B-Movies Extended: Dead Movie Genres
Greetings, hugely intelligent readers, to another rousing and stimulating round of B-Movies Extended, wherein I, Witney Seibold, and my erstwhile co-host of The B-Movies Podcast (celebrating our 40th week on the air), one William “Bibbs” Bibbiani, will expound with bottomless insight into a topic we merely brush upon in the previous episode.
Seeing as this was a slow release week – the only major release was Tower Heist, and we were afforded no press screenings to it – the only new film we reviewed on the last episode was a German import called Young Goethe in Love. In my review of it, I mentioned that it resembled, very closely, the Miramax period dramas of the mid-1990s. William and I them reminisced on how such films are rare these days. Indeed, frothy, intelligent Miramax period pieces of the mid 1990s were so ubiquitous at one point in film's history that they may almost be deemed a subgenre unto themselves. Such films are still made to this day, but they usually don't get as much U.S. distribution as they once did, being relegated to their countries of origin.
This pondering of the sadly vanished Miramax period film (which I will henceforth dub “FrothFic”) had us thinking about the genres of films that have also sadly passed from the public eye. Films, like all things, tend to move in trends, and certain kinds of movies tend to be historically clumped together. Sometimes a genre will remain, and seems to be everlasting in cinemas. I'm thinking of, say, romantic comedies, horror films, and shoot-'em-ups. Some genres never really go away, but are so sparse, that every time they're released in theaters, critics hail them as a “return.” Musicals and westerns fall into this category. Others only recently found their footing, and we shall have to see if they stay around. Superhero movies, for instance. Some trends we're all glad to see go; I know few hardcore torture porn fans. But some came a while ago, and then passed away when they were no longer bankable, and left a clear memory of quality pictures that we wish would be resurrected.
I have thought of a few subgenres that are no longer being made, and I wish would come back.
THE HAG MOVIE
This is a subgenre that started in 1968 with the wonderfully enjoyable catfight classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis when they were well past their ingénue days. As is well known now, the two actresses hated one another, and the shooting of the film was rife with bitchy conflicts and acid-laced arguments. If there's a biopic waiting to be made, it's the making of this film. Baby Jane, however, was so successful that it launched a brief spate of what are now sometimes called Hag Films. This was a genre marked by over-acting actresses, usually in their fifties or sixties, who were once well-known for their blushing-violet teenage roles, but are now playing ultra-Gothic ghoulish caricatures. Movies like Straight-Jacket and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. These films were usually low budget, and the actresses involved were in a new place in their careers. I do not impugn this place, mind you. I admire that some actresses will transform themselves into whatever the job requires. These days, when actresses approach their 60s, but are still well-known, they often transfer to a high-profile TV show on cable. I would love to see someone try to play a murderous mom or a wrathful nanny again. We need rococo soap operas back on the big screen. Jessica Lange needs to spearhead this.
THE SCAVENGER HUNT MOVIE
I have an unreasonable weakness for Stanley Kramer's madcap 1963 epic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It's the only instance in film history when slapstick comedy was pushed to such an epic extreme. Other films tried to imitate it, but none came close. If you can make it through all 188 minutes of this thing, you'll feel pleasantly dazed, and you'll have nothing to compare the experience to. And if you know about comedians of the '60s, you'll begin to lose track of how many you recognize. Mad Mad World kicked off one of my favorite subgenres, and one I wish studios would make more of: The Scavenger Hunt Movie. The story of Mad Mad World was essentially an extended chase sequence as dozens of different people attempted to make it across the country to where a treasure was supposedly buried. They would steal cars, boats, hot air balloons, anything they could to make it to the finish line. The race mechanic is such an easy way of manufacturing drama, that, well, you can't help but feel caught up from time to time. Other greats in the subgenre are The Great Race, Million Dollar Mystery, the '80s classic Midnight Madness (which I adore), and the Cannonball Run movies (which are, I admit, kind of shabby). The last time we had a film of this ilk was in 2001 with Rat Race, a funny and underrated film that deserves another watch. I'm a sucker for a good scavenger hunt (there's a reason I smiled all the way through Angels & Demons), and I wish writers would stoop to them more often.
