[7 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
When they first hit video stores in the early 1980s, people were aghast and intrigued. Could it be? Did these films really live up to their legend? Was it possible that we’d actually get to see human atrocities like autopsies and actual murders in our very own living rooms? Indeed, that was the promise offered by Faces of Death, a soon-to-be series of on-the-cheap video collections that promised vile vignettes of burn victims, police surveillance footage and occasionally “staged” sagas of people being mauled by animals or killed in accidents. Incredibly popular amongst teens who used the tapes as weekend sleepover double dare fodder, Faces spawned a set of sequels and imitators that created a cash filled coffer of bad publicity.
Sadly, all Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could do was sit back and watch as their artistic statements about the diversity of the world were lumped together with bad dub copies of psychopaths committing suicide and catastrophe victims missing various limbs. These two Italian innovators were definitely responsible for the foundational films that started and popularized the whole “shock cinema” or “Mondo” genre, and compared to what came directly after it, Mondo Cane stands as a monumental cinematic statement. But with any success comes speculation, and no one was better at ripping off revenue streams than the exploitationers. Names like Harry Novak instantly saw the mock doc writing on the wall, and dreamed up their own globe trotting gratuity. The results were instant crap-ssics like Mondo Bizzaro, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Mod, and The Hippie Revolt.
Viewed today as both tawdry time capsules and copycat capitalization, the Mondo movies are indeed a compelling, complicated experience. Most rely on nudity to shill their swill, while others can get rather nasty (animal lovers beware - there are no ASPCA warnings here). For the most part, however, these films traded on the pre-satellite insularity of the world, exposing ‘60s citizens to things we post-millennial mooks see Anthony Bourdain do every week on No Reservations. In some ways, the Mondo movies were the first foray into understanding other parts of the world - the rites and rituals, the odd customs and even stranger traditions. They may seem silly today, but forty years ago this was eye opening stuff.
Take the first film under consideration. A great many things make up the wacky world circa 1966. Like Japanese massage parlors where, for 2000 yen, topless Geisha babes will scramble eggs on your sunken, pallid chest (gasp!). Or how about the fickle fashion fiascos of Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the only lingerie shop in America that treats the female breast like a cast iron torpedo, requiring a flamboyant metal framed clothing hanger to properly house it (eep!), Let’s not forget the odd exaltation of peeping on persons as they change clothes in an underwear store (shudder!). And who could forget the unbelievable enchantment and mystery of a bunch of suburban housewives painting nude canvas studies of a beefy black man (shock!).
Yes, all of these mischievous misdeeds and many more—like a man who collects oil paintings of naked women (the cad!), the freaked out art photographer who fancies himself a better go-go dancer than his nude model, or a scene from a play highlighting the Nazi’s interpersonal skills with a bullwhip - help to round out and explain the reckless reality of our pre-Nixon era global detente. Add to this the everyday details of a woodoo witch doctor doing the wicked watusi (ho hum), creepy kids on spring break (bad news—even in 1966 they were incoherent retards), and a real live illegal Arabian slave auction (zzzzz), and you have, as Topo Gigio would say, a true look at our way-out, wacky Mondo Bizarro, Mr. Eddie. [Bat creepy puppet eyes]
But wait - it gets better. The second feature finds old Sigmund getting his fifteen microns of post-mortem motion picture fame as we wander through a Freudian world of prolonged toplessness. We witness women bare-chested on the beaches of Malibu and nightclubs along the Sunset Strip (scandal!). Dentally challenged strippers and hookers drop shirt in merry, murky old England (bloody ‘ell!). Another round of Asian actresses unfurl their upper torso lotus leaves for a strange exotic dance/bondage show (um…), and balding, profusely sweaty businessmen eat cheese sandwiches and drink 7-Up (yum! yum!) in an “upper class restaurant” that features a revealing ladies’ linen show (hmm…). Even more foreign flesh is exposed in a sleazy Tijuana nightclub where men pay plenty pesos to sample the in-house taco.
And just to guarantee that we haven’t forgotten about the fiend factor in this trip around the unclothed universe we live in, there is a horribly blasphemous Black Mass featuring a practicing witch’s unbelievably possessed breasts (egad!) and a virgin sacrifice that is neither (huh?). Heck, they even throw in teenagers cruising the Sunset Strip ala American Graffiti (idgits!). But leave it, once again, to those international party people, the Germans, to show us a good time by having their frail fraulines slap each other like stormtroppers in a big thick pool of decidedly “blond” looking mud (yavol!). Yes, it is one crazy, prefabricated Mondo Freudo that we live in.
If those descriptions haven’t convinced you, here’s the dilemma with Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo, and frankly, any of the Mondo style movies that have been made in the last 30 years. Your enjoyment of these faux photologues will be directly linked to the amount of acceptance you give them. You either buy the artifice, which means you will believe in the “behind the scenes,” “candid camera,” “people caught in the act of being perverted” approach offered, and spend several minutes in mild shock as “real” sexual sensationalism unfolds before your beleaguered eyes. Or, you could see through the setups and find the whole “actually happened” pretense hilarious, in which case you giggle along with the staged sin shows and slave auctions and wonder if the early ‘60s audience (mostly men in raincoats) took time from their personal “fiddling” to notice how boldly fake most all of these movies are.
