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Why It's Good to Watch Bad Movies

07/21/2012 07:17 EDT | Updated 09/20/2012 05:12 EDT
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I like stupid movies. Considering Ted's box office success, chances are so do you. Still, that's not always an easy thing for me to confess. Besides being stupid, these movies are often condemned as artistically vapid, crude, violent, misogynistic endorsements of irresponsible and materialistic lifestyles whose bad influences seep in while our mental guards are down. I tend to socialize with people who think like this. It may have something to do with the fact that besides liking stupid movies, I also like studying philosophy and writing poetry.

On the other hand, many of the brightest people I know like, and admit to liking, stupid movies too, which compliments the reign of stupid movies in Hollywood. Crass, lowbrow, gross-out (whatever you call it) humor is all about the forbidden thrill of mixing the supposedly profane with the supposedly lofty -- so along with liking our comedians streaking, swearing and exploring bodily fluids, comes an admiration for the type of apologetic honesty that acknowledges no amount of higher education necessarily makes frat boy antics less funny.

But that frames the fun of jumping between meaningful and juvenile as just that -- a jumping between worlds. Instead of high and low culture, we talk about art v.s. entertainment. Stupid movies are ok because, well, they're stupid. They let us turn our brains off and escape -- an essential activity (in controlled doses) or we'd burn out before anything of actual importance or beauty has been produced. It's as if we're allowed to like stupid movies, and keep our sophistication intact, only if we admit they're, as Mark Wahlberg's character says in Ted about Flash Gordon, "so bad but so good."

This, however, isn't what I mean when I say I like stupid movies. I mean I like them. In fact, between the harmless fluff excuse and dangerous influence assessment, I actually prefer the latter. It at least takes these movies seriously.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell argues that old Hollywood films, melodramas and screwball comedies which were often dismissed as a different generation's fluff, were actually wrestling with the most challenging and pressing concerns of their day, most importantly the ability, or inability, to find one's place in the world after traditional social norms and moral absolutes no longer provided easy answers.

For Cavell, marriage is the big metaphor. He specifically groups together a bunch of movies he calls the "comedies of remarriage" characterized by the main couple rekindling their love for each other rather than falling in love for the first time.

Remarriage is standing in for community building in general. It represents the struggle to form secure social bonds founded solely on the mutual recognition that such bonds are only secure because of the ability of those involved to recognize each other and rely upon the other for this security. In other words, a good remarriage means the characters have shed the illusions from their first marriage about what a husband or a wife should be and have found in each other the strength and support to redefine those terms in new, more personal and less predictable ways.

Now flash forward a couple of vital decades full of social revolution and upheaval. Cary Grant has made way for Will Ferrell, Frank Capra for Judd Apatow, screwballs for gross-outs. And marriage for... marriage. The Hangover franchise, Bridesmaids, Wedding Crashers and now Ted are the five top grossing R-rated comedies of the last decade -- and they all revolve around the who, when, why and at-what-cost of marriage.

Compare this to the great godfather of gross-outs -- 1978's Animal House -- and it's clear the genre has evolved in unexpected directions. Animal House ends (spoiler alert, but if you haven't seen the movie yet, you deserve it) with the destruction of everything institutionalized. The good guys drive the deathmobile. The bad guys are trapped by their own hypocrisy, screaming "All is well," when it really isn't, or being scooped up by a giant black hand severed from a giant white one. In Cavellian terms, what's going on is a messy, messy divorce. Divorce features literally too, as Boon and Katy's fate.

So how did we end up back at marriage (if we don't want to write it off as selling out)? For one, it's not a perfect retreat. Except for maybe Ted, the modern movies are not remarriage comedies. Remarriage comedies begin with people who think they know exactly what it means to be responsible adults until that falls apart and they have to face the really frightening aspects of adulthood and the truth behind actual responsibility: freedom -- the burden of choosing a life when none is forced on you and none is deemed objectively better than any other.

That life doesn't come with a manual, however, is something my generation seems to know well. We've seen Animal House. The problem is, what do you do with yourself once you've seen it -- except watch it again and again and again until suddenly you're 35 and bailing on your minimum wage job to get high with your childhood teddy bear?

This isn't the result of simple immaturity. It's what results when the freedom gained in the breakdown of social norms is offset by the powerlessness of being left without a belief in society -- the society that would create the space to actualize that life you've finally decided it's ok to want.

When that happens, what's left is still freedom but it's the freedom of childhood, the freedom, at best, to wish and imagine and make trouble so inconsequential it's laughable. How from this point do you even start? How can you get remarried when you can't even get married? These are the question these movies are tackling.

I'm not saying they manage the most intelligent or nuanced treatments of it (superhero movies may be doing a better job, but that's a post for after this weekend). And sometimes, as with Ted, they're less successful than they could be at taking this question somewhere new. But it's still a good question.