This Old Grindhouse

The theaters were awful and so were the movies.

Now that every last grimy, scary grindhouse theater has been squashed beneath the fat, family-friendly feet of the multiplex, it’s safe to co-opt a little watered-down grindhouse flava into the mainstream, hence Grindhouse, a movie whose marketing budget could have financed all the exploitation movies ever made. And, in most of the press about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s $100 million junk-food buffet, there’s a breathless paragraph about Tarantino’s private screening room, where he shows exploitation movies to his famous friends. “It’s just like an authentic grindhouse!” writers enthuse. Tarantino loves to brag about his working-class roots, but his screening room sounds more like Marie Antoinette’s le Hameau de la Reine—where she and her friends played shepherdess—than a real grindhouse theater. Does Tarantino also bus in tranny hookers and pay the help to mug his guests in the bathroom?

Because grindhouse theaters were nasty places, full of nasty people, and most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in one. The few folks who were there for the actual movies were either poverty tourists or cinephiles who didn’t notice anything except the flickering screen, and, in many cases, their cinephilia had burned out their sense of discrimination, because a lot of the movies that showed in grindhouses were bad.

For every low-budget jewel, there were 30 irredeemable duds crippled by a lack of money, charisma-free actors, and hack directors. If you randomly selected scenes from 100 exploitation pictures, you’d probably wind up watching endless footage of people walking, people going in and out of doors, or people sitting and talking. Exploitation movies were like layers of grit wrapped around a few minutes of “the good stuff”—full-frontal childbirth, the flaccid genitals of middle-aged sun worshippers, a woman being scalped. Savvy distributors with calculators for eyes grabbed on to these exploitable elements and flogged the hell out of them.

The marquees of Times Square theaters were the vanguard of tooth-and-claw marketing campaigns, covered with eye-bursting displays that screamed an endless come-on of boobs and blood. Movie titles became a science—who didn’t want to see Avenging Disco Godfather? If you liked Valley of the Dolls, wasn’t buying a ticket to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls a no-brainer? Movies were retitled, re-edited, rereleased, and everything was shot fast and on the cheap.

“Crap + 20 Years = Art,” however. The affection people have today for exploitation movies is misplaced, because these movies stink. The most exciting moment in the blaxploitation classic Super Fly was the performance of the theme song, “Pusherman” by Curtis Mayfield, otherwise the plot moved with all the vigor of a passed-out junkie. Pam Grier wasn’t famous because she was a good actor, she was famous for her ferocity and because she had a great rack. Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! felt padded at only 83 minutes. The rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave was far more boring than any movie featuring castration in a bubble bath had a right to be, and the Italian “Mondo” movies may be the ancestors of all the reality shows on TV right now, but they were exhaustingly gross and unimaginative.

Exploitation movies are as dead as disco today because every movie is an exploitation movie. The studios learned from their low-budget cousins that they had a license to show even more graphic skin and sadism than they had thought, and that cheap movies marketed right could rake in the bucks. Black people in particular can blame blaxploitation for the current crummy crop of black films. Shaft may have shown Hollywood that there was money in the urban market, but it also proved that the urban market didn’t have a very discriminating palate. The result is today’s “Urban Cinema,” with low budgets, big marketing campaigns, and zero intelligence. You need to sit through White Chicks, Madea’s Family Reunion, Big Momma’s House 1 and 2, XXX: State of the Union, and Little Man before you’re entitled to a contrary opinion.

The taboo-busting once offered up by exploitation movies is totally toothless in a world where you can go online and find videos of sheepsploitation. And there’s nothing in a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie that isn’t in a contemporary picture like Hostel or The Passion of the Christ. So, whither exploitation movies? In the sordid twilight world of direct-to-video, you’ll find the final frontiers: celebrity exploitation, godsploitation, and copyright infringement. Early-career Eva Longoria and Mariah Carey can be found in cheapo films like Señorita Justice and Wise Girls. Every evangelical entrepreneur with two dimes to rub together recruits C-list stars for their apocalypse-on-a-shoestring sermonettes. Steven Spielberg releases War of the Worlds and two direct-to-video versions pre-emptively hit the shelves to defraud the unwary. But as you root around among these DVDs, you’ll be doing it alone, because mainstream cineastes are just as chicken now as they ever were. But give it 20 years. You’ll have plenty of company.