Discussing the esthetics of film can be a challenging task, especially when the term can refer to several issues. In a broader sense, it is a sort of philosophy of art, dealing with the judgment of taste and authentic artistic values. This series deals with the cinematic world, it will explore the concept of esthetics in two ways. The first one refers to the strong connection between art (in this case cinema) and sensation, while the second one looks at how esthetic categories are used as rules for certain cinematic discourses.
The esthetic categories explored in this series include beauty, the grotesque, kitsch, camp, and the sublime. The articles will cover the historical definitions of these categories and the filmic concepts related to them while also giving various cinematic examples.
Film Esthetics 101 is divided into five chapters:
Film Esthetics 101: The Cheap Pleasure of Kitsch
Film Esthetics 101: Camp and Performance
Film Esthetics 101: Obscure Echoes of the Sublime
Kitsch is difficult to define, as it is relatively newer than the esthetics of beauty and the grotesque. It is often associated with a new age of mass production and reproduction. However, it's also related to a light-hearted, almost childish way of perceiving life. It can either come out of a sincere and naïve artistic expression, or an ambitious direction that fails to achieve its goal and becomes a form of empty sentimentalism. In cinema, kitsch can be identified pretty much in any genre, as it is often associated with an uninspired, often silly use of the cinematic form.
Over the years, writers and philosophers came to the consensus that the ultimate objective of kitsch is to offer visual pleasure. However, this form of pleasure is not necessarily associated with beauty or stunning imagery, but rather with a form of activity that is much closer to leisure activity. Kitsch is an esthetic of simple happiness, which some theoreticians have identified as significantly accessible to the general public. “If works of art were judged democratically – that is, according to how many people like them – kitsch would easily defeat all its competitors” (Kulka, 1996, p.17).
Strictly from a historical point of view, the evolution of kitsch is related to the social ascension of the bourgeoise and its need for promotion, through art. This newly-formed middle-class benefited from new forms of technical reproduction, which offered many ways of creating valid imitations of art. Critic Clement Greenberg ties the origin of kitsch with the need of the new urban class for an art form of their own. He argues that this new esthetic is based on a “fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends” (Greenberg, 1961, p.10).
The kitsch sensibility does not seek to analyze or critique art and culture, but rather to recycle it into something more approachable. It is also an esthetic which can promote snobbism by encouraging people to embrace art as a social fetish rather than understanding it as a cultural and historical development. This aspect drives some writers and academics to reject it altogether, citing its poor taste. However, kitsch has its place in art, esthetics, and film, because it reveals a real need for joyful interactions and provides an unpretentious form of pleasure.
Kitsch in Film
In cinema, the esthetic of kitsch is generally associated with popcorn flicks, an expression that often describes entertaining films, that are not necessarily as richly emotional or intellectual as festival or so-called art films.
As mentioned, some art and film critics do not recognize kitsch as a relevant esthetic category. However, this position is reckless because it creates a significant division between what is called high art and low art. Paying too much attention to this difference creates a sort of new elitism, which continuously searches for abstraction, falsely cultivating a taste for real art, while ignoring mainstream works.
In cinema, this is pertinently portrayed by a type of cinephile that only consumes festival films or films which have been acclaimed by critics. This new kind of snobbism refuses to understand kitsch in its historical, social, and cultural context, while also gatekeeping the cinematic art form and preserving it as high art. However, as much as kitsch is a part of daily life and classical art, it is also a part of film esthetics. Whether it’s used intentionally, or it’s a result of misplaced artistic direction, this sensibility of excess and light-heartedness represents a relevant part of the medium.
The Room (2003) is considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Directed, written, and produced by Tommy Wiseau, it tells the story of a love triangle between Johnny (played by Wiseau), a successful banker in San Francisco, his fiancé, and his best friend. The narrative is unfocused, it includes nonsensical details, and it's bizarrely acted. Moreover, the production value is of very low quality, the film giving the impression that it’s a melodramatic self-parody.
Regardless of the real directorial intention of Wiseau, the film has been described as unwatchable and pointless. However, over the years, it gained a following of fans who took a liking to the poor quality of the movie.
The film’s sentimentality and weird sincerity work because it doesn’t ask the public for constant attention like a mainstream film, nor does it provoke in the same way as an art film. Wiseau’s ludicrous project is an almost endearing film; a filmic failure “whose excess and eccentricities become the cinematic equivalent of an alien trying and failing to assimilate among humans” (Romano, 2017).
One of the most absurd science-fiction parodies, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996) is a pertinent example of how Hollywood recycles material and creates self-parodies. That same year, Independence Day was released, which tells the solemn story of human will against an alien invasion. Burton takes the same idea and places it in a diegesis of excess, poorly written characters, and outrageous special effects.
The parody’s antagonists, the Martians, look like the lazy first draft of any Martian depiction and most of the narrative seems like a series of odd featurettes which revolve around the idea of an invasion. The film’s “impish, chaotic, nihilistic sense of humor was completely against the grain for a major studio blockbuster in the mid-90s, and it kind of still is to this day” (Reimann, 2021). It’s a farcical exercise in Sci-Fi kitsch, which packages all the serious tropes of the genre into a silly, yet enjoyable popcorn movie.
Another genre parody, Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010) focuses on the encounters of the two eponymous characters with a group of college students in a dilapidated mountain cabin. Eli Craig’s film is obviously a horror pastiche, as it pokes fun at the stereotypical isolated redneck trope and lost young group cliche from most slasher films.
The horror-comedy presents a decent production value, but the violence is unimpressive, presented as absurd and unrealistic. It’s an unpretentious movie that takes well-known elements of the already too familiar genre and makes them exuberant and approachable.
However, Craig’s film is not only lampooning horror, as it focuses on the almost charming quality of the main characters. They are well-meaning and have the skills to overcome evil, representing an almost childish take on the usually gruesome genre. All in all, the 2010 movie is a potent example of how kitsch can transform even the most unsavory cinematic tropes into scenes of good-natured fun.
Kitsch seems to transcend genres and periods, as its use is almost ubiquitous, especially in mainstream cinema. It’s an unpretentious sensibility of light-heartedness that seems to encompass some elements of other esthetic categories. Taking a more detailed look at kitsch reveals it to be an art form of simple delight, which the cinematic public should not reject. It represents a cliched search for happiness, which may not have the depth or substance of other esthetic sensibilities, but it’s readily available and remarkably familiar.
Kulka, T. (1996). Kitsch and Art. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press
Greenberg, C. (1961). Art and Culture. Beacon Press
Romano, A. (2017, December 19). The Room: how the worst movie ever became a Hollywood legend as bizarre as its creator. Vox. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/12/2/16720012/the-room-tommy-wiseau-backstory-explained
Reimann, T. (2021, February 1). 'Mars Attacks!' Is Good — Here's Why It Deserves More Respect. Collider. https://collider.com/why-mars-attacks-is-good-tim-burton/
Wiseau, T. (2003). The Room. [Photo]. https://www.indiewire.com/2020/05/tommy-wiseau-pays-room-documentary-1202229343/
Burton, T. (1996). Mars Attacks! [Photo]. https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/this-week-in-genre-history-mars-attacks-tim-burton-reviews
Craig, E. (2010). Tucker and Dale vs Evil. [Photo]. https://netflixlife.com/2015/11/18/50-best-comedy-movies-on-netflix-tucker-and-dale-vs-evil/