The problem of defining the contemporary exploitation film is the problem of Goldilocks. Though there is tremendous value in Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films 1919-1959, it’s clear that his discussion of exploitation in that context is too narrow to apply to contemporary exploitation films. And yet the term “exploitation” has persisted long after the “classical” period of Schaefer’s concern. In contrast, it’s equally clear that more colloquial definitions are too broad. To paraphrase D.N. Rodowick, every commercial film is exploiting someone. Even more concrete attempts at a definition that refer to “exploitable elements” or as “those films people go to see regardless of their quality” could just as easily refer to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe property as they would to a canonical (if that’s the right word) exploitation film like Reefer Madness (Louis Gassner, 1936).
My hope is that we can find the Goldilocks’ position by reorienting our thinking to consider exploitation as a mode of cinema. The first benefit of this approach is that it relieves us of the burden of genre – neo-Grindhouse may be of interest, but it needn’t define the bounds of exploitation. As Peter Brooks puts it, a mode is a “certain fictional system for making sense of experience.” Combining this insight with Schaefer’s foundational work on the origins of exploitation, I want to argue that exploitation is a mode of cinema that is concerned with the intersection of the “brand” of a creator, “sensational” subject matter – and sensational precisely as it relates to the senses, to the aesthetic, and patterns of distribution outside the 2000+ theater release strategy of mainstream Hollywood.
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) – the story of a woman’s life told largely through her sexual obsessions – is therefore an exemplary contemporary exploitation film. As a Von Trier film it draws viewers through his well-known propensity for provocation. The film’s subject matter is sensational insofar as it offers visual images of unsimulated sex (with the marquee-actors faces superimposed digitally over stunt bodies). Finally, the film circulated (initially in two parts) at festivals and art-house theaters during its release.
Though thinking about exploitation as a mode of cinema hardly solves all the problems of definition, it does offer a useful heuristic for thinking contemporary exploitation films alongside their classical counterparts without losing the specificity of either.