PRINT November 1987


Let it B.

THE MOVIE SCREEN IS A blatant mass of mute chiaroscuro locked in a long shot, a motley interior suggesting lives better left for dead. Suddenly something stirs and the frame is filled with an obstruction: a fuzzy mass of parameciumlike tendencies making mincemeat of narrative figuration. And then the music starts, or some kind of blaring, bleating, jazzlike emanation, as zanily abstract and totally treble as the image it accompanies. This is not some piece of lint stuck in the projector, not a soupçon of art-film technique, but simply the back of a head leaning into the camera: another trick card tumbling from Sam Fuller’s crumpled sleeve. From The Naked Kiss on, Fuller lets the victims tell their tales. His hilariously droll confections are dolloped with a puff of paranoia that calls every shot and then calls it quits. They are plaintive wails punctured by a flood of ridiculous comedic literalisms. They exude a sort of distanced shame. They are the kind of movies that not too many others could, would, or do make.

There’s this thing about movies: their all-too-occasional ability to deliver a measure of pleasurable visual and verbal shift—an unexpected graphic twist, an obtuse kind of camera angle that crosses your eyes and makes you smile, a clump of dialogue that jars you into a recognition of how stereotypical and predictably formulaic everything else you’ve heard for eons has been. The diminishment of B-movie production in Hollywood has pruned the market of its juice, leaving an acrid patch of inflated blockbusters and prepube eye candy. How ironic that, although largely evacuated from film, a few estimable examples of this lovingly B-type storying are regularly transplanted to television, of all places. There, these semiextravaganzas make spectacles of themselves again, chomping out a niche in the sci/spy/crime rerun slots that pad the airwaves in the early A.M. Sporting crisply decentered black and white cinematography, both The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits are fueled by the economy of their scripting and by their sleazoid exhibitionism. Secret Agent and The Prisoner couple cloak-and-dagger shenanigans with a quizzically transgressive shooting style, while Peter Gunn and, at times, Mr. Lucky indulge in a mélange of graphic eccentricity. None of these shows, all of them recently or still viewable on late-night TV, comes close to Fuller’s powerfully unenlightened lunacy, but they do share a certain off-putting gloss, a kind of veneered filth that feels real good on the small screen. With its beatnik dungeons and bebop poetics, Peter Gunn lends TV a chunky slice of noirish, bizarrish goings-on. Although all these series were the work of many directorial visions, it is no coincidence that Gunn and Lucky exude the early tackoid humor of Blake Edwards, who produced and supervised both.

Since the days of these black-and-white productions, TV’s expanse has melted into riveting color. Clearly the figure who has boosted this chromatic capability to new heights of gorgeousness is Michael Mann, the current descendant of all the aforementioned “authorial” splish-splash picturing. He has managed a kind of paradigmatic shift in the feel of prime-time picturing, arranging Miami Vice and Crime Story into a highly designed jumble of popular history, sexuality, social critique, and drop-dead good look. This is not to overstate his case, to ooze over work already buried in the oohs and aahs of troves of enthusiasts. Mann’s acuity is not simply about some fly-by-night MTV gloss but constitutes an attenuated stare at American life. Like Fuller, he’s not just wasting time creeping around the momentary symptoms of “cool”—which is frequently how he’s viewed. “Cool” is fitting in, but Mann is that rarest of birds: a misfit who knows how to take a meeting. His commandeering brand of video Sol Hurok-ism has joined the pleasures of the cinematic dispensation (intricate quasi narrativity and a transgressive camera) with the accelerated contemporaneousness of TV. A million knockoffs are in the works.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television and her movie reviews appear regularly in Artforum.