Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The 'B' in B-Movie Doesn't Mean Bad: A Rant.

As you can probably tell from just the briefest glance at this blog, I watch a lot of what would commonly be called ‘bad films’. Before we go any further, it should be made clear that this is a misleading and unfair label for these films. Films today tend to break down into depressingly few categories. They are either Big Budget, Independent, ‘Art-house’ or Foreign. Anything else tends to get labelled as bad. What’s even more disappointing is that, in the vast majority of cases ‘independent’, ‘art-house’ and ‘foreign’ often run together. So we’re left with: Big-Budget-Small-Brain-Blockbusters (the kind you eat popcorn with), Arty/Weird/Intellectual/Foreign/Independent (the kind you sip red wine with) and ‘the rest’ (the kind you drink lots of beer with).

This ‘the rest’ category has a bad image nowadays. Once-upon-a-time, in the days of the b-movie, these films were important. They didn’t have the cash of the Hollywood hits, nor the intellectual/pretentious (delete as appropriate) element of the indie/arty/weird/foreign film. No. They were made on tight budgets, with tight time-limits and tight resources. They were made to be enjoyed. This is pulp cinema. Nowadays we associate the term ‘b-movie’ and perhaps even ‘pulp’ with ‘bad’. This is simply not (necessarily) the case.

Compare film to literature. Again, we find the blockbusters (your Dan Browns etc), an appreciation for ‘classics’, an appreciation for the experimental/philosophical/foreign/intellectual but you also find an considerable about (albeit way less than there used to be) of pulp literature. Whilst you might very well want to label Dan Brown as pulp (and are probably correct…), there is a difference. By pulp I’m talking about the books that are churned out at an astonishing rate. The detective stories and murder mysteries that fill shelves in bookshops and libraries and lie discarded on trains, benches and café tables.

These are not high-art. Nevertheless, they are also – to put it simply – not bad. The most essential thing whilst writing genre-fiction to be sold, read and forgotten about is obviously not to be inventive, challenging or weird – that’s not what your readers (or perhaps better, customers) want – but the author is required to at least write a cracking story. It’s got to be exciting. It’s got to be mysterious. It’s got to keep you turning the pages. They might not be books you’d recommend to a friend, see reviewed in the newspaper or ever want to read again, but they should be books that are gripping reads.

The same applies to film, or at least used to.

Most of the films I prefer to watch do not have brilliant special effects. They don’t have exquisite cinematography. They don’t have big name stars neither in front of nor behind the camera. They don’t have challenging dialogue, open-ended ambiguity, subtleties or philosophical concerns. They are simply good fun.

Sadly it seems that nowadays many people can’t help but sneer a little at the thought of watching Hammer Horror, Toho Godzilla films or anything that wasn’t made by James Cameron or Michael Bay. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are those that sit and smirk at everyone else, whilst claiming there is no such thing as cinema outside of the masterpieces of Michael Haneke, Kurosawa et al.

What confuses me still more is that we seem perfectly content to watch the same kind of material on TV. We watch hours of detective shows, crime dramas etc, many of which are feature length and produced with no greater budget nor skills than the films we have been content to ignore. Is it simply the element of laziness? Is it just because we can sit down on the sofa, sip our mug of coffee and let it all wash over us? The answer, sadly, is probably yes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

El Crack

When you think of film noir, you think of it's true home - America. We think of corrupt cops, mean streets, whisky on the breath of hard-working loner detectives and screeching tyres through the city.

As you turn towards the 70s, the real Noir has long ceased to be and is now replaced by the neo-noir. The relationship between these films and the original classic Hollywood output is confusing and often contradictory. They are at once parodies of classic noir, re-imaginings of the genre and cinematic love-letters to a genre left behind.

This brings all sorts of other concerns; unless they go to the extent of setting themselves within the time period of the classic noir, contemporary issues become involved, the world had changed between the 40s and 70s and so the hard-boiled detective story had to as well. Similarly, if we move the narrative away from America, the different geography brings it's own tensions, styles and attitudes. The final product is, in many respects, a million miles away from the film noir, yet somehow remains linked.

In real terms, films like El Crack (Spain, 1981) are as far removed from true noir as American teen slashers of the 90s are from Italian giallo thrillers. Only a few core elements are left to connect the two genres yet somehow you can't help but see a link.

In making El Crack, they certainly intended the link to be visible; from the opening dedication to Dashiell Hammett to the corruption, gunshots and nighttime city, this is both desperately seeking comparisons to American noir and making a statement of Spanish independence. It is both derivative and original. It's also pretty good fun.

Alfredo Landa plays the central detective, Germán, excellently. It is his performance that both links and distances this from the American noir. He is an ex-cop, a workaholic detective who is too honest and honourable for his own good. He passionately works late into the night on his case - a missing girl - fuelled by coffee, cigarettes and (asserting the Spanish-ness) the odd calamari sandwhich.

The other characters are mostly 'by-numbers' hard-boiled characters; Germán has a slimy ex-thief assistant and lives in a world populated by crooked cops and businessmen who think themselves above the law. Where it branches far from Noir however, is Germán's love interest. I don't know whether it came about as a result of Spanish Catholiscism, a deep-routed belief in the family unit or whatever else but, rather than the femme-fatal of the American noir, charged with sex and danger, Germán is pursuing a relationship with a pretty but conservative nurse. It's all very civilised; he picks up her daughter from school while she works, they go for strolls in the woods or off to see a film. It's all very... nice.

These niceties only serve to make the brutality of the last third of the film more brutal. Germán may be a much milder man than the creations of Chandler or Hammett, but when he's pushed he acts surprisingly coldly in pursuit of justice.

The only real criticism of the film is that the pacing is a bit awkward. European films do tend to be a lot slower than American films; we seem to prefer slow build rather than a rollercoaster of climactic moments, but this one is decidedly on the slow side of 'slow-build'. The first half and hour to forty minutes do drag somewhat but, I promise you, it's worth persevering as the film builds slowly but surely towards a thrilling ending.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Poster Hunt #8 - Goliath and the Vampires

This gorgeous piece of retro poster-art looks back to a day when a film could be sold entirely on the strength of a poster. And looking at this one, you can see why!

SEE: The Revolt of the Faceless Humanoids? Count me in!