Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxpoitation Master, Film by Film, by Calum Waddell. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Paperback $35.00. 224pp. ISBN: 0-78643-609-3.
Exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill only directed a small number of movies, but his work is filled with so many great scenes that it’s hard to pick a favorite. The amazing hysterical and yet genuinely sad over-the-top shoot out at the roller rink in Switch blade Sisterswould, of course, be high on anybody’s list. Then there’s the multi-prostitute catfight at the salad bar in Coffy, with tits popping out like small critters in a whack-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, try the climactic girl-rape-girl set-piece of The Big Doll House: a female prisoner holds a gun on a male deliveryman and forces him to fuck the female warden (who has herself spent most of the movie cross-dressing as a man.)
None of these moments is mentioned in Calum Waddell’s new book Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxpoitation Master, Film by Film. That’s not necessarily a problem — no matter how thorough your book is, you can’t talk about everything in a filmmaker’s oeuvre. But as you page through Waddell’s cheery, readable prose, it does start to seem like he’s left out not just one or two vestigial organs, but the whole digestive system. Waddell covers every one of Jack Hill’s films in detail, from the famous Foxy Brown to the forgettable Track of the Vampire. He identifies who worked on every one of these projects. He explains how the financing and distribution worked. He gives thorough plot summaries and judges whether the movie is, in his opinion, good or bad. He offers lengthy interviews with important figures, including delightful discussions with Jack Hill about every film he made.
But despite all this welcome information, Waddell never manages to tell us why he wrote this book in the first place. What is it about Jack Hill’s movies that thrills him? The closest he comes to an actual statement of purpose is in the introduction, where he claims the “time is right for this book” because of the release of the Richard Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino film Grindhouse in 2007, which supposedly increased interest in ’70s exploitation movies. In other words, Waddell is writing about Hill in an effort to ride the zeitgeist. He’s a marketing flak.
I don’t for a moment think that Waddell actually is a marketing flak. This book is simply 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 is superb. I know from experience that to find any information about some of these movies is extremely difficult. As just one example, I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally be told what the hell was up with Hill and the German sexploitation disaster Ich, Ein Groupie. Nor was I aware that Hill was responsible for some of the great grindhouse ad 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.”
In other words, Waddell knows his stuff and has done his homework. To spend that much time on a project indicates passion . . . but it’s precisely that passion that he seems to have trouble communicating. He calls the “Mad Dogs” line, for example, “frankly brilliant.” I’d agree . . . but why toss in that slightly distancing, slightly apologetic “frankly”? I appreciate Waddell’s refusal to descend into gibbering fanboy apologetics; never trying to claim, for example, that Mondo Keyhole is so bad it’s good, when in fact it’s just bad. But on the other hand, I do love Jack Hill (right), I presume that Waddell loves Jack Hill — wouldn’t a bit more enthusing have been in order?
The problem seems to be that, though Waddell likes Hill, he simply doesn’t know how to justify his enthusiasm. The best he can do is praise the director’s technical skill: the description of the camerawork in a suspenseful early scene in Foxy Brown is probably the closest Waddell comes to lyrical praise.
Once you get past formal considerations, though, Waddell is lost. His main critical touchstone seems to be political correctness, which is not an especially propitious tool for evaluating Hill’s work. As Hill himself remarked in one 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 he’s making fun of campus radicals . . . . In his interviews with Hill, Waddell attempts to redeem the situation somewhat by getting the director to admit to some political subtext: an anti-drug theme in Coffy, for example, or a subversive intention in the female-on-male rape scenes. But Hill cheerfully and 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, say, 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, the characters weren’t really traumatized by them . . . a statement which is neither exculpatory nor, as it happens, true.
Waddell has a bit more success reclaiming Hill’s blaxploitation efforts like Coffy and Foxy Brown, which at least showcase a black woman kicking white boys’ butts, and so can be seen as some sort of revolutionary statement. Still, no matter how much you mutter about undermining authority and Reagan-era capitalism, you just can’t turnCoffy 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 Wadell’s predicament is that it’s completely unnecessary. There are lots of ways to think about and appreciate exploitation cinema without engaging in constant confused disavowals and breast beating. One of my favorites is Carol Clover’s superb book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which discusses exploitation cinema in terms of male masochism. Clover’s discussion went a long way toward helping me figure out why I found the female bonding, female-on-male rapes, and hyperbolic castration fantasies in Hill’s movies so appealing. When Foxy Brown chops off a man’s testicles and sticks them in a bottle, that makes her dangerous, exciting, hot. Yet even as her hyperbolic edginess converts her into a fetish, Hill still manages to respect her as a person and a character — wounded, betrayed, alone, she has coherence in a way that, say, Russ Meyer’s women rarely do. Hill’s female characters are both psychosexual props and real people; in The Swinging Cheerleaders, Rainbeaux Smith (above), who during filming was in the early stages of pregnancy, is there both for the exploitation value of her massive breasts and for the incredibly winning, innocent-yet-skeptical way in which she watches her klutzy boyfriend prepare her dinner and then drop it all on his pants. The way Hill vacillates between humor and sleaze, between shock value for shock value and a real love of his characters and actors, is why for me the movies are such a vertiginous romp — unexpected, delightful, and disturbing in a way a straightforward gorefest, or, for that matter, a mainstream movie, could never be. That’s why I’d take The Big Doll House and Swinging Cheerleaders over anything by Kubrick or Coppola or Scorsese, and I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Waddell, in short, seems embarrassed by the exploitation elements in Hill’s work. For him, Hill’s a wonderful director who could have made a masterpiece if he’d only gotten away from all that icky rape and violence and sexism and taken a more explicit stand against capitalism. But Hill was great not despite his exploitation trappings but because he managed to embrace their extremity and turn it into soul. Quentin Tarantino called Hill the greatest living American director, and I’d at least put him in my top five. Perhaps Waddell would as well, even if his otherwise useful book never manages to come out and say so.
A version of this review appeared previously in The Chicago Reader.
Noah Berlatsky is a cultural dilettante. He edited an online symposium on The Gay Utopia, which includes contributions from Ursula K. Le Guin, Dame Darcy, Johnny Ryan, Michael Manning, a Giant Squid, and lots of other folks, as well as his own massive essay on The Thing, Shivers, and the coming insect-sex-zombie apocalypse. He writes for The Chicago Reader and The Comics Journal.And, of course, he blogs.