Regular Joe

Film - Philip Kerr defends the integrity of time-wasting, second-rate cinema

Any fool can name his or her favourite films. But, without meaning to sound too much like Nick Hornby, I wonder how many of us can name our favourite second-raters - the films we continue to enjoy through repeated viewings, in the face of our greater awareness that these are really not very good.

It is said that, from his grimy bed in the penthouse of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas, the billionaire junkie Howard Hughes would view Ice Station Zebra several times a week. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean, and starring Rock Hudson, it's not a good film - of which I am sure Hughes was only too well aware; certainly, it's not as good as, say, The Guns of Navarone, or even Where Eagles Dare, both of which were also based on MacLean novels. But saying it's a bad movie, and that Hughes had no taste, would be to miss the point, because there was something about the experience of watching that particular film that connected with Hughes and made it feel close to him. Indeed, Ice Station Zebra is probably as important a clue to Hughes's character as Rosebud was to Charles Foster Kane.

I have often wondered which film I might watch again and again if I were an eccentric and reclusive billionaire. I would not choose a great film, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Searchers or Citizen Kane, for fear of devaluing their personal significance. Movies like that have to be treated with more respect, like fine wines. So then, a second-rater. Probably something like What's New Pussycat?, El Dorado or A Fistful of Dynamite. None of these films has much merit, but I've always enjoyed watching them, just as I often enjoy watching a movie matinee on the television. For example, the other week, I watched Too Long at the Fair, with Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. It wasn't a very good film but, for some reason, I enjoyed it.

Why is it that we enjoy films we know to be mediocre, or even bad? The answer has more to do with the essence of enjoying cinema - which is gross frivolity - than with the films themselves. I love the way a film, even a second-rater, can seduce you and waste your time. Because wasting your time is really what the movies are all about. And it seems to me that until you have developed a sensibility that enables you to connect with the mediocre, or even the bad, as well as with the worthy, you can never really say that you love the movies. As Gore Vidal once said: "Shit has its own integrity."

Which brings us to Joe Dirt. The film chronicles the comic and picaresque adventures of an engaging fool. Joe Dirt (David Spade) is a janitor with a David Seaman-style mullet, acid-washed jeans and an American dream to find the parents whom he lost at the Grand Canyon when he was a gamin, trailer-park-raised eight-year-old. Now, blasting Van Halen in his souped-up economy car, the irrepressibly optimistic Joe hits the road alone in search of his folks. As his wandering, misguided search takes him from one hilarious misadventure to another, Joe finds his way to Los Angeles, where a shock-jock (Dennis Miller) invites Joe on to his radio show in order to insult him. But as Joe's life story unfolds, the jeers turn to cheers, and an entire captivated city tunes in to hear the adventures of Joe Dirt.

It's an irresponsibly enjoyable little film that asks nothing of us. It's not art. It's not an occasion or an event. It's just a stupid little Forrest Gump meets The Dukes of Hazzard movie for people (mostly aged 14-29) who enjoy their popcorn and their Coke as much as they enjoy what's happening on screen. If, like me, you're the kind of person who enjoys watching white trash make fools of themselves on the Jerry Springer Show, then this movie will, just about, amuse you. But if you don't like Saturday Night Live-style gags about transvestites, fornicating dogs, frozen lumps of shit, farts and American ignorance, then you should avoid it like you would a cigar in Bill Clinton's humidor.

My predecessor, Charlotte Raven, has written in this magazine of how she was "shocked back into the art house" by the "unbearable lightness of the mainstream flicks" to which she was "briefly subjected as the NS's film critic". It strikes me that this is a purely aesthetic response, and leaves little room for the frivolous.

From her excellent column in the Guardian, Raven sounds civilised and refined, cultivated and serious. I enjoyed her NS article on Jean-Luc Godard (27 August), but this revealed her very European sensibility, which is, I think, a great handicap for a cinema critic, because most of the films one sees are American, and because America is not particularly civilised and refined, any more than the movies it produces tend to be cultivated and serious.

If you go to the cinema a lot, it is important to develop a sense of aesthetics, sure. But one should always also remember that part of the pleasure of going to a film is something that Americans understand much better than we do, and that is the sheer escapism of the movies, of being in the dark, unsupervised by other, more responsible people. One should not underestimate the illicit thrill that the moviegoer gets by wasting an afternoon at the cinema, by turning the lights down on adulthood, by watching the world through irresponsible eyes - even, if you're really lucky, of being a child again. Sometimes that means giving yourself up to the Ice Station Zebras, the What's New Pussycats? and, yes, even the Joe Dirts.

Joe Dirt (12) is available to buy on DVD from 19 November

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win