Genres II: Exploitation and Allusion
6Black Action, or Blaxploitation
Genres II: Exploitation and Allusion
Martial Arts, or Rung Fu
Feature-Length Hardcore Pornography, or "Adult" Films
From Exploitation to Allusion
Genre Parody and Hybridization
Comedies of Divorce and the "Return of the Grown-up Movie"
Conclusion: Genre's End
[During the 1970s] a theatrical film became "that which cannot be seen on television." In this sense, the introduction of the rating systems in 1968 was an economic necessity.
Stuart Byron, Film Critic/Journalist, 1980
Hollywood's mainstreaming of exploitation tactics during the 1970s did little to erode the healthy fringe market for authentic exploitation product that presented itself after the establishment of the Code and Rating Administration (CARA) in October 1968. Throughout 1969, there were bold attempts to test the limits of the new ratings system with regard to sex and violence, and the early 1970s witnessed the rapid deployment of three exploitation genres that trafficked in both. They were, in ascending order of market strength, the black action film, the martial arts film, and—far and away the most powerful—the feature-length hardcore porno film, a genre that would challenge the market share of the mainstream theatrical film industry by 1973 and drive the home video revolution later in the decade. Home video (and television) would itself create a popular familiarity with genre, leading to a late 1970s boom in genre parody, genre blending, and other forms of generic reflexivity.
The black action or (somewhat pejoratively) "blaxploition" film had its origins in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the numerous mainstream films of the era that featured black actors like Sidney Poitier (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? [Stanley Kramer, 1967], In the Heat of the Night [Norman Jewison, 1967]) and Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen [Robert Aldrich, 1968], 100 Rifles [Tom Gries, 1968]), on an equal footing with white performers. In the pivotal years of 1968-1969, several so-called "new-style black films" appeared that coincided with the anti-establishment spirit of the more radical youth-cult movies.1 Up Tight (Jules Dassin, 1968) was a version of John Ford's The Informer (1935), with black separatists standing in for Irish revolutionaries, and The Lost Man (Robert Alan Arthur, 1969) was a remake of Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) that used the same equation. Gordon Parks, Sr.'s The Learning Tree (1969) was an adaptation of his own autobiographical novel about growing up black in rural Kansas in the 1920s, while Robert Downey's Putney Swope was a satire in which a token black takes control of a large advertising agency, with discomfiting results for the white power structure. Not only did these movies feature predominately black casts but many were made by black filmmakers; and all revealed a proud new attitude toward blackness and the role of blacks in white society.
The 1970s began with several mainstream films by white directors that examined race relations in various contexts (The Liberation of L. B. Jones [William Wyler, 1970]; The Great White Hope [Martin Ritt, 1970]; The Landlord [Hal Ashby, 1970]) and with United Artists' Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970), the first all-black film to become a crossover box-office hit. Based on a novel by black crime writer Chester Himes and directed by the black actor-turned-director Ossie Davis, this comedy-drama confirmed the existence of a significant multiracial audience for black films by returning a then-substantial $5.1 million in rentals, and generating the Warner Bros. sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue (Mark Warren, 1972) two years later. Noting the outstanding performance of such films among inner city blacks, Variety had predicted as early as June 1970 that "if the present trend continues, [black-oriented films] will become one of the most highly sought-after commodities for first-run houses."2 The first true black action film, however, was of a very different order than the Hollywood productions Variety had in view. This was unquestionably Cinemation's Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971), written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, whose French-produced interracial romance The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967) had become a cult classic several years before. On the strength of this success, Van Peebles signed with Columbia to direct Watermelon Man (1970), in which comedian Godfrey Cambridge played a white racial bigot who is transformed overnight into a black man, but the film was a flop. Sweet Sweetback was then independently produced for under $500,000 and shot in nineteen days with a non-union black crew.3 Minimalist and episodic, it concerns a young ghetto pimp (played by Van Peebles himself) on the run from the law, and it contains near pornographic sex scenes, as well as unprecedented images of a black hero speaking street language and beating up corrupt white cops. At its conclusion, as Sweetback slips across the border into Mexico, a title card tells the audience: "Watch out! A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues." Manifestly threatening to whites (Vincent Canby called it a "psychotic…political exploitation film" in the New York Times),4 and X-rated by CARA, which made it difficult to book, Sweet Sweetback nevertheless returned $4.1 million in rentals, and opened the floodgates of blaxploitation at the studios.
Black Action Finds Its Market: ShaftandSuperfly
Already in preparation at MGM was Shaft (Gordon Parks, Sr., 1971), a film about tough black private eye (Richard Roundtree) based on a novel by the white writer Ernest Tidyman and produced for just under $1.2 million. Directed by Gordon Parks, Sr., with a hard-driving score by Isaac Hayes, the film generated $7.1 million in rentals (against a $1.54-million negative cost), with blacks accounting for 80 percent of its audience, and is credited with sustaining MGM through the lean year of 1971. As an index of the film's popularity, Newsweek reported that the DeMille Theater in Times Square sold out on a twenty-four-hour marathon showing of Shaft in August,5 and it eventually became the 20th highest earning film of 1971, placing just behind Columbia's lavish historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra (Franklin Schaffner, 1971). (Hayes's soundtrack album experienced an even more pronounced success: number one on the charts for two weeks after the film's release on July 1, 1971, it remained a best-seller for another sixty weeks, ultimately selling over one million copies.)6 The industry suddenly woke up to the fact that, thanks to "white flight" from the cities during the 1960s, blacks accounted for approximately 30 percent of the first-run urban market,7 and as a result, the number of black-oriented films tripled between 1969 and 1971, rising from six to eighteen. Shaft itself spawned two sequels, Shaft's Big Score! (Gordon Parks, Sr., 1972) and Shaft in Africa (John Guillermin, 1973), whose success was subject to the law of diminishing returns (rentals were $3.7 and $2.7 million, respectively), as well as the short-lived CBS-TV series Shaft (eight ninety-minute episodes, October 1973 to August 1974), which also starred Roundtree.
