Over at her blog, the thoroughly delightful Self-Styled Siren muses on ten movies she should, in theory, adore, but does not. I've expressed disapprobation with similar-minded pieces I've seen on the web in recent years, arguing that a defensive posture is not necessarily the most useful stance from which to practice critical discourse, but one of the differences in this case is in nuance, a quality with which the Siren fairly teems. Note that the piece is about movies she herself believes she ought to love, not movies she believes others are telling her to love; that makes a big difference. Two other big differences have to do with the Siren's sharp and sometimes gimlet eye, and her ever-present wit. But one thing I did notice is that she sometimes disdains the very features that I myself hold in the highest esteem viz. a particular film. For instance, considering Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 rethink of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Siren sighs, "This married couple just basically hate each other, don't they?" YES, EXACTLY, ISN'T IT GREAT? sez I, and I did so at some length here.
The Siren also doesn't have the love for Billy Wilder's 1964 Kiss Me, Stupid, shuddering that Dean Martin's character, a thinly, or should I say hardly, disguised version of himself, or rather his persona, "is just too creepy for words." Well, yes, exactly, again. One thing I find perverse enjoyment in with Kiss Me, Stupid, is its coarseness, or more precisely the way that coarseness manifests itself. It was made just as the sexual revolution was revving up and the studio system was circling the drain. While Wilder's comic sensibility was always at least partially about pushing a joke or double-entendre past whatever the acceptable breaking point for the Breen Office was, the man himself was in some ways a bit of a prig. His '60s films were getting more and more frantic, but with Kiss Me, Stupid, there's an almost palpable sense of Wilder saying "screw this." Dean Martin biographer Nick Tosches, no slouch at coarseness his own self, describes the Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond script for Stupid thusly: "Kiss Me, Stupid was as sordid an idea as had ever been proposed for a movie comedy. Wilder [and Diamond] had written [...] pictures that were sexy in an insouciant, sweet sort of way. But their screenplay for Kiss Me, Stupid was downright, leeringly sleazy. Sex and venality lay at the heart of every dirty laugh." Wilder, the disciple of Lubitsch, for some reason decided to replace the Lubitsch "touch" with a haymaker. To sap from it all of its humanity and compassion. Or not all of it: the three Gershwin tunes that masquerade as the work of the ambitious songwriting team portrayed by Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond are ornaments of a world the movie considers long dead, a place of grace that the croon of "Dino" simultaneously evokes and mocks. The levels of disdain at work here are quite, um, multivalent. I am also reminded of Robert Christgau's observation on noting that a particular Frank Zappa record indicates that Zappa was listening to a lot of Miles Davis before making it: "But where Davis is occasionally too loose, Zappa's always too tight—he seems to perceive only what is weird and alienating in his influences, never what is humane." In Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder mutates Lubitsch's principles of comedy into a downright nasty worldview. And Martin, abundant in the doesn't-give-a-fuck quality that Tosches refers to by its Sicilian word, menefreghismo, proved an entirely ideal co-conspirator for such a project. Thus, "creepy" doesn't even really begin to cover it. Awesome!
"There is nothing more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity," Vladimir Nabokov famously pronounced. Kiss Me, Stupid is philistine vulgarity with a will, a will that takes it almost to the point of genuine nihilism. That is arguably not something that's praiseworthy or, as they say, commendable, but it certainly is not uninteresting.