Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Heath Holland On...Exploitation Nation Part I: The Heart & Soul


The decision to make what was once the boring ol’ first month of summer and transform it into JUNESPLOITATION(!) has made me a very happy man. I LOVE exploitation films, and I’d been puzzling over how to write more about the genre for a while but wasn’t sure how to do it. The birth of JUNESPLOITATION might as well have been Christmas for me, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to introduce Exploitation Nation. You’ll see Exploitation Nation each week during the month of June, and after that it will come back every now and then, just when we need it the most. Like King Arthur.

For this first, inaugural edition of Exploitation Nation (if you’re a comic book fan you can bag it, board it, and stick it in a box), I want to talk about my overall thoughts on the exploitation genre. In the primer for JUNESPLOITATION, the very handsome and equally intelligent Patrick "The Brick" Bromley laid out how exploitation movies can really be any movie that has a hook or a gimmick to draw you in.
In his commentary for Foxy Brown, Legendary Exploitation Director Jack Hill (I think that’s his full legal name) talks about how he’s never cared for the title "exploitation" and how it seems these movies are regarded with less respect than other films. He talks about how people would ask him why he was making exploitation films instead of legitimate ones; he disagrees with that sentiment, explaining that many of the movies that are being made in the studio system today are exploitation films, just with 100 times the budget that he had.

You guys, Legendary Exploitation Director Jack Hill is right! This whole rash of superhero movies we’re in the middle of? That’s exploitation! F8st and Furious? Totally exploitation. In fact, most of the movies playing right now would fall under the umbrella of exploitation. There’s even a case to be made that the genre has had such a mainstream resurgence that it’s more popular and prevalent than it’s ever been. EVERYTHING seems to be exploiting something these days.

But for me, exploitation is not just about the subject matter. It’s also about existing outside the big studio system with a smaller budget. I mean…I completely agree with Legendary Exploitation Director Jack Hill about the current reliance on Hollywood to exploit a particular thing. From superheroes to torture, cars to teen angst, this stuff is everywhere.

But I have much more admiration for the movies that are made, often independently, with a fraction of the budget of the big movies. For me, true exploitation film will always be the cheaper, more ambitious stuff. While exploitation is not necessarily synonymous with low budget, the movies that I tend to enjoy the most within the exploitation genre ARE the lower budget ones.

My heart is in old paperback books, comics, dusty crates of vinyl records, and these movies. Don’t get me wrong -- I love cinema. I love the art of it. I love how a well-crafted movie can invoke every emotion in the book and cover any span of time in two hours. A good movie is a piece of art that can and should last forever, and we should preserve them as the important documents that they are. Film/Cinema is a wonderful thing, and I love ALL types of movies. But the movies I love the most are the ones that I can touch and feel and which reflect real, less-than-perfect people trying to achieve something.
It seems like many film critics and movie fans in general can be quick to turn their nose up to the B-movie fare that makes up so much of the exploitation genre, and I don’t understand that. Gone With The Wind is an achievement, but so is a low budget, badly shot science fiction movie from the '50s. One of the things that draws me to these kinds of movies is that it takes a lot more passion and creativity to make a low budget feature than it does to make a traditional movie inside the Hollywood system.

Wait, don’t go! I’m not saying that it doesn’t take passion to make a mainstream movie, but with exploitation movies, you can see the filmmaker’s (often bloody and dirty) fingerprints all over project. There are fewer cooks in the kitchen. There’s significantly less money available, prompting ingenuity, and sometimes breaking all the rules to get the shot you need. I’m talking about guerilla filmmaking, shooting without permits and stealing shots. If you know you’re going to need to get a shot in the middle of Town Square and you can’t get permission to film there, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to get it. That translates to the screen, and I love it. That’s REAL. And more often than not, that director hunched over a table with a razor blade and tape as he cut his film together himself.

Today’s movies cost more than ever, and it seems like less and less actual heart and passion is being put on the screen. For all their big budgets, they seem to be getting more and more disposable and generic. In a few years, I’m not sure I will be able to tell you the difference between After Earth, Elysium, Oblivion or Ender’s Game. Even now, the trailers have all melded into one big science fiction collage in my brain. That’s not a typical problem with most exploitation films, because there’s usually a plethora of ideas and originality. More often than not, exploitation movies start from the initial hook of an idea and expand from there. The lack of financing fixes more problems than it creates.
Honestly, if you told me that I could only watch Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation movies for the rest of my life, I’d be in heaven. Those two are my favorite subgenres of exploitation, even though they seem to have little in common with “true” exploitation. And I guess that’s a difference that I should mention. I’m not all that interested in the seedy side of exploitation: the Nazi women with whips or the nudie films of the '50s. Those movies served a purpose, but there’s not much for me there. I’m far more interested in movies that have something to say about the society around them. Blaxploitation films are my favorite because they are absolutely loaded with the tensions of the Civil Rights movement, and the people that direct and star in those movies really had something to say. Decades and decades of tension exploded onto the cinema screen in a glorious fireball of wah-wah guitars, afros, and some of the coolest movie heroes EVER.