The next blaxploitation landmark was Superfly (Gordon Parks, Jr., 1972), independently produced by Sig Shore and picked up for distribution by Warner Bros., which had recently abandoned plans to produce a black-oriented action comedy of its own called "Superspade."8 Scored by Curtis Mayfield, who realized two top-ten singles from it ("Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly," which sold one million copies each), and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., this film about a Harlem drug dealer (Ron O'Neal) attempting to go
straight was critically assailed for its stereotypical depiction of black sexuality and putative glorification of drugs, but it proved as popular as Shaft and made nearly as much money in rentals ($6.4 million). Its sound-track album was even more popular, selling over two million copies after forty-six weeks on the charts (five of them at the number one position), and several critics seriously proposed Superfly for an Oscar.9 (Some black leaders publicly deplored the Shaft-Superfly image as a new form of racial stereotype, which it clearly was, but black audiences apparently saw in these new action heroes a form of symbolic empowerment.)10 A sequel, Superfly T.N.T. (Warner Bros., 1973), directed the following year by Ron O'Neal, was a failure (as was The Return of Superfly , directed by Sig Shore), but the popularity of Sweet Sweetback, Shaft, and Superfly together led to literally hundreds of low-budget imitations over the next four years. These typically featured black action heroes (often ex-athletes like Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Rafer Johnson, O. J. Simpson, Bernie Casey, and Jim Kelly)—and, occasionally, heroines—who portrayed black detectives, gangsters, prostitutes, and drug kingpins; they played mainly to black audiences in neighborhood theaters but occasionally enjoyed some white crossover to become mainstream hits.11 In October 1972, Variety attributed a major resurgence in the domestic box office in part to the new black audience for these films.12Newsweek went further, crediting the boom in black action films with helping to pull Hollywood out of the 1969-1971 recession, and in a cover story on October 23, 1972, described the industry's pell-mell rush toward blaxploitation: "Talented black actors, directors, and writers were suddenly plucked out of studio back rooms, modeling agencies, and ghetto theaters, and turned loose on new black projects."13 In its year-end roundup for 1972, Variety took note of this market explosion by listing fifty-one black-oriented features released or in production since 1970; in its 1973 roundup, the list was updated to include more than 100 additional titles,14 and in 1974, another twenty-five.15
Blaxploitation Boom and Bust
Like the race movies of the 1930s and 1940s before them, many of the black action films of the early seventies were written, directed, and produced by whites. This led some blacks inside the industry (e.g., the Black Artists Alliance of Hollywood and the Coalition Against Blaxploitation) to charge others with being "black brokers" for white showmanship.16 A more serious charge came from Junius Griffin, head of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, who decried the exposure of black children "to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters, and super males."17 He was, for the most part, right on the money. In 1972-1973, for example, the most popular black action films included United Artists' Hammer (Bruce Clark, 1972), with Fred Williamson as a professional boxer fighting the mob, and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973), with Lawrence Cook as a disillusioned black CIA agent; Paramount's The Legend of Nigger Charlie (Martin Goldman, 1972), with Fred Williamson as a black gunfighter in the Old West, and Hit! (Sidney J. Furie, 1973), with Billy Dee Williams as a federal agent seeking revenge against the black dope pushers who killed his daughter; MGM's Hit Man (George Armitage, 1972), with Bernie Casey as the small-time hood of title, Cool Breeze (Barry Pollack, 1972), with Thalmus Rasulala and Judy Pace in a black remake of The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), and Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man (Henning Schellerup, 1973), in which Roger E. Mosley plays a hit man posing as a black Baptist cleric; Fox's Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon, 1972), with Robert Hooks as a black Robin Hood figure; Columbia's Black Gunn (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1972), with Jim Brown as a rough-and-tumble black nightclub owner; Cinerama Releasing's The Mack (Michael Campus, 1973), with Max Julien as an ambitious super-pimp; Universal's Willie Dynamite (Gilbert Moses III, 1974), with Roscoe Orman as the Mack's rival super-pimp; AIP's Slaughter (Jack Starrett, 1972) and Slaughter's Big Rip Off (Gordon Douglas, 1973), starring Jim Brown as an ex-Green Beret out to avenge his murdered father in productions that, as one critic noted, had "the look, feel and pyrotechnics of an economy-class James Bond";18 Blacula (William Crain, 1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream! (Bob Kelljan, 1973), with William Marshall as a black king vampire, Black Caesar (Larry Cohen, 1973), with Fred Williamson as the crime lord of the title, and Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973), featuring the statuesque Pam Grier as a nurse who fights against a black drug ring. In 1974-1975 there was little respite in black action production and its "super-spade" theme as Warner Bros, produced Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, 1973) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (Chuck Bail, 1975), with Tamara Dobson as a black CIA super-agent, Black Eye (Jack Arnold, 1974), with Fred Williamson as a tough black PI, Black Belt Jones (Robert Clouse, 1974), with Jim Kelly as a black Bruce Lee, and Black Samson (Charles Bail, 1974), with Rockne Tarkington crusading to save his neighborhood from a gang of brutal white thugs; others include AIP's Abby (William Girdler, 1974), with William Marshall and Carol Speed in a black version of The Exorcist (close enough to the original that Warner Bros. successfully sued AIP to block the film's release, but only after it had grossed $2.6 million),19 Truck Turner (Jonathan Kaplan, 1974), with Isaac Hayes as a modern bounty hunter, Bucktown (Arthur Marks, 1975), with Fred Williamson and Pam Grier cleaning up a corrupt cesspool of a southern city, and two Pam Grier vehicles conceived as follow-ups to Coffy, Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974) and Friday Foster (Arthur Marks, 1975); New Worlds T.N.T. Jackson (Cirio Santiago, 1975) with Jeanne Bell as "a one mamma massacre squad" (per ads);20 Cinemation's The Black Godfather (John Evans, 1974), with Rod Perry as the gangster of the title; and Dimension's Boss Nigger (Jack Arnold, 1975), with Fred Williamson as a black bounty hunter in the 1870s.
As these capsule descriptions suggest, by 1974 the black action film was given over almost wholly to exploitation, and in that year the first blaxploitation parody appeared in the form of Warner Bros./First Artists' Uptown Saturday Night (Sidney Poitier), whose popularity generated two Poitier-directed sequels (Let's Do It Again ; A Piece of the Action ). Research showed that black audiences had become more interested in "event" movies than in ethnicity and were travelling into white neighborhoods to see films like The Godfather and The Exorcist, for which they comprised as much as 35 percent of the market.21 More mainstream black-oriented films continued to appear from the studios (Fox's Depression-era saga Sounder [Martin Ritt, 1972]; Paramount's biopic about Billie Holiday Lady Sings the Blues [Sidney J. Furie, 1972]; Michael Schultz's satiric comedies Cooley High [AIP, 1975] and Car Wash [Universal, 1976]), but by mid-decade, the black action film had come to be dominated by producers like Dimension and AIP, of whose work Variety wrote in a review of Bucktown: "AIP's blaxploitation mill grinds out films that are merely flimsy excuses for prolonged violent confrontations between protagonists, usually black and white."22 It had largely disappeared as a viable genre by the end of 1975, when Jaws took exploitation into the mainstream; and the following year, audiences of all races could watch a black man and a white man beat each other to a bloody pulp without the taint of grindhouse vulgarity in United Artists' Rocky (John G. Avildsen), the top-grossing picture of 1976 and also the "Best" by vote of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Historical Significance of Blaxploition
Even though most 1970s black action films were created by whites and concentrated on negative themes of crime and drugs in the inner city it's possible to see in them the stirrings of the independent black film movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s represented by directors like Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It [Island 1986], Do The Right Thing [Universal, 1989], Jungle Fever [Universal, 1991]), John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood [Columbia, 1991]), the Hudlin brothers (House Party [New Line Cinema, 1990]), Ernest Dickerson (Juice [Paramount, 1992]), the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society [New Line, 1993], Dead Presidents [Hollywood Pictures, 1995]), Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem [Miramax Films, 1991]), and Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City [Warner Bros., 1991]). The work of these filmmakers, dubbed "New Jack" or "home-boy" cinema (the former after a type of pop music heavily influenced by black street culture, the latter after street slang for a gang member),23 has certain historical ties with blaxploitation—for example, A Rage in Harlem adapts one of Chester Himes's sequels to Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Mario Van Peebles is Melvin Van Peeble's son, who as a teenager had played young Sweetback in Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. But it also resembles blaxploitation in its focus on young black males confronting the tough urban realities of drugs, street crime, and violent death, within a broader cultural context of institutionalized misogyny and racism.
Like their predecessors, New Jack films tended to be shot on low budgets and infused with a sensibility derived from popular music (rhythm-and-blues and jazz in the case of blaxploition, hip-hop and gangsta rap for New Jack), and when they became crossover hits the films made great profits for the studios that financed them (like Boyz N the Hood, which became the most profitable film of 1991 when it returned a $56 million gross against costs of $6 million).24 There was, indeed, a brief boom in features by black directors as domestic ticket sales for them rose from 15 to 42 million between 1990 and 1992.25 But after two decades of "benign neglect," the black underclass of the 1990s generated few screen personae in the Shaft-Slaughter-Superfly mold; the heroic fantasy of 1970s black action cinema was replaced in New Jack by a grim realism about the prospects for daily survival in the ghetto that made the social attitudes of blaxploitation seem positively naive (and subject to parody in films like Keenan Ivory Wayans's 1988 spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka).
Yet blaxploitation itself survived in the self-produced caper films of Fred Williamson, who, as head of Po Boy Productions, has written, directed, and/or starred in more than fifty low-budget action movies since his original appearance as Hammer in 1972.26 With titles like Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), Mr. (1977), One Down Two to Go (1983), The Last Fight (1983), The Big Score (1983) Foxtrap (1986), The Kill Reflex (1991), and Three Days to Kill (1992), Williamson's product is unabashed exploitation, quickly shot on location, often with international co-financing and profit taken mainly from distribution to European and Southeast Asian action markets.27 Another recurrence of blaxploitation was Larry Cohen's violent homage Original Gangstas (1996), in which the white director of AIP's Black Caesar (1973) teamed with genre stars Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Ron O'Neal, Richard Roundtree, and others in a 1970s-style black action film with New Jack accoutrements. Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) starred Pam Grier, in another late homage to the genre.
