Saturday, May 01, 2010

Movies: "B" average.

So I was watching High Plains Invader a Syfy original cowboys versus aliens flick that, against the clear designs of the film's makers, got me thinking.

There's a factoid my wife likes to share. I don't know where she got it from. I don't even know if it's a true story or from a novel she read, so I present it here in the spirit of philosophical musing rather than a statement of historical fact.

There was this museum in the Victorian Era that shelled out a king's ransom for a truly amazing horse statue from the Etruscan period. For decades, this Etruscan horse was the pride of the museum, the iconic piece that served as the synecdoche for the museum the way the Spirit of St. Louis is shorthand for the Air and Space or the two-headed turtle was the symbol of the Freakatorium.

But, as the decades dragged on, the horse looked less and less like an artifact of the Etruscan period and more and more like an embarrassing bit of Victorian hack work. Eventually, the museum launched a study in the piece's origins and found, much to their chagrin, that they'd been conned into buying a fake.

The point of this mini-parable is that you can be so close to your own era's critical assumptions that you are no longer able to grasp them.

In the Great Victorian Horse Swindle story, the end result is that the prized pony ends up an embarrassing failure. Though I think the story can work in reverse too. Which is what brings back to Syfy originals, like the High Plains Invaders.

Syfy channel has made itself into a modern B-movie engine. Like B-flicks of the subgenre's golden era, SFOs are cheaply produced, populated with second-string celebs, filled with not-so-special-effects, frequently rip-off larger budget successes, quick to turn headlines into cheese (see the monster snakehead fish films), and happily recycle concepts (Syfy made two different films about the snakehead fish). The acting, as befits a B, is wooden. Often the dialogue is achingly bad. At their best, they're lively shambles. At their worst, they're God awful, soulless cash grabs. This has always been true of B-movies.

So why are B-films from previous eras so beloved and Syfy originals to roundly hated?

I'm not about to make a claim for the hidden greatness of Syfy originals. In fact, I think they're usually pretty horrible. I believe I've even used "Syfy original" as an insult to describe the failings of other films. High Plains Invaders isn't the worst of a bad lot, but it gives one ample examples of the sort of half-assed filmmaking that's made the brand a shorthand for broad-spectrum systematic cinema suckitude.

The plot is a classic rag-tag band of holdouts story. In the late 19th century, a swarm of giant insect-like alien invaders attack a small Denver town. An unlikely band of folk - from the town's doctor to a mercenary bounty hunter who was just passing through - hole up in the jail and fight for their lives. While never so painfully awful that it punishes the viewer, there's ample evidence of phoning it in on all levels of this thing:

Exhibit 1: Nobody could be bothered to provide the actors with period correct, or even vaguely period correct, firearms. Even if you're not a gun nut - I'm certainly not - you can't help but notice that some of these cowboys are packing heaters from the modern era.

Exhibit 2: The presence of several mini-McGuffinish moments in the script: odd turns of story that seem to happen mainly to pad out the running time and to semi-regularly put our protags in harm's way. There are several abortive attempts to leave town that could be justified as necessary in order to show how thoroughly and completely screwed our protags are, but other plot points are less explicable. For example, at one point, our heroes decide to make it to the jail because of the store of rifles in the jailhouse. However, after getting to the jailhouse and loading the rifles, our heroes promptly forget them and never really use them at all for the rest of the flick. Which raises a question: Does firing a fake rifle really put that much more of a strain on your effects budget? How many pistol shots make up a rifle shot? Could you have deducted four pistol shots and then at least used one of the rifles we spent all this time acquiring once?

Exhibit 3: The entire plot hinges on the fact that one of the characters is a uranium miner and that he understands a) that it is radioactive and b) that is can create massive explosions. The problem with this is that the radioactive properties or uranium were discovered in 1896. Our character is ahead of the curve on that discovery. But that's a pretty minor quibble compared to how the same character creates a nuclear explosion with the stuff: He grinds it into a powder and then sets off a stick of dynamite near it. Without getting deep in the physics weeds on this, releasing the explosive properties of uranium requires action that takes place on an atomic level. Grossly simplified, the element needs to be bombarded with neutrons which then break apart uranium isotopes into two other elements. It isn't like gunpowder. Heat has nothing to do with it.