Spaghetti westerns sometimes have less to say, but they’re often so stylistically done that they more than justify their existence. I love them for the particular brand of music that doesn’t seem to exist outside this type of movie. I also love that so much time seems to be put into composing shots. You don’t even really need much of a plot: just take two-dozen guys out into the Spanish hills and shoot them riding their horses and sundown and you’ve got a movie. It’s one of the few instances of me being totally ok with style over substance, because the style is SO compelling that it’s enough. When someone like Leone or Corbucci can marry that style with a compelling story, I’m convinced that there is nothing better.

As we know, and as we’ve seen from the JUNESPLOTATION calendar, there are so many different categories that seem to fall under the umbrella of exploitation that you could spend the rest of your life watching them and you’d never finish. These films are the life-blood of the movie industry. In a time where so much of a movie’s budget feels wasteful and unnecessary, it’s refreshing to see a movie shot on a shoestring using all the resources available in the most creative ways possible. Effects are often practical. Actors work for next to nothing. Action is balls-out-crazy, and you’ll see things beyond your wildest imagination. It’s like going into Willy Wonka’s factory.
Since Scary Movie Month started a few years ago, it’s been my favorite aspect of being a part of this community. Every year I look forward to taking a month-long break from the normal Hollywood fare so that I can revel in an area of film that is generally far less appreciated, but usually far more entertaining. That’s why JUNESPLOITATION is so exciting to me. In the middle of the biggest season of the year for movies, we’re taking time to acknowledge a bunch of movies that thumb their nose at traditional blockbusters.

We’re only a month into the summer movie season, and I’ve already had enough of it. What better way to combat that than to dig into the lowest of the low budget, the counter culture, and the subversive?

JUNESPLOITATION is here, and it’s just in time. See you at the grindhouse!


  1. I agree with every, single, word, you wrote here Heath. Well done sir, well done.

  2. Great article Heath. It shouldn't have taken watching American Grindhouse for me to see the cultural and cinematic significance of exploitation films (ironically, even though I generally avoid using the word "film" because of the perceived pretentiousness of it, it flows so much better after "exploitation" than "movie" does), but it really did spark my interest in them, and I am genuinely enjoying the month and what I've seen so far and look forward to exploring them further on my own. And with the guidance of your future articles of course!

    And I too am getting that wicked-fun Scary Movie Month vibe from Junesploitation. A bit more so than 30 Stars of Summer which was still fun, but I tended more towards big studio stuff for that, so I really think you're on to something with it being a refreshing break from the normal Hollywood fare.

    To sum up what "good" Exploitation is to me, I'd say it's cheap but not easy.

    1. Thanks, Tall Hot! In my opinion, American Grindhouse is only interested in showing the shocking, really nasty and ugly side of exploitation, and therefore frustrates me. Brick Bromley and JB said as much in the newest podcast. Just when it gets interesting, they move on to something I couldn't care less about. They don't do a very good job of conveying how so many of those movies are so great. Like, they bring up Blaxploitation, then 5 minutes later they're on to something else. You could spend at least a half an hour simply summing up the different TYPES of Blaxploitation movies that were made (and are still being made). But no, they have to show more boobs covered in blood.

      I like your definition: cheap, but not easy. That's true. I mean, I think some of those were definitely easy (Herschell Gordon Lewis, I'm lookin' at you), but they aren't the ones I want to see. I want the ones that people put themselves into, both literally and figuratively. I want to see the movies people made because no one else was making them.

      Now if you'll excuse me, I have to film myself peeing on a baby.

    2. Yeah, I can see how an existing fan of the genre (is it considered a "genre"?) would find American Grindhouse too cursory but, as a neophyte, I found it gave me just enough of a taste of a broad sampling to whet my appetite.

      And peeing on a baby? I find it shocking and offensive that you wouldn't just go all out and take a dump on it.

  3. I totally get the overall "meh" feeling to the summer so far. (Only movie that really got me jacked up so far was the carsploitation Furious 6) As for style over substance I also couldnt agree more with the vibe on Spaghetti Westerns being more style over substance and still being awesome. I have only seen the movie a handful of times but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly while actually having some good substance will always be cemented in my head as being one of the most stylized movies I have ever seen.

    I would take this time to shovel some more on Michael Bay with the no sbustance argument but my shoveling arms are exhausted.

    1. Mike Bay does a perfectly acceptable job of shoveling on his OWN movies. He needs no help from anyone.

      The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly has more substance than most spaghetti westerns, but you're right, it's still one of the finest examples of stylization in the genre. I love it. LOVE IT. Of course, Leone is pretty much credited with starting the genre and then later pretty much finishing it when he produced 1973's My Name Is Nobody, a spaghetti western comedy that parodies the conventions that he created.