I have a sneaking feeling that movie critics won’t be that impressed with the remake of Clash of the Titans, coming out this week. Maybe I won’t be, either, given that it has the potential to be a sort of tedious spawn of God of War and 300, a bunch of CGI in search of a film.
On the other hand. One of the things that middlebrow film criticism habitually gets wrong is identifying what tomorrow’s fondly remembered nostalgias will be, which pop-culture cheese is going to satisfy future appetites.
I don’t think too many critics at the time appreciated the first Clash of the Titans or the various Sinbad films, for example. And it’s not just the Harryhausen special effects which made those memorable for the kids who saw them in their initial theatrical runs or in syndication on television. What made them memorable was really their good cheesiness, that they were the mirror image of films that end up being grist for Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s mill.
Space Mutiny, for example, is not the opposite of Raging Bull or Casablanca. It’s the opposite of Logan’s Run or George Pal’s Time Machine or Quatermass and the Pit. The cheese that we love in retrospect is composed of a peculiarly perfect mixture of damn cool things, accidentally iconic things, and laughably bad things. Bad cheese is just laughably bad or sometimes boringly awful.
So take the original Clash of the Titans. The mechanical owl Bubo and the fight against Medusa were damn cool. The original delivery of the line “Release the kraken!” was one of a number of accidentally iconic bits in the film. The laughably bad was Hamlin’s performance (and his perpetually half-naked chest, which looked as if someone had run a belt sander over it), various embalmed stars like Olivier and Andress collecting their paychecks as the Olympian Gods, and so on. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was memorable because of Tom Baker’s excellent scene-chewing villainry, but also because of Caroline Munro’s bodice.
The right audiences at the right time tend to spot memorable cheese the instant they see it. It doesn’t require time and repetition. I remembered and cherished the Sinbad films the very first time that I saw them. The works which fall into the gap between laughable badness and memorable cheese are more complicated, often ending up as guilty pleasures which require special pleading to qualify as great cheese. (Krull or The Ice Pirates, say.)
But this ability to recognize cheese is rarely found in critics, or for that matter, in adults who overly treasure their respectability or adherence to middlebrow standards of good taste. I don’t suppose it’s that important for the success of the films themselves, which tend to find their accidental audiences well enough. But it is important in terms of engaging the tastes and sensibilities of the culture as a whole, because it’s cheese that generates the enduring catchphrases, icons and subcultural connections that drive so much of American (and now global) popular imagination.