New Book Celebrates The So-Called Lower Rung of Auteurs
Broadening the canon of "great" movies is enjoyable but more importantly essential work for any critic. "For every big Hollywood hit there are many, many also-rans that have not won popular acclaim, racked up huge profits, attracted the diligent scrutiny of PhD candidates, or secured the warm affections of Netflix and company," David Sterritt and John Anderson write in the introduction to The B List, a new collection of essays on "low-budget beauties, genre-bending mavericks, and cult classics." In 2008, only the worst kind of contrarian would deny the impact--or entertainment value--of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, or any of the deified directors who always wind up topping TV and magazine countdowns of the best dang movies ever made. But what about the gems that have resisted critical domestication but nonetheless deserve vigorous champions of their own?
Longtime critics Sterritt and Anderson, along with the help of members of the National Society of Film Critics, have just put together their own shot at a canon composed of these slippery, left-of-center faves. They call them "B" movies, a designation semantically inclusive enough to cover both award winners and stuff consigned to late-night Cinemax showings. The B List's table of contents contains everything from David Cronenberg's flesh-mangling dark fantasy Videodrome to Gary Busey's jumped-up star turn in The Buddy Holly Story. The book features marquee critics such as Roger Ebert and J. Hoberman singing the praises of the seemingly trashy or the unfortunately marginalized or the inevitably half-forgotten, though in the case of Ebert's take on Baltimore's beloved Pink Flamingos, it may be the most grudging "praise" of all time.
The movies in The B List certainly aren't experimental movies in the Stan Brakhage sense, and they're often not quite at home at the art house. Sometimes they're superficially indistinguishable from the rest of the movies at the multiplex. Yet despite flirting with pop genres like crime or horror, their intensity, oddness, and/or overall personal vibe makes them stand out next to the latest gangster or slasher product from a for-hire hack.
"An Anthony Mann western, which uses absolutely traditional western formulas in a distinctive way, is really a flat-out genre movie," Sterritt says via phone from his office in California; he is the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. "But maybe if there's one thing that runs through all the movies in the book--and I'd have to go through the table of contents to see if there's an exception here and there--it would be some kind of personal vision, that we feel this movie is the work of an artist, usually the director. Not necessarily a great artist, but an artist--which is to say someone who had a distinctive view of the world and the human condition, and who had the imagination and the strength of creative personality to get that on film."
Artists, but not necessarily always craftsmen in the old Hollywood sense. The acting, cinematography, and storytelling found in several movies covered by The B List would be considered formally perfect by just about any critic's definition. But watching other movies from the book, you wonder if the basic excitement of filmmaking caused the director to lapse into the kind of enjoyable incoherence Stephanie Zacharek captures perfectly in the opening volley of her essay on Grindhouse: "Contemporary audiences have become spoiled by movies that make sense, have great acting, and feature nudity only when absolutely necessary: no wonder hardly anyone goes to the movies anymore."
That off-the-cuff approach to technical competence stemmed partly from the B movie's cut-rate origins. "Up until the 1960s, American critics and American audiences really had a hard time thinking of film as an art at all, unless it was maybe Laurence Olivier in a Shakespeare production," Sterritt says. "When movies started to be recognized as at least potentially art, a lot of attention went to people who made the `prestige' projects at the big studios. So even then, the B movies tended to be overlooked.
"But a little bit later on, and this still goes back a few decades, people like Andrew Sarris, and of course a lot of French critics, started to make the case that when you find a personal vision in the movie, when you find that by that definition [a film is] a work of art, it's because somebody, usually the director, was able to exercise real creative control," he continues. "And that happened at the two opposite ends of production in the Hollywood studios. It happened in the biggest, most prestigious productions with the big stars and so forth, where the studios would only entrust a project like this to some really brilliant director--a Howard Hawks, a John Ford, an Alfred Hitchcock. And those directors could then exercise a lot of creative control."
These are the auteurs whose work is familiar to any first-year film student. Many of their "prestige projects" continue to be endlessly--and deservedly--rerun on TCM and AMC. Of course, then as now, those movies accounted for only a fraction of the industry's output.
"The other place where you found that creative control was at the bottom of poverty row, with the B movies, the movies made for the bottom half of the double feature, the movies made for the tiny studios that hardly anybody ever heard of," Sterritt's thumbnail film history continues. "Precisely because they cost practically nothing [to make] and they didn't have stars in them and they were not expected to attract a lot of notice by critics. The studios, or whoever was financing these movies, would allow the director all kinds of creative freedom, because who cared?"
With the low sums at stake, these proto-indies attracted two kinds of filmmakers. "Most of these directors were hacks," Sterritt says. "But the few that weren't, the people like Sam Fuller, people who had ferociously personal visions, were able to realize those visions and get them on film. So, of course, once we started to realize that all this was true, `we' meaning people of my ilk, people who love movies and may write about movies, we started paying a lot of attention to these kinds of films, looking--to use a total cliché--for these diamonds in the rough."
When critics such as Sarris and the Cahiers Du Cinema crew began to praise coarse but intense auteurs like Fuller, it rankled the prestige- and craft-obsessed critics. And 50 odd years after B pictures began to be cautiously added to the list of greats, the B-List thankfully remains a bit of an argument starter itself. (What use is canon-shaking criticism if it doesn't start arguments?) Obviously not every movie in the book will fit your personal pre-existing definition of a B movie; occasionally the book's range seems to muddle its intentions more than it tweaks your expectations. (Jim Jarmusch's doggedly idiosyncratic Stranger Than Paradise feels like it wandered in from a completely different wing of film history.) And like any multiauthor volume, the quality of the essays varies, even between essays written by the same critic. Ebert's aforementioned thanks-but-no-thanks response to Pink Flamingos feels even more glib when you compare it to his sensitive, in-depth examination of May, a 2002 horror flick I'd previously dismissed as wacky for wacky's sake.
But the book's most compelling essays make you rethink old favorites or point you in the direction of movies that even those of us who grew up tethered to our VCRs may have missed. While I was already a fan of Oliver Stone's brand of screaming historiography, I never thought I needed to see Salvador again until John Powers convinced me with his erudite, language-drunk descriptions of James Woods' twitchy intensity and Stone's garish, supersaturated '80s "realism." And 1967's The President's Analyst was added to the "to rent" list as soon as I read James Verniere's plot description: "The ensuing hijinks involve government-sanctioned murder, a drug-induced orgy, and a separate peace between an African American CEA hit man and an amiable Soviet secret agent."
As the interview winds down, Sterritt notes that The B List was ultimately the result of intense personal enthusiasm on the part of its authors. In the book's introduction, the editors write that they "left it to the writers to follow their own magnificent obsessions in their own ornery ways." And the best of The B List does feel like an alternate history of film constructed out of witty, informed mash notes to those "low-budget beauties." If you're looking for a guide through film's funkier tributaries, this is intellectual criticism written with the urgency of a fan juiced to share some odd object of infatuation with a world that likely missed it the first time around.
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