Thursday, June 20, 2013

Heath Holland On...Exploitation Nation Part III: What's in a Name?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or, in this case, like blood, sex and gunpowder.

Webster’s dictionary lists two definitions for the word “exploit.”

1)    To make productive use of.

2)    To make use of meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage.

Exploitation is a pretty ugly word. It holds negative connotations. I associate the word with something being taken advantage of, or with someone getting away with something that they probably shouldn’t have. If your job exploits you, you go to human resources, or perhaps even a lawyer. If your friends exploit you, then they aren’t your friends for very long. How does the villain beat the hero? He exploits a weakness, like Kryptonite. The very word “exploitation” sounds underhanded and seedy.

But for some reason, the term for these movies we’re all watching this month, “exploitation,” has stuck around since the birth of film. And if you trace it back to its early roots, there was a LOT of exploiting going on, in the very worst sense of the word. The documentary that Patrick “Brick” Bromley recommended, American Grindhouse goes into great depth and detail in the investigation and explanation of the levels of exploitation that went on in those early days.
In the ‘30s, ‘40s, and even the ‘50’s, exploitation cinema was largely a dirty thing. You went to see these movies because they offered you access to the most taboo and prohibited sections of culture in the guise of education. There weren’t too many places you could go to see naked women or sensational subject matters that would never make it into a mainstream, code approved movie. Therefore, the very origins of exploitation come from seediness.

Exploitation was a dirty word for a dirty subject. The movies were (and still can be) an excuse to cram as much sex, nudity, violence, and shock into 90 minutes as the human brain can stand. There is a true, pure exploitative film scene out there that exists only to shock and wallow in the depths of depravity. Some people have made entire careers seeing just how much they could get away with. These “filmmakers” often have no driving motivation outside of seeing how far they can push people and how quickly they can make a dollar doing it.

So what, then, do these movies full of perversion, animalistic behavior, and images of actual violence and death, have to do with movies like Shaft, The Street Fighter, Vanishing Point or Death Rides A Horse?

Absolutely nothing.

I love THOSE exploitation movies because they have something to say. As I discussed in my first Exploitation Nation column, I’ve come to associate the umbrella that we call “exploitation” as a veritable cornucopia of entertainment and, for those of you playing the Heath Holland On…Drinking Game, PASSION (I talk about passion a lot). The side of exploitation that I love is the side where filmmakers have to make a film or they’ll just die. These guys love movies so much, but no one is making the movies they want to see, so they make it themselves. Yes, these movies often have elevated levels of violence, gore, and nudity (and let’s face it, are often all the better for it) but they don’t exist SOLELY to exploit those things. They wrap a story around those attractions.

Junesploitation has proven to me that I’d rather watch one of these exploitation movies than just about anything else. I suspected it before we even started. I’ve been getting further and further from mainstream movies in the last few years, and more and more I’ve come to love and appreciate the fervor and vision that many of these small movies embody.
I also love the exploitation genre because of the rebellious spirit it embodies and the way it seems to consist of people who have had enough of mainstream movies (every day I think I’m closer to being this person). I mean, why is it that so many mainstream movies have tremendous budgets, yet end up feeling completely homogenized, safe, even boring? Too many cooks in the kitchen, I guess -- hundreds and hundreds of people, all reporting to a few board members with red pens. Exploitation movies aren’t like that. You’re looking at a few dozen people or less, and the film reflects the vision of the director (for better or for worse). That doesn’t seem very exploitative to me, unless you’re exploiting a modest budget and your own resources. So why call it exploitation?

Yes, these movies were exploitative when they originally came out in the '60s and '70s, but they were also wonderful and creative. You went to a spaghetti western to see violence that would never make it into a John Wayne movie and you went to see Bruce Lee movies because who else on the planet can match the coolness of Bruce Lee? These are great things.

