Art of the Guilty Pleasure
I’ve long disliked the term “Guilty Pleasure” as it applies to movies. I love the movies I love because they’re great, dammit, and I refuse to feel guilt about it. However, I think everyone has a movie or five that evoke headscratches from others when you talk about how much you love them. I have a few of those. However, I’m not here to feel guilty about them. I’m here to defend them as the works of art they are. Or at least as damned entertaining films.
Tops for me with this list is “Starship Troopers”. It’s pretty widely known as both a tremendously dumbed down version of a famous book, and as a tremendously dumb film in general. Its acting evokes soaps. Its violence is comically over the top. While it attempts the satire and political commentary of its source material, its ham and silliness undercut it.
That is precisely why I enjoy it so much. Somewhere along the line, I think director Paul Verhooven realized that this film would not work as a satire. Satire needs to be ruthless and cutting. This film is neither. Oh, sure, there are bits here and there that show its initial intentions (the propaganda sequences, for example) but mostly, this film’s embrace of its own cheese makes it giddily entertaining.
Some films are meant to work only on the surface. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is one of the best examples of this. It’s all plot points and style. It works brilliantly because the plot landmarks consist of glorious fight scenes, because Tarantino’s dialogue is as sharp as ever, and because the performances are all superb.
“Starship Troopers” is nowhere near “Kill Bill Vol. 1’s” quality, but it works in the same way. It’s a surprisingly finely tuned exercise in a style that’s rarely played straight. It kids you that it’s poking fun at its genre while, at its heart, it’s embracing it fully.
“300” is another film that raises eyebrows when I say I love it. “300” is definitely more well-liked than “Starship Troopers”, but it’s popular cannon fodder for film snobs. As someone who doesn’t consider the label “film snob” pejorative, I both aspire to film snobdom while loving “300”.
For my defense of this film, I turn to a quote from the late, immortal critic Pauline Kael: ” Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” This quote is widely dissected. I’ve always viewed it as Kael calling the bluff of critics who scoff at anything populist and “not artistic”. Truly artistic films, she says, are pretty rare, and therefore not being art or, more so, being trashy is no reason not to love a movie.
“300” is great trash. Like “Troopers” it’s all surface. It’s basically a live action version of the comic. And while comic fans worshiped the film for its literal adherence to Frank Miller’s book, that’s not at all why it’s good. The movie is good because the original comic isn’t. Miller’s “300” is every bit as shallow and posturing as the film. Unlike the film, its images are static when they demand to be moving. As they are, they’re fleeting spectacles, interestingly drawn characters with smattering bits of originality. The film brings these images to life in a way I think Miller failed with the comic.
As result, while the film “300” is stupid, shallow, and one-dimensional, it’s also chock full of superb moments of visual creativity. The seen with the oracle might have been an excuse for gratuitous nudity on paper, but it’s beautifully photographed and is more artful than it has any right to be. Famous stills (like the iconic image at the cliffside) from the book are haunting and spectacular in the film. These images and more could have served art better than they did here. But there’s no shame in brightening a bit of great trash.