Eighteen years before I was ever born, underground filmmaker Jack Smith changed my life. In the winter of 1962, two years before Susan Sontag’s landmark article “Notes on ‘Camp,'” Smith wrote a piece for Film Culture called “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez.” Montez was the star of a series of exotic 1940s costume dramas with titles like “Arabian Nights,” “White Savage,” and “Cobra Woman,” and also was, by all accounts, a horrible actress. Reviewing “Cobra Woman” in The New York Times in 1944, Bosley Crowther said that Montez played “dual roles — those of the good twin and the bad twin — without a trace of distinction between.”
Smith didn’t care; he adored Montez and her movies, and he declared his love in “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness.” He explained that Montez transcended her so-called “flaws” as an actress. He proclaimed her a genius, a maverick, an icon, and pronounced that one of her mangled line readings — “”Geef me that Coparah chewel!” — was “possibly the greatest line of dialogue in any American flick.” He wasn’t just proud, he was defiant:
“She believed and thereby made the people who went to her movies believe. Those who could believe, did. Those who saw the World’s Worst Actress just couldn’t and they missed the magic. Too bad — their loss.”
This was provocative stuff; in 1962 it was still controversial to argue that Alfred Hitchcock was a great director. Today’s equivalent of Smith’s essay would be a loving, 3,000 word ode in Film Comment to the magical and misunderstood cinematic genius of Rob Schneider. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I read Smith’s article for the first time in the early days of grad school. I’d been directed to it by the works of film critic J. Hoberman, a man who’s been as vocal a champion of Smith as Smith was of Montez. I loved every minute of grad school — soaking in the classics of world cinema by day and drunkenly arguing about the filmographies of great directors by night — but my personal tastes were a bit more disreputable than most of my classmates. When I read “The Perfect Film Appositeness,” I had never seen a Maria Montez movie. Now that I have, I must admit I don’t share Smith’s obsession. But I do understand it — especially this line: “Juvenile does not equal shameful and trash is the material of creators. It exists whether one approves or not.”
Given any opportunity, whether my professors approved or not, I turned my academic attention to lowbrow culture. The first essay I wrote in grad school was about the use of music and mise en scene in the opening credits of “Shaft.” Later, I penned semester-long papers on Ed Wood and the concepts of camp and trash spectatorship. And I wrote repeatedly — not once, but many times — about the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Smith, who passed away in 1989, would probably not have approved of Schwarzenegger’s rise to stardom. In his Montez essay he bemoaned the state of current movies, blasting the way that “fantasies now feature weight lifters who think how lucky and clever they were to get into the movies & the fabulous pay. I like to think that if Smith had lived long enough to see “Batman & Robin” he might have revised his opinion. Regardless, in Smith’s paean to his gaudy muse I recognized my own endless fascination with the Austrian Oak, which began in childhood the first time I saw “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and never stopped. Though Schwarzenegger‘s been chided for his poor acting abilities since the moment he stepped in front of the camera, I always saw him, despite his obvious limitations, as one of the screen’s most charismatic and dynamic presences.
Admittedly, Schwarzenegger’s accent is ridiculous, all the more so for the fact that he typically played emblematically American characters — U.S. marshals, secret agents, special forces operatives — who, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have spent their youths on the backstreets of Thal, Austria. His dialogue readings were downright Montezian — “Geef me that Coparah chewel!” is not far removed from “Get to duh choppuh!” or “It’s nawt a toomuh!” — but his dexterity with bad puns, and his ability to treat the deadliest of bad jokes with the straightest of faces have always marked him as an unlikely yet utterly likable onscreen wordsmith.
Smith rejected traditional value judgments, and he pointedly rebuked critics who failed to recognize his goddess’ radiance:
“Critics are writers. They like writing — and written characters. Maria Montez’s appeal was on a purely intuitive level. She was the bane of critics — that person whose effect cannot be known by words, described in words, flaunts words (her image spoke). Film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”
Similarly, no one’s ever praised a Schwarzenegger movie for its writing, or talked about one of his characters as a written character (“Boy, what Tony Puryear, Walon Green, and Michael S. Chermuchin brought to John “The Eraser” Kruger was absolutely marvelous!”). But no words are needed to help a scene as sublime as Schwarzenegger as Kruger hanging from the door of a plane thousands of feet in the air and then skydiving after his parachute, or the delicious pleasure of watching two children discover Schwarzenegger after he crash lands in a junkyard (“Wheauh am I now?” he asks. “Earth. Welcome!” they reply).
There are more parallels that could be drawn between Montez and Schwarzenegger, but they’re ultimately less important than Smith’s larger message: never apologize for your taste. We live in a time when conformity is not only valued, it’s practically demanded, especially in critical circles. The rare reviewers who dare to buck consensus and dismiss highly anticipated movies are showered with insults and threats. More and more people seem to think that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to perceive every movie, and that those who dare to say otherwise are not only wrong — they’re enemies.
“The Perfect Filmic Appositeness” is a brilliant strike against that ludicrous attitude. It reminds us that our perspective is what makes each of us unique as critics and as viewers. If you love something, explore it. Try to understand why you love it; try to express what you see that no one else does. If, after all that, people still don’t get it: too bad, their loss.