Sunday, June 2, 2013

John Landis: Part One of Many

Will I watch any documentary featuring John Landis? So far the answer is yes. He was the best part of the otherwise meh The Man Off Screen, a doc about Edgar G. Ulmer, I saw a while back.

Every time I see Landis talk about film, I think how I would love to either take a film class with him or just have him as a neighbor so we could watch movies together all the time. Of course, he's not the only film scholar-director out there. Peter Bogdanovich comes to mind immediately. But Landis has such a boyish, uncynical passion for film, all the while remaining utterly unimpressed with Hollywood hackery. He has the kind of giddy gravitas which makes me swoon.

Anyway, Landis appears as a talking head in American Grindhouse, a new-ish doc about the history of American 'exploitation' film, itself a term that is somewhat contentious- film scholars themselves don't agree on what exactly makes a film exploitation.

American Grindhouse takes us all the way from the pre-code era, when sex, violence and drugs were commonplace in American film, to the time of Deep Throat, when hard core porn stole the turf out from under 'exploitation' films as a commercially viable genre. Once you could show it all, there wasn't as much need for the sublimations and work arounds (ie: extreme violence and sadism performed on women as a substitute for intercourse) which were the standard tropes of exploitation films.

In between the pre-code days and Deep Throat lie some pretty interesting, and frankly, repulsive, corners of American popular culture. What makes these exploitation films all the more interesting is that because much of the genre was disposable and ephemeral, it's mostly disappeared from the cultural radar. In the digital era of Netflix and Hulu+ Criterion, we fool ourselves into thinking we've got everything at our fingertips. And though I'm not crying over the inaccessibility of so much sadistic crap. American Grindhouse was an interesting reminder of how much of American cinema history is now inaccessible so much so as to be lost. 

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