In coverage of Phil Spector’s recent murder trial, his victim Lana Clarkson was routinely described as a “B movie actress”. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered what it meant.
Was it some euphemism for soft porn, employed to spare the blushes of the poor woman’s family? Would Clarkson be immortalised forever in the small print of the late night TV listings? No, actually: it turns out you’re more likely to find her work on Film 4 than on Men and Motors.
She was, in fact, a favourite muse of B movie maestro Roger Corman, appearing in his 1983 film, Deathstalker, and later taking the title role in Barbarian Queen.
Corman, now 83, is among the last of the true B moviemakers, budgetarily challenged yet critically acclaimed. Like the B-side of a seven-inch single, the B movie was traditionally the more hastily, cheaply produced half of a cinematic double-bill. Later, “B” simply meant a movie that went straight-to-video, and possibly starred Eric Roberts. Plenty of A-list directors were inspired by their B movie predecessors, Quentin Tarantino and JJ Abrams being two glaring modern examples.
B movies helped lay the formal foundations of the Western, of horror, of sci-fi, of the action thriller. They were fun unpretentious, and a place for young actors or directors – Jack Nicholson and Jonathan Demme among them – to learn their trade away from the spotlight.
Nowadays, though, the term has come to denote a vague, generic filmmaking sensibility, rather than an identifiable sector of the industry. A low budget has become a badge of honour, so we instead ascribe the nominal “B” rating to a film that’s full of expensive explosions and/or blood, but which somehow falls outside the blockbuster category: the sort of thing frequented by the sort of people who go to the movies every weekend, but never read movie reviews – and there are plenty of them. Two of last week’s top five films at the UK box office were what we might today call B movies: Fast and Furious and Crank: High Voltage, starring two of the world’s biggest B-list, alpha male stars, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham. Both had whopping budgets and high production values. Fast and Furious has clocked up $282m at the box office; Statham’s last film, Transporter 3, made $101m. Those are serious numbers, yet the films seem, for the most part, to be absent from the mainstream |Hollywood conversation.
Fast and Furious is the third sequel to the confusingly similar (in title and plot) The Fast and The Furious, about a cop who infiltrates a gang of drag racers, who are also armed robbers. It’s Point Break, but with cars. Crank: High Voltage is the sequel to Crank, about a man who needs to keep his adrenaline pumping at an absurdly high rate (and thus must blow lots of stuff up and have regular, alfresco sex), otherwise his heart will stop and he’ll die.
It’s Speed, but with a bloke. Martin Scorsese, a formidable film scholar, maintains that the most interesting work in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s was made by B movie directors, who were forced to innovate by economic necessity, and allowed free rein thanks to the low financial risk involved. I doubt he’d argue the same of the Diesel or Statham oeuvres, even if Statham’s Death Race (Fast and Furious but in prison, in the future) was a remake of the Corman-produced Death Race 2000 from 1975.
And yet, and yet. Diesel and Statham are masters of their art. It takes talent to deliver lines such as “if you’re gonna ask someone to save the world, you’d better make sure they like it the way it is.” (Diesel, xXx) or “Do I look like a man who came halfway across Europe to die on a bridge?” (Statham, Transporter 3) and keep a straight face. And these guys always have straight faces. Always. It’s basically the only face they do.
Controversial critic Armond White, from the American freesheet New York Press, said of Transporter 3: “It’s been a long time since a new movie has been so spiritually and aesthetically exhilarating.” (he also called Slumdog Millionaire a “TV-slick fraud”, and Wall-E “ugly”).
I’m not sure I can agree with that, but the action scenes certainly kick ass. So do the car chases. If it’s late, and you’re tired, then it doesn’t require you to process any of the existential angst that comes with the Bourne trilogy. But if you do need a big question to wrestle with, then Statham caters for that, too. What, for example, does a man who came halfway across Europe to die on a bridge actually look like?