Degraded, And Not In The Fun Way

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We are all drowning in an ocean of weak tea

It is incumbent upon a critic working in the year 2021 to maintain a healthy skepticism toward overly romanticised views of the past, difficult as the archival stills of Times Square marquees from the ‘70s might make that for us. No point in the history of cinema feels more like an impossible dream to connoisseurs of low-rent filth and fringe curiosities; such gorgeous, fetid multiplexes as the Victory, once a temple to porno that attracted Travis Bickle for a disastrous date and now an off-Broadway theatre for (egads!) kids and families, ran cheapo Z-movies in double bills catering to carnality and bloodlust. An average afternoon might see Matt Cimber’s hardcore farce Sex and Astrology going back-to-back with Zoltan G. Spencer’s soon-to-be-lost The Satanist, a spatter film of a different bodily fluid. This isn’t sentimentality, but fact — there was once a robust system of public exhibition for X-rated or otherwise transgressive releases, if mostly in urban centres, and now there is not. 

The vast array of oddities collected under the umbrella term of ‘exploitation film’ and the physical spaces dedicated to their showcasing offered sanctuary to the distinct breed of viewer that made them profitable. The dark of the matinee didn’t just supply them with a spot to masturbate in peace, it was also a respite from the forces that compelled them to spurn the cultural mainstream for something wilder. Neither corporatism, compulsive heterosexuality, close-mindedness, nor politeness had much purchase in this dank milieu, all traits rightly recognized as boring rather than virtuous. While the atmosphere was not quite cuddly, an attitude of welcoming and acceptance still prevailed, with ordinary folks made out to be perverts and sickos in everyday life having come for the affirmation that their tastes for sex and violence were in fact harmless, perfectly natural fun.

That this paradigm of spectatorship would eventually change now looks inevitable, as the internet rose in prominence to revolutionize the mechanics of both film circulation and onanism. Prior to that killing blow for the grindhouse, networks of enthusiasts took shape to give films with no place in above-board society a loyal following. Collectors, fan clubs, independent theaters and college film societies traded hard-to-find reels of titles that would alienate most people, originating the concept of the cult film and creating a community around it along the way. Though this phenomenon hasn’t vanished completely, it has been driven into sterile, depersonalized new realms, split between the insular isolation of file-sharing torrent sites, the buttoned-up primness of the museum or repertory cinema, and the ironic detachment of the midnight screening. The occasional Mandy, Knife + Heart, or The Twentieth Century will sneak into existence and cater to more rarefied palates, issuing a valuable reminder that what some call ‘distasteful’ is no more than a lifestyle choice. When they do appear, films of this liberated temperament stand out as exceptions to rather than products of the apparatuses that finance and distribute movies, far from the stream of deviancy once generated at factory pace and shown week in and week out.

In any case, a certain element of danger has been lost, and its charm with it. The rare, heartening emergence of a new film with the unwieldy idiosyncrasy required for cult potential is threatened by today’s absolute accessibility. Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair resonated with a Venn diagram of Gen-Z and trans cinephiles, two groups still on the margins, but that could change with the impending shunt onto HBO Max. Orphaned studio productions in the vein of Under the Silver Lake or The Empty Man benefit from a measure of obscurity for a while, until critics spreading the good word get it back on the general radar. This is all fine, for the most part, a battle that enthusiasts of all things strange, profane, or excessive can bear to accept that they’ve lost. Each year brings a few specimens in the misshapen mold of a Possessor or Bacurau to those willing to find it, and those morsels can be subsisted upon with older supplements to round out the viewing diet.

What’s not fine is the insidious effort to fill this vacuum by the very forces that cleared it out. The major studios, having funneled all of Earth’s money into their coffers through an annual handful of multi-hundred-million-dollar franchise-related paydays and/or the boardroom jockeying of venture capital, now want only for critical respect and the street cred of coolness. As the fanbases of superheroes and their ilk try their darndest to demand these markers of validity, raising an uproar every time a tentpole dips below the Certified Fresh line on Rotten Tomatoes and tweet-swarming those with the temerity to diverge from this enforced consensus, the films themselves have begun to meet them halfway. A troubling trend has taken shape, in which conglomerate output affects the appearance of exploitation and its adjacent traditions, without any of the underlying motivations or aesthetic daring that might threaten mass marketability. 

Because we’ve reached a juncture where the top earners of any given year have become basically interchangeable (2019’s box-office top 10 consists of two Disney remakes, four superhero pictures, and four sequels), studios must reach ever-further to make their hawked wares sound interesting. Each new Marvel objet d’IP bills itself as something else in an attempt to realize the dream of being taken seriously: either a paranoid ‘70s thriller or buddy comedy or, saints preserve us, an Ozu film with mutants. Most offensive of all are the ones that try to leech their legitimacy from the strain of films originally conceived as rebuttal to this exact mode of desexualized, focus-group-approved filmmaking, borrowing only their GIF-able, screenshottable surfaces. Doctor Strange required some measure of the weird to sell its title, but its mind-bending psychedelia was safely confined to a few-minute window of the film, where it wouldn’t throw off those less inclined to the abstract.  