Another ethnic action genre that permeated early 1970s cinema was the Chinese martial arts film. Strongly influenced by the expressive gymnastic style of Peking Opera (in which many of its performers, fight directors, and fight choreographers were classically trained), Hong Kong "kung fu" (literally, "technique" or "skill") cinema was produced by two major studios—Run Run Shaw's Shaw Brothers and Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest—which divided the regional market between them.28 Already enormously popular in Southeast Asia, where it was known as "Gung-fu Pian,"29 it swept into the American market in the wake of Shaw Brothers' Five Fingers of Death (original title: King Boxer [Cheng Chang Ho, 1973]), which returned an unexpected $4.6 million in rentals to its domestic distributor, Warner Bros., and paved the way for Warners to handle Golden Harvest's The Big Boss (LO Wei, 1971) and The Chinese Connection (LO Wei, 1972) the following year.30 These latter films (both, confusingly, also known as Fist [s] of Fury) afforded the genre with its first superstar in Bruce Lee (1940-1973), whose presence in just two more films before his sudden death of a brain aneurysm—Golden Harvest's Way of the Dragon (released in the United States as Return of the Dragon [Bruce Lee, 1973]), and the Warner-produced Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)—served to stabilize the martial arts genre in the American market and made Lee himself a cult figure.31 By the end of 1973, Variety touted "kung-fu" as a "Fixture on [the] Global Screen,"32 and with poverty-row budgets of around $200,000 apiece Hong Kong martial arts films promised an attractive rate of return as domestic exploitation product.33 By early 1974, every major distributor but Fox and United Artists had picked up one or more "chop-socky" films, as Variety called them, and hastily dubbed them into English, sometimes with the Chinese credits still intact.34
The audience originally intended for exploitation by kung fu was Asian American, but it soon became clear that martial arts films appealed to all nonwhite moviegoers, including Hispanics and especially blacks, perhaps because the central theme of many was the defense of one's own ethnic group against another (for example, Chinese vs. Japanese).35 There was also the appeal of novelty and exoticism, as the martial arts had appeared only rarely in American films to date and then only as a plot device (usually in the form of judo [jujitsu] or karate, Japanese and Okinawan techniques, respectively, picked up by American servicemen during the postwar occupation of Japan). In a 1973 interview with the New York Times, producer Run Run Shaw went so far as to attribute the success of Asian action films in the United States to President Nixon's historic visit to China in February 1972.36 But the primary appeal of kung fu films was their skillfully shot and edited fight sequences, which were performed and choreographed by real Chinese martial arts masters according to centuries-old disciplines of self-defense, some of them extending back to the Ming dynasty. Just as Hollywood dance musicals had used separate directors of choreography for production numbers, kung fu movies usually employed separate martial arts directors for fights; and these second unit directors were often themselves assisted by specially trained "fight choreographers."37 In these lengthy and elaborate displays of acrobatic prowess, certain fight techniques became associated with particular stars, nationalities, or character types—hapkido (turning an attacker's energy against himself) with Angela Mao (Lady Kung Fu [Huang Feng, 1971], Hapkido [aka Deep Thrust (Huang Feng, 1972)]), who was promoted by Golden Harvest as a female Bruce Lee, and Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack ; jeet kune do ("fist-intercepting way") and wing chun kung fu ("lighting fast" close range fighting) with Bruce Lee; Shaolin boxing with David Carradine (in the television series Kung Fu [see below]); judo (from jujitsu—a backup technique used by samurai against taller opponents) with the Japanese, usually the villains in Hong Kong martial arts films; tae kwon do ("hand and foot fighting") with the Korean police and militia; and karate ("empty hand" boxing) with villains of every sort.38 There also occasionally appeared the figure of a ninja (literally, "stealer in"), a member of the Japanese cult of shadow warriors, or secret assassins, that had first appeared to American audiences in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967). (Japan's own martial arts films tended to be more violent than their Chinese counterparts—The Street Fighter [Shigehiro Ozawa, 1974], which introduced Sonny Chiba, was the first film to receive an X rating from CARA for violence, containing such brutal incidents as a kung-fu castration by hand.)39 These refinements notwithstanding, kung fu fighting became a popular form of screen entertainment among ethnic audiences, and it was occasionally combined with other exploitation genres—such as horror (Hammer Films-Shaw Brothers' coproduction The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires [aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula (Roy Ward Baker, 1974)]), blaxploitation (Warner Bros.' Black Belt Jones [Robert Clouse, 1974]), and action-adventure (Golden Harvest's Slaughter in San Francisco [William Lowe, 1973; re-released as Karate Cop, 1981]; AIP's Golden Needles [Robert Clouse, 1974]).
When Warner Bros. coproduced Enter the Dragon (1973) with Bruce Lee's Concord Productions, it was part of an effort to attract a white crossover audience to kung fu. Evidence of the genre's mass appeal was provided by the success of ABC-TV's series Kung Fu, which debuted in October 1972, and starred David Carradine as a Shaolin-trained master wandering the American West in the late nineteenth century. Most of the show's fight sequences were faked, but its highly stylized use of slow motion and integration of Taoist philosophy with action made it popular through June 1975, when the market for the martial arts had peaked (although not before Enter the Dragon had been parodied in The Kentucky Fried Movie [John Landis, 1977] and Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting" had become one of 1974's Top 40 hits).40
Enter the Dragon fused a James Bond-style espionage plot with a martial arts competition on an island off Hong Kong and hit its crossover target to generate $11.5 million in rentals, the most money earned by a single kung fu movie during the 1970s. Bruce Lee's unexpected death of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after the film opened in July 1973 made him a martyr to the cause of martial arts (because the hemorrhage was presumed to be related to his tireless efforts to perfect jeet kune do, although an allergic reaction to a painkiller seems a more likely cause) and the object of a lasting cult. In the Hong Kong industry, this quickly manifested itself in the appearance of two pretenders to the throne—"Bruce Li" (Ho Tsung Tao) and "Bruce Le" (Huang Kin Lung), who between them appeared as "Bruce Lee" in a succession of redundant kung fu adventures with titles like Bruce Lee, Super-dragon (1974), Goodbye Bruce Lee— His Last Game of Death (1975), Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976), Fists of Fury II (1976), Bruce Lee, the Invincible (1977), and Lee's Secret (1977).41 (Other Lee lookalikes who surfaced in Hong Kong over time were Tang Lung, who played Lee in Game of Death [Robert Clouse, 1978] and its sequel, Bruce Liang [Hand of Death, 1975], Dragon Lee [The Clones of Bruce Lee, 1980], and Bruce Leung [Bruce Vs. the Iron Finger, 1977].)42 In addition to these more or less "pure" clones, who made over ninety "Bruce Lee" films collectively between 1974 and 1984, there were exploitation films (of exploitation films!) like Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights (1975), basically a porno film in which Lee's actual lover Betty Ting Pei stars in a series of sex scenes with Lee stand-in Li Hsiu Hsien.43 Many similar movies originated from Hong Kong between 1974 and 1977,44 and in 1978 Golden Harvest produced Game of Death, often cited as Bruce's fifth film, integrating ten minutes of footage shot by Raymond Chow in Hong Kong before Lee's death with new footage shot by Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse. By this time, however, Hong Kong itself had turned mainly to the "comedic" style of kung fu associated with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (e.g., Drunken Master [Yuen Woo Ping, 1978], Knockabouts ), and the kung fu craze in the American market was over; distributed by Columbia, Game of Death earned just under $5 million in rentals—pocket change the year that Close Encounters earned nearly $83 million—although Golden Harvest did produce a sequel, Game of Death II, in 1981.
Nonetheless, a new martial arts star—homegrown, politically reactionary, and very white—was rising in the person of Chuck Noms (b. 1942), who had been world middleweight karate champion from 1968-1974 and appeared as the villain in Bruce Lee's Way of the Dragon. By the end of the decade, Norris's films of vigilante justice—Good Guys Wear Black (Ted Post, 1979) and Force of One (Paul Aaron, 1979)—were grossing in excess of $15 million each, and he became a world-class martial arts star in the early 1980s (The Octagon [Eric Karson, 1980], An Eye for an Eye [Steve Carver, 1991], Forced Vengeance [James Fargo, 1982], Lone Wolf McQuade [Steve Carver, 1983]), as well as a leading exponent of the revanchist party line on Vietnam (three Missing in Action films, 1984-1988) and the Cold War (Invasion U.S.A. [Joseph Zito, 1985]; The Delta Force [Menahem Golan, 1986]). The infusion of martial arts with American politics removed kung fu from the domain of pure choreographic violence that had it made it popular in the first place, but even in Hong Kong it was now blended with other genres, including crime (Police Story [Jackie Chan, 1985]) and horror (The Ghost Snatchers ). Like the black action film, however, 1970s kung fu movies laid a generic foundation for subsequent cycles, whose American permutations would include Columbia's The Karate Kid series (four films, 1984-1994), Cannon's Ninja (Enter the Ninja and two sequels, 1981-1984) and American Ninja series (four films, 1986-1991), New World's No Retreat, No Surrender (three films, 1985-1990), Concorde's Bloodfist series (seven films, 1989-1997), and Warner Bros.' Kickboxer series (three films, 1989-1992), some of which borrow plot elements from their Hong Kong predecessors. Finally, many regional stars of 1970s kung fu cinema went on to become major figures as actor-directors in the vital Hong Kong industry of the 1980s and 1990s, most notably Sammo Hung (Spooky Encounters , Eastern Condors , Pedicab Driver ) and Jackie Chan (Project A , Wheels on Meals , Armour of God 2: Operation Condor , etc.), the latter virtually eclipsing Bruce Lee as an international martial arts-action superstar.
