TCS Daily

The Exploitation Flick Returns

By Jon Haber - June 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Fifty years ago, exploitation movie pioneer Kroger Babb lost his shirt trying unsuccessfully to hawk his premier product, an alleged sex film entitled Mom and Dad, to New York sophisticates. What might this episode teach us about Babb's contemporary surrogate, Michael Moore, director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11?

While contemporary readers think of "exploitation" as a generic term, historically the "exploitation film" was a product created by a largely unknown industry to fill a specific niche. During the era when many downtown cinemas (and eventually drive-in theatres) were independent and locally controlled, a film production and distribution world that existed separately from Hollywood served to fill the need for a more puerile product than Tinseltown provided.

While the number of exploitation titles produced from the 30s through the early 60s was huge and varied, they all had certain elements in common, notably:

  • Exploitation films targeted subjects that were considered off limits by mainstream film producers, such as sex (She Shoulda Said No), drugs (Reefer Madness), and gore-drenched violence (Blood Feast). In many cases, these pictures were couched as morality plays, promising to teach audiences important lessons regarding the evils of pre-marital sex, teen marriage or drug-and-alcohol sodden lifestyles, by exposing movie goers to these horrid sins in graphic detail.
  • The most successful exploitation film succeeded by "building a ballyhoo" around the product. When a "sex shocker" like Child Bride arrived in a town, it was often accompanied by a lavish poster and leafleting campaign that promised an experience that would "dare to explain sex as never before," sometimes segregating audiences by gender (men only for the 6 and 10 shows, women only for 8). When successful, such marketing would bring out the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency to picket the theatre, ensuring swollen crowds for weeks.
  • Exploitation titles normally failed to deliver the goods. Audiences expecting to see some skin in the premarital-sex-induced-pregnancy tale Mom and Dad, for example, had to be satisfied with the skin and "naughty bits" provided in a so-called "square up" reel that featured medical footage of a baby being born (thus earning the genre the title "birth-of-a-baby" pictures). Much like the Royal Nunsuch chapters of Huck Finn, six-o-clock audiences would leave the theatre singing the praises of a film, not wanting to let on to the eight-o-clock attendees that everyone was being had.

The exploitation film industry eventually succumbed to the film genres it spawned, notably pornography and the mainstream slasher movie. The tell-tale moment arrived when Kroger Babb's company went bankrupt trying to play a New York market with access to erotic mainstream European films that had little use for the low-skin quotient of flim-flam like Mom and Dad.

While some micro-budget film producers still produce straight-to-video pictures that follow traditional exploitation formulas, today it is Michael Moore who most embodies the spirit of Kroger Babb.

While school shootings in Columbine inspired TV melodrama, only Moore had the Babb-like audacity to take on such an untouchable subject in an exploitation manner. If the success of exploitation rested on promising the audience what they secretly desired, Moore's innovation was to provide viewers not with forbidden (no longer) sex, drugs and gore, but with "documentaries" that pandered to political preconceptions.

With Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has gone back to the future to fully reconstruct every element of successful exploitation. If there is one subject mainstream entertainment has refused to touch in any way, shape or form is the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath. Into this breach runs Moore who promises to "dare explain the Bush administration as never before" by hanging his film on New York's tragedy.

By manufacturing corporate controversy regarding Disney and other Hollywood corporate villains, Moore has succeeded in building a ballyhoo around the release of his new movie, not just biting the hand that has fed him, but turning them into a contemporary Legion of Decency which all right-thinking people can fight by buying a ticket to his film.

Finally, audiences who end up seeing his picture are sure to get the same thing he provided in Columbine, a jagged, pseudo-documentary that may amuse, but could never convince anyone who did not enter the theater sharing the director's conspiratorial view of the world. Rather than admit that the film is little more than another work from a humorous, but low-talented hack, Moore's fans must continue to inflate the importance of his unimportant movies, if only to avoid being judged as an army of suckers.

And here is the most interesting part of the evolution of exploitation from Babb to Moore. In the 50s, it was the sophisticates of New York with access to even more sophisticated erotic movies from an enlightened Europe that brought an end to the traditional sexploitation era. Today these same sophisticates (in both the US and abroad) are playing the role of rubes to the filmmaker's con.

Jon Haber has worked as a film writer for the Boston Globe and movie reviewer at WBUR in Boston. He now runs SkillCheck, Inc., a software publisher in Burlington Massachusettes, and occasionally finds time to write about the intersection of politics, film and culture.


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