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Lights! Camera! Trash!

By Leonard Gill

NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 by Eric Schaefer (Duke University Press), 458 pp., $21.95 (paper)

To read Eric Schaefer (Assistant Professor, Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College, Boston) tell it, it happened in 1970. "It" being his introduction, by, first, his mother, and then, his science teacher, a Mrs. Clark, to, respectively, "the nereal disease" and Drug Addiction, "an ancient black-and-white film [from 1951] that featured a fairly graphic scene in which a kid, high on marijuana, drinks from a broken soda bottle, slicing his lips and creating a gory mess."

The motherly lesson on VD was delivered, we're told, after the author, at the tender age of "ten or eleven," overheard a radio broadcast on the subject and while this same author was busy baking a batch of cookies. Mother is open, understanding, and blessedly brief on the subject of running sores.

Mrs. Clark, on the other hand, is, in a word, "horrified" by what she's projecting before young Schaefer's eyes. But she's useful too, when usefulness bears the stamp "Untapped Topic" and the geography is an already crowded grove of academe. The film she brought before the impressionable author -- before, that is, she cut the projector -- is the stuff, the ultra-substandard stuff, of awfulness known, in the history of America's 40-years-running, anti-film industry, as "the exploitation movie." Proof positive of Mrs. Clark's right reaction? Drug Addiction is irredeemably, beyond argument stupid -- so stupid it successfully makes the exhaustive list in Schaefer's 500-plus Filmography (30-plus pages) of some of the worst footage ever committed to acetate in "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Next stop, if the destination isn't, in the case of this author, already reached: tenure and on the strength of a non-subject that has no business capturing our least attention.

And why should it, especially now that Schaefer's done a thorough inspection for us? "It" being, again in a word, third-class (behind A and B films) junk. But junk with academically minded catchwords and catchphrases to go along with it to lend a moment's cache: words and phrases like "the Other" (meaning: disease carriers, drug addicts, prostitutes, white-slave traders, nudists, homosexuals, strippers, pregnant women(!), C-sectionists, communists, Siamese twins, urban minorities, miscegenationists, "natives," the "foreign-born," the lunatic, anything, that is, outside the WASP, middle-class view of Twenties-through-Fifties America); "the ideology of productivity"; "pedagogic appeal"; "narrative rupture"; "signifiers"; "extrafilmic" publicity stunts; "mobilized spectacle"; "the performative aspects of gender"; and, a shocker to beat all shockers, "the transgressive potential of the striptease."

Mrs. Clark wouldn't stand for a bit of it, and a bit of it -- from the Sex-Hygiene Film (e.g., The Road to Ruin, 1928), to the Drug Film (Reefer Madness, 1936), to the Vice, Exotic, and Atrocity Film (Ingagi, 1930, a/k/a Love Life of a Gorilla), to the Nudist and Burlesque Film (Teasearama, 1955) -- is frankly too much. But to his credit Schaefer knows it. For every quote from the likes of literary scholar and theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin and his notion of "antigrammaticality," we get, in the case of a movie such as Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934; retitled Sex Maniac for maximum marketability), exactly what's called for: a synopsis so crazy you might almost wish for the unhealthy pleasure of viewing it just once.

To his added credit, Schaefer doesn't mince words when his subject is the shoddy mechanics of it all -- films in which continuity is "assaulted violently"; dialogue is delivered "with all the finesse of a drunk on a three-day bender"; cameras grind "interminably"; and budgets top out at $65,000 for that blockbuster from the mid-'40s Mom and Dad, an apparent milestone next to other films, which, the author writes, "are almost incoherent, appearing to have been thrown together by a roomful of chimps left alone with a splicing block and a gallon of cement."

And yet it was stuff like Mom and Dad that drew in the crowds (lots of them), distanced the studio heads (who worried Hollywood wasn't being taken seriously), and gainfully employed a handful of staffers at the Production Code and the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. (It was the latter's Condemned or "C" rating, meaning morally objectionable for all, which virtually guaranteed a shoe-in at the box office.)

And where do we stand in the shadow of such neglected film history? Right in it, according to Schaefer, if you happen to own a television or a VCR. In place of Mom and Dad, though, it's trash talk-shows, real-life cop programs, and video series such as Faces of Death that aren't at a theatre near you, and they're no longer Adults Only. Consider, then, the mission of exploitation films accomplished -- and the ghost of Mrs. Clark horrified.

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