The feature-length hardcore porno film was able to become a distinct above-ground genre in the early 1970s because of the new CARA ratings system. In 1968, Jack Valenti had argued against inclusion of the X rating in that system, because he did not want to put the MPPA imprimatur on films specifically produced for the "Adults Only" market. Seeking to protect its members from local prosecution, however, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) persuaded him that the MPPA needed to extend some legitimacy to such material since there was a steady (if then specialized) demand for it. In a compromise, Valenti agreed to recognize the X rating but not to copyright it, which meant that it could be self-imposed by producers without submitting their films to the CARA review board. This created the worst of all possible World's—pornographers could self-administer the X rating (or, for sensationalizing purposes, XX or even XXX) and create the impression of MPPA approval—the very situation Valenti had sought to avoid—while adult films from legitimate producers (such "quality Xs" as United Artists' Midnight Cowboy  and Warner Bros.' A Clockwork Orange ) suffered the stigma of pornography. The fact that a flood of X-rated pornography followed the institution of the CARA system caused many newspapers to refuse to review or accept advertising for all X-rated films. By 1972, over thirty urban dailies had established such a policy, and 47 percent of exhibitors were refusing to show X-rated films, which could mean a crippling loss of box-office revenue for a major feature.45 As a result, about a third of the features submitted to CARA, 1969-1970, were cut by their directors to avoid an X (for example, Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant , Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch  and Straw Dogs , Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue ),46 and in 1970 the MPPA raised the age restrictions on the R and X rating from sixteen to seventeen, which helped to ease some of the pressure on mainstream producers, who nevertheless continued to avoid the X until it was finally replaced by the copyrighted NC-17 rating in 1990. In the early 1970s, however, pornographers played upon the ratings system's inability to distinguish between exploitation product and serious adult entertainment to create the new genre of the hardcore feature and the phenomenon of "porno chic." (The distinction between softcore and hardcore pornography in photographic media [or any other] is somewhat invidious, but in general the former refers to "erotic" pornography, in which sex acts—real or simulated—are represented without a prurient concentration on the genitals, while the latter would feature detailed representations of genital/anal penetration, cunnilingus, fellatio, and orgasm, particularly of the externally ejaculating penis.)47
The "Scandinavian Invasion": Sweden Shows The Way
Unlike the majors, producers of low-budget sex films were not much affected by bans on X-rated advertising and exhibition because their appeal was, initially at least, to a smaller,
more specialized market segment (aka "the raincoat brigade," then as now the economic underpinning of the porn industry) in exploitation venues ("grindhouses").48 The notoriety accorded the X rating in the press, however, gave them an unprecedented cachet, especially since much of the first wave of X-rated pornography was imported. Beginning with Vilgot Sjoman's pre-CARA I Am Curious (Yellow) in 1967 (and probably traceable in some ways back to Bergman via The Virgin Spring  and Silence ), there was a climate of popular opinion that associated Sweden and Scandinavia with sexual liberation and licentiousness. Sjoman's film, in fact, had been confiscated by U.S. Customs authorities upon entry into New York in 1967 owing to its graphic (but simulated) rendition of various sex acts, and it became the object of a ground-breaking legal decision in 1969 when the Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that the film's depiction of sexual intercourse was not obscene (Grove Press v. Maryland State Board of Censors).49 Finally distributed that year, I Am Curious (Yellow) spearheaded the "Scandinavian invasion" of 1969 and 1970, which included such films as its sequel I Am Curious (Blue)(1968); Love, Swedish Style (1972); Sexual Customs in Scandinavia (1972); Sweden, Heaven and Hell (1969); Without a Stitch (1968); and Relations: The Love Story from Denmark (1970), as well the first films to show non-simulated hardcore sex on American screens: two "documentaries" about the recent legalization of pornography in Denmark, Sexual Freedom in Denmark (M. C. Von Hellen [John Lamb], 1970) and Censorship in Denmark: A New Approach (Alex de Renzy, 1970). These imports—many of them were distributed by Louis Sher's Sherpix and opened at his Art Theater Guild venues in Manhattan50—were quickly followed by domestic hardcore films that purported to offer what Linda Williams calls "a scientific 'discourse of sexuality.'"51 (Exploitation producers referred to them as "white coaters," since they were often narrated by an actor posing as a doctor or psychiatrist.) With titles like Man and Wife (Matt Cimber, 1970), History of the Blue Movie (Alex de Renzy, 1970), Africanus Sexualis (aka Black Is Beautiful [Matt Cimber, 1971]), and Case Histories from Krafft-Ebing (Dakota Brothers, 1971), such pseudo-documentaries opened the door to the explicit depiction of live sexual activity in American features.
Russ Meyer And Radley Metzger
Russ Meyer (b. 1923) is often cited as the chief architect of what in the early 1970s could fairly be called "mainstream porn." As producer-director of successful "nudie-cutie" films like The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), Meyer made more than twenty such features (which he also wrote and photographed) through his independent company Eve Productions before he shot the ground-breaking Vixen (1968) for his newly formed RM International Films. Although all of its sex scenes were simulated, the X-rated Vixen had an engaging plot and was expertly edited; and it became the first gender crossover "Adults Only" hit when it returned $7.2 million on a $76,000 investment. This success was sufficient for Darryl Zanuck to contract a distribution deal between Meyer and Fox that yielded Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970) and The Seven Minutes (Russ Meyer, 1971), neither of which was particularly successful at the box office but notable for being the first studio-financed sex films. Meyer left Fox and continued to produce X-rated softcore features through his own company for the rest of the decade, but films like Supervixens (1975) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (1979)—which would barely have earned an "R" in the 1990s—could not compete theatrically with hardcore, and Meyer stopped making films in 1980, surviving nicely on his reputation and handsome video residuals. Roger Ebert, who co-wrote the screenplays for three of Meyer's movies, said of him in Film Comment: "If there was an auteur working in American commercial cinema in the '6os, it had to be Russ Meyer. It isn't so much that he operated his own camera as that he also carried it"—suggesting that his do-it-yourself approach to filmmaking laid the groundwork for such later entrepreneur-directors as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Spike Lee. Furthermore, the montage sequences of Meyer's violent sexploitation film Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) are now said to have influenced both Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969).52
What Meyer did for softcore, Radley Metzger (b. 1930) would do for hardcore—that is, give it a professional patina and introduce it into the mainstream marketplace. In 1960 Metzger and Ava Leighton had formed Audubon Films to import and distribute foreign features with erotic themes. Audubon distributed more than fifty features worldwide, many of them re-edited and re-shot by Metzger, before releasing its breakthrough film, I, A Woman (1965). This Swedish film about a young woman's sexual fantasies was picked up by Audubon for $5,000, reworked by Metzger, and returned $4 million in rentals.53 The following year, Metzger organized his own production company, Amsterdam Film Corp., and began to direct upscale erotic features like Therese and Isabelle (1968), a version of Violette Leduc's memoir about a youthful lesbian relationship shot on location in a French boarding school. This was followed by Camille 2000 (1969), shot on location in Rome in three-strip Technicolor (a process not used in Hollywood for fifteen years), and the X-rated The Lickerish Quartet(1970), shot in an Italian castle from a script by Metzger about a female circus performer who seduces an entire family. A director of real talent and taste who had successfully spanned what Variety called "the groin-art gap," Metzger turned to hardcore in the early 1970s when market pressure demanded it.54 Working under the pseudonym "Henry Paris," Metzger produced some of the hardcore genre's most sophisticated features—The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1975), Naked Came the Stranger The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), Barbara Broadcast (1977), and Maraschino Cherry (1978)—as well as X-rated softcore films under his own name like The Image(1976), adapted from a sadomasochistic novel by Pauline Reage—before going into semiretirement in 1981. Because Metzger controlled both distribution and production, he was able to make his hardcore films on the same kind of (relatively) luxurious schedule accorded mainstream features, which helped to earn them a place in both video porn shops and the permanent collection of MoMA.55 Audubon itself, as Variety noted as early as October 1970, had "helped to change the face of distribution in this country" by booking erotic product into mainstream theaters56 and attracting "a class audience" of heterosexual couples to what had formerly been a specialized, all-male, and widely despised genre.57
