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Easy to Catalog, Hard to Love

A British critic's squeamish take on American exploitation master Jack Hill

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JACK HILL: THE EXPLOITATION AND BLAXPLOITATION MASTER, FILM BY FILM calum waddell (McFarland)

There are so many great scenes in the handful of classic exploitation movies Jack Hill directed that it's hard to pick a favorite. The over-the-top roller-rink shoot-out in Switchblade Sisters should, of course, be high on anybody's list. Then there's the multiprostitute catfight at the salad bar in Coffy, with tits popping out like critters in a Whac-a-Mole game and the coup de grace delivered by razor blades hidden in an Afro. Or if you prefer something a bit more perverse, there's the climactic rape from The Big Doll House: a female prisoner holds a gun on a deliveryman and forces him to fuck the female warden, who's spent most of the movie cross-dressing as a man.

None of these moments is mentioned in Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film, by British film critic Calum Waddell. That's not inherently a problem—even the most scrupulous scholar misses bits here and there. But Waddell's cheery, readable prose is missing more than some stray choice scenes.

Waddell's written several previous books on exploitation fare, and he covers every one of Hill's films in detail here, from the famous Foxy Brown to the utterly forgettable Track of the Vampire. He tells who worked on each of these projects and how the financing and distribution worked. He provides thorough plot summaries and offers his opinion on whether the movie is good or bad. And he supplies lengthy interviews with important figures, including delightful discussions with Hill himself about his entire oeuvre.

And yet despite all this welcome information, Waddell never quite manages to make it clear why he wrote this book in the first place. What is it about Hill's movies that thrills him? The closest he comes to a statement of purpose is in the introduction, where he claims the "time is right for this book" because of Grindhouse, the 2007 pseudo-exploitation double feature by Richard Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino that supposedly increased interest in the real thing.

But I don't for a moment think that Waddell is merely a zeitgeist-riding opportunist. The book is composed with too much care and love to be some kind of cynical ploy. Waddell has done yeoman's work: this is the first monograph about Hill ever, and as a guide for Hill junkies and cinephiles it's superb. I know from experience that finding information on some of these movies is extremely difficult. I can't tell you how excited I was to finally, finally learn what the hell was up with Hill and the German sexploitation disaster Ich, ein Groupie. Or to discover that Hill was responsible for some of the great grindhouse taglines, including this gem for Naked Angels (1969): "Mad dogs from hell, hunting down their prey with a quarter ton of hot steel throbbing between their legs."

To lavish so much effort on a project indicates passion. But it's precisely that passion that Waddell fails to communicate. I appreciate his refusal to descend into gibbering fanboy apologetics. He never claims, for example, that Mondo Keyhole is so bad it's good, when in fact it's just bad. But a bit more enthusiasm might be in order, especially since the primary audience for the book must be fans. The best Waddell can do is praise Hill's technical skill. A description of the camera work in a suspenseful early scene of Foxy Brown is the closest he comes to lyrical praise.

More important, he seems put off by the requirements of the genre. "Inevitably," he writes, "the problem with Coffy—and most exploitation pictures of this era—is that the film's resolution, at least on the surface, is reached through murder." Uh, OK. You were hoping for arbitration, maybe?

As the quote implies, Waddell's main critical touchstone is political correctness, which isn't an especially appropriate tool for evaluating Hill's work. Hill himself remarks in a DVD commentary, "I was never PC. PC is a bummer." And indeed, over and over, Waddell is forced to admit that, yes, that particular rape scene is really problematic... and, oh, yes, there's the homophobia... and, er, all the bare breasts are hardly feminist... and, ouch, there's Hill making fun of campus radicals. Waddell attempts to redeem Hill in his interviews by trying to get the director to admit to some kind of political subtext—an antidrug theme in Coffy, a subversive intention in the female-on-male rape scenes. But Hill cheerfully, even hilariously, stonewalls him. "I don't ever try to make political statements unless it makes a good story," he insists. Waddell is left lamely defending elements like the torture scenes in The Big Doll House (scenes so vicious for the time that they even upset Roger Corman) on the grounds that they're too over-the-top to be taken seriously. And anyway, he concludes, the characters aren't shown as being particularly traumatized by the torture—a statement that's neither exculpatory nor, as it happens, true.

Waddell has a bit more success reclaiming blaxploitation efforts like Coffy and Foxy Brown, both of which feature Pam Grier on a vendetta against assorted scumbags. These movies at least showcase a black woman kicking white-boy butt, and so can be seen as some sort of revolutionary statement. Still, no matter how much you mutter about undermining authority and Reaganomics, you just can't turn Coffy into Putney Swope—or even into Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. If you're looking to fight the power, you probably shouldn't be writing about Jack Hill.

What's most depressing about Waddell's predicament is that it's completely unnecessary. There are lots of ways to think about and appreciate exploitation cinema that don't lead to constant, confused disavowals and breast-beating. Carol Clover's superb Men, Women, and Chainsaws—which discusses exploitation cinema in terms of male masochism—went a long way toward helping me figure out why I find the female bonding, female-on-male rape, and castration fantasies in Hill's movies so appealing. Chopping off a man's testicles and sticking them in a bottle makes Foxy Brown dangerous and therefore hot—yet even as her hyperbolic edginess converts her into a fetish, Hill still manages to respect her as a character. Wounded, betrayed, alone, she's human in a way that Russ Meyer's women rarely are.

Hill's female characters are both psychosexual props and real people. Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, in an early stage of pregnancy, is an asset to The Swinging Cheerleaders both for the exploitation value of her massive breasts and for the incredibly winning, innocent-yet-skeptical way she watches as her klutzy boyfriend prepares dinner and then drops it on his pants. Hill's vacillations between humor and sleaze, between affection for his characters and gratuitous abuse of them, are what make his movies such vertiginous romps—unexpected, delightful, and disturbing in a way that a straightforward gorefest, or for that matter, a mainstream movie, could never be. That's why I'll take The Big Doll House and The Swinging Cheerleaders over anything by Kubrick, Coppola, or Scorcese.

Waddell seems embarrassed by the exploitative elements in Hill's work. For him, Hill is a wonderful director who could have made a masterpiece if he'd only gotten away from all that icky rape, violence, and sexism, and taken a more explicit stand against capitalism. But Hill's movies aren't great despite the ugly trappings. They're great because he embraced extremity and turned it into soul. Quentin Tarantino has called Hill the greatest living American director, and I'd put him in my top five. Waddell probably would as well—he just can't seem to come out and say so.v

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