Art Cinema's Exploitation

Curator's Note

Film’s relationship to exploitation is most often associated with American Grindhouse cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. These exploitation films are most known for their graphic and explicit depictions of sex, violence, and romance. But there is an alternative history concerning exploitation in the annals of cinema that understands this issue alongside capitalism. From Modern Times (1936) to Wall Street (1987), film has historically been understood as a medium equipped with the speed to keep up with the machinations of capitalism. Whether we understand this relation as a circulation within capitalism, or an attempt to expose it, cinema has a long history with economic exploitation.

Since the financial disaster of 2008 there has been renewed interest in films that depict exploitation as a specifically financial issue. Critically acclaimed documentaries like Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) and Inside Job (2010) along with fictional films like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), HBO’s adaptation of Too Big to Fail (2011), and more recently 99 Homes (2014) are but a handful of the growing number of features that both represent and traffic in the exploitation of today’s financial turbulence. That is, these films treat the precariousness and violence of financial capitalism as both its explicit content, as well as an issue to exploit in its own right. What is often left out of this discussion is how art cinema thinks about exploitation quite differently.

Art and exploitation cinema are often described to have parallel interests. For both of these film forms their explicit representations of sex and violence, as well as their rejection of Hollywood aesthetics helps to define them against commercial cinema. But what is frequently missed is not how these cinemas have worked alongside one another throughout film’s history, but instead how art cinema aesthetics actually create exploitation as a heuristic device. In recent years, art cinema has become nearly synonymous with a particular form of film style most often called “slow cinema” or “contemplative cinema,” where a return to long takes, static cameras, and fleeting narrative clarity dominate. For art cinema, exploitation is not found between content and current events, but between content and style.

Take for instance Pedro Costa’s Ossos (1997), a film about the entangled lives of three Portuguese youths dangling on the edge of society. The film follows their daily lives, working as custodians cleaning middle class homes, taking the city bus, asking for money from strangers, and, most dramatically, trying to sell their newborn child for cash. Costa’s cinematic cadence is measured in pace, employing static long takes for the entire film excluding one tracking shot at a pinnacle moment. Explicitly the exploitation of this film is directed at the precarious youth, their struggles and the brutality they encounter along the way. But, equally, Costa exploits the spectator, demanding gross amounts of time and attention, often inducing a state of boredom, so that the action missing onscreen is found offscreen in the labor of reception. Art cinema’s exploitation, then, is related to but also importantly unique in how it attempts to document contemporary issues of capitalism in a specifically cinematic mode, not simply in what is shows but how it communicates the idea of exploitation by rendering it experientially in the spectator.


Great stuff, Adam - I especially love your point about the "labor of reception," which adds a necessary corrective to other discussion of exploitation (including mine!) that focus on purely textual matters. As I was reading your post, I didn't imagine it was going to end with Costa, but rather a discussion of the New French Extremism or similar "art house" products that seem to "exploit" both a national cinema framework while also appealing to the kinds of sex/violence previously relegated to the grindhouse instead of the arthouse. Which makes me think that the "labor of reception" might be critical to those more explicitly "violent" film.

Although there are a few historical precursors that I love for various reasons (such as 'Jeanne Dielman'), I can't help but find the recent (and, in my opinion, regrettably navel-gazing) vogue for "slow cinema" to be exploitative in another, more troubling sense. Sure, these films may "exploit" the viewer by making reception itself a more laborious process (which would fit well with various arguments about flexible labor's colonization of leisure in the neoliberal era), but their celebration by predominantly first-world, bourgeois cinephiles strikes me as quite disingenuous. That is, these dour, feel-bad films about the effects of global capitalism may actually assuage the liberal-bourgeois guilt of first-world viewers by making them feel that watching such narratives is somehow akin to doing something about the socioeconomic inequalities located "over there" (wherever "over there" may be). The "labor of reception" practiced by those with access to the international festival circuit (the typical home for such films) hardly compares with the day-to-day survival of the impoverished people in these films--people whose own moviegoing experiences, it probably stands to reason, would be far more likely to incline toward the more populist thrills of a typical sex/violence/action-style exploitation film than a formally elitist stripe of contemporary art cinema.

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