THE WOMEN IN PRISON MOVIE
I could talk endlessly about how exploitation movies have mutated over the years, and how Hollywood co-opted the out-there genre tropes of years past to sell their mainstream, big-budget fare (there was a time when breasts and gore could only be consumed exclusively at drive-ins and grindhouses). I could also endlessly lament about how the cheap, B-movie eye-grabbing gimmicks of the 1960s and 1970s have also been co-opted. There was one B-movie subgenre that was so efficient in its gimmickry, and so bare-faced in its promises that I lament its passing, and wish more would be made: The Women in Prison film. The genre started in earnest in 1971 with Jack Hill's The Big Doll House, where we got to see hot, thin model types, as well as the busty Pam Grier, fight, take drugs, shower, conspire, and commit random acts of violence. There are a few things that a B-movie audience demands. They want violence, perhaps gore (which is optional), they want cheap lurid plots, and they want hot girls in little clothing. The Women in Prison films provided all of those things just in their setup. The rest wrote itself. Domineering lesbian guard? Check. Naked shower scenes? Indeed. Improvised drug application? Sometimes. Hair-pulling catfights? You bet. And, later on in the genre, tender lesbian love scenes. This was a cheap, exploitative genre that could easily pull in cheap dollars from even the most jaded of smuthounds. Lets get some filth back.
THE SPOOF MOVIE
Thanks to the unfortunate machinations of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (the makers of films like Epic Movie, Date Movie, and Disaster Movie), the spoof movie has not only been killed, but the body was chemically dissolved in a tub, poured into the trunk of a car, driven out to the woods, and set on fire. Oh sigh. There was a time when spoofs were coming fast and furious, and they were invariably hilarious. The first of this wave was probably Airplane! in 1980, but extended into other Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker glories like Top Secret!, Hot Shots!, and The Naked Gun. I watched spoof movies like this incessantly as a youth, and they, along with MAD Magazine and “Weird Al” Yankovic, warped my humorous sensibility to an untold degree. Even when later spoofs straggled out in the '90s and '00s, I attended in hope. I even chuckled along to Wrongfully Accused and Mafia! Sadly, it was Scary Movie that really sounded the death knell, and spoof movies mutated into a string of gross-out sex gags and stultifying and pointless pop culture references. Some hotshot weirdo needs to step up to take on a spoof again. It's high time they returned.
NEXT: Bibbs wonders if movie genres can ever really die, and laments the passing of teen dramas, con artist movies and more…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
Before I get started, I’d like to point out to my current B-Movies Podcast co-host that “erstwhile”means “previous.” Let’s not be too hard on the guy. We’re both writing this in the wee hours of Monday morning, just a temporal hop, skip and jump away from our publication deadline. I’d say we’re running on fumes, but the fumes went to bed already.
I didn’t see Young Goethe in Love, but if Witney is to be believed (he’s a fairly reliable witness) it sounds like the kind of movie I’d enjoy. I know nothing about this Goethe person, beyond a passing familiarity that hey, there’s a guy named Goethe out there somewhere, but I do so love movies about people in fancy costumes falling in love and pondering suicide. The FrothFic genre, a name I’ve decided to fully support, is a fond memory of mine from my formative years in the 1990s, with Restoration being a particularly sumptuous favorite. For some reason Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda has a spot reserved in my subconscious too. It wasn’t particularly good, but at least had the gumption to be a movie about gambling addiction and churches made entirely out of glass. (Should make those sermons about “throwing the first stone” all the more poignant…)
I’m not sure that any movie genre ever really “dies,” although unlike Bebe’s Kidsbefore them, they don’t necessarily multiply. One of the genres I seriously considered including my own fond obituary (to follow) was the “Versus” genre, which found Godzilla fighting King Kong, or Billy the Kid facing off with Dracula. (Real movie, that last one. Jesse James also met Frankenstein’s daughter, incidentally.) But after more consideration than the subgenre has ever received, I realized that it’s still alive – but not necessarily well – on the SyFy Channel, where boas fight pythons every so often, sometimes double-billed with mega pythons and their ongoing struggle with gatoroids. I’m pretty sure that if you thought about any of my picks, or even Witney’s, you could come up with fairly recent proof of their existence. But just because they’re not dead doesn’t mean they’re not at least in a coma, with occasional spurts of brain activity but an otherwise grim prognosis.
So in the interest of going to god damned bed I will stop padding the article and leave you now with four of my own picks for genres that are either dead or terminally ill. Good riddance to one of them. For the others, like the Martian Manhunter before them (there’s my obscure reference for the day), I offer my prayers for a swift resurrection. Under certain conditions at least.
