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The B-Movie – A Welcomed Mental Asylum

By Ooi Kee Beng

Penang Monthly, Editorial November 2021

I DON’T LOVE them; I don’t hate them. But I think they are indispensable. They are very much a necessary by-product of the film industry, the way any form of art spills out items generally considered inferior in quality. Yet, these items are not without value, be it in themselves or as vital inspiration for the mainstream of their genre.

I am talking of course about B-movies.

Now, I have noticed that the more knackered I am, the more I wish to end my day watching them. I need them the way I need to cleanse my mouth after a strong coffee, or seek solitude after a week of meetings. They are a welcomed mental asylum.

But what makes a movie a B-movie? Who gets to classify them as that?

This pejorative term has a very definite etymology. The Observer of April 27, 2003 has this to say (see https://www. theguardian.com/film/2003/apr/27/features.review2):

“The term ‘B-movie’ was coined in the early 1930s to distinguish the low-budget productions (usually lasting between 50 and 80 minutes) made by the eight major studios from their more expensive “A-movies”. It extended to the total product of the so-called Poverty Row companies, such as Republic and Monogram, which only made cheap pictures. In downtown cinemas ‘A-movies’ were exhibited on their own; B-movies were released in double bills or as support to ‘A-movies’. Their natural home was the backstreet cinema and the small-town movie house, providing the value-for-money fare demanded by Depression audiences with time on their hands but little money with which to kill it. They were rarely shown to the press.

“As a cultural phenomenon the B-movie lasted for less than 40 years. Its life was extended for a while by the post-war popularity of the drive-in cinema, but it finally succumbed to television and the inexorable disappearance of locally owned independent movie houses”.

Those variants of the B-movie may have faded away, but we certainly do still have use of the notion. Like a virus, the term has mutated to reflect how inferior movies are made today, and why they are made. And as with new virus variants, we don’t quite know what to make of them. We may try to avoid them, we may medicate against them, but we have to live with them, taking the good with the bad. To make my point, I shall quote from Paste magazine of January 14, 2017, (https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/netflix/the-20- best-b-movies-streaming-on-netflix/):

“What’s hard is defining them. Because honestly, there’s no working definition for what makes a ‘B movie.’ Once upon a time, you could apply the title toward the cheaper second film stuck by a studio on its drive-in or grindhouse double feature, but those times are long since gone. ‘B movie’ implies cheapness, or at least a lower budget than normal, but it doesn’t necessarily disallow a film from having a national release or box office success. It also doesn’t disallow quality – B movies may very well be BAD, but they may also be great. Perhaps they’re both, at the same time.

“In the end, it may be more accurate to say that ‘B movie’ is more of a genre movie aesthetic than it is a definition. It’s a visual look / aspect of production design that can be purposely sought out… Sometimes this works out well. In other cases, attempting to make something “fun-bad” results in a film that is simply ‘bad-bad’.”

As a devourer of B-movies, let me in Penang Monthly of December 2021, not so much define B-movies as identify their contemporary function, the way I see it:

Humans find meaning through stories. By weaving together tales, thus dismissing multitudes of details in favour of a chosen storyline, we construct narratives with which to entertain ourselves, pass on moral themes, exercise power, spin ideologies and religions, sustain memories and, in short, simplify life.

At some point, this simplification of life takes on an easily repeated format, since the tales now rely on recurring tropes rather than contextual complexity and character building. It is this excessive transparency in a tale that makes it “inferior” in the way a B-movie – or a national history – is deemed inferior, and probably insulting to one’s intelligence if taken seriously.

In short, B-movies belong alongside A-movies the way dawn and dusk connect day with night.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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