Ode to Pop Cinema
Note: This piece was commissioned for a special dossier of the Spanish magazine Caimán devoted to a “radiography” of cinema between 2010 and 2019. It builds upon an earlier proposal for an unwritten book (see the Appendix to this review), as well as an interview I gave to two editors of the magazine La vida útil in January 2020.
In October 2017, The Babysitter appeared on Netflix. It begins as a typical, sweet tale about children and teenagers, but – in a shocking and unexpected twist – suddenly becomes a relentlessly gory horror film about a demonic, supernatural cult. This film received little critical attention around the world. However, it was popular enough to prompt the production of a sequel, The Babysitter 2, coming in 2020. Such discrepancies between critical favour and popular taste should always prompt us to investigate further.
The Babysitter is directed by McG. That name may be familiar: he rode a wave of popularity in the early 2000s with his spirited Charlie’s Angels movies (2000 & 2003). In fact, he was, back then, a Great Hope, a symbol for many critics and cinephiles. He is a filmmaker who likes to switch moods, mix genres, speed up the transitions between events. His work is inventive, constantly surprising.
The Babysitter reminds us of a certain kind of cinema characterising previous decades – in particular, films that mixed adolescent comedy and horror in the 1980s (The Lost Boys), the 1990s (Braindead) and the 2000s (Shaun of the Dead). In the period of 2010 to 2019, this type of cinema – with some notable exceptions – almost faded away, and no longer received the enthusiastic attention it once got from switched-on critics.
Why? Partly, it is a matter of production, of budgets. A particular type of middle-ground in filmmaking – in-between high-budget blockbusters and low-budget (so-called) independent films – almost entirely vanished. It is what we once referred to as B cinema: closely tied to the commercial cycles of A level cinema, but unafraid to experiment, go crazy, mix up the given elements. Could Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis or Phil Karlson – even Samuel Fuller – have survived this past decade of the 2010s in the mainstream film industry? I doubt it.
This decline of the middle-ground or B sphere of production is especially notable in the once popular and prolific genres of teen movies, action films, horror and fantasy. It is only now, with the rise of Netflix and similar companies, that these genres are making a tentative return to the production slate. Another McG film for Netflix, Rim of the World (2019), offers a similar mix of these old-fashioned ingredients of jokes, thrills and shocks – making him, oddly, a provider of nostalgic pleasure for fans of 1980s cinema (just as Gregg Araki has become, unwittingly, a sweet-memories-merchant for the merry New Queer Cinema of the 1990s).
But there is more than industry economics, or changing cultural fashions and tastes, at play here. The case of McG opens the gate to a vast field that I call Pop Cinema. It has existed from the beginning of film history, and it has never completely disappeared. It was riding high in the 1950s and ‘60s, in the era of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis. It resurged in the 1980s. And, nearing the end of the first decade of the 2000s, in one of my earliest “Scanner” columns for Caimán magazine, I celebrated the surreal action thrillers of “Renny and Rowdy” – Renny Harlin (now working in China) and Rowdy Herrington (who, sadly, has not made another film since Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius in 2004).
But there are also times when Pop Cinema wanes, when it slips from the general, public view, and from specialist critical attention. That is precisely when we need to hunt for it, and acclaim it, wherever it can be found!
So, what is Pop Cinema? We are talking about the kinds of films that primarily deal, without shame and in full knowingness, with the very familiar clichés, character stereotypes, story formulae and generic conventions derived from the whole span of mass culture (film, TV, music, advertising, social media, etc.). Mainly comedies, but by no means restricted to solely a comic tone (as The Babysitter shows). Films with no interest in realism, or deep human psychology, or with providing reassuring solutions to pressing social problems. Cartoon-like, often.
But these are, just as often, and make no mistake about it, political films: an example such as the delightful D.E.B.S. (Angela Robinson, 2004) makes its subversive moves precisely by twisting stereotypes, overturning our expectations, and combining the elements of several different genres in an unexpected, illuminating way. Pop is our reality – our “pop life”, as Prince sang.
In the radiography of cinema between 2010 and 2019, a true Master of Pop Cinema emerged: Joseph Kahn. Like McG, he came from the world of high-profile music video, and he still does the majority of his creative work there (for Taylor Swift, Eminem, Katy Perry, etcetera). His cinema career began inauspiciously, with the intriguingly stylised but minor action adventure, Torque (2004) – and, because of it, Kahn found himself dismissed (again like McG) as the maker of mere “MTV movies”, all spectacular effects without any solid grasp of storytelling.
But Kahn seized the high ground with his next project, completely self-financed: Detention (2011). This multi-genre wonder (mixing high school, horror, time travel and comical satire) is among the best and most significant works of the decade – and it needs several viewings to really get it all, since it is so intricately constructed. Detention is complicated and breathless, but, by the end, it leaves viewers elated.
There was a gap of six years before Kahn’s next feature, the spirited and assiduously politically-incorrect comedy Bodied (2017), about the subculture of “rap battles”. Neither Detention nor Bodied, alas, have received wide, international distribution. Like a modern-day Stanley Kubrick, Kahn has the resources to keep control over the fate of his own work, and he seems careful (maybe too careful) about its dissemination. Unfortunately, this selective approach to publicity has also conspired to keep Kahn off the agendas of most of the important film critics. As someone whose music videos are seen by millions of people everywhere, he remains, paradoxically, a veritably unknown filmmaker.
And there are other Pop Cinema gems to discover from this past decade, including Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011), The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015), and most recently Snatchers (Stephen Cedars & Benji Kleiman, made in 2017 but only released late 2019) – plus, if I can stretch the start of the decade a little to include a film from my birth country of Australia, The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2009).
A final thought. In 2020, since the “Me Too” phenomenon of 2017, we are all talking about the need to discover, promote and acclaim the work of women filmmakers from all over the world. But, strangely, it looks as if some of the best female directors associated with B genres and Pop Cinema since the 1980s are currently being overlooked, almost forgotten. The list is long, including Penelope Spheeris, Kristine Peterson, Marisa Silver, Beeban Kidron, Joan Freeman. Some of them have made the move to TV (like Kidron on Orange is the New Black), others have dropped out of the industry altogether.
But let us take the most outstanding example: Amy Heckerling. She is the undisputed auteur of two Pop Cinema classics: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Clueless (1995). Some of her less commercially successful films, including Loser (2000) and I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007) are also fascinating. But – apart from the relatively impersonal assignment of some TV episodes – what has Heckerling (now 65 years old) been able to make in the past decade? Only one film: Vamps (2012).
I am here to tell you that Vamps is another unknown jewel of Pop Cinema – funny, ingenious, playful, but with an added level of wisdom and melancholia that Joseph Kahn may be a long way yet from accessing. Heckerling brings back her brightest star from Clueless, Alicia Silverstone, and places her alongside the younger, more punk-style Krysten Ritter. It is a film that reflects on passing time, changing history, and particular on women and ageing – brilliantly so, by focusing on vampires who (according to convention) live immortally, frozen in their prime.
I won’t spoil the ending of Vamps for you, but I will say that this example of Pop Cinema, like the greatest films of Blake Edwards, can make me weep.
© Adrian Martin February 2020