Monday, May 10, 2010

SCHLOCK! The Secret History of American Movies

What exactly does an exploitation film exploit? Is the marketing of a shitty film as a good one? Is it the use of titillating subject matter that will no doubt put some asses in the seats? Is it the name of a star that will draw attention to the film? Or is it the cast and crew, who are looking for film credits to further their career but are stuck on a low budget exploitation film that will pay them little to no money? The answer probably lies in a combination of several of these questions, if not all.

SCHLOCK! The Secret History of American Movies is a documentary directed by Ray Greene. It takes a look at the beginnings of the exploitation film, that were mostly science fiction fare like Invasion of the Saucer Men, back when science fiction was lumped in with pulp magazines. It shows the progression of how exploitation films were always looking for new material use, especially as the sexual revolution of the late 60s and 70s made people more curious about who's fucking who. The documentary features a handful of the pioneers and early players including Doris Wishman, Samuel Z. Arkoff, David F. Friedman, and the legend Roger Corman.

The problem with this feature is that has a fascination with sex. Starting off with sci-fi, it continues into the early Roger Corman horror movies, like The Terror, and his numerous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Vincent Price. OK, so far so good. Then it delves into the nudie film, a precursor to sexploitation films, in which relatively normal dramas and comedies take place in nudist colonies. It was subversive for the time, but since nudist colonies actually existed, they were able to get through the censors (and sex doesn't actually exist?). This eventually evolved into what are called "roughies", which focused on sex that varied from slightly rough to rape. It was around this time that I figured the documentary wouldn't get any better. Ten minutes prior, which was the fifty minute mark of a ninety minute film, they mentioned Herschell Gordon Lewis. You can imagine my disappointment when I thought they would finally stop dragging out the sexploitation concept and finally talk about the movies I wanted to hear about, the utterly twisted, depraved, gorey, and disturbing ones. Where the fuck is my Cannibal Holocaust? I Spit On Your Grave? Jesus Christ, my fucking TROMA!!!

I would have liked this more if covered anything past the early seventies, when exploitation was at its height. Having interviewed mostly directors and producers that worked in sexploitation, they most likely figured it was the easiest way to have interview footage and access to film stock that would fill up a 90-minute running time. Although disappointing, it does has some good insights. I was surprised to see Peter Bogdanovich, who played Dr. Melfi's therapist on The Sopranos, and worked with Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola as well as direct some movies. Probably the best insight came from Harry H. Novak (I think) who asked "What movie made today isn't an exploitation film?", which is juxtaposed to a shot of a billboard advertising Pepsi and Star Wars Episode 1 with Jar Jar Binks holding a can. Need I say more?