Exploitation Film: A Necessary Bridge in Hollywood’s Evolution

Paper by Audrey Lapointe

On December 28, 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumière held the first commercial screening of a motion picture in a café in Paris (“1895: First Commercial Movie Screened”). From those humble beginnings, the film industry, which has since sparked enthusiasm and delight in audiences worldwide, was born. In the U.S., the Edison Corporation’s 1903 12-minute short, The Great Train Robbery, ignited a public interest that has spawned the lucrative U.S. film industry that we have today. The heyday of the Hollywood system flourished in the 1930s and early 1940s, when studios became minor empires that shaped not only their own fortunes, but also those of the local economy. Studios employed thousands of local people for all aspects of their needs, from film production to grounds maintenance. As noted by Editor/Director Robert Parrish, “Everything in the town was connected to with the movie business” (qtd. in “American Cinema: Studio System”). The true magnitude of the classic Hollywood empire, however, was seen in its marketing techniques. Attracting audiences through road-showing – creating “a sense of the film as a ‘special event’ in order to attract advance renal fees from exhibitors” (Williams and Hammond 3) and buying up blocks of theatre space, Hollywood ensured its own success. The five successful studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner, 20th-cenutry Fox, RKO) became integrated into what is commonly called the Big 5; operating within this oligarchy, the studios churned out formulaic, mainstream content that had wide appeal.

However, two landmark rulings aimed at controlling film content and directly affected film production. The Production Code of 1930/1934 was a long list of film content regulations that severely limited the studios autonomy regarding subject matter and how that subject matter was to be portrayed. According to Williams and Hammond, film scripts had to be submitted to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval and, for the most part, “centered on the depiction of sexual relationships” (6). The 1948 Paramount Decision, which dissolved the studios’ monopoly hold on theatre bookings, further limited the previous marketing oligarchy of the Big 5. However, the Supreme Court’s 1952 so-called Miracle Decision, a case brought forth by the Catholic Church against the film Il Miracolo, which the Church deemed sacrilegious, ruled that a film could not be banned based solely on a censor’s subjective interpretation that the film was sacrilegious. As a result of these decisions (the Production Code and the Miracle Decision) the market opened up to independent filmmakers, both economically and in regard to creative content, and the decline of the old Hollywood system began. It is within this changing industry atmosphere that the exploitation film appeared. This paper will argue that exploitation cinema was a necessary evolutionary step between the constraints of old Hollywood Cinema and the relative autonomy of the current film era. Using Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) as an example film, this paper will discuss the development and phenomenon of the exploitation film genre and its importance in the film industry.
The familiarity of old Hollywood cinema was a part of its appeal to audiences in the early 19th century. As film Professor Michael Goldberg from Washington University points out, the classical Hollywood formula provided a standard narrative that audiences had grown accustomed to and expected:
In Classical Hollywood Cinema, narrative follows… linear chains of cause and effect, main point and secondary points. The narrative is clearly structured with discernable beginning middle and end. The narrative generally provides comprehensive resolution at the end. The characters goals are usually psychologically rather than socially motivated. (n.p.)

These predictable narrative formulas were further restricted by the limited editing capabilities of the early 20th century studios, the common form of which was continuity editing, described by Goldberg as “shot/reverse shot or…eyeline match” and a lack of “jump cuts,” all of which created “a unified whole to match our perception of time and space in reality” (Goldberg, n.p.). This led to what Bordwell describes as “ ‘an excessively obvious cinema’ ” (qtd. in Goldberg, n.d.) that Goldberg notes resulted in “a set of norms, paradigms, and standards that match and gratify [viewers] expectations” (Goldberg, n.d.). Additionally, the “Big 5” studios used a distribution system that ensured audience reception: typically, a big-budget film would be advertised widely, then road-showed in just a few select city theatres for a designated period of time, making it necessary for audiences to flock to urban theatres within the timeframes set up by the studios and to pay whatever inflated ticket prices the studios desired. By remaining within the highly standardized narrative formula and by using road-show distribution methods, the studio oligarchy created and maintained a mainstream audience that supported the industry in the early 1900s.

By the 1950s, however, major Hollywood filmmaking was in a production dearth. Initially hampered by the Production Code and the Supreme Court’s 1948 Paramount decision, the five major studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner, 20th-cenutry Fox, RKO) were further hindered by the development of television and a shift in the viewing preferences of film-going audiences, who had the option of viewing other forms of entertainment on television, in the comfort of their own living rooms. Adding to this shift in viewing habits from mainly theatre- going to at-home television viewing was the development of the drive-in. According to Williamson and Hammond, however, family drive-in attendance quickly waned by the “mid to late 1960s,” replaced by an enthusiastic youth audience that was drawn to the “relative freedom” and “passion pits” reputation of the dive-ins (8). At the fore of this youth-driven venue were Roger Corman and the American International Pictures (AIP) film company. There is no question that Corman is recognized as one of the seminal directors in exploitation cinema; as D. B. Jones observes in Film Criticism, “One could make a case, without facetious intent, that the most influential person in American cinema…has been Roger Corman. First, there is the sheer number of films that he directed or produced. Then there are the many important actors, writer, producers, and directors whose careers got on early boost from a Corman film” (27). By using fairly unknown talent, producing on a low budget, and tapping into the youth market exclusively, AIP and Corman were able to exploit a lucrative niche market that would become the foundation of exploitation cinema as a genre. No longer restricted by old Hollywood censorship, AIP and Corman were free to push the boundaries of viewers’ tolerance. As Williams and Hammond note, the AIP films had “sensationalist and often proactive titles such as Runaway Girls (1956), Premature Burial (1962) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)” (8), titles that drew the youth market, which was exceptionally thirsty for films that broke away from conventional storylines and thrived on films that explored sexuality and horror in new ways.

