Friday, July 1, 2016

A Drive-In To Diversity?

How B-movies and exploitation flicks of the 1970s helped the masses embrace multiculturalism. 

By: Jimbo X

The term “multiculturalism” gets thrown around a lot these days. Alike all dogmas and doctrines, its definition is loosely-defined and what it entails, precisely, fluctuates a great deal from person to person. That said, the basic premise of the ideology is that it’s communally beneficial for everybody to respect the racial and cultural background of everybody else.

Now, for all of us Gen Y and Gen Z kids, that kind of thinking is almost second-nature. Well, duh, of course you are supposed to respect the belief systems and customs of people different from you. Why in the world wouldn’t you? Alas, such a mentality is still a fairly new concept in the American consciousness, which really, remained until very recently – and in some parts of the country, still remains – locked into ethnic enclaves.

There has been a lot of conjecture as to how “multiculturalism” became an ingrained, if not wholly expected, aspect of the American condition. Obviously, the demographical changes over the last 50 years almost necessitated it, as did the expansion of international trade. Some have said it is an aftereffect of neo-neo-liberalism – with its detractors accusing it of being a Trojan horse for globalization and hyper-political-correctness – and others declare it the end result of rapid technological breakthroughs (the internet being the most obvious example) flattening the “global village” into a much more interconnected place.

But me? If anything, I’d credit it to something a little less obvious – namely, the proliferation of B-movies in the 1970s.

“You mean to tell me that grindhouse and drive-in movies from the Watergate era represents the birth of the American multiculturalism movement?” you may be asking yourself. I know, it’s an absurd premise. Regardless, the fact remains that few cultural movements had as much influence on the public’s perception of diversity as the rise of the often-foreign and always-independently-produced non-Hollywood cult flicks of the disco decade.

In 1975, there was no Internet. Nor were there any smartphones or streaming services like Netflix. For crying aloud, you didn’t even have cable television or VCRs yet. And since the network programming back then was heavily censored to comply with the FCC’s super-strict guidelines, pretty much the only place you could see (relatively) uncompromised moving images was at the local picture show – and whatever they were showing was pretty much your only unfiltered media window to the outside world.

While the local cineplex was treating you to mainstream stuff like The Towering Inferno and The Aristocats, those who ventured to the local B-venues – namely, the scummier in-town, non-chain-operated movie houses and especially the drive-in theaters – saw something completely different. Through a deluge of cheap-o productions and even cheaper acquired films from overseas, the  non-mainstream-movie-going masses witnessed a mini-cultural revolution, screening hundreds and hundreds of off-the-beaten-path flicks furtively celebrating the pro-diversity, ultra-progressivist ethos that epitomizes current U.S. culture.

With the elimination of the Hays Code in 1968 (a downright puritanical film production protocol that greatly limited what could be shown on screen), the floodgates immediately burst wide open with all sorts of artistic, poignant films with declarative sociopolitical messages that weren’t previously allowed in the medium. Overnight, visually graphic films with mature plotlines like Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch became the new Hollywood standard, while outside-the-mainstream filmmakers now found themselves with free rein to pretty much show as much simulated sex and violence in their films as they’d like.

While this certainly allotted more thoughtful and provocative mainstream films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, the relaxing of MPAA standards also proved a boon to indie filmmakers domestic and abroad. This was especially true for those who targeted the often content-starved drive-ins and grindhouses, which would screen just about any set of 35mm reels mailed to them.

America’s first flirtations with multiculturalism as a social construct wasn’t in the hallowed halls of academia or even the rapidly liberalizing mainstream Hollywood industrial-complex (which was seeing its gung-ho patriotic propaganda from stars like avowed racist John Wayne displaced by more morally relativistic and culturally critical films like The Deer Hunter and Dog Day Afternoon.) Rather, it was through all of those abstruse and obscure movies that served as the second half of many a drive-in and arthouse double feature, which not only gleamed real insight into the non-white world, but gave many people of color their first shots at financing, producing, directing and distributing their own works.

For most American filmgoers, their first encounter with international cinema wasn’t the critically acclaimed films of Bergman or Fellini. Rather, their introduction to non-American filmmaking came in the form of bloody Italian slasher flicks like Suspiria and The Twitch of the Death Nerve, Japanese kaiju flicks a’la Godzilla and Rodan and Hong Kong chop-socky masterpieces starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan – all the kinds of flicks ignored by chain theaters and lovingly embraced by B-movie venues. 

Modern black cinema didn’t begin with the works of Spike Lee, or even the films of Sidney Portier. Rather, the starting point for true African-American filmmaking began with drive-in baiting fare like Shaft, Superfly, Cooley High, Blacula, Ganja & Hess and especially Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, which was marketed with one of the greatest taglines in the history of the motion picture: “rated X by an all-white jury.

