Too Sordid To Ever Be Corrupted


“How could you have possibly enjoyed that movie?”

I hate that question.  I hate the self-righteous tone of it.  I hate the demand that I justify anything that I choose to do with my life.  I hate the implication of the question, the suggestion that somehow there is some sort of moral force at the center of the universe that determines whether or not a movie can be enjoyed.

Unfortunately, no matter how obviously justified I am in loathing that question, it’s still one that I am frequently asked.  How can I not only enjoy watching old school exploitation and grindhouse films (the majority of which were made before I was even born) but also devote a good deal of my time to not only watching these movies but tracking them down and then telling the rest of the world how much I love them?

(Of course, what they’re really asking is what are you doing watching exploitive trash like House On The Edge of the Park or Fight For Your Life when you should be out finding a husband, driving an SUV, and living a life of quiet desperation?)

First off, I should confess.  I have commitment issues, I know it.  I realize that, as a result of some personal experiences in the past, that I tend to beg for affection and attention even while I’m putting up my own invisible wall to keep anyone from getting too close.  It’s not easy for me to trust but, after writing for this site since May, I feel like maybe it’s time to share a little bit more about me.  Hi.  My name is Lisa Marie.  I’m 24.  I have three older sisters that I love.  I’m a proud to be an Irish-German-Spanish-Italian-American.  I lived in five different states before I was 13 and I’m rarely amused when people point out the country twang in my voice.  Up until I was 17, ballet was my life but then I fell down a flight of stairs, broke my ankle in two places, and that was the end of that.  I worked very hard to earn a degree in Art History.  Not surprisingly, my current job has nothing to do with art or history.  I have asthma and heterochromia (my right eye is a darker shade of green than the left).  I’m blind without my contacts.  I like cats, driving fast, and being single.  I dislike dogs, needy men, and those tiny little smart cars.  The only thing that can equal my love for the Grindhouse is my hatred for the Mainstream.

Here’s a few reasons why.

1) Before Independent Film, there was the Grindhouse.

Today, if a young director wants to show what he’s capable of doing, he makes his own little film and enters it into various film festivals and, if he’s made something interesting, he might sign a distribution deal and his film might pop up down here in Dallas at the Angelika theater.  In the 70s, that young director would make an exploitation film, hope that it had enough sleaze appeal to make back its budget by playing in a New York Grindhouse (or a Southern drive-in) and, if he had made something interesting, his cheap, exploitation film might eventually end up being released on DVD by Anchor Bay or Blue Underground.  The best Grindhouse films were made by director who were eager to show what they were capable of doing.  These movies were not made by multimillionaires with houses on both coasts of the country.  Grindhouse movies were made by director who had to work to create something memorable, filmmakers who knew that they might never get another chance to put their vision on-screen.

2) The Mainstream Lies.  The Grindhouse is honest.

Mainstream films are just that.  They are films designed to appeal to the widest possible audience.  A mainstream movie is not made for you.  A Mainstream movie is made to appeal to the brain-dead suburbanites who can be easily recruited at the local mall to be a part of a test screening.  A Mainstream movie is made to be inoffensive.  A Mainstream movie is edited and re-edited to remove anything that could possibly negatively reflect on the bottom line.

Grindhouse movies, however, didn’t have time for that.  Grindhouse movies were made to exploit the moment.  As a result, there was no time to worry about appealing to everyone.  There was no time to constantly edit until not a single rough edge remained.  Grindhouse films are messy.  Grindhouse films are not always pleasant.  They don’t always have the perfect ending.  In short, Grindhouse movies are like life itself.

In the end, safe and inoffensive mainstream movies are made to appeal to the who we wish we were.  Grindhouse movies — sordid, sometimes uncomfortable, and always appealing to the audience’s most primal thoughts, fears , and desires — are made to appeal to who we actually are.

3) The Mainstream is bland.  The Grindhouse is dangerous and unpredictable.

