CONFESSIONS OF A CONNOISSEUR OF DRECK
As I promised a coupla weeks ago, we're suspending our critical faculties for the rest of the summer.
Not for us the rigorous analysis of camera angles, the close reading of New Wave scripts, the deconstruction of auteurial intentions. School will start soon enough, and we'll be back with all that good stuff, but just now it's trash, trash, trash we're going for, because that's what summer's for.
But not JUST trash – all these choices have some redeeming feature: either lavish or paltry production values, or lines that must be heard to be believed, or at least ONE appalling detail that lifts it from the level of a perfectly good, or abysmally awful, movie onto the plane of a Guilty Pleasure.
We all have them – the Quiet Shames that we admit to our best friends after the third daiquiri: whether culinary (I actually like instant mashed potatoes), literary (mystery novels – my favorite read), or cultural (Disneyland in Anaheim is a gas). This is barely the start of my list of guilty cinematic pleasures; some of them are available at local video stores, most are on NetFlix. If there are any here you haven't seen, knock yourself out.
The Conqueror (1956) – An absolutely jaw-dropping performance by John Wayne as Genghis Khan. This Howard Hughes production was so awful that Hughes bought up and (he thought) destroyed all the prints; but you can now find it on NetFlix – get in line behind me. Supreme moment: Wayne drawls to Susan Hayward (a red-haired Tartar princess) “Thou art beautiful in thy wrath!” Filmed in Utah, downwind of a nuclear test site, most of the cast and crew later died of cancer. The fact that everybody smoked like a blast furnace in those days may have had nothing to do with it.
Myra Breckenridge (1970) – A film starring a film critic – how could it not be horrible? Rex Reed shares the billing with Raquel Welch, giving one of her most wooden performances, and Mae West, who must be seen. This is Mae's next-to-last (and should have been last) movie, but she's still a force of nature. Gore Vidal said the movie caused ten years of bad sales for his novel, and who could argue?
The Raven (1963) – Do the horror movies of Roger Corman make you giggle uncontrollably? The man was no fool, so he spoofed himself in this film with all his old stars: Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre. And a new one: a BABY Jack Nicholson in the tights and the Robin Hood hat and everything. Sorta almost based on the Poe poem, it contains, I think, the first example of wizards shooting red and green fire bolts at each other, a convention we're still seeing in the latest Harry Potter extravaganzas.
The Ten Commandments (1956) – I was 9 when Cecil B. DeMille's last movie came out. As I recall, the tickets were $5 for grown-ups and $2.50 for kids. That was a bloody fortune in those days, but I remember our preacher telling us to borrow the money, if we had to, to go see it. (He stopped short of saying steal, but he was a Baptist.) The movie certainly showed all the magic we kids wanted to see – the sticks turning to cobras look silly now, but the parting of the Red Sea is still magnificent. But the greatest joy is the old-fashioned operatic acting you never got to see after that: “So let it be written, so let it be done!”
The Vikings (1958) – I was two years older than at “The Ten Commandments,” and a lot more mature: “They shot an arrow through his neck!” I yelled. This movie is responsible for the popular image of the Viking Funeral, with the dragon ship burning on the sea; actually, the chieftains were buried in their ships on land. But mostly the details are right: there's not a helmet with horns in sight, and the Norwegian locations are breathtaking. Most breathtaking of all are Janet Leigh's costumes as Morgana, princess of Wales. A young friend of mine yelled recently, “Missile tits! Was this made in the 50s?” Bingo.
Year One (2009) – You may notice a lack of recent titles in this list. Have we lost our sense of humor? No, it's just changing. Here's a comedy by Harold Ramis with the collusion of Judd Apatow, Jack Black and Michael Cera, that's based (one thinks) on the wonderful “Caveman” with Ringo Starr from 1981. Everything that's coming up, with Steve Carrell, Jack Black, and Jay Baruchel will no doubt be as valued as Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers are today. Trust me on this. The chase scene between two ox carts is a reverent homage to Mel Brooks.
Zorro the Gay Blade (1981) – “Gay” in the old sense, pretty much, though George Hamilton in a gold lamé Zorro outfit might make you wonder. Just after Don Diego is laid up with a broken ankle, his twin brother, Ramon de la Vega, shows up in Old Los Angeles to don the family mask and liberate the oppressed peons. Ramon (Hamilton at his grinningest) grew up in England, joined the Royal Navy under the name Bunny Wigglesworth, and cracks a mean whip while doing a pretty grand impression of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
And so forth – There will be further lists of guilty pleasures as the mood strikes; as I said, I have a VERY long list...