Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Exploitation of the Innocent

I was asked why I like exploitation films. The person said, "You kind of have a reputation of a movie snob, so why those films?" (I am actually not a movie snob, as my love of exploitation films proves. I just know what I like and am able to articulate. More importantly, I know what I don't like and am very vocal about it because it's part of my job.)

The answer isn't easy.

Exploitation films, the ones that had their heyday back in the late Sixties to about mid-Eighties, pushed the envelope of what cinema could show and was capable of. Yes, it was often done with the intent to be lurid and make money, but these films have an artistic flair that can't be dismissed, and their impact upon worldwide cinema cannot be mistaken. These movies were risky, bold, and somewhat alarming, and that's everything I love about the art of film.

I've heard people argue that movies like Transformers are modern-day exploitation films because there is no artistic merit to them, they are made simply to make money, and they appeal to the audiences' most base instinct. That is only somewhat true.

I'll admit that Transformers and films like it aren't made with artistic sensibilities in mind. Many exploitation films (not all) were, however, made as someone's artistic vision ... usually because the director was given lots of leeway and was left to his or her own devices.

I will admit that the blockbusters are made simply to generate cash for the studios. They are vehicles to sell toys, tickets and TV rights. But almost all movies are made with the hopes that money will be made. Especially those made by major studios. Yes, the studios release more artistic films (usually in hopes of obtaining an Oscar and thus generating more revenue), but at the end of the day the studios are businesses. Art doesn't matter much. Exploitation films were often art meeting cash. Often the financial backers of the films were somehow involved in organized crime and money needed to be laundered, hidden, or someone had a bug up their ass to get a film made for some kind of "artistic cred." Because of this the exploitation directors were left alone. Major studios leave very few directors alone. Focus groups dictate the outcome of a film. I doubt focus groups had no say in Thriller: A Cruel Picture.

There is something there about appealing to the filmgoer's base instincts, though. Time and time again audiences have proven they love a big explosion, big tits and big plot holes. Exploitation films did it differently, however. They lured audiences in with promises of blood, tits and sex (and often lived up to that promise), but then they went further. They took audiences to places they weren't expecting to go. Again, go back to Thriller: A Cruel Picture. The sex scenes are hardcore. An eyeball is removed in a horrible scene, and that's just a beginning. Nobody going into that film, even after seeing the trailers, could have any idea of its impact. (It made enough of an impact upon Tarantino that he supposedly made a character after One-Eye in Kill Bill. Guess who?) Transformers, again as an example, is happy to deliver what it promises, but nothing more. (And, no, I haven't seen it, but I have heard enough to be able to make that statement and feel fairly secure about it.)

All those things add up to give an more complete picture to the blockbuster versus exploitation film angle. Exploitation films are, at some level, challenging. Yes, some are amateurish and filled with every genre standard you can think of, but there is still the feeling of chaos to them. The major studio summer pictures can embody many things, but challenges and artistry are two pieces of the puzzle they cannot lay claim to. Does it make them worse than exploitation films? No, not really. I don't prefer them, but that's just me. I think most people can't handle the sorts of things that happened in the exploitation films of old. The gore would be too much. The tone too brutal. And the style would induce headaches in those raised on movies-by-the-number. If there's one thing I've learned audiences hate it is to be given something they can't predict (with rare exceptions). Exploitation films did that in spades, and that's why I like them and respect them for what they are.

I don't hate blockbusters for what they are. I dislike many of them for what they aren't. They aren't a challenge. They aren't anything new, and they take a captive audience and refuse to take advantage of it. That isn't bold filmmaking. That's cowardly, and that's insulting. But that is just me. Your opinion may very well differ. I can guarantee, though, that I Spit on Your Grave offers more to debate and discuss than Independence Day. I guarantee it offers more shocks and actually makes a far better social statement than that summer blockbuster. Both had similar exploitative film campaigns, but one delivered the goods. The other was a standard story with all the usual plot points. One insulted its audience. The other challenged it.

Why settle for less? Because now you don't really have a choice. The exploitation era is pretty much gone (though there are bright pockets here and there). Hollywood won. I would argue we are all worse for it, though far safer in the long run. Unfortunately, when it comes to art, safe is not a good place to be.