Guilty . . . As Charged

I don't know how many of you listen to Brian Lehrer's show on WNYC-AM here in the city or download the podcast. Lehrer is a smart, thoughtful guy who does excellent local and national political stuff, mixed in with a leavening dose of culture and humor. This past week, while he was on vacation, several guest hosts sat in for him, and I was listening moments ago to a segment with David Cruz and Kalefa Sanneh of the Times about the secret songs you have on your iPod that you are embarrassed to admit you like.

As I just wrote in an e-mail to a friend, I probably should be embarrassed about the fact that I use my iPod more to listen to lectures, audiobooks and podcasts than to music. Yesterday I heard about 90 minutes of a panel discussion with Jacques Derrida from a past meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I'm not trying to impress you. I also listened to a half-dozen different English football podcasts, every single one of which dissed my Premier League side, Tottenham Hotspur (but none in as baldly negative terms as I used myself after seeing their first three games of the new season).

At any rate, inevitably my thoughts turned to the old "guilty pleasures" concept. For many years, we have idly discussed the notion of coming to the Iras with our own guilty pleasures lists. What's interesting about such lists, to my mind, is less the titles that one finds on them than the attitude of the list-maker towards the concept. I can't recall who it was -- it wasn't me -- who said, "If it's a pleasure, there's no reason to feel guilty about it." Or another of our number who said, "If I like it, by definition it can't be without some kind of quality."

I must confess to my own kind of ambivalence about the "guilty pleasure" film concept. On the one hand, it falls into the trap of making some kind of false distinction between "high: art and "low" but, in the hands of someone like Pauline Kael, it becomes a smug middlebrow way of asserting one's contempt for "high" art without validating what is really valuable about "low" art. It's as bogus as her promiscuous manipulation of the first-person singular and plural to let her readers feel they are in on the joke.

On the other hand, there certainly are texts -- one hesitates to call them works of art -- that I enjoy with a certain sense of embarrassment, whether it's Glen Campbell's recording of "Wichita Lineman," which came in for some abuse on the Lehrer show (which you can download here) or the films of William Castle (who has a warm spot in my heart right next to Bill Veeck). Margo and I enjoy watching '30s and '40s B series detective films. I would hardly make any aesthetic claims for the Boston Blackie movies, although Chester Morris has considerable charm as a leading man, but we like them just the same. (It's interesting to think about the function of familiarity in the series film, much like the television series, as a sort of emotional shorthand that brings a viewer into a specific relationship with recurring characters as surely as genre does.) I suppose my "guilty pleasures" list would consist mainly of those films -- the Charlie Chans, the Mr. Motos, Boston Blackies, Falcons, Saints, Crime Doctors, Mike Shaynes, and so on. One can make a serious case for some of them as being more than merely run-of-the-mill; the Motos are actually fairly interesting, in no small part due to Lorre's performances but also because Moto's utterly detached use of violence anticipates the anti-hero status of the noir protagonist by a few years. As a hero, Lorre is actually something of a cold-hearted bastard, and that makes for an interesting contrast to the Chan film -- same studio, same basic premise, and even, on occasion, the loan of a script between the two series.

Of course, at this point, you are heading towards criticism-as-sociology and, indeed, the mediocre or minor film lends itself more easily to use as a barometer of social attitudes, if only because you're not distracted by aesthetic concerns. Perhaps that is the defining characteristic of the "guilty pleasure," that what draws us to them has nothing to do with artistic judgment and evaluation. I won't defend the Boston Blackie films, but I like them all the same.

Now B westerns, that's another story. Have I told you about the many virtues of the Hopalong Cassidy films . . . .