An Ear for Film: Guiltless Pleasures
The three best movie-related podcast episodes of the week.Movies Lists
Each week, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.
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The phrase “guilty pleasure” is almost as bad as the word “poptimism”—both assume that what one likes, and therefore what one spends time consuming and by extension what defines one’s taste, is subject to an external, inviolable standard of what’s any good or not. Which is bullshit: You like what you like, and that’s it. No one should feel guilty for deriving pleasure from something—unless of course it’s, y’know, murder, or racism, or spitting on puppies, or anything that hurts anyone else—because where does that guilt even come from anyway?
I love the movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It is a motion picture during the course of which I am thoroughly pleased by what is happening before my eyes. I could attempt to craft a critical exegesis regarding the ways in which the film is actually better than you remember it, or the ways in which it has been unfairly maligned for its pop-pulp indulgences—how it is a misunderstood classic—but that would only reinforce a dynamic that the Internet loves to pull out of its collective asshole whenever confronted with an opinion that is not identical to its own. Critics vs. Everybody: Writers want to hate popular movies, or so the easy legend goes. Just look at the comments section for any Warcraft review and you’ll see what I mean.
All of this is stupid, all of it elitist and contrary to the reasons that any of us fell in love with any kind of art in the first place. Unless you were a weird fucking kid with obnoxious parents, your cinephilia probably gestated within the womb of Steven Spielberg spectacle and Disney cartoons, reared by The Monster Squad and The Little Mermaid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze, pulled kicking and screaming through the growing pains of Donnie Darko and The Princess Bride, Ghost World and The Royal Tenenbaums, to the light of the near-motionless brilliance of Tarkovsky or Kubrick or whatever else you may have spent some considerable time convincing your young self to sit still long enough to get through. This is all of what you are, and to call any of these movies a “guilty pleasure” would be to pretend like they didn’t shape your taste, that Ozu to a film student is somehow intrinsically more important a connection than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is to a 9-year-old.
Maybe this makes me a bad film critic, but good criticism is really, really difficult, which is probably why so many non-critics assume that all we do is want to write scathing reviews—because it’s easy, yeah, but also because a bad review positions us in a nebulous realm of authority. We get off on being right, on having seen more movies, on knowing more trivia, on understanding more genre tropes and explicating more oeuvres. Or so we make it seem whenever we call anything a “guilty pleasure.”
I bring this up because I was recently listening to an episode of Criterion Close-Up in which Aaron West was listing some of what he included on a Top 100 sci-fi films project he’d recently come close to finishing. While I could not understand for the life of me how Blade Runner didn’t make it into his Top 10 (or even, without seeing his list, the Top12), I cringed more at the way in which the two hosts referred to certain picks on the list as being “guilty pleasures.” Same with Filmspotting: SVU, during which a listener recommended Remember the Titans as something he watches at least once per year, but then demurred, calling it a “guilty pleasure,” which in turn encouraged the hosts to contemplate a “guilty pleasure”-themed episode in the future.
What makes Remember the Titans a guilty pleasure? That it’s a feel-good Disney movie? That it’s about racism but not in any terrifying way? That it’s a crowd-pleaser? That it has a happy ending? That it follows the archetypal structure of any inspirational sports movie? Apparently one should feel guilty for enjoying that, guilty enough to make sure that such love is qualified. Please don’t think I’m a fucking schmuck for liking a Denzel Washington movie about how a high school football team eventually learns to embrace low-key miscegenation! Please still respect my opinion! Please like me.
No shade toward either podcast, though. Especially CCU; West’s best moment this week was admitting that a lot of people weren’t going to like his list, and that he doesn’t really care. There is no such thing as an incontrovertible “best,” just as there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure”—it’s all subjective. And chances are, even if you think a movie is a pile of shit, it will most likely make a lot of money. Get used to it: No one cares what you think.
