[3 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Stephen Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.
So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.
Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.
Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.
But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.
Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows.
Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.
In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.
Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.
What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy.