So bad, it’s good: Film Studies professor’s class tackles “trash cinema”

There are bad movies, really bad movies, and then there’s downright trash. But there are some treasures in those trashy films, and Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece is helping her students find it.

Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor and the director of the UWM Film Studies program, just wrapped up her class on “Trash Cinema,” which explores films that push the boundaries of good taste, revel in taboos, and embrace the gross side of life. Her work was recently featured on Wisconsin Public Radio.

“All of the films that seem like just outrageous shockers actually have incredible historical meaning and political depth,” said Szczepaniak-Gillece. “They’re only trashy on the surface.”

Here are four things you need to know about trash cinema.

1. Trashy films are bad, but not all bad films are trash

There are plenty of bad movies out there, but not all of them are what Szczepaniak-Gillece would consider trash. A confusing script, poor chemistry between the actors, and other factors can bring down the quality of a film, but trash cinema goes beyond that.

“(It’s) movies that are on the fringes, that push against the boundaries of propriety, that may seem a little bit amoral –but tell us something about the world that we don’t usually expect movies to do,” Szczepaniak-Gillece said. “Trash is tasteless.”

Of course, taste is subjective, so it can be hard to separate trash from the merely bad. But there is a difference between a bad film like the 2019 version of “Cats” and a film like “Showgirls” (1995), which is often considered “trash canon.”

2. Trash films push boundaries, in distasteful and important ways.

Those boundaries include things like violence, gore, and sex. For instance, in the 1960s, a director named Herschell Gordon Lewis pioneered the “splatter” genre, films characterized by an absurd amount of violence and blood. Szczepaniak-Gillece points to his movie “Blood Feast,” a bizarre film about a caterer who murders women in an effort to resurrect an Egyptian goddess.

“He was not a good filmmaker, but (the movie) is filled with so much over-the-top gore and shock that it ended up being kind of successful,” Szczepaniak-Gillece laughed.

But, said Szczepaniak-Gillece, because trashy films push boundaries, some films tackle taboo and important subjects in ways that a mainstream movie cannot or will not. In 1953, director Ed Wood created the film “Glen or Glenda,” a somewhat autobiographical feature that not only explored Wood’s fascination with cross-dressing, but also the life of famous trans actress Christine Jorgensen.

“You’re not going to get that in a Hollywood movie from 1953. You’re only going to find that in low-budget, outrageous shocker,” Szczepaniak-Gillece said. “Trash cinema, because it is on the fringes, has the ability to talk about social issues that are also on the fringes.”

3. Without trashy cinema, we wouldn’t have the cinematic treasures of today.

Trash cinema is often poorly made: A small budget, incoherent plot, and shoddy editing are all hallmarks of a trashy film. But though they appalled and titillated audiences, trashy films provided the groundwork for some of the most acclaimed films and directors today. For example, without Herschell Gordon Lewis, there would be no Quentin Tarantino.

The modern horror genre especially stands on the shoulders of trashy films of yesteryear, SzczepaniakGillece noted. So-called elevated horror, like “The Babadook” (2014) or “Hereditary” (2018), is of far better quality than its predecessors, but those films build off of tropes and structures that were introduced in low-budget, low-quality films.

“If you’re watching ‘Midsommar’ (2019), you don’t want to think that you would like Herschell Gordon Lewis. You’re too classy,” Szczepaniak-Gillece joked. “But ‘Midsommar’ draws on all of these tropes of older horror movies, especially horror movies on the fringes. You should think about that when you’re watching elevated horror. Are you actually a trashy film viewer?”

4. Taste is subjective – unless it’s not.

Some of the films that Szczepaniak-Gillece picked out for her class are hard to watch. She warns her students at the start of the course: If you’re a sensitive viewer, drop out now.

But she also wants her students to look beyond the surface of trash cinema. Why are these films so bad? What makes them in poor taste?

It’s because “taste is not natural,” Szczepaniak-Gillece said. Sure, we all have our preferences. But when it comes to good taste on a societal scale, “what you think you love is actually a product of your education, where you’re positioned in the social hierarchy, your class, and to a certain extent, your race and gender as well.”

She bases her explanation on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose book is required reading for the course. Bourdieu notes there are three distinct “levels” of taste – the high-, middle-, and lowbrow. Highbrow cinema tends toward more artistic films, while middlebrow would feature films that appeal to broader audiences –think Oscar-bait or Marvel movies. Low-brow, of course, includes trash cinema and “all the stuff you’re not supposed to enjoy,” Szczepaniak-Gillece said.

“Bourdieu tells us that, depending on which class you find yourself fitting in, you will hate the class that is right above and below you,” she added. “If you’re middle-brow, you think trashy stuff is beneath you but that high-brow is pretentious.”

Ashley Hale, an English and film studies major who took the class, has learned that films of all “levels” have something of value to offer.

“I think there is also a misconception that art of low quality isn’t worth studying. It is,” Hale said. “ I think we gain a fuller picture of film history if we expose ourselves to all facets of it – not just the critically acclaimed films.”

Both she and her classmate, John Dewey, said they enjoyed the class, and both pointed to “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” as their favorite film on the syllabus.

“As I watched these “trash” films, I realized how much I liked them and how much I learned from them,” Hale said.

“Trash cinema brings people together,” Dewey added. “Everyone’s got some trashy show or movie they enjoy, and there’s something really fun about getting together and sharing that experience.”

So it’s okay to hate trashy cinema. It’s okay to love it. It’s okay to love to hate it. But Szczepaniak-Gillece hopes that her students – and audiences everywhere – understand that it’s more than a matter of taste. It’s a matter of class structure, social commentary, and the modern movies we love.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science