September 22, 2011

Beach Party

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The art of a bad movie.

It’s been a long couple of weeks, and I cannot lie, thinking of a good movie to recommend is proving exhausting. I rack my brain for ideas. None. Or, none that I’m truly satisfied with…

Where do I look next? Where can I turn to find a good movie? What constitutes “good” anyway?

The most obvious answer is the canon. The glorious capital C Canon — that list of movies that makes up the ultimate guide to cinematic culture, compiled by generations of film critics and at the heart of every Intro Film syllabus. In other words, the last bastion for the desperate film columnist.

The canon: Truffaut, Fellini, Lang, Allen, Welles… the list runs long — or actually runs to 100, where most “best-of” lists stop. Often, these major films are touted for good reason. There is just something evaluatively good or historically important about them. However, in thinking about the canon, I naturally began to wonder about the movies that did not make the list — so-called “bad” or tasteless movies.

In an article entitled “Trashing the Academy,” (passed on to me by a friend) media and cultural theorist Jeffery Sconce tackles exactly this question. He examines “paracinema” — a term he invents to describe a range of lowbrow films that have garnered a great following and admiration within cult and fanzine culture. Think low budget horror flicks, campy beach movies, obscure propaganda films from the 1930s.

Paracinema rewrites film history to some extent by diminishing the importance of mainstream film and creating a new narrative of cinematic best-ofs. It questions the authority of the canon by, as Sconce puts it, “valoriz[ing] all forms of cinematic ‘trash,’ whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture.”

Inspired by Sconce, and sick of searching for a “good” movie to recommend, this week I turn to the unapologetically bad. The genre I prefer is the aforementioned beach movie. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s a whole host of movies were released in America that centered on California surf culture. The first example is 1959’s Gidget (available in Olin) —  a movie about a small girl (Gidget is a combination of the words “girl” and “midget”) who has big surf dreams.

But the pinnacle of the beach movie has to be 1963’s Beach Party (available through Borrow Direct). This is the first in a series of Beach Party movies released by American International Pictures (A.I.P.), one of the first film companies to explicitly target a teenage audience.

The plot of the movie centers on an anthropology professor who is studying the “mating habits” of California surfers and their gals. He befriends and secretly studies the lives of our heroine, prototypical beach babe Dolores (Annette Funicello), her on-again-off-again boyfriend Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and their whole gang of friends.

As should be clear, the plot is absurd. But that’s okay, because ultimately the plot is irrelevant. It serves as a mere vehicle for a veritable orgy of song n’ dance routines, crazy costumes and wild surf shots. It is a bright agglomeration of visual pleasures, often with no real narrative purpose.

It is pure, unadulterated fun. The kind of movie that is so bad it’s great. The few times I have watched it, it never fails to make me laugh… whether I am laughing with it or at it is another matter.

To return to Sconce, the unimportance of plot and visual excess further situates Beach Party firmly within the confines of paracinema, which values an over-the-top or bizarre aesthetic for its ability to reveal the materiality of the film itself. If we can escape the internal logic of the film (of which there is very little in Beach Party), then we can step outside of the movie and see the film as an object. It can become almost textual. This allows for new levels of engagement, reading and analysis.

A movie like Beach Party almost begs for this sort of leap. Not only is it filled with visual excesses, but also, the entire movie reeks of unauthenticity — from the ridiculous dialogue to the overacting to the abrupt dance scenes. It strikes us immediately as an awkwardly built object.

On another level, engagement with a movie like Beach Party is also possible because there are quite simply fewer expectations on the part of the spectator. Because of its distance from traditional film culture, there is not necessarily a “right” way to watch it. You could interpret it as a representation of 1960’s subculture. Or, more cynically, you might see it as an unabashed capitalistic creation built by the A.I.P. to sell off piece by piece (bikini by bikini) to America’s youth. Finally, you even could forgo interpretation altogether and enjoy Beach Party as a piece of simple, hilarious dreck.

How many of us would feel that we had the same amount freedom when watching, say, Casablanca? Think what you will — because this time American Film Institute won’t do the thinking for you.

Original Author: Hannah Stamler