I don’t believe in the idea of guilty pleasures because I don’t think you should feel guilty about liking anything. (My boyfriend on the other hand says he definitely feels guilty about loving B.A.P.S.) A guilty pleasure suggests that the movie in question only holds appeal because of your own conflicted feelings about it. The following are films made by famous directors that I genuinely like but that I feel got shafted in terms of their initial reputations, so this is not about me defending my love of bad movies. For example, I was going to add Martin Scorsese’s gorgeous adaptation of The Age of Innocence (which plays better than ever in the wake of Baz Luhrmann’s ludicrously extravagant Bollywood version of The Great Gatsby) because it was received with unenthusiastic respect and because I meet Scorsese fans who haven’t seen it or who prefer the more popular James Ivory literary adaptations of the time. I could have argued that The Age of Innocence was a little too glazed and remote for a mass audience, but in the end it certainly wasn’t ignored or treated with contempt when it was released, unlike what I suppose are some of the other “forgotten pleasures” I respond to…
1: 1941 (1979)
It’s Christmastime in L.A. and no one is really freaking out about the recent attack on Pearl Harbor (people just want to dance and get laid and watch movies) except for a few assorted loony hawks who end up turning Hollywood into a war-torn amusement park. Spielberg has publicly apologized for this epically expensive slapstick comedy made between Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not for Hook or Always. It was universally reviled and it is a folly, but Spielberg’s visual genius is on full display. The movie was built on such a massive scale that its massiveness becomes part of the joke. It has an anarchic anything-for-a-laugh spirit and a rousing John Williams score, and it’s spectacularly, childishly beautiful, painted with Lite-Brite colors. No CGI, just old-school miniature sets with toy planes chasing each other above Hollywood Boulevard—thrilling. The USO jitterbug dance sequence is justifiably famous and the unmoored Ferris wheel lit up and rolling and wobbling down the pier at the climax is awesome. A young man’s movie ridiculing the jingoism of the military mind-set, 1941 would make an instructive and very troubling double feature with Saving Private Ryan.
2: STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)
Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) looks back at his life mid-career while attending a weekend film festival celebrating him and his films (especially the earlier, funny ones). Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz came out the year before, and it’s a more dynamic (and sentimental) showbiz movie also patterned after Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 and also featuring a portrait of the artist as famous director reconsidering his fame and art. Whereas Fosse’s movie was much loved and honored, Allen’s movie was hated and forgotten. It was interpreted as a cold movie about a filmmaker resenting and ridiculing his audience—but if that’s what it’s really about, so what? That’s not compelling? Consistently funny and brooding, it might be the most interesting and nakedly revealing movie Woody Allen has ever made, and the most shimmeringly beautiful: shot in black and white by Gordon Willis, it’s as visually stunning as Manhattan, even if it’s not as achieved as that 1979 masterpiece.
3: THE FOG (1980)
John Carpenter made this film during a remarkable run (Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York, culminating with his greatest film, The Thing), but he was so disappointed by the initial results that he reshot one-third of it. The Fog is his only movie from that period that sometimes gets overlooked. Compared to the ruthless simplicity of Halloween, The Fog is seriously dumb and overly elaborate hokum—yes, the plot involves a 100-year-old curse and killer ghost-leper-pirates bent on revenge (they even have glowing blood-red eyes). The script is barely serviceable. But thanks to Dean Cundey’s cinematography, it’s one of the most elegant-looking horror pictures ever made, with views of the Pacific from the lighthouse home of the KAB radio station (from where Adrienne Barbeau as DJ Stevie Wayne warns the townspeople about the fog) that are so intensely painterly they pop. The elongated opening-credit sequence is beautifully creepy: Antonio Bay at midnight with the spirits making their presence known—phones mindlessly ringing, items menacingly falling off shelves in a deserted supermarket, parked cars coming alive, their horns blaring, headlights flashing. The pirates use the fog as camouflage for their murders, and this turns the film into a kind of meditative horror-noir. The fog has a haunting spectral quality. It billows across the sea, swirling through the streets, streaming under doors, announcing itself as a massive and dangerous ghost.