I don't bring these up in an effort to show I'm smarter than the makers of High Plains Invaders, but rather to show that, from the smallest detail to the largest, the makers responded to cinematic challenges with a resounding, "Whatever."

And, honestly, that's pretty typical of B movies regardless of the era. Anachronisms, meandering plots, and a metaphorical-at-best understanding of science are hallmarks of the subgenre.

But you won't get hordes of monster kids defending Syfy's excretions in their blogs. Navy versus the Night Monsters, sure; but High Plains Invaders, don't be silly.

But why?

There are numerous reasons - not the least of which is nostalgia - but I think High Plains Invaders underscores a specific issue. I propose the following: We accept high levels of cheese in older films because, as time moves on, all older films look increasingly stylized and artificial. The distance between, say, The Thing and Tarantula seems smaller to us than the distance between successful modern horror flicks and High Plains Invader. But this is less a product of critical discernment than the byproduct of the fact that we accept the conventions previous eras of filmmaking as baselines (hyper-artificial rear projection work from the 50s, for example, strikes us as a singular thing, rather than a technique with gradations of successful execution that can be critiqued) while the we're alive and sensitive to fine distinctions in the cinema techniques of our own time (the quality of CGI in a flick can make or break a film for many viewers).

We approach films from our cinematic history with a benign prejudice that what is clunky or awkward in them was simply a given trait of films of their era. So, when we approach a 1950s B-film, we're simply not making the same demands on it.

The curious thing about this phenom is that, unlike the Great Victorian Horse Swindle example that kicked off this post, it actually elevates the works in question. Which makes me wonder, in the year 2060, will High Plains Invaders seem like a better film?

I think it might.

Take, for example, the whole uranium thing. Admittedly, the depiction of uranium in this film is far more accurate than the depictions of nuclear material from '50s and '60s films, where it could be relied upon to throw of a pulsating glow and make humming noises. That said, it is still quite wrong-headed. But, to some degree or another, all scientific claims grow quaint with time. Event correct understandings of the workings of reality tend to come with a fringe of era- and culture-specific oddness that ages poorly. (Darwin, for example, grasped evolution's core truths, but frequently suggested consequences of these truths that now strike us as products of his own Victorian cultural biases.) The result is that, retrospectively, the distance boneheaded depictions of the world and earnest depictions of the world shrink.

For speculative purposes, let's assume that, in the year 2024, somebody in some lab somewhere finds a way to synthesize unobtanium, the currently strictly-theoretical element that serves as the causus belli in Avatar. If this happens (or if some scientist finds a reason why unobtanium cannot exist) then Avatar's visions of militarized intergalactic unobtanium mines will look as quaintly incorrect as the bullet rocket of Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune. When that happens, retro-cinema fans will have less reason to hassle High Plains Invaders for its boneheaded handling of science. Rather, it will just look like people of the first decade of the 21st century didn't really have any grasp of science. (A fair assessment, really.)

Advances in CGI will make even our best efforts at the art look clumsy, further narrowing the gap between crappola like High Plains Invaders and supposedly state-of-the art flicks like Avatar. When the stuff we thought was cutting edge looks hopelessly clunky and out of date, the distinctions we made between good and bad CGI will vanish for later viewers.

This not to say that you can't make quality distinctions between old films. We do, and should. But it seems to me that these distinctions always come to rest on those most primal artistic elements: plot and character, empathy and insight, line and form. It's these things that remain clear when all the other details blur.


Anonymous said...