True exploitation cinema is not. Many true exploitation movies that adhere to the strict definition of the word are films I’d be embarrassed to say that I watched. It implies dirtiness and shamelessness. The hardest of hardcore exploitation movies contain misogyny and the degradation of women, the abuse of animals, and in the case of something like Mondo Cane, some of the ugliest and saddest images ever committed to film. I don’t want my sweet Pam Grier lumped in with cannibalism.
And what’s up with the term “blaxploitation?” Reductive much? I mean, that’s some name, isn’t it? I recently watched an excellent 2002 IFC documentary called Baadasssss Cinema (it’s on YouTube) that was all about blaxploitation. It features extended interviews with Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Fred Williamson, Melvin Van Peebles, and Quentin Tarantino and provides a cursory overview of the genre. Even the people in the documentary couldn’t agree on whether or not the name “blaxploitation” was a good thing or a bad one. Some of the interviewees feel that it was a derogatory term thrust onto the films by the white media to cheapen the obvious cultural impact. Others, like Fred Williamson, feel very strongly that it’s a term of power and pride, created by the NAACP. He doesn’t seem to like the word exploitation either, though. In his opinion, the actors got paid, the filmmakers made money, and the audiences got what they came for. How is that different from any mainstream film?

So here’s what I’m proposing. We need a new name for the umbrella these awesome movies fall within. We need to be able to separate the truly ugly, TRULY exploitative films from all the great movies that exist outside the traditional Hollywood system and give us what we really want to see. The names by which we call these things are important. We’ve already had a politically correct movement in which “blaxploitation” became “urban cinema” and where kung fu flicks are now simply “martial arts” films. None of these terms accurately reflect the awesomeness of these movies. Let’s start a movement and create a new alternative to the word “exploitation.”
But, see, that’s where I run dry. I can’t think of a truly great name to embody all these wonderful films that exist outside the MPAA. The best I can come up with is stuff like “Grit-Flick” or “Cinema Awesome-O.” And that’s just ridiculous and sad. Look, I’m just the idea guy. I rage against the machine, but then I don’t know what to do when I’ve brought it down. I need help. What do YOU guys think? Can we come up with anything better?

Let’s take these movies back from dark room at the back of the video store and scream at the top of our voices that we love...

"Cinesplosion?" See? Help.


  1. Heath, I hear you. Since so few actual movies live up to the term (the "Faces of Death" flicks come to mind, and many of these feature staged/re-enacted stuff instead of the real deal) I think the words 'snuff film' would be an adequate term for movies whose sole purpose is to appeal to our lowest common denominator. Your "Serbian Films," your "Cannibal Holocausts," your "Human Centipedes," your "New York Rippers," etc. Heck, movies like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" can be both and straddle the line between art and disturbing perfectly. What do we call these rare two-fers?

    Another problem: who decides what is a regular fun exploitation film from what I've coined (for the purpose of this reply) a 'snuff film'? Patrick would probably throw most Italian horror cinema from Argento or Fulci into the 'snuff' category, while I would argue there is artistry and hardcore-but-mainstream horror fun to be had with your "Operas" and "The Beyonds" (with notable exceptions, since I labeled Fulci's "New York Ripper" as a 'snuff'). And we ourselves aren't the normal type of movie-watching people that are content with regular movies. To most people the movies you've listed as entertaining exploitation would offend their sense of right and wrong profoundly. Guess it's not what we label the movies isn't as important as each of us developing our own radar (that little voice inside our own heads that says 'this is wrong!') of what is exploitative fun, and what is just utter purposeless trash, i.e. "Hostel 2."

    1. I would agree there is artistry behind Italian horror; it's just not for me (I miss out on the 'fun' part). But I would never reduce it to snuff status (maybe New York Ripper, but that's not fair because I've never seen it and am basing that only on what I've read).

      And to your point, I also don't think Hostel 2 is purposeless trash, even though I don't really like it. You're right -- it's all about our own limits and our own radar. It gets tricky, because I don't want to reduce something that someone else really likes to "worthless" or "trash." Except maybe Boondock Saints.

  2. Just throwing out some possible new terms for exploitation:

    Killer Bs

  3. Don't sell yourself short, Heath, Cinema Awesome-O is pretty good, but I think a Mexican wrestling film critic is already using it.

    Good article and I think you're right that the term "exploitation" carries some connotations that some of the better movies that fall under that umbrella don't deserve, but that's a pretty tough assignment. I really like Shannon's "Kickassterpiece" but more as it might apply to an individual movie...Killer Bs is pretty cool too but lacks that one-word punch...

    I'm kinda stumped man, I'll come back if I think of something!