Guilty Pleasures

May 20, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Some critics will argue that there is no such thing as a "guilty pleasure." Either you like a film or you don't like it. If you like it, there shouldn't be any "guilt" involved. While I understand that position, I think the term "guilty pleasure" is effective to illustrate something about the relationship of a critic to a film. To me, a "guilty pleasure" is a movie I enjoy despite recognizing that the majority of serious movie-goers will not think highly of it. Or, to put it another way, it's liking something that is generally regarded to be a bad movie.

Sometimes, the viewer's enjoyment of a "guilty pleasure" doesn't happen in the way the filmmakers intended. There are plenty of bad movies that can be appreciated on a campy level. The best-known examples of this are the films of Ed Wood or the dubbed chop-socky flicks of the '70s. The directors making those movies were serious about them. Most viewers derive enjoyment from their silliness.

My guilty pleasures tend to be mainstream. That is to say, they are not obscure films that need to be looked up on the Internet Movie Database. The titles are easily recognizable. I don't have a ranked list, so when I present a title, it's just one that pops into my mind. Every once in a while, I'll come back to this topic and reveal another of my "guilty pleasures." (What fun would it be to unveil all of the titles at once?)

Today's selection is the 1976 version of King Kong. There's an element of nostalgia attached to this one, since it is the first movie I experienced in an indoor movie theater. When I saw it at age 9, I was awed, and thought it was a legitimately great movie. It had all the elements that a 9-year old boy appreciates: a pretty girl (notice the usage of the word "pretty" instead of "sexy" - sex hadn't entered the equation yet for me), lots of action (after a slow start), and a big, bad ape. I was in my monster movie phase at that time of my life, so it fit right in.

Today, I look at the film differently. It's campy (almost to a fault) and some of the then-lauded special effects are amazingly cheesy. Jessica Lange's performance needs to be seen to be believed (at the time, no one would have believed she would win an Oscar later in her career), and Jeff Bridges isn't much better. Charles Grodin is in full scenery-chewing mode. Kong is clearly a guy in a monkey suit. (The only legitimately "good" aspects of the film are Richard Kline's cinematography and John Barry's wonderful score.) Yet I think King Kong is great fun. At times, it works as a comedy. At times, it works as an adventure. And there are even occasions when little bits of drama work. The last scene, as Kong dies and Dwan is pulled away from her lover and into the media spotlight, is actually quite effective.

Writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. took a lot of heat for writing the screenplay, but I believe he knew what he was doing. I think a lot of the corny lines are there intentionally. Semple knew that this version of Kong could not be played completely straight, so he let loose with the cheese, relying on the actors for the right delivery. For the most part, I think they got it. Critics who want to take the film seriously see it as an unmitigated disaster. I understand their position, but since I'm looking at it another way, I don't agree with them.

In my opinion, there are two ways to make an enjoyable monster movie. The first is this way - recklessly over-the-top. The other way is more difficult, since it requires that the audience buy into the premise and be astounded by what's on screen. Jurassic Park did this, and Peter Jackson will try with his version of King Kong (out this December). As much as I'm looking forward to that movie, there will always be a special place in my heart for Dino DeLaurentiis' box-office behemoth of a motion picture.

(Note: In the wake of 9/11, it is a little unsettling to watch the climax of this movie, as Kong climbs to the top of the World Trade Center, then falls to his death. This is one of those instances in which real-world events intrude into a movie. It's impossible to watch this version of King Kong and not think about, at least in passing, what happened in 2001.)

Read the review, which was written before the towers fell, here.