So go see Warcraft twice and then check out my picks for the three best film-related podcast episodes of the week.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso
It’s a bit of a stretch to champion this episode as a pick this week, because not once does host Sam Fragoso or guest Sherman Alexie ever talk about Alexie’s own film projects—let alone even remotely mention films in general—but their conversation is just too good not to include. Alexie, who’s won countless awards and endowments and the like for his books and poetry, doesn’t talk much like a writer, resisting the urge to unpack his craft or discuss his work, instead luxuriating in a conversation that tumbles from one broad theme to the next, bolstered by Alexie’s experiences as a Native American building a literary career during a time when, as he implies in one particularly moving part of the conversation, he was only ever the one brown face in the room. (You might be surprised to learn of Alexie’s stance on Bernie Sanders, as well, which he defends with the kind of purity that could convince any dyed-in-the-wool Democrat to chuck a Molotov cocktail at the Capitol.) But more than due to any particular subject they cover, Alexie seems like the kind of artist removed from the establishment, and so comes off throughout as a remarkably refreshing intellect. He isn’t disconnected from popular literary or film culture so much as freed from posturing, a man who wouldn’t resist the phrase “guilty pleasure,” he’d just have no idea what it even means.
Here’s the best episode so far in a podcast that is very quickly demonstrating its host as a person who, like the third pick below, seems to have a built-in knack for understanding his guests in ways that have no underlying motive besides the urge to connect sincerely to another human being. It’s impressive; I think it’s called “empathy.”
“Cliff Martinez: Neon Demon”
Eternally good dude Elvis Mitchell welcomes composer Cliff Martinez to his show, which is mostly worth hearing to get a story about the time Martinez played drums in New Orleans with a mostly-naked John Lurie on sax. Lurie was in town shooting Down By Law while Martinez was touring with his band, the earliest incarnation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who at the time played part of their set with only tube socks covering their junk. Martinez remembers the night as the first time he met the drummer from the Meters, Ziggy Modeliste, while Lurie probably remembers the night as the time he wore only a tube sock on stage and had to keep asking the band what key they were playing in. Who knows what Flea remembers.
Martinez of course has plenty to say about his two main collaborators, Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, divulging a few juicy details that pretty much solidify how I envision working with each director—as in: Soderbergh is a relentless experimenter game for pretty much anything, and Refn is a crazy person who doesn’t seem to know how movies work—but you’re not tuning in for any of that. You’re here for John Lurie’s dick sock.
WTF with Marc Maron
“Daniel Clowes / Ezra Edelman”
At this point, Marc Maron can talk to anyone about anything, so hey: Here’s another episode of WTF where two super interesting people open up about the deep-seated issues that drove them to become the people they are today. First up is Ezra Edelman, director of the much-lauded documentary O.J.: Made in America, who seems to have little patience for bullshit in any form. In fact, Maron is able to draw some serious piss and vinegar out of the guy for barely bringing up that Edelman may have given his 7-hour documentary a brief theatrical run so it could be up for some Oscars—to which Edelman responds by saying he doesn’t have patience for that politically driven, industry crap; name a director who wouldn’t want to have their film play on the big screen, OK?—but the two share a vigilance in recognizing that at the heart of the O.J. trial is an exceedingly gruesome tragedy, a fact that is often forgot in lieu of the thrill behind the spectacle. It reminded me most of the love surrounding the first season of Serial: Too often we all forgot that it was a podcast about someone getting murdered.
The pall of Edelman’s conversation unfortunately hangs over the much longer talk with graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, but Clowes is such a humbly enigmatic guy that he can make even an unexpected story about his open-heart surgery glisten with the wan light of levity. Again, Maron is just unbelievably good at this—this whole interviewing thing—encouraging Clowes to walk step-by-step through his life, unearthing anecdote after anecdote, each somehow more poignant than the one before. It’s not a particularly exciting conversation, but as is often the case in any episode of WTF, by the time the guest is saying his or her goodbyes, the two have outlined a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of an artist in medias res: where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’ll go next.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can find it on Twitter.