Cinema is a very subjective experience. Every film is perceived differently by every person that watches it. We all bring our own personal baggage into the movie going experience, whether we realize it, want it or don’t want it is irrelevant. Films speak to us differently in different stages of our lives, based on the experiences we’ve had, people we’ve met, stories we’ve heard and other, new movies we’ve seen. I can watch a film today and completely hate it, then revisit it in a couple of years and fall in love with it or the opposite. All this is to say that there isn’t and there can’t be a universal meter to measure what a good film is, but then there’s film critics.
Am I a film critic? I’d prefer to see myself as a commentator, because I don’t have a formal training, but for the sake of this post let’s say I’m a critic. I’m the bad guy. I’m the guy that tells you the movie you’ve been pumped for years is total shallow shit. I’m the guy that you love to hate, because I over-analyze stuff, while you just want to be entertained. Good, now that you know who I am, let’s move on. Should my opinion influence the way you think and view movies? Yes, otherwise why am I doing this. Am I allowed to voice my negative feelings? Yes, but if I’m smart I’ll try to be constructive in my criticisms. Are my favorite movies the best movies? No, because I am not an absolute. The only time my favorite movies coincide with the best movies is for myself, nobody else in the world will have exactly the same tastes as I do, because we’re all different, remember?
What about aggregates of critics’ opinions like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic or IMDb? Here’s where it gets tricky. People tend to believe that the majority is right. I mean they have to be, don’t they? We live in a complex world, where we try to simplify things as often as we can. The sites I just mentioned are great, I check them multiple times every week, even daily sometimes, but they’re not infallible. Humans are imperfect, so a human’s creation can only be flawed. The masses are not always right, but elites aren’t either. These sites (and I might add lists like AFI and the prestigious Sight & Sound Top 50 ) are just what most critics believe, don’t get me wrong most of the times these people know what they’re talking about, but even they can be wrong.
Tastes vary over time. A film might be so ahead of its time that critics aren’t prepared yet to understand it and appreciate it. That’s how cult followings are born. A film might also be just viewed as bad on a technical level or for its non-conformist opinions or social commentary. That’s an example of the mainstream labeling a film as “bad”. Once a film is considered “rotten”, the minority that really enjoys it, usually doesn’t feel it is socially acceptable to admit they liked or even loved the movie. Those people are usually very insecure. They use films to brand themselves. It makes sense. The “image” a film has is going to rub off on the people championing it, in marketing we call it the “halo effect”. So it makes sense to have only critically acclaimed films in your Top-whatever list.
Since we’ve established that there isn’t an absolute authority that has the right or knowledge to conclusively decide for everyone which movies are good, bad or in-between, there shouldn’t be “guilty pleasures”. Everyone should be free to like everything, but most feel that they aren’t, now why is that? Easy, we don’t really believe that. We do think a critic’s opinion, an expert’s opinion, the opinion from our own social circle or other opinion leaders is more or as important as our own. I’m not saying other people’s opinions are worthless, but at the very least they’re all as valid as our own. Once we accept that, we won’t have to over-justify our own tastes, when they differ from the mainstream. Then again I have a certain tendency to dislike or at least be suspicious of everything “too” mainstream, and this contrarian attitude is ‘dangerous’ and stupid as well. I’m working on trying to change that about myself.
Maybe this whole discourse is too theoretical, dry and boring so I’ll give you a concrete example of what I mean. I am a fan of the auteur theory and so I try to watch movies in the context of the director’s catalogue. Being someone who enjoys watching the films of Gregg Araki and other auteurs that are considered mediocre or bad, I feel that I have to defend my opinions a lot and I like doing that. Now even with what’s considered his worst work, I still find something to like, because I see his stylistic trademarks, the actors he loves working with and his specific tone and atmosphere. That’s why I champion the auteur theory and watch movies that way. If you’re really into a director I think your favorite films of his will be his most personal, maybe even self-indulgent ones, but definitely the ones that speak to you, that you feel were “made for you”. So I can say in good conscience, with no guilt or shame that I like all of his films, even his poorly rated works like The Doom Generation or Kaboom.
So my point is: Defend your favorite films. If you enjoy re-watching a film quite often or regularly and you don’t have the guts to admit it’s one of your favorites, but prefer to put a film you’ve seen once in your list just because it’s considered “better” by someone else that isn’t you, what kind of film goer are you? To me a favorite film is one I enjoy revisiting, one that makes me feel great every time I watch it, one that is good to me and maybe no one else. Maybe you don’t recognize yourself in anything I just said and you use the term “guilty pleasure” as a shortcut, because people immediately know what you mean or you don’t know a better catch phrase to explain your feelings towards a film. To me the term clearly doesn’t make much sense. A better use would be if it were used in the context of say enjoying films that are morally appalling.
All this to say that we should all try to be more honest (myself included) about what we like and don’t like, even if it’s not socially acceptable. Our favorites lists would be more interesting, less conventional maybe, but more eclectic. We’d all feel better about ourselves and realize that other people have weird and not necessarily “safe” tastes as well. Those tastes are there regardless of whether you admit them or not and for as risky as they might be, they make you unique and special.