In 2007, I spent some time in Greece as part of my major in Classical Literature. On one of the first days, my classmates and I stood on the Acropolis, overlooking the dizzying expanse of white buildings that composed the great city of Athens, and discussed how we came to be introduced to the culture and myths of ancient civilizations. Many people had many different answers, but when it came my time I decided to be honest: it started with the 1980 Ray Harryhausen film The Clash of the Titans. Despite the clearly visible, and not wholly unexpected, rolled eyes of some of the people in the class, I was pleased to receive a warm stamp of approval from my professor. Vindication can feel sweet to a student on the spot.
The truth is, entire worlds have been opened to me as the direct result of my independent studies into what some would call “low brow,” “exploitative,” or “disreputable” art forms. On the surface, horror or science fiction cinema, literature, and other art are seen as a cheap attempt at accessing our base pleasures—and they can certainly be used for just that purpose. Deeper inspection and communication of these genres, however, can incite discourse, illustrate the socio-political environment of a given time, or even give life to a curiosity about the human condition that leads to life-learning.
Since sharing my dirty little secret about The Clash of the Titans with my classmates in Athens, I have filled my life with a variety of activities in addition to my day job as an Educational Technology resource teacher for San Diego Unified School District. I host a podcast that examines the horror genre in history, art, film, and literature, and I direct a dark-themed film festival called Horrible Imaginings. All of these are intertwined in my need to think more critically about what some dismiss as worthless, along with an even stronger need to share what I have discovered.
For the last year and a half, I have had the distinct fortune of being invited by Marc Chery, Branch Manager of the downtown branch of San Diego Public Library, to introduce films for a monthly program he calls “Schlockfest.” The term schlock, which originates from a Yiddish word meaning “cheap or inferior” has been used in the art world to describe works whose main quality is one of camp or kitsch. Poverty row films, old serials, b-movies, creature features, exploitation—these can all fall under the umbrella of schlock, and they are all considered when mining for the next film to showcase.
So why does the library, whose events and programming include presentations on Radical Islam, Latino-American Experiences of the Constitution, and the writings of Mark Twain, bother to dedicate a full two hours of operation to an exhibition of schlock? Things lurk, dear reader, beneath the surface of even the most seemingly valueless production. The choice of film is, of course, central to the value of any film program in a library setting. Here are some criteria to think about for any librarian who is considering starting a Schlockfest of his or her own. For the purpose of this list, I will refer to these films as schlock films.
- What does the film’s central conflict represent? Schlock is notorious for thinly-veiled allegory. The concept of allegory is instrumental to critical literacy and encouraging readers and viewers to read between the lines of a given story. James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein is a classic example of the dangers of mob mentality and prejudice. The question “Who is the real monster?” is on full display here.
- When was the film made? What can the film reveal about the decade in which it was produced? Are any radical changes in society evident in the film’s themes? Is the overall tone of a group of films from one decade significantly different from a group of films from another decade? What could drive that difference? The 1951 film The Thing From Another World featured a group of scientists banding together to fight an alien invader. This reflects both the promise of science that was influential in post-WWII America, as well as the period now known as the Red Scare, and our fear of the outside influence of communism. The 1982 remake The Thing, however, featured our scientists growing paranoid and untrustworthy of each other as much as the alien. Could that be a reflection of partisan politics of that time period? (Many librarians will probably find the R-rated content of the latter version to be unsuitable for screening, but the difference is worthy of discussion.)
- Who are the film’s protagonists? The characters in schlock often resemble archetypes of classical storytelling. Are they flawed or seemingly flawless? How do they treat the other characters, and how are they viewed by them? What methods do they use to overcome the central conflict? In the 1958 film The Blob, Steve McQueen plays one of a group of teenagers who become aware of a deadly alien parasite that invades their town. They are seen by authority figures as riffraff, as troublemaking teenagers, and they start the film making some bad decisions stereotypical of teenage characters. This element was one of many such “juvenile delinquent” films that flooded cinemas at the time—the best known of which was Rebel Without A Cause. What drove this fear of youth or the corruption of youth, and how prevalent was it in 1950s America?
Schlock cinema and other art that is seen as “low brow” often deals with concepts and metaphors that, whether completely intentional or not, are unapologetically blunt in how they portray the world around us. The schlock lens through which we see the world also often seems to be undeniably sincere, and it is that sincerity that so many people find so magnetic about these types of genre works. When using schlock or low brow cinema to develop critical thinking skills in engaging and relatively comprehensible ways, the possibility of applying those skills to other forms of media becomes more and more real. Besides, these movies are just so much fun.
Miguel Rodriguez works for the San Diego Unified School District providing professional development training and support services in educational technology to K12 teachers. He also directs and programs the annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and hosts the Monster Island Resort Podcast in order to share his passion for genre art and film. These projects have led to his doing library introductions, a monthly film night called “Shot by Shot,” and an upcoming series on horror films for The University of California San Diego’s ArtPower in early October.