Every knows what “exploitation” films are: films that deliberately appeal to audiences baser nature, and try to lure in viewers with the promise of sex, nudity, violence, and moral degeneracy.
When a film tries to appeal to an audience’s higher nature, to their intellect and aesthetic sense, but at the same time promises plenty of sex, nudity, violence, and moral degeneracy, then you have an “artsploitation” film.
Not all art films which deal with sex or include nudity or violence qualify as artsploitation films. There needs to be some gratuitous or sensationalist element to merit the “-ploitation” suffix. There’s little truly exploitative about the way sex is treated in Sex and Lucia, for example; sex is a natural part of the character’s relationship and there are good plot and thematic justifications for each coupling.
Although the “artsploitation” genre can’t be reduced to a simple recipe, and does not necessarily involve remaking some sort of recognized formula film in an arty way, as a first step at identifying the category, here’s a short list of some art films that also fit neatly into a recognized exploitation film sub-genre:
- EL TOPO (1970) = arthouse + Spaghetti Western
- THE DEVILS (1971) = arthouse + nunsploitation
- LIQUID SKY (1982) = arthouse + science fiction
- GOTHIC (1986) = arthouse + horror
- LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988) = arthouse + horror
- SANTA SANGRE (1989) = arthouse + serial killers
- THE THIEF, THE COOK, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)= arthouse + gross-out cannibal film
- DELLAMORTE, DELLAMORE [CEMETARY MAN] (1994) = arthouse + zombie film
- KIDS (1995) = arthouse + juvenile delinquency
- NOWHERE (1997) = arthouse + juvenile delinquency + drugsploitation + sci-fi B-movie
Another simple way to identify an artsploitation film: look for the name “Ken Russell” under director.
Exploitation films, which used to play at drive-ins, fleapits and grindhouses, and are now often released directly to video, are considered “trash cinema,” and distinguishable both from mainstream films and from art-house films. They began as early as the 1930s, when Hollywood’s Hays Code created a lucrative gray market for films dealing with forbidden subject matter like prostitution, drug abuse, and revenge killings. Cheaply made films such as Reefer Madness [Tell Your Children] (1936) (the famously campy anti-marijuana flick), Child Bride (1938) (which dealt with the “serious” problem of child marriage among hillbillies by having a 12 year old girl perform nude scenes), and Mom and Dad (1945) (which advertised itself as a “hygiene” film and showed the birth of an illegitimate baby in graphic, gaping detail) quickly stepped in to take advantage of Hollywood’s shyness about sex. An alternative, parallel cinema of forbidden delights sprung up in the shadow of Hollywood and flourished through the 1960s and 1970s, with producers discovering ever new subjects to exploit (bikers, rape-revenge flicks, the LSD scare). These films were typically completely commercial and had little to no artistic aspirations, seeking only to shock the audience with lurid images and ideas they couldn’t get anywhere else.
Much of the air was taken out of the parallel exploitation industry in the late 1960s with the decline and eventual abandonment of the Hays Code; critically praised films like Midnight Cowboy (1969) now featured nudity and frankly discussed forbidden topics such as homosexuality and prostitution. This is the era when the true artsploitation film begins to appear.
Sex films were major precursors to the genre. Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman [Et Dieu… créa la femme] (1956) was released in America to art-houses that specialized in foreign fare, but shots of a nude Brigitte Bardot brought in the punters as well as the aesthetes. Foreign films, which of course were not subject to the Hays Code, could get away with depicting nudity and promiscuity wrapped in the guise of Art. Such films could simultaneously garner critical praise and shatter box office records, and give horny men a legitimate excuse to gaze upon a naked woman. Michelangelo Antonini’s Blowup (1966), an otherwise dry and despairing satire of mod London, gave American audiences their first glimpse of pubic hair (at least on the big screen). The sex/art trend hit its zenith with I am Curious Yellow (1967), a surreal Swedish socialist satire that featured a few seconds of what might have been fellatio and created a censorship sensation (which, of course, soon resulted in major box office receipts). Savvy art theater owners noticed the not-so-subtle uptick in sales when foreign films featuring nudity would play, and some began to specialize in such naughty fare, gradually morphing into full time sexploitation palaces, then into full fledged porn theaters (for this reason, as late as the 1980s you could still find adult theaters proudly spouting marquees identifying themselves as “Pussycat Art Theater” or “Dragon Art Theater”). Art movies and gratuitous sex had been linked in the public mind. Whether the director intended to explore issues of sexuality with any sort of seriousness or not, from a marketing standpoint it couldn’t hurt to throw a couple of bare bosoms into your art film.
A critical pioneer in the artsploitation movement was pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol, ever the provocateur, made several plotless and unwatchable conceptual films in the 1960s (for example, Sleep , a work consisting of five hours of a static camera filming a sleeping man). Starting in 1968, Warhol commissioned director Paul Morrisey to make a string of sexy and shocking experimental movies starting with Flesh (1968), the story of a heroin addict (Joe Dallesandro) who works as a male prostitute. The Warhol/Morrisey collaboration reached its zenith in 1973-1974 with the dual release of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein [AKA Flesh for Frankenstein] (a perverted and gory 3-D spectacle of offensiveness) and Andy Warhol’s Dracula [AKA Blood for Dracula] (sickly vampire Udo Kier can only drink the blood of virgins, giving the characters an excuse to have sex to prevent vampiric infection). Morrisey pictures featured not only every shocking sexual, violent or degraded image he could think of, but also deliberately corny dialogue and often crazy experimental camerawork and editing. In addition, he solicited fish-out-of-water non-actors like Dallesandro and Kier to play major roles in order to stoke the absurdity factor to a fevered pitch. By slapping his name on these feature length narrative pictures, Warhol gave an avant-garde imprimatur to sleaze, at least when it was done self-consciously in the name of art.
A third, and subtler, influence on the genre were the LSD exploitation films of the late 1960s, with titles like The Trip (1967), The Weird World of LSD (1967), and The Acid Eaters (1968). Here, it was art films that influenced the exploitation film, rather than the other way around. Exploitation directors eager to capitalize on psychedelic hysteria adopted fisheye lenses, kaleidoscopic lenses, and other tricks of experimental filmmakers to try to recreate hallucinogenic experiences. These being exploitation films, after all, LSD was frequently portrayed as an aphrodisiac that caused nubile hippie girls to immediately shed their clothes after dosing. Hallucination sequences could by viewed as “arty” in and of themselves, evoking comparison with classic Surrealist works such as Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age D’Or (1930).
With all these formative influences in place, the stage was ripe in the early 1970s for an explosion in the artsploitation genre. The subgenre truly took off with Alejandro Jodoworsky’s surreal spaghetti western El Topo (1970), the first “midnight” movie. I wrote in the comments to El Topo that Jodorowsky used “shameless exploitation movie elements– abundant nudity and gore, lesbian kissing, sexual depravity, freaks and animal abuse… to sneak classic surrealism past the guardians of ivory tower intellectualism, reaching the people directly, and thereby created a marketable genre for future pop-surrealist directors like David Lynch.” Soon, Ken Russell (whose constant emphasis on sex, horror, and hallucination combined with Big Ideas make him the ultimate artsploitation director) and others would take up the torch.
On the one hand, artsploitation movies are too arty and weird for general audiences, and even for exploitation movie fans who don’t want their boob and bloodfests to be diluted with pretentious musings. On the other hand, artsploitation movies can (and frequently have been) critically dismissed as artistically immature. Any auteur who is seriously interested in intellectual ideas can probably find a way to tell his story with a minimum of breast shots; artsploitation directors sometimes appear to be doing little more than self-indulgently putting their own sexual fantasies and preoccupations on screen. (As Roger Ebert sarcastically mused in his zero-star review of Ken Russell’s The Devils, “We are filled with righteous indignation as we bear witness to the violation of the helpless nuns, which is all the more horrendous because, as Russell fearlessly reveals, all the nuns, without exception were young and stacked.”) Without much popular support, and qualified critical support at best, these films exist in a cinematic no-man’s land: their own little fiefdom in the kingdom of the weird.
I like these films. A lot. Although the nude human body, or its dismemberment, is no longer taboo, tapping into these sorts of primal images, which are repressed in everyday life, is an authentically Surrealist mission. Ebert notwithstanding, what could be more enjoyably weird than Ken Russell’s libidinal excesses in The Devils? Who can fail to be impressed with his convent orgy of squealing, religiously fevered nuns, a sequence that’s so over-the-top that it piles weird upon weird, so shamelessly excessive that it makes the director’s purpose in filming it totally obscure: is he really trying to make a serious point about religious fervor, or is he staging his own sexual fetishes for his own pervy enjoyment, or is he playing an elaborate campy joke and expecting us to laugh along?
In the end, with so many possible layers in play, the effect is that we can’t divine the “message” behind the scene; we can only accept what is depicted as it’s own kind of fantastic reality. At their best, this is the feeling all artsploitation films evoke: they simultaneously satisfy both our base longings and our aesthetic aspirations, remaining true to both the arthouse and the grindhouse.