Who was the last completely unself-conscious American exploitation filmmaker who was any good? As in, who turned out to be a genuine artist but couldn't really be said to have been in the least bit fussy about it, if you follow me? George A. Romero? Let's, just for the sake of this particular argument, say George A. Romero. (UPDATE: Phil Freeman's comment below compels me to clarify here: I mean the Romero of Night of the Living Dead, which I place in the tradition of Carnival of Souls; not, finally, the Romero of, say, the very self-conscious Land of the Dead or even the more immediate Dead sequels. And by unself-conscious I do not mean "not smart." Again, just to clarify.)Because it's an interesting thing. It's not much written about, but the world of low-budget, exploitation movies did get its own version of what some call the "movie brats" working within its ranks to a slightly different purpose than the guys who had come out of those ranks in the late '60s and early-to-mid '70s. Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Towne, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese and a bunch of other vital American cineastes had come up out of the Corman system, and once they were out, their replacements were a talented but somewhat more self-conscious breed. Where someone like Scorsese would try to bring genuine self-expression to a genre piece while hewing closely to both the conventions of the genre and his producer's predilection, a director such as Joe Dante got his personal rocks off by sending up genre pictures from within in order to make slyly subversive satirical points.
As the economic rationale for the B picture began to implode, and as what were once considered B pictures started being accorded a certain amount of critical respect...and the ranks of production houses began to fill with more knowledgable "movie brats," the exploitation picture began to change. To lose its innocence, as it were...although I understand that's a strange way to put it. Obviously a theory along these lines has to cover a lot more than the Corman "system," as it takes in filmmakers such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg as well. But it's with the guys who worked for Corman that the self-consciousness of making a "trash" picture took on a particular, affectionately flippant character. The seeds of this character were, of course, there long before, as manifested in such comedy/horror hybrid "classics" as Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors. But they come to something of a full flower in a picture such as Dante's 1978 Piranha, an obvious-and-loving-it rip from Spielberg's Jaws, one of whose opening scenes features a "Mr. Patrick Hobby" being called to an airport courtesy phone, casts kevin McCarthy in a hysterical more-or-less reprise of his Invasion of the Body Snatchers role, and features scream queen and Fellini muse Barbara Steele intoning such lines as "fish genetics is a very small field" with an exemplarily straight face.
It is perhaps no accident that the self-conscious exploitation film, or what I'll call for the purposes of this piece the post-trash film, really started to flower around the time that critics began taking the exploitation film seriously. On the highbrow/academic end, there was Robin Wood with his explorations of what he and his fellows called "The American Nightmare;" on a different end of what I never recognized as a particularly valid hierarchy anyway, there was Michael Weldon with his Psychotronic ' 'zine, and later the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, and Bill Landis with Sleazoid Express. Roger Ebert had done some spadework in the mainstream media, and J. Hoberman and David Edelstein did their part in the ostensible "alternative" press. There wasn't necessarily a shared language among these voices—I remember setting up an introduction between Weldon and Edelstein back in the mid-80s, and the two just kinda seemed not to really get each other—but between them they all got the word out that this stuff wasn't just for dumb kids and adult flashers or what have you.
Separate from post-trash, in my mind, is meta-trash, which films tend to take off from the likes of inadvertent (possibly) but nonetheless inarguable pieces of "authentic sadistic cinema," to use Roebert Benayoun's acute phrase. The kind of grindhouse stuff that was so over the line that you wondered who the sicko was who came up with this shit. It is again no accident that most such pictures involve violence against women, and two touchstones in my own personal canon, such as it is, are the gruesome original cut of Fernando Di Leo's 1978 To Be Twenty, in which two post-counter-culture chicks who could be prototypes for Sex and the City characters cavort and tease their way through what seems a slightly-hotter-than-usual softcore Euro sex comedy, until they meet an unbelievably brutal end in a genuinely shocking out-of-left-field finale; and Aldo Lado's 1975 Night Train Murders, a sexually gruesome shameless Last House on the Left rip with none of the, um, redeeming social value. One could cite Lucio Fulci's 1990 A Cat In The Brain, a sort of grindhouse Stardust Memories, in which Fulci stars as himself, trying to figure out just why he makes fucked-up movies like The New York Ripper, as a sort of meta-trash milestone. But as the pictures of Eli Roth have demonstrated, meta-trash is a kind of vexed subgenre; the lengths to which something such as Hostel 2 goes to to reassure its audience that its maker himself isn't really twisted, he's just seen a lot of twisted movies, does nothing to assuage those who would condemn it. Which means it ends up perhaps more "authentic" than Roth actually intends it. Tarantino grapples with this problem a lot more effectively disturbingly in the first half of his Death Proof. But anyway.
The most surprising thing (at least for me) about Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D is that it's more of a post-trash picture than a meta-trash picture. Given that Aja's best film up to this point, his 2003 High Tension, is, among other things, a meta-trash exercise that winkingly, in its snooty French way, invites audiences to ponder just how homophobic it actually is, and given that Aja had, prior to this, demonstrated precisely zero sense of humor, I expected mostly a lot of eye-popping but sour, crass gore. Now there is a lot of crass gore here, of more later. But the tone, established with an opening that has Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss serving a similar function to McCarthy's in the Dante original, recaptures the affectionate flippancy I cited above very, very well. This continues in the casting department; good God, I'm so old that for a minute I thought that Elizabeth Shue, playing the very beset Sheriff of an Arizona lake resort town now besieged by future fish food in the form of spring breakers, was Cheryl Ladd. Ving Rhames and Christopher Lloyd I recognized right away. That the movie gives with one hand—providing almost overly generous amounts of Page Three girl and porn star nudity (see below—the blonde is Riley Steel, the highlighted brunette Kelly Brooke, and guess which is which)—and takes away with the other—making one of the main human villains an incredibly obnoxious Joe-Francis-style teen-boobie mongerer (Jerry O'Connell is very good here)—is neither, pace A.O. Scott, indicative of the film's to his mind deplorable "insouciant hypocrisy," nor, please don't ever write anything ever again Eric Kohn, does it make the film "a scathing indictment of America's increasingly blatant obsession with dirty sex." (Jeez, dude, next time why don't you try "a puckish satire of contemporary mores?") It's only just Aja hewing to, and taking full advantage of, the perquisites of the genre, and rather effectively amusingly so, at that. I don't understand why this is so hard for people to grasp. And yes, the penis bit near the end is sub-sub John Waters, but do you really think nobody making the film knew that, or knew that Waters himself is likely to heartily approve of the 3D gloss they threw on the gag?
As I took note of in a post below, the mounting gore at the movie's climax apparently made poor widdle Christopher Campbell cry, which, as you see, I think is kind of weirdly funny given the cultural condition we all share. Maybe I should lend the sprite To Be Twenty, and give him something to really cry about. I really wasn't too terribly bothered by it; but on the other hand, I think it's probably good to be unsettled by something we've been more or less conditioned to chortle at, out of repressed fear or not. Don't you? Could be an entry point into some meaningful self-examination. In any event, at the screening I went to—a not even half-full Sunday matinee at the Court Street Regal multiplex—the crowd, such as it was, was more grossed out by the fledgling teen romance between the two young leads than by anybody getting sliced in half. What a world, what a world.