September 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson

It’s a dim moment in the world for lovers of hierarchy. If the Olsen Twins are “A List” celebrities, why have a “B List” at all?

In the movie world, a B picture meant the second half of a double feature, made with a low budget and not given much publicity. It came to be a broader term used for genre films, various kinds of ‘ploitation, interminable sequels and strange little movies with a cult following -- basically, any commercial film made on a low budget that wasn’t meant to be art or porn. To the editors of The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love, the category now embraces “films that fall outside the mainstream by dint of their budgets, their visions, their grit, and occasionally -- sometimes essentially -- their lack of what the culture cops call ‘good taste.’”

But, sometime in late 1970s, really tacky genre films started making more money than good movies of any kind. For a brief, happy moment in the 1990s and early 2000s, the divide for film buffs seemed to be not between A Movies and B Movies, but between studio films and indies. Studio movies were big budget, witless disasters, riddled with badly-integrated product placement -- You’ve Got Mail, Independence Day or Shrek the Third, for example. They weren’t low budget, and they weren’t maverick. They were majorly mainstream movies, but they were unbelievably bad. They replaced bad taste with something far more insidious -- non-taste.

The B List is one of a series of well-written review collections compiled by the National Society of Film Critics. There’s also The A List, which showcases 100 “essential films” and is really just a list of critics’ favorites -- less-known movies like Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful Happy Together are included, culturally influential blockbuster pap like Titanic is left off. The X List is 100 movies that turned critics on. Unlike the other collections, The B List divides the 100 movies into categories -- film noir (Gun Crazy, The Well), neo-noir (Reservoir Dogs, The Last Seduction), madness and melodrama (Peeping Tom), sci fi (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), horror (The Rage: Carrie 2, May), road movies (Stranger than Paradise), westerns (Forty Guns), political pictures (Salvador, Platoon), music movies (The Buddy Holly Story), cult classics (Videodrome, Beat the Devil) and midnight movies (Rocky Horror, Eraserhead).

These selections are so wide-ranging that the omissions grate more than in The A List. This book would have been juicier, better and just more fun if they’d made it a collection of critics’ favorite so-bad-they’re-good movies. As a collection, it’s so eclectic that it almost falls flat. Or, maybe I’m just disappointed that most of my own favorite B movies (David Cronenberg’s The Brood, Burnt Offerings with Karen Black and Oliver Reed, the hilariously dreadful Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Hunger, any of the films of Mick Jagger, Tommy, The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, or Warhol’s My Hustler, to name just a few) aren’t included. Still, the quality of the essays makes The B List a worthy read. The introductory notes on each section, by David Sterritt and John Anderson, are so good that I’m praying these guys will put together a collection of mean and eviscerating reviews someday, ala Roger Ebert’s I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. And the reviews, by Ebery, Charles Taylor, Stephanie Zacharek, Amy Taubin, and others are strong.

In Sterritt and Anderson’s account, B cinema seems minor in the way of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s minor literature -- subversive from within and inherently political, without offering any refuge from the power dynamics of language, creation and expression. They ask,

What kind of collection could possibly find common ground among The Son of Kong, Platoon and Pink Flamingos?... Taste is subjective, transitory and evolving. With that in mind, this book throws caution to the proverbial wind, zooming in on movies that demand attention despite their lowly births, squalid upbringings, and dubious character traits. What admirable qualities the pictures have…are cheerfully irrelevant to the properties that define Oscar movies, although some of our selections are, in fact, Oscar movies.

The joy of criticism is in its decisive taste-making, however bogus or subjective its standards might be. By accepting everything and finding the spirited goodness in a wide variety of films, The B List strips the fun out of exploring why and how certain movies are bad. The very concept of an actual “A List” is dying forever, like a beautiful 1920s movie star languishing alone in some generic hospital room in a small American city. It’s up to critics to viciously alert the cud-chewing public when the emperor is naked, when we get complacent and Jessica Simpson or Mariah Carey is on the cover of a magazine as a beauty icon, and the Independent Spirit awards are honoring the same movies as the Oscars. This is a friendly, open-minded collection. I wanted something more brazen.

The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306815664
288 Pages