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The guilty pleasures of great directors

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“I wasn’t raised a Catholic, so guilt never played much of a role in my life,” writes John Carpenter in the introduction for his entry in Film Comment’s long-running “Guilty Pleasures” list series. “In terms of cinema, however, guilt has always been very important.”

Directors often have unusual, unpredictable, or against-the-grain tastes: Alfred Hitchcock loved Smokey And The Bandit; Terrence Malick loves Zoolander; Rainer Werner Fassbinder was very serious about Zeppo being his favorite Marx brother; Christopher Nolan is really into The Black Hole and the mid-1980s thriller The Hitcher. True guilty pleasures, however, take on a different level of importance when your job description includes knowing what makes a good movie.


The brainchild of the late Richard Corliss, “Guilty Pleasures” was inaugurated in a 1978 with an exhaustive list from Martin Scorsese. (A Catholic, of course.) It’s been a recurring feature at Film Comment ever since, satiating readers’ bottomless fascination with filmmakers’ tastes. You’ll have to pay for access to the magazine’s storied archive, either by getting a subscription (which anyone who’s into movies should seriously consider) or by buying issues individually. But a few have made their way online over the years, either made available by Film Comment itself, or typed up from back issues by fans.

Sometimes the lists have only one or two titles worth gleaning. Cameron Crowe likes Norman Taurog’s 1968 Elvis vehicle Live A Little, Love A Little, which features the King’s reluctant foray into pseudo-psychedelia, “Edge Of Reality.” Brian De Palma—a director’s who has made his share of movies that could be credibly categorized as “guilty pleasures”—seems to not really get the concept, though he does drop the art-porn flick Night Dreams into a list that mostly consists of well-regarded cult films and critical favorites. (The Tenant? Point Blank? David Holzman’s Diary?) James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s picks mostly fall on the “not guilty” side, though they do spend time highlighting underrated genre films from their native Australia and praising the authentically disreputable Brian Trenchard-Smith.

But then there are some that are genuinely fascinating and revealing, like the one Jim Jarmusch contributed in 1992: Roy Orbison’s only starring role, the Western musical The Fastest Guitar Alive; the dirt-cheap Invasion Of The Bee Girls (“When they initiate other women to become bee-girls, they get them naked and cover them with this white, gooey fluid.”); his “odd fetish thing” for bullwhip-cracking cowboy actor Lash LaRue and fascination with Traci Lords.


Carpenter’s—which dates from 1996, and comes to us by way of an archived Geocities site—is one of best, with the director offering terse summaries of his picks. (The Giant Claw: “Giant puppet chickenhawk made in Mexico. Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum and the entire Earth shrink in terror from the squawking anti-matter chicken.”) Along the way, he reveals that his fondness for John Wayne movies extends to some of the actor’s most disreputable movies (The Conqueror: “John Wayne is Genghis Khan with a thin moustache and a heavy lust for Susan Hayward… Plus, the entire cast and crew might have been exposed to intense radiation in their desert location near an atomic testing site.”) and sings the praises of quickie Roger Corman monster movies.

A version of Scorsese’s list from a 1998 issue has found its way to the Chinese social network Douban. Beginning with Howard Hawks’ Land Of The Pharaohs, Scorsese breaks his picks down by category. Some are movies serious directors of the ’70s generation weren’t allowed to like (The Ten Commandments; like Carpenter, he admits a weakness for Cecil B. DeMille) and some are movies he admits are bad (Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and the Holy Grail-themed mid-1950s epic The Silver Chalice), but the best are the ones he considers misunderstood, like The Exorcist II: The Heretic or the Marlon Brando-directed One-Eyed Jacks.