Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ode to the B-Movie: or, Why Ed Wood is a better director than James Cameron

Science fiction films, and particularly those in the low-budget subgenre known as B-movies, have a hard time finding respect. At least since Star Wars (1977), science fiction movies have in some sense become "cool", like the scrawny, awkward nerd who transformed into a handsome, musclebound star athlete (who still wears glasses when he is not on the field). But the old sci-fi B-movies of the 50's and 60's still garner "bomb" ratings from all self-respecting film critics and serve as little more than fodder for mockery and laughter for most viewers.

But is all this derision really fair? After all, when Leonard Maltin gives Citizen Kane a (quite justly deserved) 4-star rating and Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s anti-masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space a "bomb" (0 stars), one must ask if it even makes sense to judge these two pictures by the same set of cinematic or artistic standards. Was Ed Wood even attempting to create the same type of work as Orson Welles? Actually, if one goes by Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood, it would seem that the answer is perhaps yes, that Wood might just have been deluded enough to believe that he was creating high art in the fashion of his hero. Or perhaps he was self-aware enough to realize that he and Mr. Welles were operating not so much in different leagues as in different spheres of film art.

The primary reason, it seems to me, that B-movies get the short shrift they do is their poor technique. It's true that great art usually requires great technical skill to pull off successfully and effectively, but technical skill alone is not sufficient. In fact, enormous budgets and the most sophisticated special effects can often produce rubbish that some film buffs may find far less worthwhile and interesting than many of the cheaply and quickly made B-movies tossed out by the likes of Wood, Roger Corman, and many others whose names are less known.

Witness James Cameron, the director of such blockbusters as Titanic and Avatar, two of the most expensive and most commercially successful movies of all time. Such bloated, grandiose, and self-important pictures, like many others that are churned out by the modern Hollywood machine, seem to be attempting to reach not only for box office success but also some level of artistic seriousness which they sorely lack. Long on special effects and spectacle, short on imagination and vision, today's big budget spectacles are the true bombs. James Cameron perhaps likes to think of himself as a serious film director, but he is actually a glorified purveyor of kitsch.

What many critics and viewers do not seem to understand about B-movies is that they cannot be judged by the same standards--at least not the same technical standards--as big-budget pictures. Many of their technical flaws are the result of low, in many cases practically nonexistent, budgets. And there is no wrong in giggling when, for instance, you can see the strings holding up the spaceship. But the technical flaws alone do not necessarily make these films any less effective in accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. B-movies vary widely in terms of their worth and interest, but what makes them successful are the same non-technical qualities that make any film successful: a good story, entertainment value, and above all, especially in the genre of science fiction: imagination and wonder.

I have watched countless science fiction movies from the 50's and 60's in my day, ranging from venerable classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to bottom-of-the-barrel fare like Robot Monster, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and of course Plan 9 from Outer Space. What I can say about the sci-fi films of this era is that their value as art and as entertainment--and not merely of the unintended comedy variety--has no direct correlation to their budgets. There is, however, a very close correlation to their writers', producers', and directors' imaginative visions, even if they were prevented by a lack of finances and/or a lack of technical competence from realizing these visions quite as smoothly or convincingly as a lot of bigger-budget pictures.

What is required above all in enjoying all that a good B-movie has to offer is a childlike sense of imagination, the type of pretend that allows the make-believe to be real despite the boring and irrelevant protestations of the rational and empirical mind, and an equally childlike sense of wonder, that ability to marvel at the world and its infinite possibilities, its strangeness and delight. The virtue of many a low-budget science fiction film is in that tingling sense of wonder or horror (often both simultaneously), and in that thrilling imaginative vision of the universe, that it is eminently capable of communicating to the child in all of us.

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