Can an exploitation movie be a great movie?

Can an exploitation movie be a great movie?

Recent graphic films from Django Unchained to Killer Joe to Zero Dark Thirty have Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias debating the line between arthouse and grindhouse, and whether either can cross over to the other.

Tasha: I’ll fess up, Scott: I’m glad I wasn’t the one pulling the short straw on reviewing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, because I walked out of that movie with a notably un-critical confusion about what I’d just seen and how I was going to sort out my sugar-rush ebullience from my overall feeling of griminess. Nathan Rabin’s review did an excellent job, in my opinion, of acknowledging the film’s allure and its major problems: On the one hand, it’s an edge-of-the-seat action movie, a beautifully shot piece of craftsmanship, and a satisfying revenge flick that sets up a bunch of bullies and bastards, then knocks them down in extravagant fashion. On the other, it’s an exploitation movie that takes open glee in sexual violence, racial caricature, torture, indiscriminate slaughter, and hyperbolic gore—all while taking a fairly standard faux-moral line of disapproving of such things, and punishing their progenitors. At least, when the progenitors are the bad guys. 

There’s no separating Tarantino from his references, and much of the past material he loves channeling in his work is steeped in pulp, trash, and sleaze. There wouldn’t be much to Django Unchained without all the crass excessiveness, particularly the outsized villains and the oversized wrongs done to the eponymous hero. But Tarantino, like so many exploitation directors before him, wallows in the excess. It isn’t enough to have a woman thrown into slavery and in need of rescue: The camera paws over her as she’s hung up by her arms and whipped by leering men, dragged naked across a field, humiliated and exposed at an aristocrat’s dinner table, turned into a weeping victim over and over. It isn’t enough for a hero to face death: As he’s hung upside down awaiting castration and cauterization with a red-hot iron, Tarantino lovingly zooms in on his sweat-drenched face and throbbing facial veins, and pans across his trembling naked body. Exploitation films are essentially hypocritical: They exist so people can revel in grotesqueries, then revel in watching them punished, generally with bigger and more lurid grotesqueries.

None of which changes the fact that Django Unchained is an exciting, breathless movie. But is it possible for a film this full of excess, this focused on panting, pornographic joy at human misery, to be a truly great film? It may be satisfying in the moment, but so is porn—and the satisfaction of porn fades very rapidly once it’s served its purpose. Can an exploitation movie be more than that, something with a positive legacy and a lasting effect? What do you think, noted torture-porn proponent Scott Tobias?

Scott: “Noted torture-porn proponent.” Now there’s something for my bio. But if you want to bring up “torture porn”—or “extreme cinema,” to use a less damning phrase—I’m happy to argue up this particular hill. To my mind, exploitation films (and outré genre pieces of all stripes) can and have been great, and the difficulties people have in getting past elements that make them morally itchy or uncomfortable often blind them to the films’ aesthetic and thematic values. Based strictly on merit, there’s no reason that an extreme-cinema classic like Takashi Miike’s Audition shouldn’t have taken down the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film: The first half is handled with great delicacy and humor, as a widower sets about “auditioning” young women for the role of his future wife. But the gearshift that follows—one that recalls Psycho, which would absolutely qualify as a great film that at least takes the form of drive-in exploitation—takes the film into extraordinarily disturbing territory, and only a fraction of the moviegoing public will want to continue that journey. The act of watching our genial protagonist suffer agonizing torture and mutilation is so disturbing on the surface that it might seem purposeless—or worse, some brazen appeal to sickos in the audience like “torture-porn proponent Scott Tobias.” But we forget that our hero actually has himself to blame here, and that his punishment, while crazily severe, comes as a result of his deceptive, sexist quest to “cast” an old-fashioned, demure, and virginal young woman as a mate. With exploitation films, you sometimes have to be willing to push through feelings of ickiness or revulsion to see the value in them—or even just to allow a complicated reaction like the one you had to Django Unchained.

Let me give you another example: Is there really much of a difference between Zero Dark Thirty and The Devil’s Rejects? Both are fundamentally about revenge and its consequences, and both ask audiences to accept “good guys” who use torture as a means to a righteous end. Yet Zero Dark Thirty takes the accepted form of a procedural thriller like All The President’s Men or Zodiac, a rigorous accounting of an investigative trail that finally led, after a decade of futility, to the world’s most wanted man. The Devil’s Rejects, for its part, is a nasty swig of rotgut, following a family of colorful sadists through all manner of face-peeling nastiness that, again, only a fraction of moviegoers could possibly withstand. But in following a CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) and a small-town sheriff (William Forsythe), respectively, in their obsessive quest for justice, the prevailing question of both movies is the same: Is it worth it? Is it worth the many dead bodies and the terrible moral compromises to achieve revenge?

