Bring me the Head of Quentin Tarantino: The Politics of Exploitation and the Exploitation of Politics

Curator's Note

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.


Would it be useful to see Liveleak's beheading videos as part of a longer trend? Can we historicize them as connected to such older exploitation variants as the 1980s "Faces of Death"-type docs, 1960s mondo films, 1940s "atrocity" films, and so on...all the way back to Edison's executions of elephants and prisoners? The exploitation of documentary footage of "barbaric" practices and/or real deaths is certainly nothing new, but is it the easy spreadability of such content today that makes these videos seem different? Or perhaps the shadowy origins of such videos and their propagandistic instrumentality marks them as different from the defensively claimable "entertainment" and "edification" function of earlier variants?

I like these questions. I was thinking about Mondo and FoD as well. And I think the LiveLeak material does work according to a similar logic. But that logic is pushed into a rather different service in these cases. There is an appeal to a kind of morbid curiosity. It's interesting to look at the LiveLeak feed and see the videos these videos appear next to. The thread connecting them is their ability to shock. But I wonder if it's less about the portals hosting these videos and more about their existence in the first place..? I think a desire/need to look is being exploited.

Devin, thanks for the interesting and thought provoking post. I'm curious about, and perhaps this is an obvious point, what seems to be an inversion between the two historical moments of exploitation you mention. In the first, older and traditionally cinematic, there seems to be an inherent curiosity tied to content. That is, the content seems to offer some hidden or repressed wisdom about the world that we should know (e.g., violence is gruesome, not fun and trivial, etc.). But in the second rendering there seems to be an appeal to exploitation concerning matters that we didn't want to know (e.g., what does an actual beheading look like, what does a person do when being tortured, etc.). I'm curious if this is implicit in your point, or perhaps I'm off the mark more generally. Thanks for prompting me to think about this!

I think that the inherent curiosity you speak of can pull us in weird directions, And our moral/ethical relationship to it is ambiguous at best. But across these types of exploitation, I think, arises the question of audience: how to get, keep, change or incite an audience.

Another question I think your post raises is how something might be exploited. In the post-war period you mention, it was possible to "exploit" something in a couple of months - a news story about bikers appears, a movie goes into production the next day, and appears in theaters in a month. Despite the apparent ease with which movies can be made now compared to the mid-century (at least technologically), the cycle of news/information that informs exploitation trends has increased faster than production can keep up with. I'm not sure what to say about that except, perhaps, that the theatrical version of exploitation was never the ideal marriage between subjects and the desire to exploit them.

Smart point. I think speed plays into it. But it also has something to do with production values (for lack of a better term). There's an immediacy and frankness to much of this material that would, I think, render a packaged version of it somewhat toothless.

This may be taking the topic further afield than the question of "exploitation" per se, but I can't help think that what you're all is pointing to with the qualities of Liveleak beheading videos (the speed of production/distribution, the immediacy of the unprofessional DV footage, the queasy mix of curiosity and ethical dubiousness in willingly becoming a viewer of such documents) has something to do with the rather terrifying banality of real death (much like the actual execution footage that slips past almost unnoticed during the Green Inferno segment of "Cannibal Holocaust," for example, compared to the gory-but-fictional found-footage scenes that conclude that film). Unlike the theatricalized scenes of torture/murder in your typical horror film, or even in the (largely) faked mondo-style films like "Cannibal Holocaust" or "Faces of Death," Liveleak death videos seem to reveal something truly disturbing about just how tenuous the dividing line of mortality really is. The elaborate scenes of death seen in so much genre cinema "doth protest too much," whereas the actual passage from life to death as captured on camera does not play out like a great drama of exceptional resistance than the death throes of any other animal. So as much as groups like ISIS may make beheading videos as sensationalistic propaganda and tools of terror, there is something almost mundane about the actual murders themselves that would seem at cross-purposes with what the murderers are trying to accomplish (which may even be why some ISIS videos cut away from the actual moments of death). Of course, I don't say that to diminish the value of the real human lives lost, but rather to say that perhaps some element of what makes such videos truly frightening (but also capable of inspiring curiosity) is that they admit something about the fragility of human life that the more conventional exploitation film can only ever repress through the overt theatricality of fictional violence.

"So as much as groups like ISIS may make beheading videos as sensationalistic propaganda and tools of terror, there is something almost mundane about the actual murders themselves that would seem at cross-purposes with what the murderers are trying to accomplish (which may even be why some ISIS videos cut away from the actual moments of death)." Yes. Exactly. And I think the cycle turns in on itself as well. So that, our potential exposures to actual trauma caught on video (and really, this extends well past ISIS propaganda) have rendered our attempts to exploit fictional suffering somewhat impotent. I'm interested in the fact that the direction some of us see "exploitation" moving in (LVT and Harmony Korine are brought in this conversation in really interesting ways), seems to capitalize on the exploitability of sexuality...Noe's LOVE would seem to play into this as well, with its now legendary 3d cumshot into the audience rhyming with the end of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.

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