Long gone are the days when there was anything rare or rebellions about film scholars devoting themselves to the study of “overlooked” cinema; indeed, I’m not even sure if any cinema is overlooked any more; these days, there seem to be more people working on Russ Meyer than Antonioni. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining—though it must surely be daunting for any young film scholar with an interest in trash to come face to face with the volume of academic work that’s been done on once-disreputable movies.
Sleaze Artists, edited by Jeffrey Sconce, is a new collection of essays from Duke University Press that closely examines the phenomenon of cinematic “sleaze” (don’t worry, the term is problematized to no end) in relation to production values, audience reception, critical taste, consumption, fans, scholars, academics and national identity. Some of the contributors will be familiar to any serious scholarly sleazehound (Harry Benshoff, Joan Hawkins, Eric Shaefer, Tania Modelski), though there are also some great pieces from new names—at least, new to me (Greg Taylor, Colin Gunckel).
Personally, I found the book’s first section, “Sleazy Histories,” to be the most compelling. This kicks off to a great start with a fascinating essay by Eric Shaefer on the way advertising—specifically one-sheets—pandered to (and framed) the audience for the early ‘60s sexploitation fare that was supplanting “pure” exploitation films. Tania Modleski’s bold chapter offers us a feminist perspective on the work of Doris Wishman, the New York housewife-turned-sexploitation-director sometimes known as “the female Ed Wood” who’s become a cinema icon since her death in 2002. Harry M. Benshoff’s lively chapter on a cycle of 1960s films exploring homosexual desire in the military is paired nicely with an amusing, tongue-in-cheek study of “mondo porn” by Chuck Kleinhans, entitled “Pornography and Documentary: Narrating the Alibi”. Colin Gunckel considers the role of the “Aztec horror film” in debates about Mexican national identity, and Kevin Heffernan charts the distribution saga of Mario Bava’s 1972 satanic coup Lisa and the Devil.
The book’s second section, “Sleazy Afterlives,” contains some top-notch retrospective analyses of marginal films. Kay Dickinson considers the connections (or lack thereof) between image and sound in sexploitation films and Italian horror movies. Joan Hawkins traces the relationship between art and trash in the work of indie darling Todd Haynes, and Matt Hills considers the ways that the Friday the 13th series complicates the distinction between “trash” and “legitimate” cinema in an essay that bravely takes issue with some earlier work on the subject by Jeffrey Sconce and Joan Hawkins. Greg Taylor has a nice piece on cultism, discernment, and “geek chic,” and Jeffrey Sconce contributes a closing chapter on our love-hate relationship with the movies.
My enjoyment of this collection only faded when I came to Chris Fujiwara’s essay, which examines the curious Italian horror film Spasmo in relation to the notion of boredom. I don’t mean it’s not an interesting chapter—on the contrary, it’s one of the best in the collection—but it reminded me of Fujiwara’s earlier writing on the same subject, published some years ago in the late lamented journal Hermenaut. In this earlier piece, if I recall correctly, Fujiwara waxed lyrical about all kinds of boredom, eschewing footnotes, following tangents in all directions, and growing wonderfully polemical. The essay contained here seems a pale version of its earlier incarnation, less imaginative and compelling, with less of a personal voice. I’d like to see in what directions Fujiwara, as well of some of these other scholar-fans, might venture if not tied by the theoretical constraints necessarily incumbent on those writing for an edited anthology coming out of a university press.