Wednesday, August 22, 2012

LIE # 42: No Guilt! (And “Bad Movies I Love”: Michael Bay’s “The Island” and “Army Medicine in Vietnam”)

Before we look at this week’s “Bad Movies I Love”—one of which happens to be almost a snuff flick, and the other being Michael Bay’s 2005 clone conspiracy sci-fi shoot-’em-up The Island (no relation to Michael Ritchie’s 1980 pirate gorefest)—let’s look at that very same phrase, and why it is preferable to “guilty pleasures.”

Personally, the term “Bad Movies I Love” is much more preferable to “guilty pleasures.”

Using the word “guilty” implies shame, that the person in question is embarrassed to like something that has been shunned by the crowd. Which means that that person cannot or doesn’t know how to defend their own tastes.
Discounting the dangerous interests of maniacs and the insane, pleasure shouldn’t make you feel guilty, and certainly not something as innocuous as a movie.
The use of the term “guilty pleasures” also implies weakness in the speaker, perhaps even a lack of moral fiber, as well as imposing others’ morality on something as individual as taste.

As a kid, I subscribed to Film Comment, and greatly enjoyed its semi-regular feature presenting the “guilty pleasures” of various directors. The better ones were fun because they introduced a nerd to even more off-beat selections, while often reinforcing some of your own favorites.

The ones I remember are: John Milius (he includes the entire genre of biker flicks, Gary Cooper’s Return to Paradise and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—Milius called Leatherface’s final scene a “pagan dance to some sort of bloodthirsty Aztec Sun God,” if memory serves correctly), John Carpenter, and John Waters, who included a straight porn movie on his list, next to Woody Allen’s Interiors and Tony Richardson/Jean Genet’s Mademoiselle (all three of which I like). But best of all, Waters included Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

Anyway, the phrase “Bad Movies I Love” is less philosophical discordant with me than the expression “guilty pleasures”—guilt is for more important things than movies. I get it; you mean films you’re scared to mention in ‘polite’ company.

“Bad Movies I Love” has force, identity and dedication: “I” and “love.”
This isn’t sneaking around, this is pride.

As for “Bad,” this word is the only concession to so-called consensus reality I’ll grant. These are movies you think are bad, not me.

Using the word “Bad” just makes things easier when conversing (or trying to convert) The Normals.

Because a generalist term like “Bad” is terribly reductive: When you accept their definition of “bad,” you accept their definition of “good,” and therefore you accept what these Medveds, these self-appointed arbitrators of taste, think an audience should be—and that’s just rude.

Because not every movie is—or should be—made for the same demographic.
Of course, the wonderful thing is that often, even when a flick is created solely as a summertime tentpole blockbuster, it can be completely underappreciated, even shunned*—case in point, 2005’s The Island.

A mash-up of The Clonus Horror and THX-1138, before The Island plunges into well-choreographed fireball-carwreck action-movie retardation (which I do love to a great extent, and director Michael Bay knows how to do right—the highway chase with the falling railroad wheels is pretty damn spectacular), the first three-quarters of this flick have a very unsettling and paranoid Philip K. Dick-esque vibe, as it shows the clones learning more about the “real” world.

Thinking they’re the sole survivors of an environmental holocaust that has destroyed the Earth’s surface, a city of happy clones (who don’t know that) lives pleasantly in a well-furnished giant underground lab. The clones have been speed-grown as organ donors for the ultra-rich, and are kept relatively stupid: at about the level of a 10-year-old.
But one clone, played by Ewan McGregor, begins learning about the “real” world, and starts to educate another, played by Scarlett Johansson.
Soon, the clones have to run for it, and a corporate hit squad is close behind…

None of it would work, though, if this movie didn’t have its gazillion dollar budget and sexy big-name thesps on-board. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is easy on the eyes and play the part of dumb replicants well: the clones are such sweet beautiful children who’ve been lied to, and then have to run for their lives, that you have to root for them.

It’s only by maintaining the maximum Hollywood production value that the film “works,” by not letting you have time to think—and it all looks just right.
You’re thoroughly swept up in the illusion. (Otherwise, the premise is a tad dopey—what do they do with the rest of the clone after a specific organ is removed? Turn them into Soylent Green?)

That said, I kinda feel like watching The Island right now!

It’s rude of me to call Army Medicine in Vietnam a “bad” film, because it’s not, in any sense of the word—however, it is a film I’m cautious about praising in polite company.
It’s got one of those titles, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Cannibal Holocaust or The World’s Greatest Sinner (all of which are also “bad” movies I love), that just draw a line in the sand and let you know you may be going past a point of no return.

Produced in 1970 by the US Army’s Walter Reed Hospital, it’s a training film indoctrinating new medics to the horrors they’ll be facing in The ’Nam.

Army Medicine in Vietnam is a brutal vision where the human identity is absolutely reduced to meat, as we witness amputations, gunshot wound surgery, the victims of leprosy and worse.

The first time I saw this film was at an art gallery in Williamsburg in 1989—by the halfway point, about 75% of the audience had split, with my friend and I (and our dates, who we refused to let leave), as well as transgression filmmaker Richard Kern, and a couple of others were the only people left.

Which is too bad for those who couldn’t hack the gore and horror (i.e. “reality”), for the film all of a sudden becomes incredibly uplifting.
A soldier is brought into the operating theater: he’s basically a body with a plate of hamburger attached to the neck. It looks like his face is gone.
Then the surgeons start working…and it’s truly miraculous as we see them flip and twist wrecked flesh back into a recognizable face! Sure, the GI will have some gnarly scars on his kisser—but a few minutes ago, there wasn’t even a face!
This is followed by the removal of a bullet (it looks like it’s ammo from a hunting rifle, a very long and thin round) from inside a soldier’s skull. We see the X-ray: the bullet is lodged essentially between the lobes of the brain.
With super-thin forceps, the sawbones reach through a hole in the tear-duct, and slide this bloody and slimy bullet—which still has a sharp point on it—right out from next to the man’s eye.
Simply amazing!

Because it’s the real deal, and we see doctors doing their best, Army Medicine in Vietnam ultimately praises the human spirit and body for its adaptability and resilience.
But it is a grueling flick (only 30 minutes, but whew!), truly an endurance test.
(I just realized it, but both of today's films also deal with radical surgery! Hmmmm....)

(*) = Of course, this is also the fate of plenty of genuinely bad films as well…

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