October 10, 2010

Requiescat In Genre


From the New York Times, Oct. 8:
Roy Ward Baker, an undersung British filmmaker who directed “A Night to Remember,” a vivid black-and-white rendering of the sinking of the Titanic revered by history and movie buffs alike, died on Tuesday in London. He was 93.
Thirteen paragraphs later:
When he returned to feature films, it was largely to work for Hammer, the British studio most associated with horror films. His movies in that period included “The Vampire Lovers” (1970), a tale of revenge and bloodlust that was especially notable for its two nude scenes; and “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” (1971), a campy adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic that adds a soupçon of erotic intrigue by making the good doctor’s evil alter ego a woman.
Let me pose this question: Who the fuck remembers A Night To Remember? It's thoroughly occluded in popular recall by every shipwreck-disaster flick to arise from The Poseidon Adventure on. And really, who gives a shit about the sinking of the Titanic when you could be looking at these? (NSFW.)


I'm saying this hyperbolically, not to argue that Baker's near-documentary accomplishments in A Night To Remember pale next to a few bared knockers. What I'm saying is that Baker's B-pictures have achieved a life well beyond his mainstream work, yet his obituarists felt compelled to log them almost as footnotes, not as part of his respectable portfolio.
American journalism -- unless it's specialized, unless there's some unforeseen eruption into the popular culture (Twilight, Harry Potter), or unless a star reporter chooses to go slumming -- has a notoriously tin ear for genre art. There's a received wisdom about what's important, and that wisdom often overlooks the obvious. Like, say, the fact that Quatermass and the Pit (1967) is still screened, discussed, and even worshipped in a way that Tiger In the Smoke (1956) never was. In the battle to write the obit's lede, the Golden Globe winner tops the midnight movie favorite anyday, and those episodes of "The Avengers" and "The Saint" are carrion for crows.


I noticed this tendency to obscure the genre triumphs of deceased luminaries after Patricia Neal died back in August. From the Los Angeles Times:
"Three Secrets" (1950), "Operation Pacific" (1951), "Raton Pass" (1951), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "Diplomatic Courier" (1952) and "Something for the Birds" (1952) were hardly films to make her a memorable star.
Well, sniffy sniff sniff. Neal's posthumous plaudits were for her outstanding dramatic performances, deservedly, and for her astonishing victory over family trauma and near-fatal brain afflictions; the overall arc of her life is amazing. But I'd wager more people now have seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, and been more deeply affected by it, than have ever seen Hud. The classics of science fiction and fantasy are not ghettoized the way we were brought up to believe, and haven't been for a long time — at least since the B-movies became A-list in the late '70s, and the whole world starting flocking to sharksploitation flicks and space adventures.
Steven Spielberg has Oscars now, although he had to all but abandon science fiction to win them. When his obit gets written, which paragraph will pay tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark?

3 comments:

Bill C said...

This same thing irritated me when DAY THE EARTH's director Robert Wise died. His astonishing work with Val Lewton, his incredible noirs, and the only vaguely genre-y thing most obits seemed to note was the first STAR TREK, which was brought up to prove his decline and thus hasten his arc from Oscar to Death.

On the other hand, there is nothing more painful to me than when one of these Mr. Monocles actually goes slumming and writes an op-ed piece about spending the weekend catching up with Hammer or the like, which invariably results in unfiltered condescension and a kind of "That was fun; never again" quasi-warning to the reader.

Alex Jackson said...

This same thing irritated me when DAY THE EARTH's director Robert Wise died. His astonishing work with Val Lewton, his incredible noirs, and the only vaguely genre-y thing most obits seemed to note was the first STAR TREK, which was brought up to prove his decline and thus hasten his arc from Oscar to Death.

Crimey! I actually consider it conventional wisdom to say that Curse of the Cat People and The Day the Earth Stood Still are better films than The Sound of Music. That by preferring Sound of Music you're being cheeky and willfully contrarian.

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