June 22, 2011  |  Film, Viewpoints
Guiltless Film Pleasures
Bye Bye Birdie. 1963. USA. Directed by George Sidney

Bye Bye Birdie. 1963. USA. Directed by George Sidney

As a regular contributor to Inside/Out, I endeavor to bring topics related to MoMA’s Department of Film and cinema history to you, the reader. I am always interested in talking and writing about films, debating their aesthetic merits, content, form, performances—and I am also very curious to know which films my colleagues across the Museum are seeing, and why. My curiosity is all the more piqued when someone tells me he stayed up late one night to catch an obscure film on, say, Turner Classic Movies.

While standing in line in the MoMA staff café I mentioned to a senior staff member that I had never seen Anthony Mann’s God’s Little Acre (1958) until it screened on TCM last week. What a crazy Southern drama/comedy about an impoverished farm family, and the batty patriarch Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) who, convinced he’s about to discover long-buried gold. digs massive holes on the family property. Much of the film’s black-and-white action takes place in one of the enormous holes, with Ryan resting on a mound of parched dirt as his sons (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow) look up and out. Into this kooky mix saunters Tina Louise as Griselda Walden, Ty Ty’s daughter-in-law, wearing high-heeled sandals amongst the towering mounds of dirt and carrying a pitcher of cool lemonade. Griselda doesn’t think it is odd to live surround by craters.

On one hand, God’s Little Acre is not an inconsequential movie. It has great bones, as they say in the architectural world: the film is based on Erskine Caldwell’s controversial 1933 novel of the same name. Due to passages containing explicitly sexual content, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to censor the book at the time of publication, and Caldwell was arrested and put on trial for obscenity. (He was eventually found innocent, and sued the Society for false arrest and malicious prosecution.) The film was cast with top notch talent: Oscar-nominated Robert Ryan and a screenplay by the blacklisted writer Ben Maddow, who wrote under the pseudonym Philip Yordan. And we must not forget the unforgettable casting of Tina Louise, an Actor’s Studio–trained performer in her film debut, and Buddy Hackett as Sheriff Pluto Swint. God’s Little Acre is way over the top in terms of realism, but it is so OVER THE TOP that it’s irresistible.

This quirky film catalyzed my thinking about the many films I revere not for their place—or lack thereof—in the cinematic canon, but for the emotions they elicit, the memories they stir of when and where I saw them and why they stick with me. At first I categorized these films as my guilty pleasures, until I read David Sterritt’s book Guiltless Pleasures (The University of Mississippi Press, 2005), wherein Sterritt reflects on Film Comment magazine’s “Guilty Pleasures” column. Sterritt says he “long enjoyed this feature, and for ages I never thought of questioning the premise behind it. Then a film-loving friend checked it out on my recommendation, and promptly asked me why any genuine pleasure should be considered guilty—especially where culture is concerned, since its manifestations are safely bounded by the screen, stage, or page.” So, taking a cue from Mr. Sterritt (the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics), I will indulge in revealing other guiltless film pleasures, along with some of my MoMA colleagues’ picks.

I adore the 1963 film musical Bye Bye Birdie (George Sidney)! Okay, I will admit Birdie is not Citizen Kane. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a deliciously raucous, sugary blast of pre-Beatles Americana that speaks to the rise of a television culture and the loss of small-town values amid other post-Eisenhower-era conventions. I was 4 years old when I first saw Bye Bye Birdie, and I am sure most of the plot and songs were way over my head and largely meaningless. But I remember this film as being the very first in my cinematic consciousness. The colors were all glossy and jelly bean bright. In the suburban home where the McAfee family lives, Ann-Margret had her own bedroom with a porch that led out to a balcony. Her little brother had a pet turtle and played with a model rocket set! Boys had names like Hugo, and when Birdie sang on the village green the mayor proffered a huge golden key to the city of Sweet Apple. In addition to all this, the cozy memory of my mother taking me to the movies every Saturday reminds me that she is in large part responsible for my career path as a film curator. The visceral, experiential components of viewing Bye Bye Birdie keep it close to my heart. I’ve seen this film dozens of times since and it never fails to make me smile. I won’t bother deconstructing the script, performance, or directorial choices; there is no sense in doing so. Watching Bye Bye Birdie is my guiltless film pleasure. Here are some others from my colleagues:

