The seedy underside of American film has never looked so… well, seedy.
Dir. Elijah Drenner, 2010, 81 min
I’ve twice now alluded to my deep affection for exploitation films. The cheesy productions, the lurid filthiness, and the plucky can-do-itiveness of the grimy slums of filmmaking are endearing in their ineptitude and shamelessness. With American Grindhouse, John Landis, Joe Dante, and many more filmmakers and film historians chronicle the history of star-spangled schlock through the ages of cinema.
And it is truly a tradition that reaches back through the ages. In fact, dirty movies have been around as long as there have been movies. It took roughly five seconds (possibly fewer, possibly in the negative) for some member of Edison’s troupe to think, “Hey, I can film ladies with their clothes off!” And they did. Believe it or not, the grindhouse has been essential to the development of mainstream motion pictures. There wouldn’t be a Universal Studios, for instance, if it weren’t for their 1913 hit Traffic in Souls, which is about “white slavery” in New York. Not exactly polite material.
The movie moves through the various sub-genres of the exploitation world, covering them as they developed over the decades. Stuff like Tod Browning’s Freaks pushed the limits of the Hays Code, which forced mainstream filmmakers to be creative in dealing with sex and violence. Independents had no such worries, and put out stuff like Because of Eve under the excuse that it could be “educational.” In fact, an educational veneer made many kinds of movies excusable to wide audiences, which gave rise to bizarrely specific genres such as “birthsploitation.” All these down low flicks arise either as a response to the culture or to the demands of censorship.
For instance, teen-focused films came as adolescent rebellion simmered in the mid-fifties. Blaxploitation movies were inspired (kinda) by civil rights concerns. Women in prison films came about because of the burgeoning feminist movement. What normal movies often were hard-pressed to address, the grindhouse tackled fearlessly. Which is why everything got way more extreme after the Code crumbled in 1968. The seventies were the golden age of American movies because the mainstream and the independent, the artistic and the hardcore, were able to make sweet, sweet love for a time.
Really, when you look at it, the history of American film has shown a slow but sure intertwining of what’s accepted and what isn’t. That’s why grindhouse films basically died out at the tail end of the seventies – their action and fantasy-heavy sensibilities were absorbed into the mainstream through the blockbusters. Of course, the spirit of transgressive cinema lives on occasionally, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Dante posits that the purest grindhouse film of the last fifteen years is in fact The Passion of the Christ, which made me laugh until I realized that it was totally true (then I laughed harder).
I thought that Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed moved at a breakneck pace, but this doc is the INSERT REFERENCE TO FAMOUS FAST RUNNER HERE to their INSERT REFERENCE TO FAMOUS BUT LESS-FAST RUNNER HERE. It’s even shorter than either of them, and is covering a much broader topic, to boot. So while American Grindhouse is great, doofy fun, that’s mostly on the strength of the various clips it assembles. Any educational value is pretty shallow.
I’m not even sure that this doc makes a good “Exploitation 101” course. It’s just so slight. The talking heads all feel fairly anonymous (although there’s a wonderfully awkward moment after historian Kim Morgan insists that women enjoy seeing other women in the shower), and they don’t tell you anything you can’t learn on Wikipedia. There needed to be more moments like the vintage clip of a twelve-year-old stating that “I think the only time I’ve ever been able to understand myself was when I was on an acid trip.” Stuff like that really contextualizes the times that these movies came out of (and you know I’m all about context). But American Grindhouse mostly just tells of context, rather than showing. Awesome snippets of crazy movies can only take you so far.