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B-Movie Individualism

B-Movie Individualism

Stephen Green

6 Mins
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March 29, 2011

March 2006 -- “I’m going to kill you. It will make the world a better place.”

“I appreciate your attempt at altruism, but it wouldn’t make the world a better place for me.”

That dialogue is from the B-movie non-classic, Dangerous Touch. A wronged woman, played by Kate Vernon, is blackmailed by Lou Diamond Phillips. At the predictable end, when an armed Vernon confronts her tormentor, is when we hear those not-at-all-immortal words. Written and directed by Phillips, this exchange has to make you wonder if the former “21 Jump Street” star spent his off seasons reading Ayn Rand .

Now let me be clear. With the exception of six (!) nude scenes by the lovely Vernon, DT is an almost completely unremarkable B-movie. What makes it remarkable isn’t the explicit nudity—it’s the explicit rejection of Hollywood’s PC values.

Tinseltown fare has become too predictable—and, I know, that’s a statement as shopworn as a Julia Ryan (er…Meg Roberts?) romantic comedy.  Moviegoers know it almost instinctively, as decades of sinking attendance figures demonstrate. Film audiences are tired of tired plot lines. Of tired characters. And especially of the oh-so-tired-I-haven’t-slept-since-1987 communitarian values—values so tired, in fact, that they’ve been known to induce sleep in crack-addicted spider monkeys.

The advantage of B-movies is that they’re able to slip under the radar of Hollywood’s PC Values Police. Or at least we used to call them B-movies, back in the days of the old studio system. Today we call these small features “indy flicks,” or “late-night erotic thrillers,” or “Joe Bob Brigg’s Drive-In Theater.” Some critics, like Roger Ebert, call them “guilty pleasures.”

But whatever you call them, today’s B-movies are often the last outpost of individualism in Hollywood. That’s not to say Hollywood gives us the kind of individualists we’d like to be or even see.  Howard Beale growling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” while slowly going insane is hardly an inspiring figure. But like the other characters we’ll discuss here, at least Beale was shouting from the rooftops instead of singing with the choir.

Keep in mind, too, that not one of these movies is exceptional. Some have crude (or non-existent) production values. Others have philosophical flaws deeper than an oil sheik’s pockets. But each manages at least to entertain, and occasionally, to sound the trumpet of self-assertion with as much skill and outrageous joy as that Chuck Mangione song from 1977 you still kind-of remember.

Here are four more.

“No more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.” --Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Serenity

A particular favorite is the early Hugh Grant movie, Sirens. Set in Australia during the interwar period, Sirens tells the story of a liberal Anglican priest (Grant) sent down under to put a local artist back on the straight and narrow.  The story is based loosely on real events around the life of Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill), whose works never took Anglican propriety into proper account. (A Google search for Lindsay’s works provide page after page of lusty, well-executed images rarely more shocking than anything by Raphael.)

Upon reaching Lindsay’s home/studio, Grant strikes up a conversation with an innocent young maid (Portia de Rossi) who sometimes models for her boss. Concerned with vulgarity, she asks the priest if Lindsay’s paintings are “rude.” He answers, in stammering Hugh Grant fashion, that, “um…some I think are profane.” A true innocent, Giddy replies with relief, “Oh, well that’s good!”

That’s a typical exchange in a movie that shows you beautiful images for no reason other than that they are beautiful­. Early in the flick, we’re treated to the make-believe sight of models dressed as fairies, floating in the moonlight. And Sirens shows them to you through the wide eyes of Lindsay’s young daughter, for whom the tableau was especially arranged.

For all its many flaws, Sirens sweetly captures the attitude of an iconoclastic artist who is gently blasphemous and deeply unconcerned about being so. Grant leaves Lindsay’s estate a little more liberal and a lot more understanding of human foibles—all without losing his religion. Sirens has a—dare I say it?—libertarian streak that even a social conservative can appreciate.

Alan Parker’s The Commitments is a joyous (if profane) ode to being young, talented, and ambitious—and not giving a damn about propriety. A Dublin street vendor named Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) gets it in his head that Ireland needs soul music. So he sets about putting together a band of street musicians with big dreams and no chances. In a moment of despair for the band, Jimmy has to remind two of his musicians why they joined up in the first place:

You want to be different, isn’t that it? You want to stand out from the rest of the tossers. You want to get up and shout, “I’m Outspan f---in’ Foster, and I’m Derek f---n’ Scully. And I’m not a tosser.” Isn’t that it?

