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.
The content of exploitation
Hi Gordon, great post, thanks for starting things off this week. I'm curious if we could mobilize your rendering of a mode here to address films that don't traffic in sex or violence? It seems to me that the opportunity to engage sensations and experiences of sex and violence might be so abundant that they don't stir much of a sensation at all. I'm curious if sex and violence are vital to thinking about exploitation as mode, or if perhaps today's media landscape has redirected the idea of exploitation to other sensations like boredom, mania, or even something like FOMO?
I agree that thinking of
I agree that thinking of exploitation cinema as more of a mode than a genre is very useful, in that a "mode" (following David Bordwell) would encompass distinct means of production, distribution, and exhibition. Schaefer's focus on "classical" exploitation cinema of the Production Code era is obviously a marked example of distinct production and exhibition practices (e.g., adults-only, gender-segregated screenings with book pitches, displays, etc.)--but the idea of a "mode" encompassing the broader category of post-classical exploitation cinema also helps us think of how distributors and exhibitors might have had a larger role in framing a given film as "exploitation" than producers themselves, such as through misleadingly sensationalized advertising. Schaefer points to this with the example of Bergman's "Summer with Monika," for example, but Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" would also seem to be a throwback to the art/exploitation nexus (wherein the label "art" serves as legitimizing cover for provocation) that would become so big in the 1960s. I've also liked thinking of "exploitation" as a discursive construction in the same way that James Naremore talks about how "film noir" can be variously seen as a genre, a mode, a style, a historical period, a sensibility, etc.
Exploitation as Mode and Reception
I think your concept of exploitation as mode is quite generative, especially considering the limitation of genre and the frequency to which the concept of the "exploitation genre" is often linked uncritically back to Schaefer's classical period regardless of the production circumstances, time period, etc. of the film. I wonder if the concept of mode can also be connected back to audience reception, broadening it past the text of the film itself and connecting it to the film's cultural life. I am thinking of a film like MOMMY DEAREST, whose production was not specifically intended in the exploitation mode, but whose reception--through audience reactions during early test screenings and upon release--constructed it retroactively in the exploitation (or perhaps in the exploitation camp) mode. Can the concept of exploitation as mode offer us a more flexible designation for considering both the industrial as well as cultural constructions of the exploitation label?
I really like the fact that
I really like the fact that the accompanying video is a trailer, as trailers (it seems to me) are especially adept at exploitation.
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