Saturday, February 4, 2012

You say B movie like it's a bad thing...

Language and culture are evolving things, ever-changing as the disparate components that use it and make it up, respectively, change themselves.  I don't mean to suggest that by evolution they get better; that is a misunderstanding of the definition of evolution, but that misunderstanding does illustrate my point about language and culture.
Take for example the word moot.  Moot is an Anglo-Saxon word that means a meeting and carried the further definition of an argument, discussion or debate.  Thus when used in the following sentence, "That is a moot point" it meant that the point was open for debate or discussion, hardly a solved thing.  Now it means something like "decided" or "rendered meaningless".  It got this way through usage, which is how languages change over time.  For an old English major like myself (a construction that Microsoft grammar checker hates, but it is completely legitimate) this is a major annoyance.
I liked the old meaning and saw no reason for it to change save for ignorance.

This brings me to my point as stated by the title of the post.  B movies are not, de facto bad movies.  B movie was an industry term for the second film in a double bill, typically this was a film made on a lower budget than the A film and featuring less, shall we say marketable stars.  I could have said lucrative in that sentence as well.  This does not imply a hack film, poor quality film or exploitation film.  Genre films are often chosen for the B slot, but again that does not mean poor quality.  Yet over time people, and not professional critics and film historians (at first, at least, but even they change to suit the audience tastes) have equated "B" with "trash".  This is often taken to the extreme of poor acting, bad dialogue, cheap sets, inane plots, and insane concepts.
You know, Roger Corman pictures.
In defense of Mr. Corman, he is a great movie-maker.  He freely admits that his style of film making has been called high concept, exploitation, and genre films, noting that regardless of what you call it, he can make it.  Corman was an expert at shooting a film when a major star had 4 days left on a contract and the studio handed that star over to get the last bit of work out of him, or when the sets still had 2 weeks left on the lease.  The money was spent, the studio reasoned, might as well use it.
The best way to think of the B film is to think of the early days of record studios when the 45 single was popular.  The artist would record the "hit" single then the studio would need something for the B-side of the record.  Usually these were not very popular, but sometimes due to public tastes, fate, or whim the B-side became popular, maybe even more than the A-side.
So that's what a B film was.  What people seem to have forgotten is a thing that got rolled into the populist concept of the B movie: the Potboiler.
Ah yes, the Potboiler.  Oh, you don't know what a Potboiler is...okay, let's see...
A writer, director, producer, painter, what-have-you needs to eat.  This creative person who very much loves designing conceptual weapons of war or writing avant-garde music or fiction needs to keep the lights on, keep the landlord happy, eat food, and, essentially, needs wood to keep his cooking pot boiling.  So this artiste makes a work in a commercially proven genre to pay the bills.  That work is a Potboiler.  You see these novels in airport bookstores; they are often the size of a small nation and are just as stupid.  Sometimes the Potboiler is an attempt to get some capital for the "real project".  Such happened with Sean Cunningham made Friday the 13th in an attempt to "keep the lights on" while he pushed for a television pilot about a soccer team.
Yep, Friday the 13th, today a classic, was a Potboiler (although a quality Potboiler).
After the drive-ins closed and cinemas stopped showing double features (remember, at one time it was cartoons, shorts, a newsreel, and a feature or a double feature all for one low price) the niche left by Potboilers, exploitation cinema and B movies would be filled by home video and cable television.  I could go into the genius of Full Moon at this point, but instead I will just say that this is when Full Moon found great success by making straight-to-video films.  Those films were Potboilers and exploitation films, but by that time people had started using the term "B movie" with a sneer and the insulting connotations could not be removed.
Thus a solid film with solid actors, as opposed to glitzy, high-dollar Movie Stars, became a term for cheesy schlock, which is a genre in its own right and should be respected as such.
That really is the worst thing about this lumping together of multiple genres, we fail to appreciate the multitude of choices and products due to negative labeling.

And yes, I like B Movies.  And schlock.

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