Yeah, that’s it, Jimmy. Hollywood, where most actors, producers, and directors aim to be as unthreatening as is safe for their careers, would do well to head Rabbitte’s words. They might even sell more tickets.

Sometimes, a major Hollywood studio accidentally produces an indy-feeling flick with an individualist message. When that happens, you can almost always be certain of two things: (1) the movie will get a late summer/autumn release, ensuring poor box office performance, and; (2) people will lap it up on home video. To prove my point, I offer you two movies, separated by fifteen years but united by an individualist theme: Pump Up the Volume and Serenity.

Volume is a cut above your usual B-fare, especially considering that it’s aimed at teens. In an upscale Arizona suburb, the local high school principal, played by Annie Ross, is up to no good. To keep up the school’s budget and SAT averages, Principal Creswood is expelling the troubled kids and the malcontents. Our hero is a student and pirate disc jockey, Mark Hunter (Christian Slater). Suspecting something is wrong, he urges his young listeners to fight back:

They think you’re moody, make’em think you’re crazy. Make’em think you might snap. They say you got attitude, you show’em some real attitude.

In the resulting chaos, Creswood is caught cheating the state of funds and her students of their educations. Mark faces his own justice, arrested by the FCC for his illegal broadcasts. But his defiant message against arbitrary authority lives on. Incidentally, Volume might be the last movie since Ghostbusters to paint such unflattering portraits of federal bureaucrats—the FCC guys come off as only slightly more sympathetic than Creswood.

There’s still room for movieland individualists--in the bad part of town.

You might find it hard to believe that a movie with a $40 million budget could be a B-flick. But that’s exactly how Universal Pictures created and marketed writer/director Joss Whedon’s 2005 science fiction spectacle, Serenity. During production, Universal never once meddled. Instead, they treated Serenity as an experiment in how to make an independent movie inside a major studio. During postproduction, Universal waged a “viral” marketing campaign, using bloggers and hush-hush secret preview screenings to garner attention.

Despite Universal’s best efforts, Serenity was a box-office flop. However, it has become a huge hit on DVD, just like the short-lived TV show that inspired it. The video success was due in no small part to the fans’ rabid devotion to its free-marketeer hero, Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, was once a volunteer soldier in the losing revolutionary war against the oppressive Alliance. Today, he and the crew of his Firefly-class cargo ship must engage in a little freelance free trade to make a living. Okay, so they’re smugglers. As Reynolds says,

I put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all. This job goes south, there well may not be another. So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don’t push me, and I won't push you.

If any movie has ever described underground laissez faire trade more succinctly or pithily than Serenity, it was probably never screened.

But Serenity’s individualism isn’t just about pirates working on the fringe of civilization. It also goes straight to the heart of doing what’s right, no matter the price.  Faced with the choice of surrendering a crew member or risking death to expose an evil Alliance plot, Reynolds tells his people that

I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this—they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.

Of course, everyone joins in with the misbehavin’.  Pirates by night, the crew of Serenity are freedom fighters by day.

You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy that kind of fun, but it takes a giant leap of faith to believe that it came out of Hollywood. Or was Universal’s experimental marketing really just an underhanded way of hiding an unwanted stepchild?

Let’s finish where we started, with Dangerous Touch. It says something positive about independent moviemakers that they can still sometimes get away with poking fun at lefty values. It says something less positive that the delicious line I quoted at the top of this piece went to the villain of the film, rather than the hero.

So, yes, there’s still some small room for individualists in movieland. However, that room is in a bad part of town, and our intrepid individualists have to pay for it by the hour. Ironic, isn’t it, considering how many times Hollywood has recycled the story about the hooker with a heart of gold?

On the other hand, sometimes that hooker carries a gun, a wicked sense of justice, a devil-may-care attitude—and is working the bad part of your local video store. Maybe we’ll run into each other there.

I’ll bring the popcorn, and leave the guilt at home.