Where else but in a Grindhouse film could you hear a killer who speaks like a duck like in Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper?  Because the Grindhouse was free of the need to try to fit in with what the mainstream decreed to be normal, the Grindhouse had the freedom to come up with some of the most brilliantly demented plots in the history of film.  When was the last time that the plot of a Mainstream film really caught you off guard?  I’m not talking about safe, inoffensive surprises like Avatar‘s 3-D effects.  I’m talking about a plot where, halfway through, you look at your fellow viewer and you both say, “What the fuck was that!?”  Anything can happen in the Grindhouse.  As soon as things start to feel safe and a little boring, the Grindhouse has the ability to make things exciting again.  The Mainstream, meanwhile, just asks you to get married.

4) The Mainstream always condescends.  The Grindhouse occasionally empowers.

Here’s a story of two movies.  In the mainstream Brave One, Jodie Foster gets a gun after she’s raped and her dog is stolen.  (In typical mainstream fashion, the movie doesn’t seem to be sure which crime is supposed to be worse.)  In the grindhouse Ms. 45, Zoe Tamerlis gets a gun after she’s raped twice in one day.  In the Brave One, Foster passively sits on the New York subway and waits until she threatened with rape a second time before she kills the potential rapist.  In Ms. 45, Tamerlis shoots every man she sees because she knows that every man she sees is a potential rapist.  In The Brave One, Foster gets her revenge by remaining the victim.  In Ms. 45, Tamerlis becomes the aggressor.  Both Foster and Tamerlis act in self-defense but Foster is wracked with guilt because the mainstream cannot risk losing its audience.  Tamerlis becomes stronger and more confident with each murder as, for the first time, she has found a way to control her own destiny.  At the end of The Brave One, Foster is not only rescued by a man but she gets her dog back too.  At the end of Ms. 45, Tamerlis goes on a shooting rampage at a Halloween party and is finally killed by another woman.  The Brave One‘s tag line was “How many wrongs to make it right?”  Ms. 45’s tagline: “She was used and abused and it will never happen again!”

I know this is probably going to be my most controversial argument.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we should just go out and start randomly shooting men.  But, I will say this — in Ms. 45, Zoe Tamerlis refuses to be a victim and she — and the film — refuses to let society off the hook.  When I think about Ms. 45, it doesn’t inspire me to hate men (because, trust me, I don’t) and it certainly doesn’t inspire me to grab a gun and start shooting.  It does, however, inspire me to not allow myself to fall into that never-ending cycle of victimhood.

I’m not attempting to argue that Grindhouse films are secretly feminist films.  Grindhouse films are infamous for exploiting women.  However, so does the mainstream.  (Of the two films, The Brave One features nudity.  Ms. 45 does not.)  Both the Grindhouse and the mainstream obviously get off on victimizing women.  However, in the Grindhouse, women were occasionally (though certainly not often) allowed to fight back with the same aggression and determination that the mainstream, for the most part, usually reserves just for men.

(If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had been released in the 70s, it would have played at the Grindhouse.)

5) Lastly, and most importantly, the Grindhouse is still our little secret.

Let’s just admit it — independent films are trendy.  Contemporary independent films have, to a large extent, become the new mainstream.  The earnest film students who had a Sundance hit are now going to Hollywood to make the next Benjamin Button.  Sundance is just ShoWest with more facial hair.  However, the old school grindhouse will never sell out because it no longer exists.  It was destroyed by the morality police before it could sacrifice its soul.  While an independent filmmaker is just a director who will eventually grow up and break your heart, the great Grindhouse films are frozen in time, too sordid to ever be corrupted.  The Mainstream will never embrace the Grindhouse and for that reason, the Grindhouse will always be the ultimate statement of freedom.

19 responses to “Too Sordid To Ever Be Corrupted

  1. I do believe this is the most controversial posting you have made to date. I agree with some of your points. Especially how grindhouse is definitely more honest than mainstream and how it doesn’t condescend to the audience. I will say that grindhouse does, at times, pander to the more base emotions and taste of the audience.