I believe it was the great Samuel Z. Arkoff (too tired to fact check, correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll send you a No Prize) who espoused that kids will see any movie a teenager will see, but a teenager won’t see any movie a kid will see. And that adults will see any movie a teenager will see, but a teenager won’t see any movie an adult will see. And that women will see anything a man will see, but not vice-versa. As such, movies for teenagers – male teenagers in particular – will always be a mainstay in the pervasively market-driven Hollywood machine. But lately, movies geared towards teenagers seem like almost exclusively genre entertainments. Action movies, broad comedies, romantic comedies and vampire flicks in particular. If a drama is made about teenagers, it’s rarely marketed towards that demographic, instead focusing on adults who wish to wax rhapsodic about their childhoods, or at least cluck meaningfully at the folly of youth. Granted, it seems like teenagers are too obsessed with frivolous entertainments to sit still for something like The Breakfast Club these days, and certainly not A Summer Place. But these films struck a chord with audiences of their day because they took the experiences of young adults seriously, sometimes melodramatically, without resorting to utter ridiculousness. (Oh hello, Twilight. Yes, I saw you standing behind me. I just don’t like you very much.) Everything about being a teenager feels dramatic, thanks in large part to those pesky hormones, which makes it all the weirder that nobody thinks teenagers would take actual dramas about their lives seriously.
ADULT ANIMATION (AMERICAN)
Adult animation is alive and well…in Japan. And sometimes France. But movies which happen to be animated but aren’t geared towards children are pretty much dead in America these days. Of course, “animation” isn’t a genre unto itself, but that’s not how Americans tend to see it. Walt Disney made the first American animated feature with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and for some reason every single thing he did in that movie was treated like a “How To” manual. Animated movies had to be for families, had to be musicals, and probably had to be storybook tales too. Folks like Ralph Bakshi rebelled against these dictatorial rules in the 1970s, mostly, with films like Fritz the Cat, American Pop and The Wizards. They were mixed bags, perhaps, but also significant animated features brimming with ideas and dramatic ambition. But they never quite caught on in the United States, perhaps because Ralph Bakshi was the poster child for the adult animation medium for a long time, and he was kind of a polarizing figure who frequently pushed sociological buttons at the cost of marketability, which helped prevent adult animation from catching on with the mainstream. Animated features geared towards adult audiences are scarce these days, outside of Japan and, again, France (which still whips out the occasional The Illusionist thanks to Sylvain Chomet), and that’s a pity. Animation is not a genre, it’s a medium for telling stories. But try telling that to Hollywood sometime. They think it's a genre. And a kiddie genre at that.
CON ARTIST MOVIES
Here’s a genre more-or-less invented in George Roy Hill’s Oscar-winning The Sting, but generally associated with David Mamet, who’s made four or five of the things. The Con Artist Movie is – now stick with me on this – a movie about con artists, much like heist movies are about guys who pull off a heist. There’s nothing terribly wrong with basing a genre upon a particular occupation: cop movies, legal thrillers and spy movies are still alive and well, obviously. But con artist movies fell into a particular trap very quickly, in that they usually seem to end with the entire movie turning out to be one giant con all along. Again, see David Mamet for four or five examples. A twist ending loses its efficacy when you expect it, and here was an entire genre that trained audiences to expect it every single time. Mamet cleverly subverted this trope with Heist, one of his better (and most underrated) films, and got away with it in his early work because the twists also served important thematic functions, but by the time films like James Foley’s Confidence, starring Ed Burns and Dustin Hoffman, came along, it was such a cliché that the genre pretty much seemed to die out in the years that followed. I suspect it will resurge sometime in the near-ish future, provided someone comes up with an original way to handle the material. One great exception to that annoying rule was Stephen Frears’superlative The Grifters, which had a lot more on its mind than mere twists and turns (although it had those too).
Don’t smoke pot, kids. If you do you’ll become a hardened criminal, your innocent girlfriend will become a slut and the Commies win. Oh, and see that guy up there? That’ll be your haircut. Yeah, these aren’t popular sentiments these days, but back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the Hollywood Cautionary Tale was a familiar if not necessarily popular genre that talked down to kids because adults ran the show, and didn’t want their pubescent offspring bringing shame to the family. (What would the neighbors think?!) Films like Reefer Madness and The Beatniks warned youths against reefer and beatniks, respectively, and demonstrated how hanging with “the wrong crowd”– anyone who wasn’t white and bland, bland, bland, incidentally – led inevitably to ruin. Reefer Madness is now considered one of the most legendarily bad movies ever made, and with good cause, since it’s both awful and awfully ignorant propaganda. It was remade as a more subversive (and legitimately excellent) musical in 2005 starring Kristen Bell, Neve Campbell and Alan Cumming, and I recommend watching them back-to-back. Reefer wouldn’t hurt the experience, although it will KILL YOU. This kind of blatant conservative establishment brainwashing has pretty much left the world of feature filmmaking, although it still thrives in some of the more naïve “public service" announcements and commercial politicking in a given election year.