Vulgar views in sterile ideas

Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!
June 30, 2000

Motion pictures cannot help but speak for their times. There is something about photographing stories acted out in pre-arranged places that betrays an era. It is not surprising that the study of cinema has long had a sociological bent; and, accordingly, that bad films are widely seen to be as worthy of attention as good ones.

Eric Schaefer acknowledges the comedy of this situation ("Maybe I am just crazy...") in his introduction to this study of early American "exploitation" movies. Maybe he is right. This feels like a postgraduate thesis blown up to book length. Extensively footnoted, with three appendices and a 14-page bibliography, it begs the question of what really constitutes "research" in the field of film studies.

His subject is familiar. Between 1919 and 1959, various hucksters sought to make a buck on the fringes of the film business, and found a niche by operating outside Hollywood's self-regulating production code, which sought to ensure "respectable" entertainment for the aspirant middle class.

The films they cranked out were fast, cheap and inept. In the absence of "production values", they offered forbidden fruit, inspired by the "sex hygiene" genre that sprung up with America's entry into the first world war. These anti-venereal pictures were toe-curlingly explicit; and when ambitious producers spurned them for more tasteful fare, the exploiters grasped the nettle.

The films were either toured about or franchised from state to state. Like snake-oil salesmen, the hucksters had to keep an eye on local law enforcement and public morals, but ticket-buyers still lined up.

Schaefer reads exploitation as a "cinema of attractions", sensationally exhibitionist rather than narrative driven. The ideal "exploiter-pic" might concern an innocent virgin, seduced into the striptease game, then murdered. A dose of tabloid-style hypocrisy would be injected: "timeliness or expose", "veracity", "pedagogic appeal".

All good sport, but what Schaefer proposes here is nothing less than "a history of American attitudes about pleasure and desire". Respectable critical terms are summoned ("disassembling the canon") and influential thinkers are invoked, often indigestibly.

We get a lot of the vulgar Marxist analysis and male-feminist solicitude that dogs American film scholarship. Thus Schaefer: "Far from expressing a radical social agenda, sex hygiene films offered a fundamentally conservative prescription for American life." This prescription included "the primacy of heterogenital (sic) desire, male dominance, and the concomitant low status of women". Later, he contends that "exotic" travelogue pictures pandered to the notion that dark-skinned people behave like beasts, and should be treated as such.

Schaefer's concern is doubtless genuine. But then what did he expect from such rubbish? And how seriously does he suppose the horny ticket buyers took it? Oral testimony from movie-goers does not seem to be the stuff of scholarly books, but it might be more compelling than Schaefer's ideas about the "transgressive possibilities" of "gender sabotage" in striptease.

It has been a tough century for US film-makers with "radical social agendas". They have not made enough movies to occupy liberal film historians. So academe is stuck sifting a second-rate product, scolding it for ideological idiocy while looking for traces of "progressiveness". At least Schaefer's readers can savour the pithy contributions of producer David F. ( Blood Feast ) Friedman, who provides a cover endorsement that is affectionate to the author's industry, but maybe a little wry ("Nothing more need ever be told about this subject").

Richard Kelly is the author of Alan Clarke .

Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films

Author - Eric Schaefer
ISBN - 0 8223 2353 2 and 2374 5
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 474

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