(Hi all! This post may look familiar to some people because I originally wrote it for and posted it on another site I write for, Through The Shattered Lens. Over on Through the Shattered Lens, I devote a good deal of time to defending so-called “exploitation” and “grindhouse” movies. This article was my attempt to explain my love of these films. I’m reprinting it here because 1) I like the way the article turned out and 2) I think the completed post is as good an explanation as any of not just my taste in movies but my entire worldview as well.)
“How could you have possibly enjoyed that movie?”
I hate that question. I hate the self-righteous tone of it. I hate the demand that I justify anything that I choose to do with my life. I hate the implication of the question, the suggestion that somehow there is some sort of moral force at the center of the universe that determines whether or not a movie can be enjoyed.
Unfortunately, no matter how obviously justified I am in loathing that question, it’s still one that I am frequently asked. How can I not only enjoy watching old school exploitation and grindhouse films (the majority of which were made before I was even born) but also devote a good deal of my time to not only watching these movies but tracking them down and then telling the rest of the world how much I love them?
(Of course, what they’re really asking is what are you doing watching exploitive trash like House On The Edge of the Park or Fight For Your Life when you should be out finding a husband, driving an SUV, and living a life of quiet desperation?)
First off, I should confess. I have commitment issues, I know it. I realize that, as a result of some personal experiences in the past, that I tend to beg for affection and attention even while I’m putting up my own invisible wall to keep anyone from getting too close. It’s not easy for me to trust but, after writing for Through The Shattered Lens since May, I feel like maybe it’s time to share a little bit more about me. Hi. My name is Lisa Marie. I’m 24. I have three older sisters that I love. I’m a proud to be an Irish-German-Spanish-Italian-American. I lived in four different states before I was 13 and I’m rarely amused when people point out the country twang in my voice. Up until I was 17, ballet was my life but then I fell down a flight of stairs, broke my ankle in two places, and that was the end of that. I worked very hard to earn a degree in Art History. Not surprisingly, my current job has nothing to do with art or history. I have asthma and heterochromia (my right eye is a darker shade of green than the left). I’m blind without my contacts. I like cats, driving fast, and being single. I dislike dogs, needy men, and those tiny little smart cars. In other words, I’m just your typical girl who loves the Grindhouse. The only thing that can equal my love for the Grindhouse is my hatred for the Mainstream.
Here’s a few reasons why.
1) Before Independent Film, there was the Grindhouse.
Today, if a young director wants to show what he’s capable of doing, he makes his own little film and enters it into various film festivals and, if he’s made something interesting, he might sign a distribution deal and his film might pop up down here in Dallas at the Angelika theater. In the 70s, that young director would make an exploitation film, hope that it had enough sleaze appeal to make back its budget by playing in a New York Grindhouse (or a Southern drive-in) and, if he had made something interesting, his cheap, exploitation film might eventually end up being released on DVD by Anchor Bay or Blue Underground. The best Grindhouse films were made by director who were eager to show what they were capable of doing. These movies were not made by multimillionaires with houses on both coasts of the country. Grindhouse movies were made by director who had to work to create something memorable, filmmakers who knew that they might never get another chance to put their vision on-screen.
2) The Mainstream Lies. The Grindhouse is honest.
Mainstream films are just that. They are films designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. A mainstream movie is not made for you. A Mainstream movie is made to appeal to the brain-dead suburbanites who can be easily recruited at the local mall to be a part of a test screening. A Mainstream movie is made to be inoffensive. A Mainstream movie is edited and re-edited to remove anything that could possibly negatively reflect on the bottom line.
Grindhouse movies, however, didn’t have time for that. Grindhouse movies were made to exploit the moment. As a result, there was no time to worry about appealing to everyone. There was no time to constantly edit until not a single rough edge remained. Grindhouse films are messy. Grindhouse films are not always pleasant. They don’t always have the perfect ending. In short, Grindhouse movies are like life itself.
