By Peter Stanfield Rutgers University Press, 2011 Reviewed by Fredrik Gustafsson
In 1969, MoMA in New York presented a film series of 35 American films of (less prestigious) genres such as westerns, melodramas and crime films. How I wish I could have been there! Among the films chosen at least 20 are among the best films ever made, including titles such as Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur 1947), White Heat (Raoul Walsh 1949), In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray 1950), The Big Heat (Fritz Lang 1953), Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller 1953) and The Lineup (Don Siegel 1958). That retrospective could be said to form the centre argument in Peter Stanfield’s new book Maximum Movies – Pulp Fiction (Rutgers University Press 2011), Stanfield wants to tell the story of how what was once considered trash, bad films or bad books of no artistic value, came to be considered masterpieces with both integrity and high artistic value.
The book is entertaining and informative. It is easy to read though the writing is clunky and mannered at times. (“The highly constructed eidetic moments that call forth an oneiric ambience punctuate the film in a heavy-handed manner.”) By far the best chapters are the first two, which tell the story both of pulp fiction and the critical and theoretical reception of these films and books. They were reviled by mainstream critics in the US and the UK, but also had strong defenders, such as James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber and Lawrence Alloway. Alloway is perhaps not as well-known as the others but he wrote the program notes for that MoMA retrospective and in 1971 they were published together as Violent America: The Movies 1946 – 1964 (New York, MoMA, 1971). Other recurring figures are Jonas Mekas and Pauline Kael, and the likes of George Orwell, Edmund Wilson and Stuart Hall appear as well. But it is not just American and British writers Stanfield mentions, he also talks about how the French fell in love with pulp. After the first two chapters, which are more general, the next chapters are case-studies and they are less interesting, the book looses momentum as it moves towards its conclusion. The first case-study is about the adaptation from 1955, by Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides, of Mickey Spillane’s novel Kiss Me Deadly. The second case-study is about the films of Samuel Fuller, while the third is about Jim Thompson’s books and the films made from them.
The divisions between lowbrow art and highbrow art are more often than not just snobbery, and have little to do with the actual quality of the art works. And that goes for both sides. The constant sneer at pulp art, and for that matter Hollywood in general, from many critics and academics is tiresome and seldom based on actual knowledge but on superficial prejudices. Equally annoying is when, like Manny Farber sometimes, you turn it upside down and instead sneer at everything that is considered highbrow. Drawing lines in the sand is not helpful. On some level it is lazy criticism, an unwillingness to engage with all kinds of art, and instead of trying to engage with things that one does not perhaps understand or does not like it is dismissed as being unworthy. But a film like Kiss Me Deadly is as radical and disturbing as many films made by the French New Wave filmmakers – it even has jump-cuts. A film like Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1957) is only using its silly murder mystery as an excuse to make a brave film about race relations, much more daring then most films made at the time. (So it is a shame Stanfield does not mention this film at all.) At one point Stanfield refers to David E. James’s suggestion that “the Farber-esque action film contested Hollywood from within while the avant-garde did it from without.” Films like the two mentioned above are examples of this kind of action film. Sometimes it is a bit unclear as to where exactly Stanfield stands in relation to the books and films he mentions. It seems he sometimes regards them with an ironic distance, though that might just be his way of writing.
I found some interesting omissions. Stanfield writes about the French New Wave, Truffaut and Godard, but he does not comment on the fact that the New Wave was filled with pulp fiction. Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle 1960) is as much pulp as any of the American films he copies. Truffaut’s second film Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste 1960) is based on a novel by David Goodis, one of the more well-known of pulp writers. Could it not be said that this helped validate that art form? Godard once said that the only things you need to make a film are a gun and a girl, and what could be more pulp than that? (It was actually D.W. Griffith who said it first.) I also wonder why nothing was said about superheroes. There was an explosion in American comics in the late 1930s and the 1940s of superheroes appearing, from right and left. Many of them were drawn by Jewish artists who partly used them as a way of combating the horror they felt with the rise of the Nazis and then the Holocaust. This is an important part of American pop art, and pulp fiction, and it would have warranted at least a comment. (To those who would like to read more about that I recommend Michael Chabon.)
For someone with previous familiarity with these films, filmmakers and writers, not much is new, neither in history nor insights. But for students or a more general audience there is a lot to be recommended in Maximum Movies – Pulp Fiction. If you study or teach popular culture, then by all means put it on the reading list.