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January 16, 2004

Exploitation Movies

Dear Friedrich --

For some reason I'm feeling moved to make an obvious point. I'm hoping it's one of those so-obvious-it-gets-overlooked points that needs occasional restating, but I may be wrong. Nonetheless ...

The subject of my point is "exploitation movies." Movie history 101: there used to be something called "the exploitation movie." What distinguished exploitation movies from the usual fare was that exploitation movies were made (often by indie hustlers) with a carny's shrewd nose for a fast buck. What this usually meant was that the movie's angle (its "hook") and its marketing campaign were paramount; they were, in fact, often come up with first, with the movie itself being made as an afterthought.

Here's the definition of "exploitation films" from Ephraim Katz's beyond-first-class Film Encyclopedia (buyable here):

Films made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product.

Whatever the virtues of some of these movies (and some did have virtues), there's been a huge shift in the culture. These days, many if not most mainstream movies are conceived of in the "exploitation movie" way. It's become such a commonplace way of going about things that it can seem almost inconceivable that "smart" people ever behaved otherwise. But they did.

A few ramblings:

  • This reminds me of pop music. Not so many decades ago, pop music (not as in "popular music" but as in "music for teens") was an irreverent alternative to adult music, which was the dominant, mainstream thing. These days, pop music is just about all-devouring.
  • In a world where exploitation and pop are the mainstream, what becomes of adult fare?
  • Doesn't it seem that the old hustling-carny zing is absent from nearly all of the new, conglomerate-driven, exploitation-style movies? (The one exception I can come up with offhand is "The Fast and the Furious," which I loved. But there must be others, no?) They seem to me too respectable, and probably too expensive. You can sense the respectable mainstream committee meetings behind them, and you can feel the respectable mainstream careers hanging in the balance. Anxiety of that straightfaced kind doesn't often seem to result in the kind of cheap thrills and tawdry pleasures that old-style exploitation movies sometimes delivered.
  • In a world where exploitation fare has become the mainstream, what becomes of youthful eroticism and irreverence? After all, the mainstream itself now consists of a churning mass of shrewdly-calculated appeals to youthful lustiness and irreverence. So where does the real youthful energy go? (My own suspicion? That it's turned into exhaustion and impotence, which together have become the new taboo: "I just don't feel like taking part." What could be more verboten than admitting that you just don't feel dynamic today, thank you very much? More on that hunch in some other posting, or so I hope.)

A cultureworld gone topsy-turvy-mad, in other words. At least from this adult's point of view.

I suspect that there are many, many useful reflections to be wrung out of this exploitation movie thing, but that's the best I can do today. Got any to add?



posted by Michael at January 16, 2004


I have unconventional musical tastes. I'm probably one of a few people who like classical, country, and 1970's soul at the same time. I will point out that three of the best 70's soul songs were from the sound-track of exploitation films. Arguably, Shaft and Superfly fit the definition of exploitation movies, but Issac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" and Curtis Mayfield's "Pusher" and "Freddie's Dead" are excellent soul songs. The music from these movies has outlived the movies themselves.

Why did exploitation films produce some excellent music? I don't really know whether its because my musical tastes are wierd - its been suggested before, even in the comments section of this blog - or just an example of survivorship bias - only three great songs ever came out of 70's exploitation films. It could be because these films were produced outside of the mainstream, they gave an outlet to music that normally wouldn't have been produced, to talent that had been passed over by the large record labels.

I guess a good deal of the ideas in Issac Hayes' and Curtis Mayfield's music has been appropriated by rappers today, either thematically ("Pusher" is about a drug dealer: "gangsta" rap without graphic allusions to violence or the f word) or literally through sampling of hooks or baselines. I'm amazed how many classic soul songs I recognize in nearly intact form in much of today's rap music. As an example, see Note how much of the sampled music is considered kitsch - disco acts, funk, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass...

Will people remember today's exploitation/pop music and sample it in the future? For most of the music produced today, I seriously doubt it. The pop music produced today is already derivative. It relies on samples of soul, funk, ect. produced in the 1970's. Much of today's work draws on the creative capital created in the past. A few of the samplers do add something new. I'd say that Fatboy Slim, Moby, Beck, the Beastie Boys have made creative use of sampling. Done well, it is like an appropriate allusion in literature. Poorly done, it recycles the original music and adds little of value. An example of this is Will Smith's "Miami". He recycles all the music of the Whisper's song "And the Beat Goes On", and just changes some of the lyrics.

Only what is more original today will be remembered in the future. If I had to wager on it, I'd say that someone producing innovative electronic music might have a chance. I usually dislike the typical example of the genre - some repetitive bass with a frigid sounding synthesizer chiming away atop it. Low complexity and low temperature. I won't, however, rule out the possibility that something better is possible.

Posted by: cks on January 16, 2004 03:16 PM

Granted a tiny percentage of exceptions, I'm not sure I can tell the difference between "exploitation films" and "films in general."

It reminds me of a true story. 100 years ago or so a scholar wrote what may remain the definitive study of piracy. He remarked in the preface: "I set out to write an encyclopedic account of piracy, and found that I came dangerously close to writing an encyclopedic history of seafaring."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 16, 2004 05:58 PM

I'm glad to learn the correct definition of "exploitation film." For some reason I had always thought it referred to exploiting women or minorities in some way, like Alyssa Milano in "Embrace of the Vampire" or William Marshall in "Blacula." The term "Exploitation Movie" also makes it sound like anyone who watches them is guilty somehow, like, if we didn't watch these movies, then these actors and actresses wouldn't be exploited like this. I'd always assumed it had been coined by an anti-porn feminist.

The correct definition does seem to cover 90% of today's films, at least. Still, I kind of liked the guilty thrill that arose from my misconception.


Posted by: Nate on January 16, 2004 06:54 PM

"Were does the real youth energy go?"

That's an easy one Michael--it goes "retro".


Posted by: David Fiore on January 17, 2004 06:58 PM

"It could be because these films were produced outside of the mainstream, they gave an outlet to music that normally wouldn't have been produced, to talent that had been passed over by the large record labels."

(blink) Are you serious? Did you ever hear of "Hot Buttered Soul"?

Are you aware that, with The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield charted eighteen singles in the run of his contract with ABC Records up to 1968? He was invited to score "Superfly" because he was a star.

It is absurd to believe that these peoples' music was not going to be produced before they worked on films.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 23, 2004 12:49 AM

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