My Take by Jim Carl - July 30, 2013


Why are some movies such great trash while others are simply awful?  Each of us has our own definition.  One person's Gone in 60 Seconds is another's Gone with the Wind.  I know a movie is great trash if I intuitively start grinning just by saying its name.  Usually (but not always), it conjures gluttonous memories of whatever deviltry I was committing (or with whom I was committing it) at the time I saw it; of days when I was younger and more naive, and not yet influenced by the calamity of pop culture, good common sense, or an affinity for a weekly paycheck.  You know what I'm talking about.  We all have certain movies we love that make our friends and family think a little less of us.  Movies that mean absolutely nothing to everybody else but make the universe spin on its axis for us.

Let's get something clear:  I'm not talking about "bad" movies that are so endearingly inept or campy that I find myself laughing at them like Battlefield Earth, Mommie Dearest, or Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I've never been much of a fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.  Running commentary is unnecessary in great trash and only indispensable in garbage.  And this isn't one of those lists about "Bad Movies I Love."  (I'm saving that for another time.) No, I'm talking about mediocre movies I legitimately enjoy for reasons understood only by my insurance provider.

The late Pauline Kael once wrote, "Movies are rarely such great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them."  I think this quote is smashing.  It's the best reasoning I've heard for pandering to my immaturity.  There's only so many Ang Lee and Terrence Malick films I can take before my psyche starts throwing a tantrum and demands another viewing of Deep Blue Sea.  Roger Ebert used to say that a good trashy movie appealed to "some dumb fundamental level within us."  Heeding the wisdom of these cinematic giants, I have no problem admitting that I love good trash and---proving that I have no shame whatsoever---will flaunt the words of a New Yorker film critic and a Pulitzer Prize winner to rationalize my need for watching Sharknado.

Let's face it, good trash deserves a King Leonidas to defend it.  In this arena, I will gladly fight the Persians at Thermopylae.  You'd probably do the same.  Let's gallantly stand together, survey the jeering crowd, and demand that Criterion release a 3-disc collector's edition of Christmas Vacation.  

Because God knows they aren't planning one.

Despite the meds they keep putting in my food, here are five examples of great trash my professional ego can't help but embrace.

"Get on down, boogie boogie."
This is the movie where Donny and Marie go on a tour of Hawaii and uncover a sunken wreck filled with gold bullion while being hunted by bad guys.  Imagine The Goonies starring The Osmonds.  It probably helps that I was 10 years old when this movie was released; otherwise, I have little reason to disagree with anyone giving me the hairy eyeball.  To anyone born during the Quentin Tarantino age, this is a 70s nightmare, filled with glittering disco balls, bell-bottom pants, and enough funky monkeys to jive-talk a blockade of Smokeys.  In other words, it is amazing.  I don't care how many times you've seen Avatar, when Donny and Marie sing their hearts out during that luau to stop the villains from bum-rushing the stage, it's as exciting as anything since Sigourney Weaver faced-off against the Alien Queen, that bitch.  Whenever I watch Coconuts, all at once, it's 1978 again, my grandmother is still alive and making Saturday morning breakfast, and the hardest decision in my life is choosing between Superfriends and The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour.            

"You filthy, rotten, bloody shark!"
Until a friend of mine introduced me to Italian horror films a few years ago, my knowledge of this genre was pretty much limited to a few Argento and Fulci flicks and, considering I grew up in West Texas, that was pretty impressive.  There wasn't a great demand for Italian horror in a town where rodeos were a weekly event, rattlesnake round-ups were big business, and domestic disputes were settled by charging onto somebody's property and beating the shit out of them.  This is the tale of a pissed-off, genetically-mutated half-octopus/half-shark.  And I discovered it just this year.  It makes me happy that I can still enjoy a film like this one because it means that I haven't gotten so old and grumpy that I can't appreciate great trash.  It goes against everything I've ever learned about being a successful film programmer, and I'm okay with that.  Michael Sopkiw was an actor unknown to me, but based on his performance here, I have since watched every single movie he has ever made.  All four of them, including Massacre in Dinosaur Valley.  The man is my hero.                 

"I paid to see this in a theatre."
You just knew there would be a Nicholas Cage film on this list, didn't you?  How can you not love a movie where Mr. Cage literally drives a 1969 Dodge Charger out of Hell in order to stop his infant granddaughter from being sacrificed to Satan?  Admit it, you already know if this plot's not for you.  It had been a long, long time since I paid to see a good, trashy movie and, truth be told, it makes me happy that movies like this are still being released in theatres rather than going straight-to-DVD.  Movies like this one remind me of the golden age of grindhouses in the late 70s and early 80s.  Such a shame that I never had the chance to gorge on a diet of great trash like Kill and Kill Again, Basket Case, Hammer of the Gods, and The Girl from Starship Venus.  I'm old enough to remember the heyday of grindhouses, but not young enough to truthfully claim I ever visited one.  Goofy movies like Drive Angry allow me a glimpse of what I missed and, for that, I'm grateful to them.                 

"Mother Nature blows her top."
This is the movie about a killer volcano that shoots fireballs straight at the cast.  It's the only movie Paul Newman regrets having made.  I have no idea why Mr. Newman ever uttered such blasphemy because, personally, I'd rather see this any day than suffer through Message in a Bottle again.  Everyone has a cinematic Achilles Heel.  Mine involves all-star disaster casts meeting gory, explosive deaths, one by one, for my ghoulish amusement.  I don't care if they're traveling on passenger airlines, commercial cruise liners, trapped in burning buildings, or fleeing killer bees and tornadoes.  Just line 'em up and hand me the bloody darts.  I love this stuff, okay?  Reportedly, this movie's budget was so compromised that the production couldn't afford stunt doubles.  That's really 73 year-old Burgess Meredith doing a high-wire trapeze act with a bamboo stick atop a collapsing bridge trestle while carrying a whiny Hawaiian kid on his back.  And yes, he's really 30-feet above the ground while smoke bombs and light flashes explode beneath him.  Michael Bay and James Cameron cannot touch this kind of production value, I'm only saying.  This is what separates trash from the kind that goes Def-Con 1 and empties the missile silos.     

ISHTAR (1987)
"Telling the truth is a dangerous business."
Sometimes, a single line from a movie makes such an indelible mark on our psyche that we find ourselves unwittingly filing it away for reasons that aren't made clear til much, much later.  Near the end of Ishtar as Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman find themselves stranded alongside a cache of illegal munitions in the desert, Beatty recognizes the absurdity of the situation and observes, "Nothing ever happened to us.  Willa left me.  We played a few gigs at some bars.  And now we're gonna die in the desert while shooting at helicopters."  It's a throwaway line, nothing remarkable.  A few years later, I found myself standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York City; an invited guest amongst celebrities, paparazzi, and VIPs to the premiere of James Cameron's The Abyss.  Glancing across the Hudson River towards the Manhattan nightline, I spent a few seconds savoring the moment---my first brush with Hollywood royalty---and thanking Lady Luck for dealing me the great hand that had brought me here in the first place.  Just a few months earlier, I'd been a sophomore in a small Nebraskan college.  I stood there, memorizing the moment and attempting to capture something profound that I could summon in later days when things weren't so good.  All at once---WHAM!---my subconscious conjured Warren Beatty saying, "Nothing ever happened to us.  And now..."  Unintentionally, I imprinted one of the greatest evenings of my life with Ishtar, and I've never been able to shake it off ever since.  To this day whenever I think of this silly comedy, I feel proud of myself.  The association is that powerful.  Thank God it wasn't Teen Wolf.  Stupid subconscious.                               
How about you?  What great trash do you defend?


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