4: SOMETHING WILD (1986)
Jonathan Demme’s buoyant mid-Eighties yuppie road movie is, in retrospect, maybe the key American film of its era along with Blue Velvet (also 1986, but Blue Velvet was more popular), but despite excellent reviews very few people went to see it. I saw Something Wild on its opening weekend in a vast, empty theater in Westwood (I waited an hour in line to see Blue Velvet at a packed theater nearby earlier that fall) and after it was over, the screenwriter I was with and I looked at each other elated and buzzed yet in shared disbelief that this movie was clearly not going to be a smash. The wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop songs is the best curated of any movie in that decade (maybe ever); Jeff Daniels was never again this dorkily sexy (he’s hot) and Melanie Griffith landed the most beguiling role of her career. Ray Liotta: electrifying. The whole movie burns with energy and good vibes until it doesn’t and the comedy turns horrifyingly dark and violent (which is, of course, why it probably bombed: it is upsetting). This was made at the height of Demme’s reign as America’s finest mainstream director, though one without a big hit up to that point (his terrific follow-up, Married to the Mob, wasn’t a hit either). The massively popular Silence of the Lambs is a perfect film whereas Something Wild isn’t, but it’s the Demme movie of which I’m fondest. And there are very few hints of the liberal sentimentality that would later envelop him—you can’t imagine Demme at this point sincerely wanting to make something like Philadelphia or Beloved.
5: CRUISING (1980)
“How’d you like to disappear?” cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is asked before going undercover in William Friedkin’s dirty-scary thriller about a serial murderer preying on gay men in late-Seventies New York—in which everyone looks like Al Pacino, all the victims as well as the killer, which is why he’s recruited: he’s bait (and the movie keeps hinting—fuck—he might also be the killer). Some of the tough-guy dialogue is stilted and flatly delivered and there are awkward directorial choices, but the punk minimalism is infused with a gritty lurid dread, and Cruising ultimately becomes a very quiet, muted art-house movie about masculinity and identity. It’s about taking on a role, preparing for a part, and losing yourself to a character. It has an open and neutral exploratory quality, though there’s an interesting disparity between the cops, in the brightly lit precinct scenes, enacting their own miserable S&M punishments on suspects, and the guys in the violet-hued underground bars playing out their rapturous rituals of pain and desire with one another. Yes, it was viewed as a provocation, but it was also fatally misunderstood by the gay community, which slammed it at the time. It’s just a murder mystery set on the fringes of the gay S&M world—it’s not an indictment of anything, and the gay men in the movie are remarkably varied and unstereotypical. Cruising might be the least naïve and the least condescending mainstream movie about gay men ever made. The final scenes are deeply ambiguous and unnerving.
6: GREENBERG (2010)
After a stint in a mental hospital, 40-ish Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller: fearlessly great) arrives in Los Angeles to housesit for his brother in the hills above Sunset and meets a frazzled twentysomething desperate for connection (Greta Gerwig, in a star-making performance). She ends up both attracted and appalled by Roger’s bitter self-absorbed narcissism. Noah Baumbach’s movie, with Roger at its center, becomes the fullest expression of Gen-X despair in all of American cinema. The negative reception was another ominous reminder that audiences are unwilling to accept hard-to-like protagonists. Greenberg has the loose vibe of a classic Seventies movie and the same spiky casual dissatisfaction that runs through Shampoo, though Baumbach’s film doesn’t end in such elegiac defeat. But like Shampoo, it’s one of the best L.A. movies ever made (the city is pictured as a sunlit land of pseudo-expectations and lo-fi hedonism, but not scabrous or doomed) and it is, I think, cinematographer Harris Savides’s finest moment. Baumbach’s usual novelistic attention to detail is everywhere: the late-night hook-ups, the LACMA decal on the fridge, the hose twirling in the pool, the desultory walks through the canyons, the great screwed-up birthday scene at Musso & Frank’s, climaxing with a riveting and devastating party sequence in which Roger does coke with a group of Millennials and attacks their values. Do they care about what the old man has to say? Take a guess.