During this time, American was in the midst of great social and political upheaval. Issues over racial equality fueled an often violent and deadly Civil Rights movement, and passionate opinions over the Viet Nam conflict spawned an anti-war movement that resulted in open hostility between the U.S. government and American youth. These enormous problems were largely ignored by a tradition Hollywood that had no idea how to deal with them. Williams and Hammond comment: “Hollywood cinema [was] generally resistant to the massive social and political changes of the day, only acknowledging them reluctantly and indirectly, or opportunistically and with a strong dose of cynicism” (12). This left the treatment of current events – and their interpretation – wide open for exploitation cinema. As well, the youth audience held unparalleled marketing potential – a part of the baby boomer generation, they comprised the largest segment of the movie-going audience in the U.S. at this time; thus, they were a profitable target for exploitation filmmakers. Continuing to cater to this audience, the AIP/Corman partnership began to craft films that reflected the foment of the era and which “combined mild titillation with politics in motorcycle films such as The Wild Angels (1966)” (8), which reflected the fatalism and emptiness that pervaded much of the youth culture during the 1960s.

Perhaps the most significant exploitation film of this era was Easy Rider. Following just three years after The Wild Angels, Easy Rider presents a clear, unmistakable picture of counter- culture as well as the myth of freedom, given in the symbol of the open road. Murphy and Harder note that Easy Rider was one of the “most successful films of [its] kind ever made,” not just because of its box office success, but because of its “creation of several distinctly counterculture sensibilities” – as they note, film has the capacity for “exploring societal myths in all their complexity and contradiction,” and this was something that the youth of the 1960s desperately sought.

Easy Rider appealed to its niche audience in several important ways. First, the film bypassed endless dialogue (something attractive to the younger generation which, tired of the standard socio-political rhetoric of the day, preferred action over empty talk), and focused, instead, on experience, allowing the audience to join in, vicariously, with the characters. This is most evident in the acid-trip scene, where director Dennis Hopper employed 35mm fisheye lens, “to suggest the disorientation of LSD” (Williams and Hammond 25). Second, and perhaps too obviously, the film portrays the division of cultures (establishment and anti-establishment) in a black-and-white, straightforward manner; however blatant this is, it does establish the socio- political boundaries that exemplified the real-life situation happening in American during that era. A prime example in the film is in the restaurant scene, when the rednecks heckle Wyatt and company. This scene is significant in representing the pacifist reaction of Wyatt, who encourages his friends to leave quietly, rather than fight (pacifism being a major tenet of the real-life anti- war and hippie movements). Third, because Easy Rider is a road film, it alternates between the outward journey set in the physical landscape and the inner journey of discovery. Michael Hammond discusses some attributes of the road film that apply to Easy Rider, stating that road films “[depict] in some way protagonists on the margins of society who set out on the road” and develop into “the ‘buddy’ road film” which shows “resolution” in “the incapacity of one or both characters, or death” (Hammond 15-16). There is a suddenness and violence to the death scenes, and the post-mortem scenes are blunt, as well. George’s death is followed by Billy’s theft and his quick decision to let the body lay where it is; there is no heavy mourning scene; George’s death becomes just a casualty of the open road. One could say that Billy and Wyatt are causalities of the open road, too; however, their deaths symbolizes both the futility of going against established culture and the sacrifice that comes with living for one’s own freedom. Their deaths encapsulate the duality within the 1960s American culture, which upheld the ideal of freedom, while not always comprehending (or turning a blind eye to) its true costs.

Easy Rider became a landmark film not only for its cultural significance, but because of its financial success. As noted by Lewis, Easy Rider’s success led other studios, such as Universal, “to produce low-budget films by unknown directors” (270), thus making it more possible for directors to exploit other niche audiences. This era saw a large number of blaxploitation films comprised of black actors and created by black producers and directors.

