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Excerpt: 'The B-List'

Cover of David Sterrit and John Anderson's 'The B-List'

The questions: what kind of collection could possible find common ground among The Son of Kong, Platoon, and Pink Flamingos? What kind of fevered minds could conceive of such a list? What are the unheard-of qualities that tie them all together?

The answers: This book. The National Society of Film Critics. And the farreaching excitement of the B movie itself. Once it was the Hollywood stepchild, the underbelly of the double feature, the scrambling lab rat of cinematic innovation. Today, we assert in this volume, it is a more inclusive category, embracing 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."

This is precisely where The B List takes a stand. Taste, at least in the sense of decency, decorum, and propriety, 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-and they have such qualities galore-are cheerfully irrelevant to the properties that define Oscar movies, although some of our selections are, in fact, Oscar movies. The importance of these pictures lies in characteristics that are so offbeat, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic that only two generalizations can be made: some are important for what they are, and others are important for what they aren't.

No one, for example, would mistake Reservoir Dogs for a cookie-cutter Hollywood caper film; the violence is too extreme, the characters too eccentric, the motivations too arcane to provide a comfort zone for audiences brought up on more conventional thrillers. Yet the blood-soaked outbursts and contorted plot twists cooked up by Quentin Tarantino have influenced so many movies that they now seem like formulas themselves. By contrast, the all-black cast of Cabin in the Sky wouldn't raise an eyebrow today, much less a burning cross. But for all of its mildness and compromise, Vincente Minnelli's musical fantasy was a popculture milestone in 1943, and it's a B-picture milestone even now.

In the pages that follow, we and our critical colleagues address such genuine acts of genius as Francis Ford Coppola's prescient thriller The Conversation (the director's "tweener" movie, meaning it came between Godfathers) and Michael Powell's razor-sharp Peeping Tom, which virtually ended his brilliant career. We probe weird-fiction mentalities as different as the red-scare paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the end-of-the-world ingenuity of The Core, the living-dead moodiness of I Walked with a Zombie, and the dream-world delirium of Eraserhead, which Jennifer Lynch, director David's daughter, has charmingly called "my baby album." We resurrect forgotten gems like May and Mona, find unsuspected depths in Gun Crazy and King Creole, and rediscover the delights of Vampire's Kiss and The Big Bus. Did you know The Girl Can't Help It resounds with modernist self-reference; Red Planet Mars is anti-Commie agitprop; and The Rage: Carrie 2 is a cryptofeminist allegory steeped in beauty, terror, and intelligence? If so, you'll find much to treasure in these pages. If not, prepare for a string of cinematic jolts as galvanic as the Great Whatsis flare-up in Kiss Me Deadly.

At the risk of seeming grandiose, we think The B List subscribes to the same philosophy as radical scholars like Howard Zinn, who maintain that the evolution of a people, a culture, or a nation is rarely in sync with the Great Man theory's assumption that history is driven by singular acts of famous individuals. Transplanting this to the movie world, cinema is more than the pictures that have grossed the grossest, busted the most blocks, enriched their studios most fulsomely, and been statuetted most enthusiastically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose membership has always been more interested in what's good for the business of filmmaking than what's good for filmmaking itself.

If you think movies aren't what they used to be, you can't blame the big movies, the self-congratulating Oscars, or the money-minded industry they represent. But you could blame us critics if we blindly echoed all the hype, so the best of us refuse to. Of course, we recognize the genius of the Hollywood system and the brilliant artists it has produced, but we also like peering into dark little corners where the marquee light doesn't shine. John Ford and Howard Hawks were great filmmakers, but so were Anthony Mann, Sam Fuller, and Budd Boetticher, who put their own distinctive imprints on the Western, too. Alfred Hitchcock was a master, but so is David Cronenberg, who has carved (and we mean it) his own niche in the body-conscious psycho-horror genre. Edgar G. Ulmer holds as important a place in American movies as directors much better known-see his inimitable Detour for Exhibit A-and watching Lee Marvin blast his way through Point Blank is as unnerving now as it was when John Boorman made the picture in 1967. Our fondness for these diamonds in the (very) rough, and a few dozen others, is the guiding force behind The B List.

Editing the book in the spirit of the movies it discusses, we've imposed no rules or regulations in matters of subject, style, or tone. To make the field manageable we've kept ourselves to English-language pictures, and most of the essays deal with American movies from the World War II era on. But writers could go in any directions they wanted as long as B productions were at stake. And don't look for a formal declaration, or even an informal one, of what a B picture is.

Within the industry, the term originally meant a low-budget quickie destined for the bottom half of a double bill, and since the late 1950s, when double features bit the dust, it's come to mean a low-budget quickie, period. We've taken it in the broadest sense, referring to any and all movies made with modest means, maverick sensibilities, and a knack for bending familiar genres into fresh and unfamiliar shapes. Beyond this we've left it to the writers to follow their own magnificent obsessions in their own ornery ways, and the results of their labors have the anything-goes vitality of a dusk-to-dawn B marathon.

Critics are, by definition, outsiders. We observe, we judge, we maybe advise, but we'd be foolish to expect much affection in return. Perhaps that's why this particular volume is close to our hearts, celebrating the outré margins of mainstream American cinema. 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. But that doesn't mean they never will. And in the meantime they deserve our attentions. Even our love.

From 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, 2008).

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David Sterritt and John Anderson