Exploitation as a Mode

Curator's Note

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.


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?

You raise an interesting question, Adam - perhaps generalizable as what, exactly, is being exploited in an exploitation movie. Must it be sex and violence? Historically, I think the answer is no, and there's no reason that the other sensations you mention couldn't be the basis for an exploitation of the future. If an exploitation film doesn't stir any sensations - if sex and violence have become passe - I still think there's something to to appeal to those sensations whether or not they land. Pornography is pornography even if I'm not aroused by it. But perhaps this makes for an historicizing opportunity, where we can examine and understand a given era's exploitation as measured by what it deems worth sensationalizing. Unfriended - which I think sensationalizes our mediated encounters through Skype, etc - might be a more of-the-moment example of exploitation than even Von Trier's work because Unfriended can mobilize some of those affects on the side of viewers in a way that Von Trier probably doesn't provoke his audience the same way he did almost two decades ago with The Idiots.

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.

And another notable difference is that "film noir" was, of course, a retrospective critical construction, whereas "exploitation" was a label applied to such films during their own time period--all of which doesn't make "exploitation" any less difficult to pin down, but merely says that it was at least operating as a generic label for some players in the whole genre-naming game.

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?

That's a really good question - and I would like to think the answer is "I hope so." Given the way that exploitation film-going seems to often be a greater motivation than any particular genre, the notion of a mode could give us more flexibility in thinking about how and why audiences went to see (and understood that they were seeing) an 'exploitation' film, and as you point out, it needn't match up with industrial and/or textual perceptions either. This is, arguably, the most "liberating" concept that Tarantino, et al derive from the grindhouse. Not that they showed movies that you couldn't see elsewhere, but that you had the potential to see a mainstream Hollywood film on the same bill as a kung-fu double feature. I'd like to think that "mode" could capture some of the flavor of that overlap in a way that's productive.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.