Dune (David Lynch, 1984). “…despite its (totally deserved) reputation as a boring, unintelligible mess, 10-year-old me fell madly in love with this film. And why not? It’s got political intrigue, cool costumes, neat weapons, and, with the unfortunate exception of it lead actors—the wooden duo of Kyle MacLachlan and Sean Young—a stellar cast. Not to mention giant worms!” —Jason Persse, Associate Editor, External Affairs

Eating Raoul (Paul Bartel, 1982). “A guilty pleasure film because it is like watching a low budget 1970s porno. The lighting, sound, and film quality are sub-par to say the least, but that only adds to the trashiness of the story line. As a viewer you end up identifying with the conservative couple; everyone is a sex-crazed maniac and all you want to do is head to the country and open up your own restaurant. In fact, this movie makes me want to go back and watch Chopping Mall, another dark comedy by Bartel.” —Nathaniel Longcope, A/V Technician, IT

“Anything by Paul Verhoeven!” —Rajendra Roy, Chief Curator, Film

Starship Troopers. 1991. USA. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Starship Troopers. 1991. USA. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Big Business (Jim Abrahams, 1988). “I thoroughly enjoy Big Business but would never actually encourage anyone else to watch. I really enjoy when actors play double characters. Here Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler play identical twins of themselves. The clash of city folks in the country and country folks in the city, especially when the city is New York, as it is in the clichéd premise of this film, always entertains me.” —Sonya Shrier, Lobby Manager (Film), Visitor Services

Dirty Dancing (Emilio Ardolino, 1987). “Because nobody puts Baby in the corner!” —Mary Keene, Archival Loan Coordinator, Film

“My guilty pleasures have to do with misfires by filmmakers I otherwise admire, and two really bad films by Otto Preminger, Skidoo (1968) and Rosebud (1975), come to mind. I could not in good conscience recommend these films to anyone except those who want to the see the compete works of an artist.” —Laurence Kardish, Senior Curator, Film

Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967). “Quoting from the film,…I didn’t have a career. I had work.” —Gregory Singer, Projectionist, IT

Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), RoboCop (1987), and Basic Instinct (1992)—although that one is too scary for me!” —Art Wehrhahn, Film Preservation Center Manager (Hamlin), Film

Auntie Mame. 1958. USA. Directed by Mortin DaCosta

Auntie Mame. 1958. USA. Directed by Morton DaCosta

Auntie Mame (Morton DeCosta, 1958): “Icky bliss!” —Michael Margitich, Senior Deputy Director, External Affairs

Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995): “Don’t forget Showgirls!” —Rebecca Stokes, Director, Digital Marketing Communications

Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967): “It was in December, on a freezing cold day with my family visiting Manhattan from where we lived in rural New Jersey. We managed to get the very last tickets to a Radio City Music Hall afternoon show. When we found our seats, they were in the first row and I recall looking up at this huge screen and Jane Fonda and Robert Redford climbing up to their apartment. I wanted to live just like they did. That was my impression of being a New Yorker.” —Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Film

The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1995): “One of the most quote-worthy films in decades.” —Kitty Cleary, Financial Specialist, Circulating Film Library

Auntie Mame: “Rosalind Russell is great. I remember seeing it as a kid in the 1970s and just loving her flamboyance and independence. I saw it again a few months ago and realized there were some very somber emotional moments in the film.” —Alenia Sammy, Office Manager/Executive Assistant, Retail

The film that seemed to run as a common thread throughout the responses I received was Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), coincidentally part of the MoMA film collection. When Art Wehrhahn included this film on his guiltless pleasures list but noted that certain scenes leave him feeling squeamish, Curatorial Assistant Jenny He wrote in response, “’What’s your malfunction, Rico?’ That’s not a guilty pleasure, Artie! That’s the best-constructed allegory for fascism since [Franklin J.] Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968). Although Neil Patrick Harris probing the brain bug at the end was a bit too torture porn for me.”

So what’s your “guiltless pleasure” film?