Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love.
Are you a fan of movies? Not just any movies, but those cult classics like Rocky Horror Picture Show or the low-budget movies that are showcased in Grindhouse? If you are a movie fan at all, you should definitely take a look at a new book called The B List. The subtitle of the book is "The National Society of Film Critics on The Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love" (and that will be the only time you see me type all that). Edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson, this volume consists of a series of short essays on various films, B movies in which the authors find some value and quality. It's also a nice tour through the bottom level of film history, looking for some gems that almost nobody has seen.
The book is divided into a number of categories, from film noir to "neo-noir" to sci-fi classics, road movies, and many more. Thus, we get an eclectic mix of movie recommendations (the only one that's really not a recommendation is Roger Ebert's essay on Pink Flamingos, which he originally did not give a rating to and explains that he did not because "stars seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film but as a fact. Or perhaps as an object."). These are movies that, despite the fact that many have fallen by the wayside, the authors feel deserve recognition.
To quote the introduction, B movies have historically been considered the "low-budget quickie destined for the bottom half of a double bill," and since the double feature's demise, it has just been the "low-budget quickie, period." The definition changes from essay to essay, though, sometimes being stretched beyond belief to make the movie's inclusion apt. The editors, while stating that the reader should not "look for a formal declaration, or even an informal one, of what a B picture is," go on to say, "We've taken it in the broadest sense, referring to any and all movies made with modest means, maverick sensibilities, and a knack for bending familiar genres into fresh and unfamiliar shapes." Ultimately, they leave it up to the authors to decide.
This wide definition means that movies such as Quentin Tarentino's Reservoir Dogs as well as Oliver Stone's Platoon can be included. This is good for a couple of reasons. First, the inclusion of these films gives the book a little bit of name recognition, rather than just being a list of movies that very few people have seen. Secondly, the essays about these movies actually do force the reader to examine what may very well be a familiar movie in different ways than they have before.
Eleanor Ringle Cater's essay on Platoon is one great example of this. She analyzes the movie as the first time the Vietnam War had been portrayed in a non-political fashion, coming down neither for or against it. Instead, the movie just shows what these men went through, simply telling the way it was as per Stone's experiences during the war. I love the part where she says, "There isn't much in the way of narrative structure in Platoon, but that's part of what Stone is telling us – that there wasn't much in the way of narrative structure in Vietnam." The entire essay is worth reading. While I can't comment on whether or not she's correct about the movie not being political (I haven't seen the movie in years), the essay does make you think about the movie in a different way.
I've been a fan of Roger Ebert's for a long time, so it was a pleasure to see that he contributed five essays to the book. However, the rest of the entries in the book are also very good. As is usual with any book that has many contributors, some articles are better than others, but I can honestly say that there wasn't one that I found badly written. All of the authors are noted film critics, and all of them present thoughtful treatises on the pictures on question. Readers of The B List will find many ideas for movies to rent the next time they are at the video store.
You will still have to do a lot of the research yourself. It's almost criminal that a book like this rarely mentions, and only in passing if it does, whether or not a movie is out on DVD. Many of the older movies might not be, and a notation would have been very helpful. The authors sing the praises of these movies; you would think they would want to make it easier for the reader to find them so they can revel in the juicy filmic goodness as well. Sadly, you're on your own.
Despite this failing, The B List is an excellent collection of film commentary. The love for these movies shines through in almost every essay, and the writers do a good job of intriguing you into doing that search. Forget those big-budget blockbusters for a moment, those "live-action" films that are more computer graphics than anything else. Take a walk through the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, take a gander at films that bend the genre just a little bit or are made so cheaply that the quality of the story has to take you through it. Pick this book up, find something you might be interested in, and give it a try. I think you'll be glad you did.