My interest in exploitation is far-reaching, and not at all limited to a category of theatrical film. In fact, that category of film, it seems to me, has, in recent years, been relegated to some far corner of “nostalgia,” where the likes of Quentin Tarantino continue to bang out homages to a grouping of films that were products of a specific time (post WWII), a specific place (the US), and a set of economic conditions that made them a relevant, maybe even a necessary part of the cinematic landscape. “Exploitation” worked because it appealed to a burgeoning market sector whose cinematic needs and desires teetered on the edge of adulthood – or a fantasy of what “adulthood” might have meant. Sex (equated with nudity) and violence (equated with gore) were marketable commodities. And the economics of exploitation functioned, in part, because both of these elements were safely removed from the physicality and the consciousness of what we like to call “the real world.” Titillation and danger were a way for the Hollywood fringe to survive. These elements were their part of the box office pie.
How does exploitation work in our current historical moment? What is its function? It’s a complicated subject, in part, because our lives are more thoroughly mediated than ever. We are more readily exploitable than at any point in history, and our devices (and the minds behind those devices) are constantly monitoring and, more critically, shaping our habits. I’d argue that the captivating power of titillating or otherwise dangerous images, however, has been mobilized in important ways by “citizen journalists” and sites dedicated to cataloguing their produce. LiveLeak is one well-known example, and a simple scan of “recent items” suggests the degree to which their “redefinition” of media depends upon the clickability of a suggestive image or description. And, while this fare is far-removed from Hollywood or its satellites, something like “genres” seem to take shape across this and similar platforms. One such genre is the “beheading video.” Shot from phones and promising a dangerous degree of physical as well psychic realism, it seems to me that these videographed acts repel and draw simultaneously. And they accomplish something seemingly impossible in their ability to provoke response from viewers and non-viewers alike. Their very existence exploits. And the stakes are much higher than box-office take.