That’s what many of Zero Dark Thirty’s critics are missing: They’re so hung up on the efficacy of torture—and the perception that the film confirms it, and is thus pro-torture—that they miss how much the film is about American compromise post-9/11, and how Osama bin Laden’s death isn’t the cleansing moment we might have expected. The Devil’s Rejects, for its part, goes even further in showing torture bringing its protagonist down to the level of his foul adversaries, and robbing him of all moral authority. It’s a complex piece of exploitation that, just by virtue of the extremity of its images, gets lumped into whatever genuine horror trash comes down the pike. And I think films like these need to be more deeply considered.

All that said, I fully understand your squirminess over Django Unchained, and am similarly grateful Nathan fell on that particular grenade. It’s been two weeks since I finally caught up with the film, and I’m still sorting through my feelings about it, even though I’m certain I liked it overall. As a historical revenge fantasy, it’s somehow more discomfiting than its companion Inglourious Basterds, which is saying something, given the earlier film’s cartoon revisionism of Hitler and Jewish extermination—matters that are supposed to be treated with gravity. But Tarantino’s focus on the men (and woman) taking fantastical revenge for Holocaust atrocities takes the reality of such atrocities off the board entirely, so the film is easier to accept as a splashy World War II adventure. Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a journey to the heart of darkness, landing deep in a Mississippi plantation where slaves are subject to unimaginable torments that Tarantino stages for maximum impact. “Mandingo fights,” the “hot box,” men and women in chains under the blistering sun, fugitives fed to the dogs: It’s all there, and Tarantino wields these abuses like a poker to burning embers, within not only Jamie Foxx as Django, but an audience that’s primed for him to bloody up the joint. And unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Tarantino has no qualms about the act of revenge—and, in fact, wants to make it as pleasurable for the audience as possible. 

I’d like to go on about the film’s real virtues—specifically, the audacious-to-the-point-of-madness creation that is Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave, and the character’s engagement with the racial conversation of today—but I’ll throw it back to you first. We are known for disagreeing with each other on many occasions, Tasha, but I don’t think there was a starker example this year than William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a thriller that I appreciated as a nasty, hilarious, Southern-fried riff on Double Indemnity and you found somewhat distasteful. Do you have a threshold for movies like Killer Joe? Was the content just too extreme for you to withstand? Or would you be willing to accept whatever the film dished out if you felt it was thematically justified or redeemed in some way? 

Tasha: I take it “found somewhat distasteful” is your polite, or possibly consciously facetious, euphemism for “left after the film ended feeling furious, nauseated, and violated, and have since gone out of the way to warn friends of mine not to see Killer Joe under any circumstances.” Yes, part of that is a tolerance issue. We’ve long known I have less tolerance than you do for graphically depicted human misery, and much less respect than you do for films that trade in it. But yes, I’m more willing to accept extreme content from a film that uses it for a purpose. The infamous graphic 10-minute anal rape in Irréversible (and the stomach-churning act of revenge that opens the film, and the rest of the degradation the movie purposefully wallows in) was grueling, but that film has stuck with me more for Gaspar Noé’s innovative direction—the chronologically backward storytelling, the unsettling spinning camera, the startling colors—than for the violence. And I see the value and the art of Audition, even while feeling that it spends at least twice as much time on the torture sequences as it needs to in order to fully, thoroughly make its point.

But for me, the primary issue with Killer Joe is that it sacrifices all forward momentum and plot development in favor of ghoulish, over-the-top extremism. Much like Bug, William Friedkin’s previous horrific collaboration with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts, it goes further than just depicting misery. The act of twisted sexual violence that serves as Killer Joe’s final turning point goes on for what seems like an eternity, focusing on the victim’s humiliation and suffering and the perpetrator’s control. But what did we learn from it, other than that the perpetrator is a sick bastard with strange moral conceits? What, exactly, was the point? Until that moment, Killer Joe is a gripping gothic noir. Then it devolves into its showboating act of emotional violence, and shortly thereafter, it wraps up with a deliberately ambiguous ending. The whole sequence was a smirky betrayal of an impeccably crafted setup, a much more effective spurning of audience expectations than Michael Haneke’s in Funny Games. So yes, it’s exploitative, but the real problem was that it began as a more interesting film, then sold itself out for shock value. Which is so often the problem with exploitation films: When it comes down to the rape or the torture, the filmmakers take much more interest than they did with the setup.

Zero Dark Thirty does the opposite, by starting with the shock scenes, then spending the rest of the film rising above them and betraying its more significant interests. The torture scenes in that film aren’t presented for squirmy titillation. The focus isn’t on the victim’s lovingly rendered pain, or the torturer’s glee; anyone looking to get their rocks off on those scenes is bound to be distracted by the discomfiture of reluctant witness Jessica Chastain, as she fights down her urge to vomit. I’m with you on feeling that pundits who are furious because the film is pro- or anti-torture are having a hard time getting past those scenes’ emotional quality (at least, the ones who’ve actually seen the movie), but that’s beside the point as far as this Crosstalk goes. The issue at hand is, no one’s arguing that Zero Dark Thirty is exploitation cinema because it only has a few scenes of torture amid a two-and-a-half-hour film largely dedicated to procedural and process that would bore the socks off any gorehounds who showed up just hoping to see some lovingly rendered pain.

