- Exploitation Films:Teaching Sin in the Suburbs
Teaching exploitation films—those low-budget, sensational movies of various stripes that revel in sex, nudity, vice, and violence—presents some of the same difficulties as teaching any film course. Exploitation films do, however, present some unique challenges and can be classified as "difficult" films—although not for the reasons one might immediately assume.
I regularly teach a course called "Cheap Thrills: The Politics and Poetics of Low Culture." The class is essentially a survey of the history of exploitation films, beginning with racy Mutoscope movies, through white slave films and "classical" exploitation fare, to sexploitation, 1970s grindhouse standards, and cheapie direct-to-video releases. Along the way there are detours into other cultural realms: the sideshow and the dime museum, pulp magazines and comic books, and tabloid television. At one time teaching exploitation films was difficult simply because the material necessary to teach them was so hard to secure. Although there is not yet an overwhelming amount of historical and critical literature, the number of books and articles continues to grow.1 And where once it was a challenge to find exploitation films for classroom use, there are now countless titles available on DVD and videotape. Those problems have been overcome.
Yet today, the things that one might conceive of as being "difficult" about teaching exploitation movies—their sexual and violent content—are usually met with a jaded amusement by students. Granted, this might be different at other colleges and in other regions. But I find that students are able to nimbly negotiate nudity, sexual situations, and violence and gore, whether the fake dismemberings in day-glo red in something like Blood Feast (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1963) or the fairly realistic carnage of Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980), with ease. The scenes that tend to cause the most visceral and vociferous reactions in my classes are those of childbirth from creaky hygiene movies such as Street Corner (Albert [End Page 94] H. Kelley, 1948), and mistreatment of animals in films like Mondo Cane (Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi, 1962), and the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust. However, even these issues can usually addressed through an ongoing discussion of disgust—something that invariably hits a high point with John Waters's Pink Flamingos (1972).2
Two things do continue to make exploitation films "difficult" films to deal with in the classroom. First, the films themselves are often hard to situate from an aesthetic standpoint. This is not to say that students have an aversion to low-budget media. Having grown up with low-tech aesthetics, whether the computer generated images meant to look like construction paper cutouts of South Park, or the surveillance camera graphics of so many reality TV programs, they are certainly familiar with the cheapjack. Moreover, they are often well versed in the intersecting, complex narratives from the likes of Tarantino and Iñárritu. Rather, it is the "faulty" narratives of exploitation movies that are initially difficult for them to come to terms with. Recently in a Cheap Thrills class, after screening Sin in the Suburbs (1964), an early Joe Sarno sexploitation melodrama, a student commented, "That's either the shortest film I've ever seen, or it's the longest. I'm not sure which." This is a fairly representative reaction to many exploitation films, which, no matter what era they spring from, tend to vacillate between frenzied instances of display (what I have referred to as "spectacle")3 and long stretches of torpor. In exploitation movies, narrative always takes a backseat to some form of spectacle. Sin in the Suburbs is typical in many ways as it careens between sequences of spectacle (scenes of seduction, sexual initiation, and elaborate masked swinging parties) and passages depicting the ennui and discontent of several wives trapped in a mid-century split-level hell.
Jeffrey Sconce has written compellingly about how exploitation movies, notably those of Dwain Esper, can be used as a way to push students to think about the techniques and politics of film form by way of contrast to the routine codes of Hollywood narrative practice.4 But in teaching exploitation film as a distinct type...