michelle Williams as two teenage girls who stumble upon the Watergate scandal? I saw Josie & the Pussycats in the theaters at least three times (three being a conservative estimate). Even as a 24-year-old male, my love of The Iron Giant is so great that I have it tattooed on my right calf.
God, it feels good to get that off my chest. But really, what about those things should I be ashamed of? Maybe it’s just film school that taught me to channel some bizarre sense of self-loathing when I actually enjoyed a movie, but it seems like something more. Taking a look back at the reviews of most of my “guilty pleasure” movies, there seems to be this bizarre idea that these films are somehow worthless. The concept of “worth” when it comes to film school kids is a bizarre one. After all, if anybody’s experience with their parents were at all like mine, the question of, “well, what the hell are you gonna do with that?” came up on more than one occasion. We’re constantly having to defend ourselves as legitimate scholars against literary critics, judgmental adults, and the oversimplified understanding of what it is we do. Normally, I don’t even like to address this question of worth. After all, you can tell as soon as somebody hears you say, “I study media and cinema studies” that their minds have already been made up. Occasionally it’s a pitying glance, other times it’s an understanding head nod followed by an ignorant, “so… you watch movies?” But when even film students turn on their own, dismissing them as “inconsequential fluff,” discussing our cultural ideas of what does and does not matter in film becomes an imperative.
Dick. Whether I like to admit it or not, as a blissfully unaware 12-year-old, Dick taught me about Watergate. Josie & the Pussycats. Some may see a teeny-bopper flick with an infectious bubble gum pop soundtrack. I see a scathing social commentary on modern consumerism. The Iron Giant. An homage to the paranoia of Cold War era America cleverly disguised as a children’s movie. All of these movies that, at one time or another, had been dismissed as unimportant or mere entertainment have a power all their own. As is the case with beauty, a film’s message and its subsequent worth is in the eye of the beholder. While these rigid and judgmental standards are fixtures of film school and even the industry itself, it is important to question these preconceived notions.
In order to do so, we must fist examine how we talk about these values of “good” and “bad.” Naturally, this is a step that can only begin with ourselves. Before I continue, let me perfectly clear, I’m not expecting to change minds. I hope to provoke some sort of dialogue, but actually change the way that people feel about the movies they love and/or hate? I don’t even pretend to have that much power. Besides, when I think about somebody trying to change my mind about the likes of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, I get so angry I can’t even see straight. No, this isn’t about changing anything. This is about creating a conversation for which casual movie-goers and film students alike don’t have the vocabulary.
Until we come up with terms outside of the value-laden “goods” and “bads,” it doesn’t seem that bad movies, like my beloved Josie & the Pussycats, have a chance. Still, as film school so often likes to remind us, movies are a product of the society in which they are created. As such, every movie has two stories going on. At face value, there is the actual plot (boy meets girl, etc.) while something much deeper is going on beneath the surface (commentary on modern relationships). Before dismissing something with simply a thumbs up or thumbs down, consider the factors that go into creating something like that. Those “dumb” movies that you always secretly enjoyed as a kid may have a lot more going on than others give them credit for.
Calhoun Kersten was born and raised in upper-middle class, predominantly white suburbia a.k.a. Wyoming, Ohio. After escaping the shackles of a privileged lifestyle, he made the monumental decision to move to Chicago and go to art school. After getting his undergrad in Film/Video, he found himself overeducated and unemployed, leading to the decision to pursue his Masters in Media and Cinema Studies. He is currently finishing up his thesis on narrative elements and economic influence in long-running horror franchises, before moving to LA where he will probably be the most overqualified barback in the Los Angeles area.