In the end, safe and inoffensive mainstream movies are made to appeal to the who we wish we were. Grindhouse movies — sordid, sometimes uncomfortable, and always appealing to the audience’s most primal thoughts, fears , and desires — are made to appeal to who we actually are.
3) The Mainstream is bland. The Grindhouse is dangerous and unpredictable.
Where else but in a Grindhouse film could you hear a killer who speaks like a duck like in Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper? Because the Grindhouse was free of the need to try to fit in with what the mainstream decreed to be normal, the Grindhouse had the freedom to come up with some of the most brilliantly demented plots in the history of film. When was the last time that the plot of a Mainstream film really caught you off guard? I’m not talking about safe, inoffensive surprises like Avatar‘s 3-D effects. I’m talking about a plot where, halfway through, you look at your fellow viewer and you both say, “What the fuck was that!?” Anything can happen in the Grindhouse. As soon as things start to feel safe and a little boring, the Grindhouse has the ability to make things exciting again. The Mainstream, meanwhile, just asks you to get married.
4) The Mainstream always condescends. The Grindhouse occasionally empowers.
Here’s a story of two movies. In the mainstream Brave One, Jodie Foster gets a gun after she’s raped and her dog is stolen. (In typical mainstream fashion, the movie doesn’t seem to be sure which crime is supposed to be worse.) In the grindhouse Ms. 45, Zoe Tamerlis gets a gun after she’s raped twice in one day. In the Brave One, Foster passively sits on the New York subway and waits until she threatened with rape a second time before she kills the potential rapist. In Ms. 45, Tamerlis shoots every man she sees because she knows that every man she sees is a potential rapist. In The Brave One, Foster gets her revenge by remaining the victim. In Ms. 45, Tamerlis becomes the aggressor. Both Foster and Tamerlis act in self-defense but Foster is wracked with guilt because the mainstream cannot risk losing its audience. Tamerlis becomes stronger and more confident with each murder as, for the first time, she has found a way to control her own destiny. At the end of The Brave One, Foster is not only rescued by a man but she gets her dog back too. At the end of Ms. 45, Tamerlis goes on a shooting rampage at a Halloween party and is finally killed by another woman. The Brave One‘s tag line was “How many wrongs to make it right?” Ms. 45’s tagline: “She was used and abused and it will never happen again!”
I know this is probably going to be my most controversial argument. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we should just go out and start randomly shooting men. But, I will say this — in Ms. 45, Zoe Tamerlis refuses to be a victim and she — and the film — refuses to let society off the hook. When I think about Ms. 45, it doesn’t inspire me to hate men (because, trust me, I don’t) and it certainly doesn’t inspire me to grab a gun and start shooting. It does, however, inspire me to not allow myself to fall into that never-ending cycle of victimhood.
I’m not attempting to argue that Grindhouse films are secretly feminist films. Grindhouse films are infamous for exploiting women. However, so does the mainstream. (Of the two films, The Brave One features nudity. Ms. 45 does not.) Both the Grindhouse and the mainstream obviously get off on victimizing women. However, in the Grindhouse, women were occasionally (though certainly not often) allowed to fight back with the same aggression and determination that the mainstream, for the most part, usually reserves just for men.
(If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had been released in the 70s, it would have played at the Grindhouse.)
5) Lastly, and most importantly, the Grindhouse is still our little secret.
Let’s just admit it — independent films are trendy. Contemporary independent films have, to a large extent, become the new mainstream. The earnest film students who had a Sundance hit are now going to Hollywood to make the next Benjamin Button. Sundance is just ShoWest with more facial hair. However, the old school grindhouse will never sell out because it no longer exists. It was destroyed by the morality police before it could sacrifice its soul. While an independent filmmaker is just a director who will eventually grow up and break your heart, the great Grindhouse films are frozen in time, too sordid to ever be corrupted. The Mainstream will never embrace the Grindhouse and for that reason, the Grindhouse will always be the ultimate statement of freedom.