This neutering, dilution, and re-presentation of meaningful filmic lineages lies at the heart of The Mouse House’s campaign to sell America on every success for a second time, in either live-action form or photorealistic animation so lifelike it might as well be. It’s little wonder that this era of production began with Tim Burton’s faux-goth, faux-whimsical, faux-everything Alice in Wonderland. No one has done more to domesticate the look and ethic of out-there cinema, set on a pilgrim’s regress from the German Expressionist outsider lament Edward Scissorhands to the CGI-slathered eyesores now weighing down this end of his filmography. Burton is the ideal stooge for the studio’s bulldozing influence, bringing a recognizable visual signature (black-and-white stripes, curling embellishments, a holistic Hot Topic chic) that can be easily divorced from its context and overlaid on whichever assembly-line unit the studio pleases. The live-action remake Dumbo harkened back to early Burton with its vision of a ramshackle carnival, and touched on his pet theme of outcasts craving a sense of belonging. But it did so disingenuously, passing off indistinct merchandise from one of the planet’s richest companies as a haven for losers and freaks, the trade of Burton’s hand-hewn production design for vague pre-viz ugliness being the dead giveaway.

The more recent Cruella strikes this same inharmonious chord, again corrupting the visual legacy of transgression to bolster an unconvincing depiction of not fitting in. Without any sensibility of his own to contribute, director Craig Gillespie instead ransacks the signifiers of punk to communicate the unruly bad-girl mood of young Cruella de Vil, ignoring the blatant incongruity of an anti-capitalist ideology paired with what may well be the new millennium’s purest expression of unslakable capitalist hunger. The music of the Sex Pistols has never been deployed to more soul-killing effect, clashing with the film’s aesthetic of antiseptic, high-polish cleanliness masquerading as grubbiness. Like a developer flattening all the land before him, Gillespie also purloins the credibility of camp via the flashy costuming, in one scene festooning Ms. de Vil with a white caped gown that burns away to show off a snappier sleeveless dress beneath. This flourish and the ball at which it’s executed both owe a creative debt to the world of drag, making the gesture look like trend-chasing at best, and callous appropriation of a politically opposed queer culture at worst.

All the same, a credulous faction of the critical corps gladly abused the term ‘camp’ in their deferential reviews of the film, part of a greater shifting of standards for what qualifies as part of the loosely defined ‘alternative cinema.’ For those steeped in the canon of exploitation, the scattered praise for the Fox-produced, Netflix-reedited The Woman in the Window had the dumbfounding sensation of a classic Punk’d-ing. The delectably low-rent trailer, the potboiler source material, and the involvement of conspicuous stylist Joe Wright all had genre enthusiasts itching for a bloody good time. The reality was a defanged letdown that not only stops short of going there, but never goes much of anywhere. While Wright nicks the visual language of Hitchcock and his bastard offspring in giallo and erotic thrillers, he abandons the psychosexual audacity that really made them worth watching. Bereft of skin — bared or lacerated — and lacking anything like a sense of humor, his work has more in common with its fellow milquetoast, under-the-top netflicks than the reference points it’s all too eager to show off.

Emerald Fennell complicated the conversation on her Academy Award-winner Promising Young Woman by insisting that it was not a revenge thriller, just a subversion intended to apply a realism that would expose the artifice of such forebears as Ms. 45 and I Spit on Your Grave. “If we saw her go and visit people,” Fennell said in an interview on The Film Stage, “watch her torture and kill them, no one would bat an eyelid because we are so used to it that it’s like, ‘Of course, this is how it is, this is how these movies are.’” Instead of taking merciless retribution, avenging angel Cassandra gives the would-be rapists she lures into her stings a stern talking-to before letting them go, and tricks complicit women into thinking bad things will happen to them, only to reveal that she was just fooling. 

Fennell claims that “people are much more disturbed” by this than actual killing due to its plausibility, never mind that the logic of Cassandra’s nighttime avocation falls apart at the softest poke. More to the point, she’s contrived a framework under which she can have her exploitation cake and eat it too, dressing her protagonist up in the latex finery of edginess while making the most inoffensive choice at every turn. The non-realness of the rape-revenge film that Fennell so studiously avoids is part of the point; the comeuppance of men has to be in an accented register because, as we have seen with such maddening frequency, it can’t happen in real life. Fennell’s pyrrhic-triumph conclusion would like to suggest otherwise, but in practice, even her neutered take on the subgenre must strain the willing suspension of disbelief. The result is a simplified inflection on a deceptively complex form nowhere near the easily dismissed fantasy Fennell posited in the press. (Find me someone unfazed by the vicious violation of the rape-revenge classics and I’ll find you someone to stay away from.)

The meanings of words are being degraded, and not in the fun way. The term ‘cult’ can now seemingly be appended to anything old enough, the ubiquitously popular and broadly palatable Shrek providing one confounding example in past weeks. The argument against this development isn’t hipper-than-thou resistance to the dullest people glomming on to and ruining something underground, like an ‘in’ bar that the regulars leave once it gets overrun by poseurs. Quite the opposite, in fact — the genuinely alternative cinema invites anyone estranged by the anodyne. But where those films make the misunderstood feel normal in their bizarreness, this wave of pale imitators is about making normal people feel a bit unusual. Tame and predictable, they defeat the purpose of art itself by aspiring to reassure rather than confuse, shock, disturb, or titillate. Put simply, a measure of exclusion is necessary to give meaning to inclusion. The squares of the world already own everything else. Do they really need to annex and absorb the last bastion of the depraved, too?

Charles Bramesco

Charles is a film critic based in Brooklyn, New York. A former staff writer for Rolling Stone, his work has also appeared in The New York Times, the Guardian, New York Magazine, the A.V. Club, and many other fine publications. His favorite movie is Boogie Nights, but it's an eight-way tie for second.