Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why Smokey and the Bandit Hit It Big

Burt Reynolds (Bandit) gets a lift of a different sort
Smokey and the Bandit I and II  (1977, 1980). Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, and Jerry Reed. Written and directed by Hal Needham. Plus, Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983), directed by Dick Lowry.

Even when a film - or a series of films - on their face, appear to be nothing more than pop culture fluff, if they have reached millions of viewers in global wide release, then odds are there is more going on than one would imagine at first glance. Such is the case with Hal Needham's "stars 'n' cars" Hollywood Smokey and the Bandit cinema franchise.

Needham was an old movie hand working for years as a preeminent stuntman. He both wrote and directed these action/comedy films, which in their time had the top box office grosses in the world, and their star, Burt Reynolds, was the highest paid actor around. Surely the success of Smokey and the Bandit couldn't have been attributable just to Reynolds' sex appeal, lots of action scenes involving "muscle cars," and ensemble casts packed with country music or sports stars like the Statler Brothers and Terry Bradshaw? The films also had important visual and story subtexts which proved very valuable in building an audience. These subtexts employed a strategy of ambiguity that allowed for multiple readings by the viewer, which in turn gave the movies very broad appeal.
Actor Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice

Current events prior and into the 1970s, such as the civil rights and women's movements, caused cultural fractures, which these films reworked for popular consumption by making the issues less polarized. On the gender wars front in the era of 70's second wave feminism, Reynolds for example, on the surface seems to be a macho he-man roaring around in sporty cars and cracking wise. His appeal would come through to a traditional male audience on the movie poster before a word is spoken or a scene is played. But Reynolds also appeared as the first male nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan, a magazine pitched at unmarried working women. Reynolds could thus be read as appealing to the mass market idea of a "liberated women" by allowing himself to be sexually objectified the way only female nude centerfolds had been previously in magazines for men like Playboy or Penthouse.

Smokey and the Bandit also reformed the image of post-civil rights southerners. Southerners to this point were read by the public as violent, racist, lynching-happy rednecks and Bull Conner's dog wielding police. Hal Needham's movie franchise had Burt Reynolds turning southern men back into friendly good-old-boys, and Jackie Gleason's sheriff role making scary southern sheriffs seem like harmless bumbling idiots. Reynolds was doing a live action Bugs Bunny to Gleason's Elmer Fudd. Where the contemporary crop of film rebels to that point had been split along ideological lines - for example Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry appealing to right-wingers and films like Easy Rider appealing to left-wing audiences - everyone in a general audience could go see Burt Reynold's jokey character and see what they wanted to see. Other blockbusters of the era, such as The Godfather, were so popular because they could be ambiguously read by audiences of almost any leaning (like Smokey and the Bandit).

For more information, look at the excellent work of Jacob Smith in "Film Criticism" (2005).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Killing Fields: War Correspondent Sub-genre

The Killing Fields, a Hollywood film about the relationship between New York Times reporter Sidney Schandberg and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran, continues to be important for a variety of reasons.  Based on a series of articles Schanberg wrote in 1979 for the Times about their experiences, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran,"  the title of the film is now a synonym for intercultural genocide, such as those which subsequently took place in Rwanda or the Balkans.

The film is also one of the best examples of elevating the character of a war reporter from that of a mere plot device serving as a commentator on the action in a film, or as a stand-in for the audiences' view point, to that of a main protagonist.

There have been other films in this war correspondent sub-genre that have been diverting and well made, such as The Quiet American with Michael Caine, based on Graham Greene's life, or The Year of Living Dangerously with a young and unsullied Mel Gibson.  However, The Killing Fields is universally admired for its verisimilitude, right down to reproducing Cambodian passports accurately, or using ad-libbed Khmer Rouge dialogue that was not subtitled, adding much to the terrifying level of realism in the film.

