Friday, December 8, 2017

Charles Taylor Goes to the Drive-In

Back in the days when I read film criticism for breakfast, I fell in love with the writing of Pauline Kael in The New Yorker.. Kael’s great gift was her ability to make you eager to see a film you knew in advance you wouldn’t like. It was because of Pauline Kael that I actually paid to watch the 1973 remake of King Kong, the one with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I’ve never been much of a fan of movies starring giant SFX apes. But Kael made the movie sound so interesting—and so profound a commentary on the era’s culture—that I couldn’t let it pass me by.

That same talent animates Charles Taylor, himself a Pauline Kael acolyte. Taylor, a New York intellectual who can quote the poetry of William Butler Yeats in passing, is quite capable of writing serious appreciations of Golden Age directors like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. And yet he has chosen to focus in his first book on the allure and the impact of genre movies, those fast-and-cheap cinematic efforts that rely on such box office staples as sex and violence to help draw a vivid picture of the times in which they are made. Taylor’s new work is called Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 70’s. As a Roger Corman alumna in good standing, I could not resist this enticing appreciation of the sort of down and dirty flicks we churned out in 1974 in great numbers.

Admittedly, Taylor doesn’t seem to have the highest regard for the movies we made at Corman’s New World Pictures. Candy Stripe Nurses, TNT Jackson, and Death Race 2000 (all of which played a major role in my working life) are clearly not in his pantheon. But he has high respect for the accomplishments of Corman graduates like Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and Jonathan Demme (Citizen Band). And one of his most vivid chapters is an appreciative look at Corman protégé Pam Grier. After first making her mark as a tough, sexy woman warrior in New World’s The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and The Arena, Grier went on to star in such blaxploitation revenge dramas as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Sizing up Grier’s career, Taylor smartly acknowledges the role played by race in hampering her advancement: “One of the paradoxes of the movies is that you can be a star—by which I mean you can display all the charisma and commanding presence and style that marks you as born to be in front of a camera –and never break out of second-rate movies or get the roles that you deserve. . . . For all the pleasure there is in watching Pam Grier, despite her having become an icon revered in hip-hop culture—despite Quentin Tarantino, who with a fan’s devotion and a director’s masterstroke gave her the starring role in Jackie Brown—there’s no escaping that she never had the career she should have. Pam Grier was a star, but only to black Americans.”  

Taylor mourns the state of movies today, the fact that DVD and cable have largely robbed us of “the possibility of shared discovery that has always been at the heart of moviegoing. Moviegoing is rarely as thrilling as when audiences feel they are collectively hearing truths no one has bothered to say publicly.” That’s part of the reason, he feels, that today’s hits seem so ephemeral. 

Unlike a movie he’s made me dying to see: Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

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