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August 21, 2018

The Style of Sleaze - The American Exploitation Film, 1959-1977

style of sleaze  book cover.jpg

Calum Waddell - 2018
Edinburgh University Press

What do I know about sleaze? Way back in the Spring of 1973, I was associated with what was then known as the Northwest Film Study Center in Portland, Oregon. A few days before it opened, I was invited to a private, daytime screening of Deep Throat. I found out later that day that most of the audience was made up of lawyers, and my own invitation was as a potential "expert witness" regarding the cinematic value should the exhibition of Deep Throat be closed due to charges of obscenity. This was my first encounter with hardcore pornography in any format. The film's premise was silly, the humor juvenile at best, and the spectacle of Linda Lovelace's talent was of mild interest. I felt ambivalent about the value of Deep Throat. This was well before I was aware of certain aspects regarding the making of the film and the treatment of the star performer. But the point here is that there was something called "porno chic" back in the mid-1970s, and sleaze, then as now, is arguably in the eye of the beholder.

A little more than twenty years later, I came across the book, The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking by John McCarty. Had I known that in the future, I would be reading and writing about Calum Waddell's book, I would have held on to my copy of McCarty's book. I bring this up because the two books share key words that are virtually guaranteed to make someone take a look at the cover, and maybe take a peak inside. Some of the same filmmakers are discussed, though in differing degrees. What I remember best about McCarty's book is the dismissive attitude taken towards Jesus Franco, primarily for his apparent lack of taste and questionable craftsmanship. This was before I was able to see Franco films for myself, available on DVD, and see that in his own way Franco could make make films that fit the conventional norms of conventional filmmaking but chose to work in lower budgets that allowed him the freedom to be transgressive and ignore traditional narrative structures. The overall effect of McCarty's book was that the films in question might be fun to watch, but the viewer is superior to the filmmakers with their preposterous plots, threadbare budgets, and questionable talent.

Calum Waddell has gone out of his way to make sure that his definition of what constitutes the exploitation film is so rigid, so bloodless, so strict, that if it were a horror movie, it would be a mummy, and not the kind that comes back to life. The films cited have rough, almost newsreel style visuals, unknown actors, and set new standards in presenting on screen something at best only hinted at in Hollywood films, making explicit sex and violence. It seems less than coincidental that several of the films discussed - The Devil in Miss Jones, Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song are equally humorless. Basically, this is a book about exploitation films for people who consider themselves too intellectual to see any of the films mentioned for their own sake, but only out of duty for the sake of film scholarship.

There are a couple of points of interest. Certainly having the end date of 1977 makes sense as it was around that time that the consumption of hardcore movies moved from the theater to home video formats. At about the same time, the bottom fell out on low budget genre films, shoved out of multiplexes to become straight to video productions. Waddell notes the similarity in the posters for Russ Meyer's Lorna and Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt with emphasis on the cleavage of respective stars Lorna Maitland and Brigitte Bardot on the films' posters. What Waddell does not mention is that the box office for European films declined after the introduction of the now current production code as Hollywood could now show as much nudity as was seen in films by Ingmar Bergman and Louis Malle. Waddell also discusses how the allegorical aspects to Night of the Living Dead were embraced by George Romero well after the initial release of the film.

While Waddell stresses how some of the actors in exploitation films may not have fit Hollywood's conventional standard of attractiveness, he's ignoring that in the late Sixties such standards were challenged with the stardom of the more obviously ethnic Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, among others. Waddell seems unnecessarily cruel in describing former Broadway dancer Georgina Spelvin, who at the late ago of 37 became a porn star with The Devil in Miss Jones, as "middle-aged". A statement that black actresses prior to Pam Grier were not allowed to sell movies might come as news to Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge.

For myself, if exploitation films are to be the subject of serious investigation, the best balance is found in Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' Immoral Tale:: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984. The films and filmmakers are placed in cultural contexts regarding the art and politics at the time of production. At the same time, the authors always make the reader feel that watching these films, no matter that some may find them disreputable, is fun.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 21, 2018 10:00 AM