Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Regarding 12 Years a Slave, I have mixed feelings. I do think it is a very viscerally powerful film, and in some sense the historical trauma of American slavery can always use further cinematic exploration given the relative dearth of films that make this a central topic. (Playing to "white liberal guilt" can sometimes be a dreadful thing. In cases where it prompts people to try to think - really - about the lives of those in situations much more dire and dangerous than their own, however, then please, bring on the guilt.) That said, I also think that Steve McQueen is actually a fairly conventional prestige filmmaker. (I have only also seen Hunger; not Shame.) It's not unheard of for art world people to come into cinema and actually have a more or less pedestrian approach the medium. Perhaps "pedestrian" is harsh. McQueen actually strikes me as a pretty good conventional filmmaker. I'd rather there were more Oscarbait films like Hunger or 12 Years a Slave than some of the treacly junk that have invaded multiplexes in recent holiday seasons.

But while I'm sympathetic, in many ways, to denunciations of 12 Years a Slave as a form of (very respectable) torture porn, I still wonder ... why is it that the prism of pornography has become the only way we ever read images and narratives that depict blood and broken skin anymore? Jonathan Rosenbaum has recently posed a question:

What 12 Years a Slave, The Act of Killing, Bastards, and A Touch of Sin (the latter, for me, the best of a dubious lot) all seem to be proposing, in different ways, is that the shocks and jolts of exploitation filmmaking are the most expressive tools we have in order to arrive at the truth about the world we live in. But what is this truth, finally, but that venerable chestnut, “It’s only a movie”? 

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Rosenbaum's question. And while I only really like two of the four movies he mentions above, I probably like all of them as individual films more than he does. What I wonder, however, is why it has also come to be that any "explicit" or "graphic" content now comes to stand in as the route of exploitation? This strikes me as akin to saying that any film that employs nonlinear narrative structure or a few jump cuts is automatically taking the art cinema route to narration, and from there assuming that there is a monolithic opinion to be had about (all) art cinema and (the entirety of) its effects on narration.

I don't want to dismiss the very real connections that exist between exploitation film and other, more respectable genres and modes of production. In general these things need to be parsed out even more explicitly. But all the same. Could there be a different vocabulary for us to use to discuss films that might push the limits of violence, sex, and sordid behavior and yet not be "exploitative"? On some level, otherwise, I feel like this threatens to be an unsophisticated blanket condemnation of the films' audience.


StephenM said...

Good point. I found Rosenbaum's question very provocative, but the term "exploitation" suggests movies from the sixties and seventies where audiences could be shocked and titillated by low-budget movies appealing to them on the most basic levels of content they knew the audience wanted to see. We have retroactively come to see quite a few of those movies as being more honest and direct with their social and political messages because they weren't afraid to take strong moral stances than many mainstream "serious" movies which, in trying to present complexity, come off as dithering and weak. But then what happens to movies that do want to address a subject with nuance and complexity? So I think Rosenbaum is saying something quite interesting about recent trends to praise movies for being provocative and shocking rather than nuanced. Can't we have both?

But using shocking violence in cinema has certainly been around longer than "exploitation" movies, so the term is maybe limiting. What is Battleship Potemkin if not shocking and provoking? Confronting the audience with a disturbing but historical truth is a valid purpose of art, though of course not the only or highest one. (-The juxtaposition of those two sentences shouldn't be taken to mean I think Potemkin is historically true in any way.)

ZC said...

You're right, there can also be a specific (if hazy) historical referent for the term 'exploitation.' In some cases, like Django Unchained, the reference is of course invited and explicit. But for something like 12 Years a Slave ... is there a way to discuss its graphic and viscerally punishing phenomena without invoking this idea of exploitation, neither in its connotation as a form of titillation, nor its specific throwback reference?

I do also agree though that there need not be a binary choice between the shocking film vs the nuanced one. We might embrace both.

Christopher Small said...

Andrew Grossman, in his crazy, multiple-personality write-up of Ho Meng-Hua's OILY MANIAC:

— "Exploitation films have the luxury of insulating their inanities within the low expectations generated by exploitation conventions.

Stop saying "exploitation films" — it's a meaningless term, as all commercial films "exploit" something for profit.

— You yourself used the term in your blatherings about Oily Maniac.

I was wrong to do so; I was mindlessly following the journalistic trend that falsely equates the sensational with the exploitative. Ingmar Bergman should logically be history's greatest, profoundest exploitation director, for what he publicly exploits for profit and prestige is his own psychic torment, not the anonymous bare epidermises and pulsing stage blood that for pent-up puritans constitute innocuous "controversy."

— Very well, then, "genre films" can insulate their inanities in convention, but non-generic films lack such inherited defense mechanisms. No?

Certainly, I agree, and this becomes obvious when thematic inanity hasn't the protective insulation of genre or a genre director. Auteur Mike Figgis has a film called The Loss of Sexual Innocence (1999) — I beware its very existence, as its title alone confidently bespeaks a singular thematic inanity that, assuming one has grown beyond Romanticism and Victorianism, seems far more clichéd than anything genre hacks could toss together.

ZC said...

Good call, Mr. Small!