Deep Throat and "Porno Chic"
The mainstreaming of hardcore reached its zenith in 1972 when the infamous Deep Throat, produced and directed by Gerard Damiano (as "Jerry Gerard," also credited with writing and editing)58 for $24,000, attracted a vast middle-class audience nationwide to become the eleventh highest grossing film of the year and earn $20 million in rentals (based on actual box-office returns—editorial policy kept hardcore films from appearing in Variety's year-end chart.) This sixty-two-minute one-trick film about a woman prodigiously endowed for the practice of fellatio made a star of the eponymous Linda Lovelace. It received so much media attention that a senior editor at the Washington Post could give Woodward and Bernstein's clandestine Watergate informer the nickname "Deep Throat" in early 1973 and assume a general public understanding of the joke. Unlike previous hardcore films, Deep Throat was widely reviewed in middle-class newspapers, and it was in such a review in the New York Times that Vincent Canby coined the term "porno chic" to describe the modish respectability that hardcore had suddenly, if briefly, achieved.59 Audiences for the film in Manhattan were said to include "celebrities, diplomats, critics, businessmen, women alone, and dating couples, few of whom, it might be presumed, would previously have gone to see a film of sexual intercourse, fellatio, and cunnilingus."60 Confirming the newly fashionable status of pornography, Damiano followed Deep Throat with another smash hardcore hit, The Devil in Miss Jones (1972), which made a star of its lead Georgina Spelvin and became the sixth highest grossing film of the year. Another successful hardcore feature was Behind the Green Door (Jim and Artie Mitchell, 1973), whose star Marilyn Chambers became an icon of sexual licentiousness for the next twenty years. As Jon Lewis points out, these three hardcore productions outearned big-budget studio films on both a screen-by-screen basis and in total box-office revenue.61 By early 1973, it was clear to all concerned that an enormous cultural change had been wrought since the CARA system had replaced the Production Code in October 1968. In just over four years, the graphic depiction of sex had become one of the most popular attractions in the American cinema, and XXX-rated features accounted for three of the fifteen most profitable films of 1972-1973.62
Last Tango in Paris ToPretty baby: The Majors Flirt With Porn
That hardcore was suddenly capturing a significant share of domestic box-office revenues was impossible for the mainstream industry to ignore, and Hollywood responded with customized imitations. United Artists tested the waters first by distributing Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1973), a French-Italian coproduction that contained graphic sexual encounters, including sodomy, between stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in an empty Paris apartment. CARA gave the film an X rating for these scenes, despite its splendid direction and cinematography (by Vittorio Storaro) and its obviously serious intent to probe the relationship between thanatos and eros.63 The controversy aroused thereby made Last Tango in Paris both a popular and a critical hit, although it was banned in Alabama and Louisiana64 and threatened with prosecution in Georgia. (Fulton County solicitor Hinton McAuliffe vowed to bring obscenity charges against Last Tango if it opened the Atlanta International Film Festival, as scheduled, in October 1973; organizers then dropped their plans to program it.)65 To avoid further legal action and extend the film's domestic reach, United Artists cut it to obtain an R rating, and Last Tango ultimately generated $16.7 million in domestic rentals to become the eighth highest grossing film of 1973. (It earned another $21 million internationally for a grand total of $37.7 million; so, with a negative budgeted at only $1.25 million, Last Tango had what United Artists president David Picker cited as the "lowest ratio of costs to rentals in our history.")66 By setting new standards for sexual explicitness in nonpornographic films (as well as starring an Oscar-winning actor stripped to the skin in its sex scenes), Last Tango emboldened the American majors in their quest for sensation and encouraged filmmakers toward heightened realism in the depiction of sex. Among critics, there was a general consensus that, as Charles Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "If Deep Throat is the cost of the new freedom, Last Tango is a reward."67
The marriage of hardcore and European art film continued the following year with the Columbia Pictures import Emmanuelle (1974), a French adaptation of a 1957 erotic novel by Emmanuelle Arsan (Maryat Rollet-Andriane) about a bored diplomats wife who is initiated into a wide variety of sexual experience during a posting to Thailand.68 Directed by former fashion photographer Just Jaeckin, the film had glossy mainstream production values, and Columbia pitched its advertising directly at the newly sophisticated heterosexual couples market uncovered by Deep Throat and Last Tango. "X was never like this," the copy read, "The intelligence of the story, and the elegance with which it is handled result in a film that doesn't make you fidget in the explicit scenes, or slink down into your seat."69 Earning nearly $5 million in rentals, Emmanuelle probably did more to mainstream intentional hardcore than any other film of the 1970s, and it generated dozens of imitations and sequels, starring either Sylvia Kristel or Laura Gemser in the title role, including Emmanuelle, the Joys of a Woman (Francis Giacobetti, 1976), Emmanuelle Around the World (Joe D'Amato, 1977), Emmanuelle in America (Joe D'Amato, 1978), Bangkok (Joe D'Amato, 1978), and Emmanuelle, the Queen of Sados (Ilias Milonakos, 1982). As it progressed, the Emmanuel series became increasingly focused on sadomasochism in response to the popularity of two 1975 films—Just Jaeckin's X-rated The Story of O and Gerard Damiano's self-styled XXX-rated The Story of Joanna (1975)—which between them confirmed feminists' worst fears about the direc tion in which the sexual revolution was headed.
Distributed by Allied Artists and aggressively marketed to couples, The Story of O was a softcore adaptation of the French underground classic Histoire d'O (1954), by Pauline Reage (a pseudonym), whose plot revolves around a woman's utter subjugation by her lover and his wealthy friend Sir Stephen. The film starred Corinne Clery as "O," a beautiful fashion photographer who allows herself to be variously whipped, chained, and defiled by Udo Kier, Anthony Steel, and others over the course of a lushly photographed ninety-seven-minute feature. Among the elements of its upscale appeal were a literate script by Sebastian Japrisot and a hauntingly romantic score by Pierre Bachelet. Various municipalities attempted to prosecute The Story of O for obscenity, including Atlanta and Detroit, but were unsuccessful since it contained virtually no sex as such, only whipping, bondage, branding, and female nudity. The Story of Joanna, on the other hand, was a considerably darker piece of hardcore from the makers of Deep Throat designed to cash in on the popularity of The Story of O, which had returned as much in rentals as the first Emmanuelle. Distributed by the independent Blueberry Hill, The Story of Joanna was about another woman subjected to degradation and torture by a wealthy aristocrat, but it went much farther than the French film in its graphic brutality and earned $4 million in rentals for its pains. These two "Stories" of 1975 introduced the practice of sadomasochism into mainstream American theaters, and the year ended with Monarch Releasing Corporation's Snuff (see Chapter 5), promising to show its patrons a real murder and disembowelment on screen for $7.50 a pop. The state of things was summarized nicely by a headline article in Variety for December 12, 1975: "If 'Snuff' Killings Are Real, Film Violence Faces New Test."70
This film, advertised by a poster showing a photograph of a woman slashed by a pair of bloody scissors, was described in ad copy as "The bloodiest thing that ever happened in front of a camera,"71 and it probably did more to catalyze the feminist antipomography movement than any other cultural artifact of the 1970s. Laura Lederer, editor of Take Back the Night, would later write that Snuff was "the powder keg that moved women seriously to confront the issue of pornography," and the film met with organized protests against theaters showing it all over the country.72 As one leaflet distributed in New York put it: "That sexual violence is presented as entertainment, that the murder and dismemberment of a woman's body is commercial film material is an outrage…. We can not allow murder for profit."73Variety had called Snuff "the ultimate pornography," and the following year, Stephen Koch would write an influential article in Harper's entitled "Fashions in Pornography: Murder as an Expression of Cinematic Chic" in which he traced the current obsession with sex killings back to "a vile little piece of sick crap" called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre74—invoking the generic confusion of horror and hardcore already noted above.