    For some people this is why they would never embrace the grindhouse experience. Some may call this attitude as a form of elitism (something I subscribe and not just to how grindhouse cinema is treated, but all forms of art that gets dismissed for not being “artful” enough).

    I’m a fan of all forms of films whether it’s mainstream, independent (or what comes across independent nowadays) or the few “grindhouse” films that still get made. I do think that not all mainstream are safe in how it treats its audience. One filmmaker who I think never tries to condescend in his treatment of the audience is Michael Mann.

    His track record when it comes to his body of work is not perfect. People definitely don’t like some of his choices in projects the last couple of years, but even when his films haven’t connected with the audience he doesn’t try to adapt to make his films more to their liking. He continues to do things his way even if it means he gets panned for it (his love-affair with HD cameras has surely alienated many of his fans).

    As for filmmakers from mainstream and grindhouse being two different breeds I would disagree on that point. To me filmmakers are one and the same whether they’re the kind who live off blockbuster tentpole films, arthouse types, Oscar-baiters or stuck doing genre projects. In the end, if given the chance to make a film for a major studio and get paid lots of money for it even the grindhouse filmmakers of the 70’s and 80’s would accept in a heartbeat.

    It’s not mainstream which has killed off the grindhouse experience in the cinema but the corporatization of the film industry. There’s so much money flowing through these studios both big and small that a filmmaker so used to having little to no budget can suddenly get millions to do a studio film if someone in said studio decides to take a chance.

    Good article and definitely one that should make film fans of all stripes think about the health and status of cinema past, present and future.

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    • As for pandering to the baser instincts of the audience, I think that’s what makes the Grindhouse an honest form of art. Because, in the end, everyone has the same purient instincts to one degree or another.

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      • That’s true and I’m definitely one who doesn’t mind being pandered too. 🙂

        I will say that not all mainstream filmmakers go by the corporate checklist when doing their films. I definitely don’t think Darren Aronofsky even lets any of the studio people to have a say in how his films turn out. Same goes for some of the younger filmmakers like Edgar Wright, Neill Blomkamp (his decision to decline to direct The Hobbit definitely shows he wants nothing to do with large studio projects) and Neil Marshall.

        I think just like with any form of entertainment one has to sift through the corporate dreck to find the uncompromised filmmakers. With those whose work have defined what was the grindhouse experience were both good and bad, but did so much work that they all began to blur together that one couldn’t distinguish what was good work and what was bad.

        Fulci is one great example. He did some excellent cinema but his last few projects were also some of his worst which, for some, tainted his legacy. The same goes for Romero whose films from the late 60’s all the way to the mid-80’s were some of the best pure example of indepedent horror, but his current streak of average to below-average work has even his most ardent fans thinking he has lost a step and been left behind while youngbloods who gre up on his work have taken the reins.

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        • Well, Fulci’s last films were terrible but I still consider them to be more pure than most mainstream films. Because even though Fulci no longer had the resources to really create his vision, enough of that vision was still there. Am I arguing that the Sweet House of Horrors is a better movie than, just for example, the A-Team?

          (I bet you thought I was going to say Avatar, didn’t you?)

          Well, for me, it is. Because even though Sweet House of Horrors is technically a terrible a movie, there’s a purity to it.

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          • I will shock you and say yes. I say thing because for all the improbable and against the laws of physics The A-Team showed it actually seemed like it was something straight out of 80’s action. It’s why I thought it was better than The Losers. Joe Carnahan has been a very hit-or-miss filmmaker but he’s one if the few that actually does things his way even if it means creating a film that the studio funding it will treat like toxic waste (no marketing/ad push and dropping it in bad film seasons). 🙂

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          • Really, it’s all a matter of taste. I think the worst thing anyone can do is fall into the line of thinking that says, “If I am a film fan, I have to like or name drop anyone whether its James Cameron, Lucio Fulci, Jean-Luc Godard, or Herschel Gordon Lewis.”

