Sunday, March 1, 2009

Academics Meet Sleaze Artists

It was probably inevitable that film academics looking for new turf to make their mark would eventually start poking around in exploitation films. I’ve read several of the books and articles that have resulted and so far they’re mostly the kind of barely comprehending undergrad essays you might expect. The writers tend to be dipping their toes and make typical kinds of errors or bad but far more amusing is watching the attempt to fit existing critical approaches onto subjects that tend to elude it. Most obvious is the dominance of auteurist ideas even if these are not pushed forward or in fact often disavowed. These academics clearly think they’ve moved past auteurism but it still powers much of the writing. In the exploitation world the loose fit is more apparent - Bergman is presumed to have had complete control over, say, Persona but the compromises of b-film/exploitation directors are well-known and in some cases such as Jess Franco practically legendary. But viewers familiar with this quite broad milieu aren’t as focused on directors and can dig into genres, actors, countries, eras or even something as ill-defined as “weirdness” in a moment.

The most substantial academic book on exploitation so far is Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics (2007) edited by Jeffrey Sconce. It features a variety of marquee names and up-to-code articles but the interesting thing is that while it does have some minor insights into the marginal film it proclaims Sleaze Artists displays much better the limitations and institutional flaws of academic writing. So you get bland writing styles, a fear of non-approved research (note how little original research is shown in this book or how rarely academics use sources outside academia), excessively nervous footnoting (only academics consider ideas plagiarizable), a belief that they’re being political (many like to “interrogate” topics as if they trained at Gitmo).

Now I’m not saying all academic writing shares these flaws but they flourish more than they should due to the system itself: a focus on writing instead of teaching, making writing a job requirement for people who really have no interest (or ability) in writing, an outdated tenure system that removes accountability, tempest-in-teapot political beliefs, a narrowness of approach that downplays research and so forth. The result are writers who smugly congratulate themselves on dealing with “disreputable” topics (count the number of times that word occurs), who think they’re subverting or even opposing a hegemonic system, who name-check an array of references apparently unaware how narrow these actually are. Certainly not everything in the book is like that - Matt Hills’ piece on the Friday the 13th movies balances thought with genuine fan feeling, Colin Gunckel traces the cultural roots of Mexican horror films and Eric Shaefer has a sturdy synopsis on marketing.

But look at Tania Modleski’s “Women’s Cinema as Counterphobic Cinema: Doris Wishman as the Last Auteur”. Now I was never quite sure why Wishman has attracted academic attention but reading this (or more precisely the notes) it occurred to me that the relative easy availability of her films and perhaps more importantly availability specifically presented as Wishman films gives her a higher profile than, say, tracking down Larry Buchanan or Andy Milligan work. Plus a woman director gives a hook, despite the fact that any differences between Wishman and most comparable sexploitation of the era barely exist if at all. To claim that Wishman was an auteur is ridiculous and certainly not the “last”. But this isn’t really an auteur analysis so much as an attempt to work through Modleski’s feelings about what she considers a misogynist genre or at least a genre which produced an unusually large percentage of misogynist films. Fair enough except that she’s so focused on, indeed blinded by, the idea of “violence directed against women” that she doesn’t think clearly, frequently returning to response criticism and ideas of how she wants the films to be. Basically she’s confusing films with reality, assuming that violence on-screen is as bad as violence off (or actually even assuming the violence on-screen is bad in any way at all), and that her reactions as a “sensitive” viewer reveal some flaw in the films, the genre and apparently Western civilization its own self. Guess it’s a good thing she hasn’t yet discovered pinku eiga.

Chris Fujiwara’s “Boredom, Spasmo and the Italian System” is very nearly a parody of academic writing though almost certainly he’s dead serious. He goes through several pages before even getting to the main topic, quoting or referencing Cioran, Mitry, Akerman, Metz, Warhol, Snow, Freud, Tarkovsky and others. It’s almost as if he’s putting on thick gloves before handling distasteful material. Of course it doesn’t matter that almost none of his references are relevant - he’s proving that he’s no fanboy. (Though to be honest he would almost surely write the same way even about Straub-Huillet.) Even this wouldn’t much matter is there was anything of interest in his attempt to link boredom to viewing certain types of film, which is after all an aspect that even b-movie buffs are very familiar with and, unrelatedly, has a political literature from the Situationists. But Fujiwara is spinning a big piece from a little theme and basically goes nowhere.

Chuck Kleinhans’ “Pornography and Documentary: Narrating the Alibi” has a similar approach even if it’s more successful overall. His basic idea is that voice-over narration (what he calls “sleazy narrator styles”) in mondo films--note that despite the title he isn’t really discussing porn which rarely has any narration at all--allows the film to avoid some attacks by linking it to conventional documentary. Not exactly a new insight (most viewers notice this but the most extensive treatment is in Mark Goodall’s Sweet & Savage: The World Through The Shockumentary Film Lens) and really a page or so can fill out all the implications. But here’s where the conventions of academic discourse get in the way. Allusion and compressed thought are not the order of the day so instead Kleinhans has to spin this out to around 20 pages. Fine if this is an extended essayist argument but again we’re dealing with an academic so it’s really just a lot of padding.

And to some degree that’s also true of Harry Benshoff on “homo-military Hollywood films” and Joan Hawkins on Todd Haynes. In these cases though the extensions actually do build or at least trace their argument even if these pieces also could have been much shorter and still covered the same ground. So if Kleinhans was 10 times longer than it needed to be these are only double or triple so that’s some improvement.

The book closes with an obtuse piece by Jeffrey Sconce that seems to be about, well I’m not quite sure. I think he’s arguing that it’s hard to be hip and that since people have always claimed that movies are dying that in fact they aren’t dying because they’ve claimed they’re dying. Talk about something that should have been left on the cutting room floor.