But, in fact, given First Amendment guarantees of free speech, there was little Koch, feminists, or anyone else could do prevent audiences from wallowing in perversion if they chose, and by mid-decade—when over 50 percent of all films distributed in the United States in 1975 were restricted by either R or self-imposed X ratings75—they were choosing in large numbers.
Exactly how far they would go became apparent in 1977. Citing Jodie Foster's performance as a teenage hooker in Columbia's Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and Brook Shields's appearance as a 12-year-old prostitute in Paramount's forthcoming Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978), as well as such made-for-TV movies as NBC's Born Innocent and ABC's Little Ladies of the Night, Joseph McBride would write in Variety for February 9 of that year: "Children and sex—once protected by the most stringent of all film taboos—are now being exploited on major Hollywood films and TV shows."76 Sexploitation producer David Friedman, then president of the Adult Film Association of America (a trade association of sex film producers formed in 1969 to lobby against censorship), noted that "a real boom" in pedophilia pictures started around 1974, at first with young-looking adult women in girlish roles but eventually involving real children. "It's no surprise," he added, "that the child sex theme would works its way into major films and TV."77 Attributed by prosecutors to a spillover from the pornographic underworld, filmed sexual matter involving children surfaced in the mainstream with Warner Bros.' The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), whose graphic masturbation scene and obscene speech by 12-year-old Linda Blair helped to make it the third most profitable film of the decade. Clearly, if pornography was coming more and more to resemble mainstream film, mainstream film was increasingly adopting the values of pornography. With barriers thus lowered, both the pomographers and majors felt free to explore the public's tolerance for sadomasochism, torture murder, and pedophilic sex to its then-amorphous legal limits.
The Courts Attempt to Define Obscenity
Such limits were ill-defined during the 1970s but hardly inconsequential. In fact, the main reason that pomographers like Radley Metzger directed their films under pseudonyms was the fear of prosecution created by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Miller v. California on June 27, 1973, which laid down the "community standards " test for determining obscenity. In this landmark decision, the Court effectively decentralized screen censorship and returned obscenity prosecutions to local authorities but, by failing to define what it meant by "community," created an ambiguity that would haunt the legal system for the next twenty years.78 In June 1974, in another decision widely hailed as a victory for the film industry (Jenkins v. Georgia), the high Court confirmed the community standards test as the law of the land by unanimously reversing a Georgia Supreme Court opinion that the Avco Embassy feature Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971) was obscene, attempting, in its own words, to "distinguish commerce in ideas protected by the First Amendment from commercial exploitation of obscene material" (i.e., hardcore) and reminding the states that only the latter could be prosecuted.79
In both cases, the Court had acted in response to the exponential increase in obscenity prosecutions against film distributors and exhibitors since the establishment of the CARA rating system. The waves of softcore and hardcore pornography that the selfimposed X seemed to generate, had outraged communities across the nation and sent shock waves through the industry. The preoccupation with pornography is illustrated by selected Variety headlines from 1970: "Censor Threats Haunt MPAA" (March 18, p. 5); "Sexpix Simplified: They Pay" (April 1, p. 3); "Pomo: An Unknown Payoff (April 22, p. 3); "So Who's Going for Smut?" (August 12, p. 5); "Pornography at N.Y. Fest" (September 23, p. 5); "Porno, Biz & NATO's 'Image'" (October 7, p. 7)—which begins with the lead "If one word sums up trends in 1970 film exhibition in the U.S. it is 'pornography.'" As more and more mainstream theaters began to book X-rated product, obscenity cases multiplied, and the good suffered along with the bad. Prosecution was brought against Censorship in Denmark in New Jersey in 1971, but also against Carnal Knowledge in Georgia in 1972; against Deep Throat more than twenty states in 1972, but also against The Last Picture Show in Arizona and Last Tango in Paris in several deep South states in 1973.80 The Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. California was intended to remove the onus of government censorship (and what one official called the "almost impossible burden" of the Justice Department's obscenity case load),81 but it actually had the effect of multiplying it through atomization—a situation evoked in the title of Variety's instant analysis of the ruling: "Porno Thicket Now Jungle? Community Standards Spells C-O-N-F-U-S-I-O-N" (June 27, 1973; p. 5).
It was this confusion over the definition of obscenity during the 1970s—both legally and culturally—that permitted abuses of free speech like Snuff and child pornography. The challenges such material posed to the First Amendment and to American social polity might never have been resolved were it not for the introduction of the video cassette recorder in 1975 and its rapid diffusion over the next decade. By taking the consumption (but not the distribution) of socially pernicious images out of the public arena and relocating it in the privacy of the individual home, the VCR accomplished what neither moralists nor feminists could do—the closing of hundreds of adult theaters across the country in the wake of the pornographic film industry's largest expansion in history. (According to David Friedman, the number of adult venues in the United States increased from 20 to 750 between 1960 and 1970, with Pussycat Theaters, Inc., actually building a national chain of theaters from the ground up dedicated exclusively to the showing of X-rated films; by 1975, for example, there were forty-seven Pussycats in California alone.)82 Estimates by the Adult Film Association of America suggest that pornographic films accounted for 70 to 80 percent of all videocassette sales through 1982, when the majors began licensing their product to video distributors in large numbers (afterwards the market share for pom would remain at about 40 percent).83 By 1986, there were 35 million VCRs in consumer hands in the United States, and attendance at adult theaters had plummeted to 1960s' levels.84 CARA-sanctioned barriers to the depiction of sex and nudity in mainstream theatrical films remained low, but production calculated simply to exploit such material had retreated to the realm of video and cable, and hardcore as a mainstream feature genre was, quite literally, history.
In the early 1970s, then, the once-marginal exploitation genres of blaxploitation, kung fu, and hardcore pornography became important factors in the American film market-place; but by the decade's end, most exploitation product had migrated to home video, a technology whose national diffusion was virtually driven by hardcore. The force of the CARA rating system had been to fragment the market and enable the rise of exploitation genres to mainstream prominence, something AIP chairman Samuel Z. Arkoff had predicted as early as 1969 when he wrote in the Journal of the Producers Guild of America, "[T]oday the audience is fragmented; and with the exception of the big and successful picture that may by its special elements appeal to many different groups, one must take aim at a special group in order to be successful."85 Five years later, David Begelman, then-president of Columbia Pictures, crystallized this thinking for the Wall Street Journal: "We feel we must put out special event films because no one goes to the movies anymore as a routine exercise."86 The blockbuster formula was designed to overcome the market fragmentation introduced by CARA, and it did so by adopting exploitation practices, both at the level of production content and marketing/distribution, as described in Chapter 3. However, the calculated blockbuster used another tactic to reintegrate the market which relied on the mass audience's recent encounter with film history through television, popular journalism, and (occasionally) formal education. By the early 1970s, in fact, American television had become a virtual archive of the classical Hollywood cinema via weekly network showcases and syndicated reruns, and the auteur "theory" had become a commonplace of both popular and academic criticism.
