Wednesday, 26 June 2013

This Exploitation Might Not Be the Kind You're Thinking of

National Identity and a Pageantry of Stereotypes

When discussing his motivation for making the movie Desperado (2010), director Robert Rodriguez said he was interested in giving people a similar experience to one he had watching John Woo's The Killer:
Rodriguez says that when he got to Hollywood to make Desperado he wasn't trying to make a Latin film but a film that was entertaining just like when he saw John Woo's, The Killer and he thought, "Damn I want to be Chinese." With Desperado he liked the idea of people watching it, who would say, "Wow I want to be Mexican." [sic] (source)
Recently I've been thinking about the relationship between identity/community and the sort of quilt of stereotypes that define exploitation flicks like Rodriguez's later Mexploitation flick Machete (2010), as Rodriguez's quote exemplifies.

(I'm drawing my knowledge of exploitation flicks from these sources: Wikipedia's page on the genre; TVTropes's page on the genre; my own viewings of Coffy (1973), Undercover Brother (2002) (which is really am affectionate parody of Blaxploitation rather than an example of it, despite the fact that Blaxploitation was self-parodying from the outset), Kill Bill I & II (2003, 2004), the Grindhouse movies Planet Terror and Deathproof (2007), and Machete; and conversations with friends on these and other exploitation flicks. Take my interpretations with the grain of salt designed for opinions based on insufficient evidence.)

Exploitation flicks are often described as containing some kind of exploitation (a gimmick to draw in audiences) rather than high-quality plot, acting, or cinematography, but since things like action sequences, romance, horror, and comedy count as exploitation, this definition reduces the term to something as vague and unhelpful as "genre movie." Sometimes definitions insist that two particular exploitations--graphic violence and nudity--must be present, which does narrow the definition considerably but still includes everything shown on HBO (Game of Thrones, I'm looking at you). To narrow the definition so that it actually approaches common use, I would say that an exploitation flick must 1. use at least one of graphic violence and nudity/explicit sex to draw audiences; 2. promise some other material that will play on specific conventions and/or stereotypes and violates a contemporary taboo, such as religion/sacrilege, racism/racial identity, Nazism, or cannibalism; and 3. be notably or seemingly low-budget (though not necessarily poor quality). Often the element in the second qualification places the film in a particular subgenre: among the subgenres, Blaxploitation (which draws heavily on stereotypes of and societal problems for black Americans), nunsploitation (which often shows nuns exhibiting sexual behaviour we don't expect of nuns), and kung-fu movies are perhaps the most well known.

Exploitation flicks tend to incorporate as many stereotypes and associations connected with their chosen theme as they possibly can. For instance, Machete, which I will use as my example throughout, is mainly about illegally-immigrated Mexican Americans ("We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us!") and it has redneck border patrols, cockroaches, taco stands, semi-mythical revolutionaries, high Catholicism, street fighting rings, chop-shops and pimped-out cars, corrupt Federales, bandannas, and people brandishing rickshaws, hoes, and shovels. Plot devices include Mexican immigrants using publicly subsidized health care, Mexican characters getting construction work, Mexican characters infiltrating houses by doing yard work ("You ever notice how you let a Mexican into your house just because he's got gardening tools?"), and American-raised Mexican-Americans struggling to balance American and Mexican identities. It is almost as though the script writers made a list of all possible stereotypes that Americans have of Mexicans, strung them into some kind of order, and wrote a plot around that. Most of these stereotypes are presented as blatantly as possible. Subtlety is not highly valued.