Think feminist and LGBT cinema started in the mid-1980s? One of the first U.S. movies directed by a woman to get any kind of wide release in the waning days of the Hays Code wasn’t some artsy-fartsy, pro-women’s lib screed, but rather, Stephanie Rothman’s campy, exploitative vampire opus Blood Bath in 1966. Beating her to the punch by two years was acclaimed filmmaker Shirley Clarke, whose 1963 drive-in potboiler The Cool World is now considered not only one of the greatest proto-blaxploitation films ever, but is deemed “culturally and historically significant” by the National Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. And where would American LGBT cinema be without the pioneering efforts of B-movie aficionado John Waters, whose groundbreaking late ‘60s and early ‘70s films Pink Flamingos and Mondo Trasho made their marks not in the bohemian galleries of Manhattan, but the grimy, rundown theaters and dilapidated drive-ins flanking the north Atlantic countryside?

Years before mainstream Hollywood film got on board The Silent Spring-spawned environmentalism bandwagon, low-and-no-budget shlockers like Day of the Triffids, Frogs, Kingdom of the Spiders, Piranha and The Prophecy were already indoctrinating viewers with the virtues of ecological sensitivity. And literally decades before the namesake became an inescapable academic construct, drive-in fare like The Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave were getting down and dirty exploring – and criticizing – America’s “rape culture.”

That’s to say little of the genre classic that furtively explored deep, complex sociopolitical matters that mainstream film at the time didn’t have the guts to address, like rural racism (Night of the Living Dead), post-traumatic stress disorder (Deathdream) and the interwoven nature of cyclical poverty and the drug trade (The Harder They Come.)

Even the films that occupied that intersectional “safe space” between studio-backed populism and low-culture indie sleaze in the grindhouse era had a tendency to promote more progressive, anti-traditionalist values. Perhaps the ‘70s most iconic action movie star was Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack, an anti-racist, make-believe-Native-American “pacifist” who walloped bigots and spread the gospel of new-wave leftism in a series of three surprisingly lucrative films throughout the decade. Even the filmography of Burt Reynolds – the veritable John Galt of 1970s American cinema – carried a proud anti-establishment theme. Years before Black Lives Matter activists were doing it, the great mustachioed one was already criticizing mass incarceration and police brutality in drive-in hits like The Longest Yard and White Lightning.

While the double-dose of Jaws and Star Wars paved the way for mainstream cinema to strike back with less subversive and far more profitable box office rejoinders in the 1980s – which, as David Sirota observed in his book Back To Our Future, sort of swung the cultural gong back towards the side of conservative traditionalism through flicks like First Blood, Red Dawn and Top Gun – the exploitative, yet surreptitiously socially aware offerings of the drive-in age nonetheless reverberated much longer than expected. The influence of 1960s and 1970s grindhouse aesthetics and themes is evident in the work of celebrated contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Harmony Korine and Takashi Miike, and it’s hard to find any critically acclaimed indie flick nowadays that doesn’t at least obliquely pay homage to one of its spiritual forerunners from 40 years ago (all of the shoutouts to the works of Herschel Gordon Lewis in Juno immediately spring to mind.)

So is it really accurate to say B-movies from the Watergate era are responsible for the proliferation of today’s pervasive, pro-diversity ideologies? On the surface, it may seem to give way too much credit to a medium usually thought of as hardly anything more than trashy entertainment. But again, each film represented a tiny inoculation of a non-majority culture, giving us just a pinch here and there of a different worldview and perspective on the modern American experience. Little by little – be it Carwash, Penitentiary, Caged Heat or The Slumber Party Massacre – we learned just a wee bit more about the cultures outside of our own purview, of the customs and beliefs and lifestyles of those superficially different from us. While mainstream filmgoers were – and to a certain degree, still are – receiving a steady diet of white, hetero and male, the drive-in and grindhouse film faithful were experiencing a greater easel of the human condition and a broader array of philosophical concepts all the way back in the heyday of bell bottoms and burning draft cards.

Sure, it’s absurd to think that today’s multiculturalism ethics – taught in schools, mandated by employers and considered a virtual social code of conduct as sacrosanct as what’s actually printed in our law books – arose from stuff like Infra-Man and Hell Up in Harlem, but without such early intercultural cinematic experiences, just how successful could the first diversity initiatives have been as heralders of today's ubiquitous multicultural Tao? Although sometimes hokey, risqué, perplexing and maybe even offensive, those 35mm introductions to different cultures and different schools of thoughts nonetheless got us thinking outside our own narrowed perspectives and looking at the world, and those around us, through less ethnocentric lenses.

The old B-movies of yesteryear let us see “the other” as something more than alien or exotic, in the process helping us understand different ways of life and thought and illuminating a larger, clearer portrait of humanity as a whole...

... yes, even when the pro-diversity message was sometimes sugar-coated with rubber monsters, kung-fu fights, gallons of fake blood and ample – if not downright gratuitous – nudity.


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