As Noel Carrol, J. Hoberman, and others have pointed out, a distinguishing feature of 1970s film style was "allusionism"—the practice of invoking the audience's unprecedented awareness of film history, which it shared with the rising generation of directors, especially the "Hollywood brats."87 Shaped by auteurism, the recent availability of classical films on television, and the gradual institutionalization of film study in the academy, this new historical film consciousness enabled both the knowing revision of classical genres discussed above and a new category of self-reflexive films that fetishized the practices of "lost Hollywood"—either through parody or memorialization. Parody in film can be defined as a comic, exaggerated imitation of a given genre, auteur, or specific film; as distinct from satire, whose focus is on social values, parody targets aesthetic and formal conventions, usually treating them with some affection.88 The clearest examples are the self-proclaimed genre parodies of Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles ; Young Frankenstein ; High Anxiety ) and his associates Gene Wilder (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother ) and Marty Feldman (The Last Remake of Beau Geste ), and such parodic feature anthologies as The Groove Tube (Ken Shapiro, 1974), Tunnelvision (Neal Israel, 1976), and The Kentucky Fried Movie (John Landis, 1977), but the parodic impulse was strong in many comic films of the decade and extended to virtually every genre. These included sexploitation (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [RUSS Meyer, 1970] and Myra Breckinridge [Michael Same, 1970], both also insider "movie movies") and hardcore (The Last Porno Flick [Ray Marsh, 1974], Flesh Gordon [Michael Benveniste, 1974], which also parodies science fiction); the Western (proceeding from Brooks, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox [Melvin Frank, 1976], Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday [Don Taylor, 1976], The Frisco Kid [Robert Aldrich, 1979], The Villain [Hal Needham, 1979]); the musical, both backstage and integrated (The Boy Friend [Ken Russell, 1971], The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Jim Sharman, 1975], which also parodies classical horror, All That Jazz [Bob Fosse, 1979], and the rock-'n'-roll subgenre [Grease (Randall Kleiser, 1978), ROCK 'n' Roll High School (Allan Arkush, 1979)]); the gangster film, contemporary and classical (Freebie and the Bean [Richard Rush, 1974], Bugsy Malone [Alan Parker, 1976], and the criminal couple subgenre [Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (Dick Richards, 1975), Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977)]); the film noir/detective movie (The Black Bird [David Giler, 1975], Murder by Death [Robert Moore, 1976], The Cheap Detective [Robert Moore, 1978], and the Sherlock Holmes subgenre [They Might Be Giants (Anthony Harvey, 1971), Gene Wilder's Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), The Hound of the Baskervilles (Paul Morrissey, 1977)]); conspiracy (Nasty Habits [Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977], Winter Kills [William Richert, 1979]); science fiction (Dark Star [John Carpenter, 1974], Death Race 2000 [Paul Bartel, 1975], Flash Gordon [Mike Hodges, 1980]); the disaster film (The Big Bus [James Frawley, 1976], Airplane! [Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, 1980]); suspense (Silver Streak [Arthur Hiller, 1976]); the war film (1941 [Steven Spielberg, 1979]); the swashbuckler (Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers , The Four Musketeers , and Royal Flash Swashbuckler [James Goldstone, 1976], Crossed Swords [Richard Fleischer, 1978], Zorro, the Gay Blade [Peter Medak, 1981]); classical horror (Andy Warhol's Frankenstein and Dracula satires [both Paul Morrissey, 1974]; Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein , Old Dracula [Clive Donner, 1974]); contemporary horror (The Banana Monster aka Schlock [John Landis, 1971], Love at First Bite [Stan Dragoti, 1979], The Howling [Joe Dante, 1981]), and animal revenge (Piranha [joe Dante, 1978], Alligator [Lewis Teague, 1980]); the historical or biblical epic (Monty Python and the Holy Grail [Terry Gilliam, 1975], Monty Python's Life of Brian [Terry Jones, 1979], Wholly Moses [Gary Weis, 1980]); and, finally, the cinema-verité documentary (Real Life [Albert Brooks, 1979]). Parody was, in fact, the comic mode most appropriate to post-Watergate, post-Vietnam disillusionment and cynicism, and it enjoyed mass appeal in both film and television throughout the decade—witness the success, for example, of the syndicated TV soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977), the talk show parodies Fernwood 2-Night (1977) and America 2Night (1978), and NBC's Saturday Night Live (whose earliest mainstay was movie-parody skits), which was an immediate hit when it premiered in the fall of 1975 and became one of the most popular television shows in the medium's history.
The other allusionist film style endemic to the 1970s was memorialization, which can be defined as an affectionate evocation of past genres through imitation and exaggeration in the manner of Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)—films that combined state-of-the-art special effects with the old action genres of the thirties and forties.89 Such films created a two-tiered system of communication, presenting themselves as fantasy-adventure spectacles for the economically crucial teenage audience, and as tapestries of allusion for an older, more cinematically sophisticated one.90 To these obvious historical pastiches, which evoke specific classical genres and create a sense of nostalgic longing, must be added films like What's Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972), Obsession (Brian De Palma, 1976), Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976), and Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979), which remake genre classics in other terms (Bringing Up Baby [Howard Hawks, 1938], Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958], Rio Bravo [Howard Hawks, 1959], and The Searchers [John Ford, 1956], respectively),91 and such actual remakes as King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Phil Kaufman, 1978), Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty, 1978—a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan [Alexander Hall, 1941]), Dracula (John Badham, 1979), The Champ (Franco Zeffirelli, 1979), and The Jazz Singer (Richard Fleischer, 1980), which reworked their respective genres and provided risk reduction for their producer/distributors in the form of heightened audience awareness. Memorialization was also the impetus for numerous films about bygone Hollywood that characterized the latter half of the decade. These self-reflexive "movie movies" presented themselves as either archival anthologies (That's Entertainment! [Jack D. Haley, Jr., 1974]; That's Entertainment, Part 2 [Gene Kelly, 1976])92 or nostalgic historical fictions. Significantly, there were more films produced in this latter category during the 1970s than in any comparable period in industry history. A representative sample from the decade's middle years would include The Wild Party (James Ivory, 1975), The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975), Hearts of the West (Howard Zieff, 1975), Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (Michael Winner, 1976), Inserts (John Byrum, 1976), W. C. Fields and Me (Arthur Hiller, 1976), Gable and Lombard (Sidney J. Furie, 1976), The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976), Nickelodeon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1976), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 1976), The World's Greatest Lover (Gene Wilder, 1977), The Other Side of Midnight (Charles Jarrott, 1977), Valentino (Ken Russell, 1977), and Movie Movie (Stanley Donen, 1978). Some of these were biopics of real performers and others were adaptations of Hollywood novels, great and small, but all took as their starting point the extraordinary interest in classical Hollywood and its forms that distinguished the 1970s from preceding decades and remained thereafter a permanent part of the industry landscape.
In the 1980s, driven by the home video rental market, genre parody would become a genre unto itself as archival pastiches like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982), mock documentaries like This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), and parody series like those originating with Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, 1980) and The Naked Gun (David Zucker, 1988)—not to mention the semiparodic National Lampoon and Police Academy series—became box-office champions. Furthermore, by the end of the 1970s, genre blending and pastiche had become an important part of the blockbuster strategy to build the broadest possible audience base. Failed blockbusters like King Kong (1976), The Wiz (Sidney Lumet, 1978), and Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), however revisionist, tended to be heavily genre-coded, and (whatever their other problems) at least part of their failure lay in their single-genre appeal to core audiences that were no longer there. The most successful blockbusters, on the other hand, were those that either mixed genres (Jaws—monster-horror-mystery-action-adventure; Grease—youth exploitation-rock 'n' roll musical) or blended them into an historical pastiche (star Wars—science fiction-Westem-aerial combat-Japanese jidai-geki [The Hidden Fortress], with specific references to John Ford and Leni Riefenstahl; Raiders of the Lost Ark—B-movie serial-action-adventure-Tex Avery cartoon, with specific reference to Citizen Kane). Another way to put this is that in their concern to maximize audiences, studios mixed genres to appeal to several specialized genre audiences at once. Genre hybridization had became so pronounced by 1981 that The New Yorker published a cartoon series satirizing such putative new forms as the "Kung Fu science fiction movie," the "sports disaster movie," and the "therapeutic musical," of which by that time there had actually appeared several nonparodic examples (The Ultimate Warrior [Robert Clouse, 1975], Black Sunday [John Frankenheimer, 1977], and All That Jazz ).
Perhaps the oddest generic hybrid of the 1970s was the "sports inspirational," whose genesis lay in the astonishing success of Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976). This film was by all measures the sleeper of the decade, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone as the ultimate underdog—a washed-up boxer who gets a "million-to-one shot" at a championship title and, through sheer force of will, wins. Produced for under $1,000,000, the film earned $56.5 million in domestic rentals, won three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing) and generated four sequels, Rocky II through Rocky V (1979-1990). Many critics before and since have pointed out that Rocky simply reworked an old rags-to-riches formula of classical Hollywood but struck a responsive chord in post-Watergate America because Rocky Balboa represented a hero of the people at a time when the people badly needed one. That Rocky himself was working-class probably contributed to the film's mass appeal, but many subsequent sports inspirationals were distinctly bourgeois. In The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976), for example, an underdog suburban Little League team wins a championship against all odds; this popular comedy was the year's seventh-highest earner, yielding $24.3 million in rentals and two sequels (The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training [Michael Pressman, 1977]; The Bad News Bears Go to Japan [John Berry, 1978]). Other Rocky-like middle-class scenarios involved college basketball (One on One [Lamont Johnson, 1977], Fast Break [Jack Smight, 1979]); high school track (Our Winning Season [Joseph Ruben, 1978]); wrestling (The One and Only [Carl Reiner, 1978]); Olympic skiing (The Other Side of the Mountain [Larry Peerce, 1975] and The Other Side of the Mountain, Part 2 [Larry Peerce, 1978]); Olympic skating (Ice Castles [Donald Wrye, 1979]); Olympic running (Running [Steven Hilliard Stern, 1979]); Grand Prix auto racing (Bobby Deerfield [Sydney Pollack, 1977]); cycling (Breaking Away [Peter Yates, 1979]); and professional tennis (Players [Anthony Harvey, 1979]).93 There were also several satirical films focusing on the inherent brutality of professional sports—notably hockey (Slap Shot [George Roy Hill, 1977]) and football (The Longest Yard [Robert Aldrich, 1974], Semi-Tough [Michael Ritchie, 1977], North Dallas Forty [Ted Kotcheff, 1979])—that capitalized, somewhat cynically, on the newly permissive standards for the representation of violence on-screen, as did the bloody fight sequences in the Rocky films themselves. The closing bracket of the 1970s sports inspirational cycle was Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), a downbeat biography of 1940s middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, a repugnant "anti-Rocky" figure whose self-destructive behavior brings grief to everyone around him.