I can’t speak to how this compares with The Devil’s Rejects, since I purposefully avoided that film, out of the understanding that it was exactly the sort of wall-to-wall droolingly depicted graphic-violence fest that trips my “exploitation” trigger. So I can’t argue it with you critically. But I can say that just the fact that it has the same message as Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t make it an equal film; approach, intent, ambition, and execution count for so much more than a message. It’s nice to hear that Rejects acknowledges that revenge quests may lead to moral compromises, but the knowledge that that message is there doesn’t make me any more interested in seeking out its reportedly lengthy scenes of a character getting flayed alive. There is, as I said in the opener, an awful lot of hypocrisy in films that decry violence and punish violent people by first depicting their violence in close, lurid detail, and then depicting their punishment in similar lurid detail.

So how do you, as an extreme-cinema fan, get around that hypocrisy? Why do explicitly depicted agonies have such an allure for you? And if the exploration of moral compromise and the dehumanizing effects of violence are a saving grace for you in exploitation cinema, how do you personally justify your enjoyment of Django Unchained, where the message is more like, “Revenge is totes awesome and empowering”?

Scott: “We’ve long known I have less tolerance than you do for graphically depicted human misery, and much less respect than you do for films that trade in it.” “Why do explicitly depicted agonies have such an allure for you?” I have to say, you’re making me look pretty bad here, Tasha, so let me address my sickness right off the bat. I’ve said it elsewhere before, but I think the trailer for 2012—approved for all audiences—is more appalling than anything I’ve witnessed in a “torture-porn” movie. (Save maybe for A Serbian Film, which is its own special brand of deplorable.) I’m constantly amazed by how much tongue-clucking happens over imagery in horror movies while we’re perfectly happy witnessing the bloodless, digital annihilation of giant swaths of the population without batting an eye. How is it not more perverse for audiences to embrace the fantasy of near-total oblivion as a popcorn movie and reject those films that, in your view, trade in human misery? 

Quentin Tarantino once said, quoting Brian De Palma, that you get penalized for doing violence well. And that’s the real difference, to my mind: We tend to object to violence when it affects us most deeply, which is the opposite of how things should be. I’m going to weaken my case a bit by conceding that the infamous KFC scene in Killer Joe does the film more harm than good, because it sours what had been a rip-snorting comedy of human venality. (Though it sounds to me like your horror over this one scene led you to drop the entire movie from a great height, which means denying its many merits.) But if you want to talk exploitation films generally and “torture porn” specifically, I think there’s value in seeing how the horror films of the ’00s have reflected the times more boldly than conventional docudramas. Franchises like Saw and Hostel may be dubious—I’m more appreciative of the latter—but they’re as stained by the darkness of their time (the reality of torture, the fear of hostility overseas) as crime pictures after World War II. And moreover, their agonies register: These are not anonymous digital deaths that we accept without a second thought, but a visceral reminder that we’re supposed to be repulsed by such things. Does that mean all these films handle violence responsibly? Of course not. But casting them all out as the province of sickos isn’t fair, and smacks of hypocrisy. 

To bring us back to the question of exploitation movies and whether they can be great, I’d like to pose this heresy: Sensation is its own reward. As critics, we often feel the need to justify the pleasure exploitation movies offer us by noting some redemptive theme that may or may not be present. (Witness me doing just that in the previous paragraph.) Or, in your case, doubting the possibility that exploitation movies can be great because there’s always something fundamentally objectionable about them. But cinema from its inception has been around to excite the senses—it’s a wonderfully and dangerously alluring medium, and credit must be given to filmmakers who know that instinctually. Tarantino’s decision to embrace full-on, cathartic revenge scenarios in movies like Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained may fairly be criticized as juvenile, but like all great sinful things, they’re shamefully satisfying.

I think there’s a lot going on in Django Unchained—its contribution to the discussion on race, as it applies both to the American Western and the actual America of 2012, is substantial—but the real reason we talk about Tarantino so much every time he makes a movie is that his films are audacious and pleasurable purely on an aesthetic level. Style can be its own form of nourishment, apart from other considerations. And that’s why Tarantino’s films give people fits: If they were mere exploitation trash, the sum of their lurid perversions, they could be tossed into the bin. But the fact that they play so masterfully on the senses—something we should want movies to do—makes them impossible to dismiss so easily. Exploitation movies may, by their nature, have some impediments that keep some audiences from embracing them wholly, but tastefulness can be a much greater impediment. We’re in love with a sinful medium, the good-looking one with the pack of smokes under its sleeve. We should be honest with ourselves about that.