An interesting food for thought post.
I have very mixed feelings about SyFy orginal films. Generaly, they're negative. But as to the reasons they're negative is kind of a mixed bag and also contradictory, I think, depending on the movie. Meaning, my reasons are highly subjective and for that reason, also very inconsistent.
For the most part, I find the idea of the SyFy channel as the current venue for genre film making for up and coming directors appealing, similar to Roger Corman offering opportunities to new film talents to make low-budget films 30-40 years ago.
I think one difference with the passage of time is that cheesy films may be much more of an appreciated quality, so sometimes I see trailers for films that look like "intentional cheese," which usually is a disastrous filmmaking strategy.
I prefer to see what the filmmakers can do with a low budget, to test their creativity and ingenuity.
So, idealistically speaking that's what I like to consider SyFy Original films-- a testing ground and opportunity for new talent.
But, as an emotional reflex, I actually expect the worst, or at least, have a very low expectation, because these films are generally mediocre efforts.
But I suppose that's another positive consequence with the passage of time. We remember the better low-budget films that Corman produced, with their yet-to-be star directors (like Scorses, Coppola, Bogdanovich, etc.) and actors (Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson). But, what was it like back then to actually sift through ALL the drive-in films being produced weekly?
But, regarding the cheese thing, titles like MEGA PIRANHA seem to be an example of filmmaking where most of the creative work being done is creation of the title, and occasionally I'll bite at the bait (no pun intended), but experience has left me less enthusiastic for the "most dangerous night of television", if SyFy is still using that slogan.

I kind of went off the topic you were actually talking about... sorry.
Although, using your example of using dynamite to start a nuclear reaction... we actually know that doesn't work today.
So, I'm wondering if the filmmakers were being intentionally bad for the "cheeseball" effect, rather than just laziness?
Sort of like the improbability of a shark large enough to jump out of the water and bite an airplane, a concept so ludicrous the filmmaker says "that's awesome!", which it may be, but it definitely affects the tone of your film.
I think the film was GIANT OCTOPUS VS. MEGA SHARK, or some variation on that theme?

But having said that, the film criticism in hindsight dynamic is interesting and a little unsettling (in that some awful films from today may be seen in a more forgiving light decades into the future), but it makes a lot of sense.

Gene Phillips said...

This is a topic I've probably given too much thought to as well.

I'm definitely with you and Cattleworks in saying that the majority of SYFY offerings have been forgettable junk, but I've often wondered, "Is it just nostalgia that makes me think Corman's drive-in flicks were 'memorable junk?'"

I've seen the spawn of 50's SF cinema cross-analyzed in just about every way conceivable. Sometimes I think the analyses work; sometimes they seem like special pleading. But even without analytical support, I tend to like the 50s' stuff-- even works that I never saw as a kid-- simply because it seems a little less assembly-line.

I'm sure Corman had no greater motive than the SYFY filmmakers; both wanted to make money in the most expedient way possible. With Corman this could even lead to egregious cheats, like THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, a phony-baloney title if there ever was one. But Corman would also find weirdo talents who would come up with brainfried aliens like the ones from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD or THE SHE CREATURE. Sometimes an oddball work like SHE CREATURE would have some valid if exploitative vibe.

I've seen dozens of Syfy movies and there's maybe one "monster moment" I remember well": the Mega Shark jumping up and eating the plane. Everything else-- boring.

Thanks for your usual thought-provoking post, CWRM.

CRwM said...

Cattle and Gene,

All good points. I didn't stress enough that this tendency to lose distinctions over time is hardly the only reason B-films are beloved.

The talent pool issue is a great example. Corman benefited from this fresh crop of film students, the first generation of film students in America and the a time when there was a weird surplus of talent that meant skill could be had for pennies. Whereas Syfy seems to prefer working with folks who had their chance and ended up a journeymen television types. Instead of a evolutionary petri dish, Syfy is a game preserve for talents that had their shot and were selected against.

(That said, Nicholson's turn in Little Shop of Horror's is mostly beloved as a curio. Even few Scorsese fans watch Boxcar Bertha as anything other than a time capsule. We often have interest in these early productions only because we know where the talent in them went, not because that talent is notably on display in them.)

Conflated said...

Minor note, I think you meant to write 21st century in the third last paragraph?

Great post and I am still mulling on it. I think you're right that the people who bother to watch old films are more forgiving of their flaws as period tropes. But how will a film without fans now - even a core of ten cult fans keeping the flame alive - obtain them in twenty years?