The late seventies boom in genre-blended blockbusters, and the attendant subordination of narrative to special effects, left significant portions of the audience unaddressed. In their haste to pursue teenagers and intrigue cinephiles simultaneously, producers of calculated blockbusters threatened to disenfranchise the audience over forty that in 1977 represented 45 percent of the population. According to an Opinion Research Corporation survey commissioned in that year by the MPAA, this group bought only 13 percent of all tickets, while those under twenty-five bought 57 percent.94 With box-office grosses for 1977 approaching $2.4 billion, however, a 13-percent market share was worth about $320 million,95 and several independent producers became especially interested in the over-forty audience segment for this reason (although, obviously, no producer could afford to completely ignore it). These filmmakers specialized in several mini-genres targeted for the college-educated, noncinephile adult, of which the "comedy of divorce"—cleaved away from the correlative "comedy of remarriage" that Stanley Clavell identified during the 1930s and 1940s—was the most prominent.96
Between 1965 and 1975, the divorce rate in United States doubled, and the divorce code was liberalized through the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce laws modeled on California's Family Law Act of 1969.97 Near the end of the 1970s, a number of socially relevant films appeared that focused on the personal trauma of divorce and its impact on individual American families, and some of them enjoyed notable success. In 1979, for example, Columbia's Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton) was not only the year's top-grossing film ($60 million in domestic rentals), but it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay; and two other films constructed around divorce were among the year's twenty-five highest earners—Paramount's Starting Over (Alan J. Pakula—ranked nineteenth, with $19 million) and United Artists' Manhattan (Woody Allen—twenty-third, with $17.6 million). Other popular films about divorce or the complications of adult relationships include Warners' The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross, 1977) and Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978); United Artists' Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978), and Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979); Fox's An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978); Columbia's Chapter Two (Robert Moore, 1979) and It's My Turn (Claudia Weill, 1980); Paramount's Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980); Universal's The Four Seasons (Alan Alda, 1981) and On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell, 1981); and MGM/UA's Shoot the Moon (Alan Parker, 1982). Many of these films were inherently serious and could be called "comedies" only in the sense of having broadly social contexts. Yet their success was clearly related to the brief vogue in middle-aged sex farces stemming from the $37.4 million gross of Blake Edwards's 10 (Orion, 1979).
For several years around the turn of the decade, male menopause and mid-life crisis became the focus of such comic films as Fox's Loving Couples (Jack Smight, 1980), A Change of Seasons (Richard Lang, 1980), and Middle-Age Crazy (John Trent, 1980); and Warner's Just Tell Me What You Want (Sidney Lumet, 1980). Together with sobering adult melodramas like Paramount's Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Richard Brooks, 1977); Fox's Julia (Fred Zinnemann, 1977) and The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977); and Warners' Promises in the Dark (Jerome Hellman, 1979), as well as several British literary imports—for example, The Europeans (James Ivory, 1979), adapted from the Henry James novel, and Tess (Roman Polanski, 1980), adapted from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles—these films constituted a mini boom in entertainment for older, more sophisticated markets predicted by some industry insiders as early as 1977. (MGM's vice president for domestic sales and distribution, Byron Shapiro, told exhibitors at a ShoWest convention in February 1977 that their "young audience" was aging rapidly and that "entertainment will have to be made suitable for the middle-aged.")98 By late 1981, in fact, some distributors were complaining of an adult "product glut," leading critics like Stephen Farber to proclaim (in the title of an article that appeared in American Film for December 1981) "The Return of the Grown-Up Movie."99 Farber's conclusion must have seemed justified three months later when the up-market British import Chariots of Fire (Ladd/Wamers; Hugh Hudson, 1981) won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Reds (Paramount, 1981), Warren Beatty's epic political biopic of John Reed, won three, including Best Director. As always, however, domestic grosses provided a more accurate index of public taste than Oscars (which are calibrated less to box-office success than to industry prestige), and these showed Chariots in seventh place with $30.6 million and Reds at eleventh with $21 million. Meanwhile, Paramount's first-placed Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg), which won several Oscars for technical achievement, pointed the way to the future with $115.6, leaving it second only to Star Wars in the history of motion picture profitability.
It was another film of 1981, however, that epitomized what had happened to genre during the 1970s. An intensely erotic thriller in film noir form, Body Heat was the directorial debut of Lawrence Kasdan, who had co-written The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was the one of the first productions of The Ladd Co., an independent "mini studio" formed by Alan Ladd, Jr., with partial financing and an exclusive distribution deal from Warner Bros., after he resigned as president of 20th Century-Fox in 1979. (The following year Ladd had acquired the American rights to Chariots of Fire for release through Warners.) George Lucas functioned as uncredited executive producer, remaining incognito because he didn't want his name associated with the film's sexually charged content at a time when millions of American children were buying Lucasfilm licensed products.100 With a plot lifted from Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and bytes of dialogue from Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944), The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Body Heat was a pastiche of forties film noir camera, composition, and lighting styles with characters dressed in contemporary fashions that are vaguely evocative of an earlier time. The interior decor of the sets fluctuates somewhere between forties moderne and "Miami Vice" contempo, and though the story takes place in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave, no one in the small south Florida city it depicts has air conditioning—only ceiling fans. Kasdan, a USC Film School graduate, said that he adopted a film noir style because it allowed him to experiment with camera and lighting effects but also to talk about his own generation's "intense desire for instant gratification" because he saw in post—World War II America "an analogous moral situation."101 Thus the pessimistic, doom-laden ambience of noir speaks to the contemporary culture of narcissism through a film that is simultaneously nostalgic, allusive, and graphically erotic in ways that only post-CARA Hollywood could allow.
In all of these respects Body Heat is a virtual paradigm for the state of genre at the end of its 1970s trajectory. The revisionist directors of the early 1970s—Penn, Kubrick, Peckinpah, and Altman—sought to deconstruct the myths implicit in classical genres by exploding the form of the genres themselves in such films as Little Big Man (1970), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Getaway (1972), and The Long Goodbye (1973). Shortly thereafter, "movie brat" directors like Spielberg and Lucas sought to restore the authority of action genres for mass consumption by harnessing them to hightech special effects in such blockbusters as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Finally, by the end of the decade, filmmakers like Kasdan were able to plunder the iconographie register of an entire genre to fabricate what J. Hoberman has called "a museum waxwork of a passé Hollywood style—a remake without the original,"102 but one that most audiences could read as such, via the recent extension of film literacy to the general populace through television, film education, and—incipiently—the VCR. This same general awareness of film history enhanced the market for actual contemporaneous remakes, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson, 1981), Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981—aversion of High Noon [Fred Zinnemann, 1952]), and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982). But genres that could not be stylistically disassembled and reconfigured into the kind of postmodern historical pastiche represented by films (without reference to quality) like Body Heat (1981), Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980—suspense), The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980—musical comedy), Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981—epic), An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981—horror), and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982—science fiction-film noir) did not fare well in the coming decade, when viewers grew increasingly accustomed to reading multiple sets of genre expectations against one another and the predictability of the classical paradigm all but disappeared.
After the late sixties, serious mimesis had become increasingly problematic in American cinema as a pervasive sense of irony about genre and representation descended on the mass audience by way of television. During the 1970s, genre was further destabilized by revision, parody, and hybridization, until by the 1980s an aesthetic of serious representation had become virtually impossible in genre-coded films.
"Genres II: Exploitation and Allusion." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/genres-ii-exploitation-and-allusion
"Genres II: Exploitation and Allusion." History of the American Cinema. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/genres-ii-exploitation-and-allusion
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