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and Super Fly (1972) were among the first such films. Motivated partly because of the situation in 1960s Hollywood, when the question of civil rights brought to light the unequal proportion of blacks employed in filmmaking, Hollywood opened its doors to a wave of black directors and filmmakers. (Although, as Williams and Hammond point out, the “market potential” was at least as important a factor in Hollywood’s welcoming of black filmmakers (185).) Produced for urban black niche audience, blaxploitation films were “[d]esigned to upset white audience: militancy, sex, anti-white sentiment, revenge [and] violence” were common themes” (Maestu). This particular exploitation sub-genre developed and found great success in the urban black niche audiences. Unfortunately, blaxploitation films eventually became of great concern because of their negative portrayal of the black community. Williams and Hammond state that they “provoked controversy in the black community about their potentially harmful effect on the self- image and behavior of black youth” (192):
[T]he distance between black creative personnel projecting images that freely satirized and sent up ghetto life for a black audience…and white-devised stereo-typical portrayals of blacks…was very considerable. The sudden demise of black-oriented filmmaking after 1974 crystallized the sense of disempowerment and resentment for many black personnel. (191)

So, as important as these films were to the black niche audiences, they actually widened the racial gap between blacks and whites: “blaxploitation symbolized the abrupt and ignoble end of the integrationist dream of Civil Rights and the attendant portrayals of Sidney Poitier” (192), while other sub-genres of exploitation cinema continued to expand the reach of filmmakers to other specific audiences. For example, Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) pioneered an onslaught of later horror films that included, in the early years of this exploitation genre, Rosemary’s Baby, (1968) then The Exorcist (1937), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) and Carrie (de Palma, 1976), all of which had niche audiences that developed to near cult-like followings. As catering to niche audiences grew more and more lucrative, additional sub-genres came into play, such as martial arts exploitation cinema. Raymond Chow’s and Leonard Ho’s release of the Bruce Lee film, Big Boss (1971) “open[ed] up a worldwide market for Hong Kong martial arts movies” (Kermode qtd. in Williams and Hammond 336) that were producible at “costs [that were] a fraction of [costs for] comparable movies in Hollywood” (Kermode qtd. in Williams and Hammond 336). Martial arts movies were so popular that they quickly grew out of their target “niche” audience; as Kermode notes, by the 1980s/1990s, “the Hong Kong film industry continued to flourish, ranking second only to America in terms of worldwide film exports” (qtd. in Williams and Hammond 336).

In part, though, exploitation cinema’s spread and influence lies in the rise of the auteur. In its simplest definition, an auteur film refers to the particular artistic flavor or style of a director – the idiosyncratic technical qualities or visionary expression that marks the films of a certain director and recognizes him as the author. Stemming from the French Cahiers du cinéma camp and the French New Wave, auteurism saw the director not as coordinator of action, but as “the primary producer of the meaning of a film” (Williams 139, emphasis mine). The identifying marks of an auteur were like a “personal stamp” (William 139) that branded films as part of a director’s larger collection of works. Directors like Corman, Hopper, Hitchcock, de Palma, and Coppola, among others, created unforgettable auteur styles that have made these directors icons of the industry. De Palma’s split-screen technique and Hitchcock’s suspenseful character camera close-ups, for example, have become legendary in film history. Later auteur directors, like Scorsese, Altman, Lucas, and Spielberg, legends in their own rite, continued to expand niche audiences, and it seemed that exploitation cinema and auteurism would endure as the inevitable mode of filmmaking for some time. This was not to be. The age of the auteur came to an abrupt halt in 1980, with the disastrous situation surrounding Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a failure so large that it forced “Transamerica to sell its entertainment wing [United Artists], thus signaling…the end of…industry confidence in the ‘vision’ of the auteur” (Williams and Hammond 223). This crisis was caused by two factors: first, Cimino’s script presented a “tedious and incoherent narrative” and included “gross historical distortion(s)” (Kermode qtd. in Williams and Hammond 245); second, Camino purportedly filmed “thousands of feet of film” that he not only didn’t let studio executives see, but which included a “first cut” that “ran to five-and-a-half hours” (Kermode qtd. in Williams and Hammond 245). The disparity between these excessive production costs and the film’s dismal box office failure (productions costs of $44M; opening weekend gross of just $12,032) was too much for United Artists to bear. As Kermode writes, “Heaven’s Gate was a chronicle of studio waste and of failure to control a runaway production” which resulted in “the endgame for unrestrained auteurism” (qtd. in Williams and Hammond 245).

Despite its eventual culmination, exploitation cinema forms a necessary bridge between the standards of old Hollywood Cinema and the relative autonomy of current film production. Moving away from the standard old Hollywood narrative, with its regulation of content, dependence on linear space and time camera work, and cause-and-effect narratives, exploitation cinema opened up the realm of possibilities for innovated directing, filmmaking techniques, and the kind of topics that were more inline with the permissiveness and curiosity of the American public. As Corrigan aptly states, film has a “reflexive character…[a] will to analysis of self and events” (332). The ability to be reflexive was at the heart of exploitation cinema, which narrowed in on the specifics of each niche audience, and that reflexive nature is found in current filmmaking. Rather than becoming a mere historical “blip” in film history, then, exploitation cinema stands as a part of the natural evolution from previous Hollywood conventions to the highly specialized narratives and techniques that continue to advance the industry – and thrill audiences – today.

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