The role of Schanberg as a main character also switches the war reporter from being promoter of the US military stand on the particular conflict being covered to one who is actually advocating for the oppressed people in the war.  Many will agree that this is imperfectly done in the Killing Fields because much of the film is about what was happening to an American, Schandberg, rather than the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's impact on Cambodians and their history.

The Killing Fields, to this day, remains a worthy subject of film study and commentary. For further reading, please see the excellent essays by Stephen Badsey (2002) and David P. Chandler (1989).

Monday, April 18, 2011

Genre Confusion: Cinema Mash-ups, Hybrids, and Crossovers

Movie genre mash-ups, hybrid genres, or film genre crossovers.  What is this cinematic concept inbreeding?  Most are Hollywood kitsch.  Some of them are so obviously pandering to puerile tastes, that it's laid out right in the title, like this summer's Cowboys v Aliens from John Favreau.  Other titles are less obvious in their efforts to grab a quick buck, such as Outlander (2008), which pits vikings against aliens.  Or, how about vikings versus North American Indians in Pathfinder (2007), instead of the old school cowboys battling Indians contests?  It all seems to come full circle at some point.

Thankfully some of these genre melanges do take it beyond exploitation and an appeal to teenage boys as their main market.  Middle of the road genre mash-up categories make bank all the time without being exploitative, such as the ever present romantic comedies, and the now mainstream "dramedy."

Movie Fan Collectibles is always interested in films, both old and new, that break new ground.  In the case of film genre mash-ups, there are plenty of examples that are not kitsch.  Mind you, we're not saying we don't like kitsch, but we also look for film that provides intellectual sustenance, as well as the fun light snacks.  Genre crossovers that don't disappoint us are those like 2009's District 9 (mocumentary/sci-fi).  Some think the concept of aliens standing in for oppressed ethic groups is too basic, but we would argue that a very well-done - yet simply sketched - morality tale might be good for the typical mash-up viewers.  For the grownups, great genre hybrids might be the classic Bladerunner, a sci-fi/film noire with Godard precursor Alphaville (1965), or Brick (teen drama/film noire).  These films move past being entertainment commodities into the realm of art, and propel the development of cinematic aesthetics forward.

Chris Tilly at IGN UK, a man with way too much time on his hands, recommends looking up these genre mash-ups:

Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn. Grindcore plus um, we won't tell you, because it's a spoiler. But here's a hint: sounds like "umpires"

Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer (do you even have to ask what this is about?)

Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project. sci-fi/mocumentary, horror/mocumentary, respectively.

Blacula  Blaxploitation/Horror.  Back in the day of exploitation, we think these guys either got stoned to think this up, or took bets on who could produce the stupidest hybrid and get it into the grindhouses.

Simon Pegg Shaun of the Dead Romantic Comedy/Horror.  Just go see it, it's one our family favorites.  Pegg still in top form here laugh-wise.

Westworld Western/Sci-Fi.  Back in the day we all went to see it.  Yul Brynner as a robot cowboy seemed kinda neat at that point.  The film was stilted.

Bubba Ho-Tep Comedy/Horror/Geriatric Drama.  Elvis and killer mummies. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lesbian Vampires Get the Blood Flowing

While putting together an online picture gallery of Gay and Lesbian icons in the motion picture industry, we happened onto one of those marvelously obscure tropes in fandom, "The Lesbian Vampire."  The idea behind the picture gallery is to highlight the images and work of Hollywood actors, both homosexual and not, who have played roles that have become meaningful to the LBGT community.  In the midst of researching these photos and other movie memorabilia, we were surprised to discover that lesbian vampires have quite a "bite."

The main entries in this cinematic sub-set which are thought to have any merit as a film to date are Dracula's Daughter (1936), Blood and Roses (1960), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), and The Hunger (1983).  So what, exactly, is up with these characters?  Turns out, lady vampires have been stand-ins for predatory lesbians for a long time.  Dracula's Daughter and Blood and Roses are supposed to be loose (very loose) adaptations of an 1872 novel about a vampire named Carmilla who gives the wrong kind of attention to innocent young ladies.  The Carmilla story predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by about 25 years.

