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A pop-doc about the American exploitation film, 2010's American Grindhouse is a rather cursory overview of eighty-odd years of "alternative" moviemaking, lavishly illustrated with film clips and edited at a breakneck pace. It's like looking at the back pages of Playboy pictorials on risqué movies, combined with healthy (or unhealthy) doses of what's really hiding in the back catalogues of disk hawkers like Something Weird and Sinister Cinema. Writer-producer-director Elijah Drenner leaves no film can unturned in his search for whatever sleazy thrills were knocking movie patrons dead, from the nickelodeon days to sometime in the 1970s, when all-out pornography put most exploitation filmmaking out of business. That's really a matter of opinion, of course. I'd say that the business split in two. Hardcore porn went its own way while all the other varieties of exploitation -- softer sex, violence, gore, monsters, drugs, sleazy comedy -- came to dominate mainstream Hollywood moviemaking.
American Grindhouse purports to tell the whole truth of historical exploitation right from the start. One of the show's taglines is, "Giving them what they want since the dawn of motion pictures", so we begin with the old adage that the first movie camera was barely invented before the inventor talked his girlfriend into taking her clothes off. We're shown clips of early films deemed shocking -- 'exotic' dances, faked executions, that sort of thing -- before the doc speeds ahead to touch bases with at least twenty filmic trends of the twentieth century. The focus is on attractions widely distributed to the public, not peep-show pictures or stag films. The basic problem of the exploitation producer, in the words of gore-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis, is to think of a subject that the big studios can't or won't show, that a theater will show, and that the audience wants to see. In 1913, an entire studio was founded on the profits from a supposed anti-white slavery film called Traffic in Souls.
Skipping lightly over the 1920s, American Grindhouse gets out its chalk and blackboard to explain the politics of the pre- and post- Production Code era. Before the 1934 Code enforcement Hollywood pictures could be pretty daring, and we see several examples of gratuitous undressing scenes and even nudity in mainstream product. The Production Code made the exploitation racket possible. Not long after MGM's scandalous Freaks was pulled from distribution, an enterprising producer licensed it and exhibited it around the country wherever the local ordinances were lax. With the Code clampdown, wildly unsavory pictures about sex, drugs, unwed mothers, child brides and gory maniacs cleaned up by promising forbidden thrills un-seeable in normal theaters. Like carnival hucksters, the producers exploited every angle available. In the 1940s, "educational" films made huge fortunes with scenes of live childbirth. Feature compilations of strip-show acts with famous burlesque stars also made the rounds -- if the live performances weren't censorable, how could a movie of the same thing be prohibited?
The docu spreads its net wider in the 1950s, bringing in teen delinquency pix and monster movies, legit genres only tangentially related to 'forbidden' exploitation filmmaking. Then come the nudie-cuties (Russ Meyer), the roughies, gore films, sick Nazi fantasies and soft-core filmmaking that eventually taps out in 1973 when hardcore pornography reaches an uncommon level of acceptability with Deep Throat. American Grindhouse includes Biker films, psychedelia, more horror fare and blaxploitation pictures because they were exhibited in grindhouse theaters, as seen in Midnight Cowboy. Grindhouses ran 24 hours a day and were often frequented by street people looking for a place to sleep, or have sex.
American Grindhouse is constructed like a cable docu, the kind designed to combat channel surfers or ADHD cases; the cuts come at a breakneck pace and no film clip stays on the screen for more than a few seconds. Bad docus of this kind source their clips from the public domain, often film trailers, but Grindhouse largely sticks with high-quality film sources. I didn't know that the notorious 1934 Maniac ever looked this good, even if all we see is thirty seconds of a cleverly faked scene of a cat's eye being gouged out. The same goes for the bits of 60s Russ Meyer pictures, Herschell Gordon Lewis gore shows, etc.. And yes, American Grindhouse is stacked with wall-to-wall nudity. Strangely enough, the older the film, the sexier is the 'forbidden' sex content. That's an illusion, I'm sure. And those burlesque strippers must have been a hardy, practical show-biz breed.
Elijah Drenner is also a main editor on the show, and he uses his many interview subjects well. They're evenly divided between a few surviving practitioners and modern-day filmmakers, with the expected helping of authors, pundits and film scholars thrown in to explain various historical points. Vintage schlock merchants include Don Edmonds (Ilse, She-Wolf of the S.S.), Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinders), Larry Cohen, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Jack Hill. Among newer players Joe Dante explains how his Piranha ripped off Jaws and the still-disturbing David Hess accompanies some ugly outtakes from A HREF ="http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s575house.html">The Last House on the Left. Fred Williamson explains how he learned to "steal" shots on the street from the master of urban guerilla filmmaking Larry Cohen. Noir expert and genial on-camera presence Eddie Muller does his best to put the various levels of exploitation venality into perspective. Offering enthusiastic comments on just about everything is John Landis, whose infectious sense of humor provides welcome comedy relief. He also comes up with some pertinent observations -- Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is the latest real grindhouse gore film.
Although the curious won't need any more encouragement, American Grindhouse is recommended to viewers who enjoyed such uninhibited past documentary efforts as Ted Bonnitt's ode to David Friedman and Dan Sonney Mau Mau Sex Sex, and Mark Hartley's uncensored look at Australian exploitation Not Quite Hollywood. American Grindhouse is more superficial than either of those docus, but it can boast a wider purview and an envious assortment of 'forbidden' film clips. I lost count during the end credits, but the docu's 82 minutes reference over 200 separate shows.
Lorber Films' DVD of American Grindhouse is a fine quality enhanced encoding of this finished-on-video feature docu. The slick visual treatment -- plenty of text-laden graphic scene transitions -- is matched by an active soundtrack. Jason Brandt provides new music for the opening montage, a collage of jumpy visuals that launch the show in fine style.
Like a carnival sideshow, the extras section has plenty of trailers, radio spots and historical photos to attract the curious, along with extended and unused interview material. In the eight-minute featurette Feel the Grind: The Making of American Grindhouse, filmmakers Elijah Drenner and Dan Greene explain how they began in 2001 making a docu focusing on Jack Hill. That slowly evolved to take in other exploitation filmmakers and finally the entirety of the subject.
Robert Forster provides the film's narration, a fact confirmed everywhere. So when I hear his voice, why do I keep thinking of Tom Bosley?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Grindhouse rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.