Why is that we can feel unbearably guilty about enjoying certain films? And more importantly: What does that guilt we feel tell us about ourselves? Pushan Basu delves into the psychology of the guilty pleasure.
A couple of months ago I reluctantly found myself in the movie theatre for a housemate’s birthday, fidgeting in front of the appallingly dull Doctor Strange, when I noticed a phenomenon that I hadn’t witnessed since secondary school: in the back of the cinema, occupying a row to themselves and with their feet thrown ostentatiously over the seats in front of them, were four or five teenage boys intermittently hurling abuse at the film and sniggering conspiratorially. During the film’s emotional moments, the sombre strings were rudely disrupted by obnoxious, ironic ‘Awwwww’s, and after any moment of brief comic relief each youth made a special point of laughing far louder and longer than the audience, and, (obviously) his own mates.
At last – someone who disliked the film as much as I did! The boys, in their endearing displays of machismo, were trying to outdo one another’s vocal demonstrations of disdain for both the movie and the members of the audience who were genuinely enjoying it – an antisocial activity that they clearly deemed to be worth £6 (without factoring in snacks and drinks). Of course, they did not actually hate the film; I actually hate golf, and I’ve never assembled a group of golf-hating friends to watch a round of it (do you play a round of golf? or is it a game of golf? Perhaps it’s a session? A bout?) and scoff smugly at the stupid golf enthusiasts. On the contrary, these boys probably enjoyed the film more than anyone else in the theatre, but they were at that tricky age where all honest enjoyment (especially the enjoyment of superhero films, a genre not yet liberated from its nerdy and childish associations) has to be carefully moderated in case you make the deadly faux-pas of looking like you actually care about something. In this sense, their over-the-top laughter counter-intuitively demonstrated their enjoyment of the film much more firmly than genuine laughter would have: it was an unspoken ritual that allowed them to legitimise their guilty enjoyment of the film to themselves and to each other.
Basically, the boys’ ironic compensation for their secret pleasure perfectly illustrates that the ‘guilt’ we feel when we watch a ‘guilty pleasure’ has more to do with the way we perceive ourselves, and the ways in which we feel others perceive us, than it does with the actual ‘badness’ of a film (if that were the case then I’d like to think more people would feel guilty about the drivel with which they normally put up). This is why we all perform certain rituals when we decide to watch a ‘guilty pleasure’, with laughter being the most crucial aspect.
Of course, when most people watch a guilty pleasure with their friends, they laugh in self-deprecation, as opposed to the superior jeering of the teens watching Doctor Strange. Both of these actions, however, serve the same symbolic function: they indicate that we are not seriously engaging with the film, which signifies to our friends and to ourselves that we cannot be held culpable for any pleasure we are about to derive from it – thus allowing us to truly enjoy it.
This is why ‘The Bristol Bad Film Club’, an organisation devoted to watching bad films, is essentially different from a ‘Bristol Guilty Pleasure Film Club’: a film we put in the category of ‘so bad it’s good’ is a film that we enjoy ironically (The Room being the archetypal example) while a true ‘guilty pleasure’ is a film that we enjoy sincerely, and thus must counterbalance through a dose of laughter and irony. This is why, paradoxically, when laughing at a film we know is bad, we feel comfortable enough to laugh sincerely and without affectation; in contrast, the self-consciously ironic laughter of the boys in the theatre, revealed a sincere enjoyment of the film that caused them to feel guilty. Whenever my girlfriend forces me to sit through one of her favourite guilty pleasure films, such as The Notebook, she takes the necessary precautions beforehand. The usual, self-deprecating comments like ‘Yeah, I think you’ll probably hate this one’ indicate a certain distance from the film, and the fact that at some level she genuinely enjoys it: if she only liked The Notebook ironically, there would be no need for this qualifying gesture.
If I have one film that I would class as a guilty pleasure, it would be Before Sunrise. It is a film, that while good, is not free from a certain sentimentality, which makes me hesitant to watch it with people I know: I feel that people will discern the hint of sentimentality in my own character that is reflected in my enjoyment of the film. I once made the mistake of watching Before Sunrise with a few of my flatmates, who hated it. I was quite annoyed, which I justified by telling myself that they didn’t appreciate good cinema. However, my reaction was probably just as much to do with a sense of having embarrassingly exposed, by proxy, a part of my inner character which I normally keep guarded. If you’ve ever been in the situation of having shown someone (or having been shown by someone), a YouTube video you thought was funny, only for the other person to respond with awkward, forced laughter, then you know what I’m talking about.
I have no qualms about recommending someone a film like Wild Strawberries or Eyes Wide Shut, because while they are masterpieces, and among my favourite films, I do not have the same strong, emotional attachment with them as I do with a film like Before Sunrise, a film that is pretty good, but objectively inferior to its sequel. You know the kind of film I’m talking about – films you love not just because they’re excellent, but because they represent a place, a time, or a person in your life that you hold close to you. Often these films are imperfect, and perhaps that’s why we connect with them so deeply: because they speak to our own most private flaws and insecurities – films like these are the purest guilty pleasures.
No, not all of our favourite films are guilty pleasures, nor do we feel such love for all of the films we feel guilty about enjoying. Maybe we can even, by resolving whatever inner insecurity we feel, disassociate a film from this guilt – but perhaps the fact that we can feel this way at all about a film is the most profound testament to the power of cinema, and the truths it can reveal about ourselves.