The general perception of the above films is that all were forms of exploitation, until we get to Catherine Deneuve playing an immortal goddess of sorts in The Hunger.  If, however, one has seen both Dracula's Daughter and The Hunger, it is impossible not to notice how much the latter owes the former for visualizing a sexy, seductive, classy monster-woman of a certain age who likes to find some fresh heifer once in a while.

Alternatively, Blood and Roses (a Roger Vadim opus), and Vampyros Lesbos are raunchy excuses to put out some hot girl-on-girl action for the male viewer.  Dracula's Daughter and The Hunger  have sustained strong cult appeal among lesbian viewers, although neither had a very positive portrayal of lesbianism.

Still not enough Lesbian Vampires for you?  Den of Geek suggests you check out...

Rape of the Vampire (1969)
The Naked Vampire (1970)
The Vampire Lovers (1970)
The Shiver of the Vampires (1971)
Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Lust for a Vampire (1971)
The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)
Vampyres (1974)
Lips of Blood (1975)

Thanks to Wiki and the Den of Geek for being all over this.

One final thought - now that they can be "out" - what's next, Lesbian Vampire Soldiers?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Background Scoop on Movie Trailers

We see them at the beginning of movies now, but the post-feature term movie "trailer,"  was coined in the 1920s. The name comes from originally being shown at the end of a film screening. However, theater owners and film studios quickly discovered patrons leaving before the trailers played, so they were shifted to the beginning of the show. Film Trailers would be more accurately described as previews or coming attractions. Although no longer used as originally intended, the old school name stuck.

The most basic definition of a trailer is a short film shown, along with the main cinema feature, to advertise the content, place, and time of an upcoming movie.

Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me 
The Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) critics see good trailers as shorts that, "take key points from the film, edit them together sharply, with the right music... [but] don‘t show too much." Good trailers will also create excitement about the film in a general audience, yet still appeal to the genre's fan base. That's quite a bit to accomplish in the typical two minute length.

Trailers are very popular to select audiences, and have merit as a collectible art form.  Speaking to the continuing interest in them, AWFJ said in 2009 that movie trailers became the third ranking most downloaded type of Internet video (first are news clips, number two are user-created videos). One  critic compares trailers to full-length movies as being like a haiku is in relation to a novel; stripped down to only the most essential images and narrative content. An added bonus for movie memorabilia collectors and film genre fans is that trailers will often have scenes and dialogue that were not included in the original release.

Trailers even have their own "Oscar"-style recognition coming from The Golden Trailer Awards. The awards rely on audience opinion, with those participating voting for traditional categories such as, "Best Action," "Best Romance," and "Best Horror" trailers. Categories unique to the awards include, "The Golden Fleece Award" for best trailer for a bad movie, and "Trashiest" or most exploitive trailer.

Although some trailers end-up being better than the movie, from the studios' and exhibitors' perspectives their marketing function is primary. Critics don't like too much plot to be given away by the coming attraction, but studio research shows that more detail is better for getting audiences back to the theater to see a new film. Spoilers in trailers don't seem to matter, probably because most audiences don't give the trailer their full attention, or don't have good recall of a one-time viewing of a trailer. Individual movie-goers remember one or two of the most appealing details.

Studios will also produce a series of trailers for a single film cut to appeal to a specific demographic in the audience. Trailers for a female audience coming to see a chick-flick will emphasize relationship. Trailers for the same movie that are pitched to male audiences will show lots of action and skin. Trailers are also cut to reflect the age appropriateness for the audience in the theater at the time by dialing up or down on the explicit material.

Critics believe that trailers can have quite a bit of economic clout. Although they are not a quick fix for badly made movies, well placed-trailers can bring attention to lesser known films, possibly even making or breaking a movie's success. For recent indie productions like "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine," trailers did much to sell the films to larger audiences.

Info from Wiki & AWFJ (2008-05-09)