The Exploitation Index
As Craig Zobel’s controversial film Compliance continues its national rollout, FILM COMMENT’s Violet Lucca takes a hard look at the portrayal of exploitation on film.
“I did not try to make a movie just to piss people off. I'm picking movies to make that are like, ‘I've never seen anyone doing that as a movie.’ . . . I wanted to make something that [didn't] just feel like light entertainment.”
—Craig Zobel, director of Compliance
Compliance is somewhat novel for showing what can happen to good people who don’t know what it’s like to get into trouble, and who therefore have no ability to discern when someone’s only pretending to be an authority. But it’s not reinventing the wheel of pseudo-social message exploitation movies. The premise is based on actual, recent events: from 1996 to 2004, someone pretending to be a police officer called (at least) 64 fast food restaurants in 30 different states and forced workers into sex. But the unspoken and uniquely feminine animosity between middle-aged boss Sandra (Ann Dowd) and her attractive, flirtatious employee Becky (Dreama Walker) is as old as patriarchy—and can be read as the real reason Sandra follows the phoned-in orders of a “detective” to strip search her. The artful, non-digetically motivated glide over Becky’s taut legs as she blows Sandra’s boyfriend in the chicken shop’s backroom, per instructions, ostensibly makes the audience complicit in this decision as well, but in the laziest way possible.
The insistent score, the anxious glances between employees who know about the back room activities, and the presence of throngs of people pouring into the ChickWich during its evening rush — all these things should create tension, but it never materializes. The one-dimensional supporting cast (sassy black girl, gross dumb redneck, dude-bro with a heart of gold) and Becky’s mise-en-slut (smoky eyeliner and pouty mouth, on display in the movie’s poster and advertising) leave little doubt that the “shocking climax” will not be that surprising.
All this is especially unsurprising if you’re familiar with the tendencies of films spotlighting twisted new variations in sex and violence. Sometimes it’s to portray exploitation, sometimes it’s to be exploitation, and often it’s hard to tell the difference. Until now: behold, the Exploitation Index.
Where V = violence, Se = Sex, and St = Stylization:
(V+Se x St2) x POV = Exploitation index
Square formula when movie claims to be “based on a true story.”
X axis = sex; Y axis = violence
Irreversible: One of the most beloved “smart” movies during my undergraduate years and a prime example of the so-called New French Extremity (The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, Ma Mère, Baise-Moi), Irreversible has less to do with Bataille or the consequences of rape, and more to do with didacticism and cheap narrative tricks inherited from Christopher Nolan. Memento, but with an extended rape scene and some guy getting his head smashed in with a fire extinguisher? Sign me up!
Last House on the Left: Not based on a true story, but instead on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. With its offbeat pacing, one-dimensional characterization, and transitions between scenes, it’s reminiscent of a Seventies public service announcement; with its exaggerated violence, one-dimensional characterization, and extended rape scene, it’s pure Seventies exploitation. Despite delivering the goods (read: shotguns, fellatio-plus-emasculation), this sui generis production is perhaps best left to fans of postmodernism than horror.
The Last King of Scotland: According to this pseudo first-person account of Idi Amin's dictatorship, the Seventies were just one big awesome party! Great music, great clothes! Also, some Ugandans got exploited by neocolonial powers and died horrible deaths because of a deluded madman, but let’s not dwell on that—there’s an attractive white man (James McAvoy) who’s got to get laid by a foxy brown woman in the next 90 minutes.
First Blood: Like Zobel, novelist David Morrell wanted to convey some larger social truth—in this case, the trauma Vietnam War veterans suffered and their attendant troubles reintegrating into peacetime society. But also like Zobel, his aesthetic and narrative choices (dubbed by Time Magazine critic John Skow as “carnology”) ramped up the action to campy proportions and destroyed the emotional core of the story. However, the way John Rambo razes an entire backwater in First Blood seems like a quaint documentary when compared to the helicopter bomb-dodging and roided-out antics of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Men Behind the Sun: “Friendship is friendship; history is history.” So begins this 1988 film which graphically recreates war crimes that happened at Unit 731, an outpost of the Japanese Imperial Army researching biological and chemical weapons. Despite the infamy and scale of these experiments (many of which were identical to those carried out at Auschwitz), the Occupation government elected not to prosecute anyone involved due to the “value” of their research findings, and the official position of the Japanese is to deny that anything ever happened.
Yet Men Behind the Sun does more than just recreate the confessions of those who worked there. Aside from using (purportedly) real footage of a child’s autopsy, the film shows a real cat being killed by a sea of rats, which are set on fire during the camp’s destruction; the arrival of the unit’s director, General Ishii, is punctuated by him urinating into a purification device and drinking it. There’s a good argument to be made that this actual animal death stands in for human; there’s also a good argument to be made that it’s just shameless. However, the stories woven around shocking acts based in historical fact and those invented are more complex than the standard exploitation flick. There is no sense of the audience’s complicity through camerawork or narrative manipulation; the audience is being reminded of man’s inhumanity to man.