American Grindhouse: There's Always Something to Exploit 

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American Grindhouse
Directed by Elijah Drenner

Spirited and never less than entertaining, American Grindhouse finds the roots of the exploitation genre in Edison, and works up. Almost as soon as the cinematic medium was invented, people were filming naked people (and motion-capturing them before, in Muybridge's studies). "The taboo" was a natural subject for strips watched in peepshow booths and darkened theaters, and it sold better. Irascible interviewee John Landis says that, always, "there's an element you can exploit" to put suckers in the seats, and director Elijah Drenner agrees, pulling clips from every corner of the genre netherworld.

The requisite faux-funky style of the modern doc is employed, with frequent film-stuck-in-projector-gate burns, and shorthand like reducing the allegedly staid 50s to a shot of an aproned mom in a suburban family kitchen. Still, Drenner's rundown is surprisingly thorough for 80 minutes. There's an odd lack of John Waters, whose head is usually up for talking, but more obscure heroes like the censorship-dodging and well-named Kroger Babb, promoter of the "sexually hygienic" Mom and Dad, are heralded. Babb's motto was "You gotta tell 'em to sell 'em," and his primary customers were women, who would go to "learn" about perils like infidelity and pot, meanwhile guiltlessly thrilling to often very graphic content.

1913's Traffic in Souls, a scare movie about the "white slavery" of prostitution in New York City, is marked as the first proper exploitation picture. The actual "grindhouse" movies of the 60s and 70s scotched pretenses to social improvement, and this doc's brisk cycle from those quaint early clips to stuff like interviewee Herschell Gordon Lewis's splattery Blood Feast (1963) is either an alarming diagnosis of moral decay or a triumph of unleashed creative freedom, or both. Blaxploitation is duly covered, with insight from Jack Hill and a still-cocky Fred Williamson, and interviews with directors like Joe Dante, William Lustig, and Larry Cohen mix with overview from various film historians. The cheery concluding sentiment about "the spirit of grindhouse" living on is somewhat dubiously supported by clips from Hell Ride and American Gangster, but Drenner's breezily informative doc consistently has its heart in the right place. It celebrates an era when Times Square was awful in a different way, and Russ Meyer's "nudie cuties" were only a subway ride away.

Opens February 4

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