Perhaps you will be like the majority, and find Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo exceptionally trashy and tasteless. Even without the usual standard animal mutilation and gore footage, the notion of spying on hapless women as they change clothes or poor Mexican girls (even if they are obviously off-market models) being sold into slavery looks more sleazy than spicy. As the forerunner to the far more reprehensible Faces of Death and Caught on Tape category of exploitation exposés, these innocent attempts at shirking indecency laws are like visual versions of a double dare. Here, fortunately, you only have to put up with distorted mammaries and the occasional unfortunate mouth of teeth.
Of the two, Mondo Bizarro is the better film if only because it broadens its focus to feature more “outrageous” incidents beyond women of many races exposing their tits. The aforementioned yoga master at least provides some philosophical bric-a-brac to support his sideshow geek demonstrations. And we do occasionally move beyond the boob to see a couple of male hustlers chasing tricks and critical deliberations on modern art. The overall tone of Bizarro is light and fluffy, not taking itself or its subjects too seriously. The film finally bogs down in the far too detailed description/depiction of the trials and tribulations the filmmakers experienced to capture, on camera, a supposed Middle Eastern slave auction. A close look will tell you the nearest many of these “Arabs” got to a “desert” was a sand trap at Pebble Beach. Most of these nomads are as Lebanese as Peter O’Toole.
Freudo, on the other hand, is determined to be a more serious, sensual escape behind the seemingly sanguine outer layer of society and into its reprobate nether regions. Candidly, this film is exactly like one of Uncle Siggy’s obsessive phases. It is totally taken with the teat. The female fleshbag in its many (mal) forms is showcased here so often and up close that you’d swear you were watching La Leche League: The Movie. Eventually, the film implodes under the burden of its repetitiveness, so that by the time we reach the end we feel like we’ve seen half the planet’s population in the altogether. Both Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo suffer from a strange sameness syndrome. Even vignettes proclaiming to be odd and unique have a familiar, formulaic feel to them.
Things weren’t much better for those fixated on the counterculture shock wave sweeping the US. Novak in particular decided that young people with their freedom and flowing locks needed reprimanding and pronto. So he dreamed up the one two sucker punch of Mondo Mod and The Hippie Revolt. You see, back when the moon was in the seventh house, before the Summer of Love melted into a winter of bitter discontent for the US, these two quasi-documentaries claimed to expose the fun, fads, and flaws inside the growing youth coup.
Mondo‘s various “groovy happenings” include surfing, drug use, a really terrible band called The Group and, what appears to be, the scandal of staying out late. The Hippie Revolt is told in the words of the “youth” themselves, and proves just how much brain damage hash brownies can cause. We witness love-ins, freak outs, and a visit to the Manson family’s understudies who smoke weed and blather on, philosophically, at a commune. Add some more nude body painting and a wild sex crazed hippie pot party (to make the target audience of all white middle aged Republican males happy) and you too will be waiting for Elton John and disco to hurry up and take over already.
Novak knows demographics, and both films reflect this pro-establishment, pro-skin favoritism. While the majority of the footage is exciting (and great to look at: future Academy Award winners Vilmos Zigmond and Lazlo Kovacs worked on Mod), the narrative tone is mocking, making surfing sound suicidal, karate insane, and declarations against war and racism anti-American. Nowhere is this more evident than in the several staged/real events that were supposedly being captured “as they happened.” The aforementioned orgiastic pot party is so phony it would make Holden Caulfield bleed internally.
The biker gang scenes achieve angles and actions that no “hidden” camera could ever capture. Besides, the riders look like your Uncle Gary playing dress-up with several of his more, shall we say, leather intensive friends. Oddly enough, for a film that wants to ridicule out of control young people, it’s the protest scenes in Revolt that strike the truest chord. Nothing, not the cheesy voice-overs or the incoherent drone of blissed-out bong suckers, can undermine the historical importance of these moments, no matter how hard Novak tries.
Unlike the brilliant docu-deconstructionism of Jacopetti and Prosperi, these films prove that Mondo eventually became a catch-all tag for something akin to gratuitous grindhouse anthologies. Find an unsigned rock act. Get some girls to take off their clothes. Break out the Dutch Boy and - VIOLA! - who have a filmable slice of scandalous life. Nowhere is there an attempt to contextualize the material, to argue why it’s important to understand an African tribes reliance on ancient ceremony or how sketchy sustenance like bugs and insects derived from need and endless suffering. No, Mondo meant a recognizable name, a quick buck, and the old school bait and switch. Then, there was some promise of witnessing the perversion inherent in our planet. Today, it’s nothing but smutty smoke and mirrors.