Given the genre's focus, exploitation flicks usually privilege a pageantry of associations over the linear logic of tight plot. There is something carnivalesque and anti-systematic about them (though, of course, it is not necessarily the case that they don't have some kind of deep order). Part of this might come from the fact that the exploitation flick's very name implies an emphasis on immediate experience--pleasure, outrage, shock, tittilation, excitement--over a more considered or analytic engagement. It assumes that an exuberant display of taboo topics will be pleasurable to its intended audience, perhaps in part because of the imagined or documented outrage of a putatively unintended audience of social censors (but of course this unintended audience is really intended if their outrage is a real source of pleasure). However, there's something more to this than just the pageantry and the pleasure of taboo. These films use the play of stereotype and the overabundance of flavour to explore, if not always articulate, a certain kind of collective identity. In my flagship example, Machete, this is especially obvious; Rodriguez has said that he wanted to make his national/ethnic identity attractive, so Machete must display something that is recognizably Mexican, even if Mexican-ness is not clearly articulated in the film. (Of course it couldn't be; it, like any national identity, is imaginary.)

This leaves me with five directions for further questioning.

1. There must be a considerable difference between an emic (insider's perspective) and an etic (outsider's perspective) exploitation flick. Were Machete an etic film rather than an emic film, we would be quite right to consider it an act of appropriation at best, derogatory patronizing at worst. As much as I'm tempted to subscribe to the death of the author, it is clear that an author-figure (or author function) of some kind is still hugely important to an interpretation of a text. If an exploitation flick plays with the identity of a community, how much changes depending on whose community it is?

2. Exploitation flicks play on a confusion of identity or affiliation as well as an exuberant expression of one. I am not Mexican; it is unclear what affiliation I am supposed to have with this film (or it would be if Rodriguez hadn't helpfully told us that we're supposed to want to be Mexican). In etic exploitation films, we're often encouraged not to affiliate with the thematic group; from what I can tell, hixploitation films do not want you to want to be a hick. But more often than not it's unclear: what does Coffy think of race in America? The associative rather than linear focus makes it hard to pin down.

3. Identity must be somehow related to association. I might want to say that my identity as an academic, for instance, is based on a set of values or a set of practices, but if you were to make a gradsploitation flick the salient features would be much less logically coherent ones: all-nighters, useless erudition, endless arguments, grading papers, probably some seductive co-eds (which have nothing to do with my life as a grad student but would be conventional in such a film), etc. Is this a good way of imagining identity, "good" meaning either "accurate" or "admirable"? What does this tell us about how to strengthen our communities? Or does it say something very bad about the communities in question? Is it just a clumsy genre? Of course we should remember that in the case of things like Blaxploitation and Mexploitation, which focus on minority communities, there's a jocular reclaiming element to the stereotyping. The pleasure may come from claiming certain identifiers that were thrust upon them. These films might be excellent examples of the post-modern sense of irony, in that they balance self-conscious parody with sincerity.

4. If an exploitation film is the vehicle for making Mexican identity desirable, this might suggest that violence and nudity make identities desirable, which I find disconcerting. There's a lot in our culture to suggest this is true, but it's worth thinking about why. There are some obvious answers: violence implies that the protagonists are strong and capable while sexuality implies that the protagonists are desired by those who are desirable and desire those who are desirable (and thus have ideal normative sexualities). I'm sure this has something to do with masculinity et al., which makes me suspicious. But I'm also suspicious of those who would ban exploitation flicks as a prudish reaction to violence and nudity/sex; I suspect that filmmakers can use both exploitations to make intelligent and valuable commentaries, even if they have not ordinarily done so.

5. This is probably a coincidence, but to what extent does the term exploitation, which as an industry term does not refer to oppressive practices, relate to exploitation in the sense of oppressive practices? Exploitation in the latter sense has played a role in the history of black Americans, Mexican Americans, etc.; it might be argued that the nudity in these films is an exploitation of women; the violence in these films might reflect the violence needed to enforce the exploitation of oppressed populations. It is probably a coincidence, but it does seem a terrible irony that the method by which filmmakers "exploit" an audience entails or reflects the presumed audience's own exploitative practices. (It also gives a certain linguistic legitimacy to the Marxploitation flick, a genre I made up.)

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