            Every viewer brings their own unique set of experiences to any movie and those experiences will always play a role in how one percieves the film. For instance, I’ve never been shy to admit that a lot of my love for exploitation films is that I see bits of my own emotional nature and chaotic childhood reflected back at me in the unstable, often over-the-top aesthetic of those movies. How much of my love for Ms. 45 is due to the film’s quality and how much of it is due to my experiences with psycho, evil ex-boyfriend stalker boy? It’s a legitimate question.

            That said, I still think the mainstream is destructive in general and should be attacked whenever possible. 🙂

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          • Oh, I think pushing mainstream to veer away from the corporatization and cookie-cutter templates that’s become the norm for the past 30 years is always a good and healthy thing. I just think it also must be tempered lest the gems that do come out of the mainstream cinema scene get ignored. 🙂

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          • LOL, no..Avatar is a mainstream gem for those who like it but not a gem in the classic sense. Now, a mainstream film like LOTR trilogy to me is a gem in the classic sense. It’s both something epic enough to satisfy the corporate heads but doesn’t pander or condescend to its audience. Jackson made the film he wanted and it may actually have burned him out that his last couple films have either been just good or panned.

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          • I don’t consider LOTR to be a mainstream film. Its a Grindhouse film in that it was made by a grindhouse director — which Peter Jackson was at the time and may still be, more evidence needs to be seen — who just happened to trick the Mainstream into helping him out.

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  2. I like Michael Mann, actually but most of his films are really just big budget grindhouse films.

    I think we do agree with each other to a certain extent. I think mainstream directors have, to a certain extent, become corporate officers. Yes, there are a few who have remained true to their vision. Martin Scorsese, for instance, is mainstream and to be honest, so is Quentin Tarantino really. But I can’t say that either one of them has sold out.

    But then you take into consideration a director like whoever directed that Valentine’s Day film and that sort of thing and there you have an example of a director who makes a movie the same way that a corporate vice president makes whatever it is that they make.

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  4. This is just about the best damn essay/blog post I’ve ever read, and sums up so many of the reasons why I love the grindhouse, as well. It’s brutally, inescapably honest cinema, often buried under layers of genre trappings sure, but it’s much less concerned about pussy-footing around the key issues than the uninitiated would expect. It’s often heartless in its directness, but after dealing with people all day who are deathly afraid to say what’s really on their mind (the motto of modern American life might as well be the old Oasis line “There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how”) an evening in front of a good exploitation flick or three is welcome relief from life’s chickenshit superficiality.
    As far as today’s cinema marketplace goes, I actually think the big-budget blockbusters are the most direct legacy of the grindhouse, I mean, “Jaws” was the birth of the modern blockbuster, and it’s just a grindhouse flick with a big budget. While the indie filmmakers are peddling their increasingly pretentious and empty wares to a smaller and smaller share of the market, and being lauded for style over substance, on occasion — not too often, but on occasion — a truly personal cinematic vision comes out of the Hollywood machine. One of the reasons I loved “Sucker Punch” so much is because it feels like Zack Snyder took Hollywood’s $100 million and pissed in their face, for instance. And there’s something a lot more honest about, say, Michael Mann, who you guys mention above, than there is about most indie “auteurs” out there. Which is not to say that most of what comes out of the Hollywood meat grinder these days isn’t rancid tripe. Of course it is. But there are glimmers of promise on occasion, and it’s beenw ay too long since the “indie” world gave us any of those.
    Finally, I’m totally with you that appealing to the prurient interest, as the grindhouse did, is fundamentally honest. Almost all of us have the same basic urges — so much for our vaunted individuality and uniqueness — and it’s no sin to zero in on those and ride ’em for allthey’re worth.
    Great fucking post — just great.

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