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Did I know "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was an exploitation film?

From Ian Carsia:

Being 18-years-old, a graduating senior of my high school who adores writing and movies, and a little curious, I happily signed up for my school's first "Intro to Film" class. For 80 minutes a day, I would be allowed to walk into class and talk about, write about, and watch movies. I was the happiest I've ever been in my entire high school career in that class.

The class was more than a bit experimental. But for the first time the subject had been taught in our school, our teacher did a fantastic job. She picked excellent reading material, showed pertinent cinema, and made an academic experience seem more like what most Literature and English courses should feel like.

She tried to tackle films based on three priorities:

1) They had to be representative of a distinctive genre.

2) They should, more often than not, be made by a highly influential and critically praised director.

3) They should tie into whatever we are talking about in class.

Watching these films in a classroom setting was a blast that I think is completely distinctive from regular cinema attendance. Simply the knowledge that there are others around you who are trying to identify the intricate depths and meanings of mise en scene is pretty fulfilling. It's great to see movies you have never had the pleasure of seeing before ("The Graduate," for me) in a purely academic setting. I'm not sure if I would have appreciated "Lost In Translation" as much if I wasn't watching it in a classroom, thinking about how it represents such a dramatic change of pace from older romantic films, such as "Casablanca," or a re-evaluation of countercultural ideas about youth and self-determination laid down by "The Graduate."

"Lost In Translation" is a modern day version of "The Graduate." It's a bit of a stretch, I'll admit. But in my defense, both films eerily feature Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair."

Where was I? Oh, yeah!

At the end of the year, the class was assigned a cumulative research paper. The instructions were rather simple, allowing students the amount of room they needed to freely choose topics that they found interesting about film. The only real instruction that was given was that we had to make a thesis around a specific genre, a director, or component of mise en scene, and concentrate on three films that defended that thesis.

With such a wide range of possibilities, I'm surprised it did not take me very long to realize exactly what I wanted to do a research paper on. It was so obvious and glaring that I gave myself no other alternative, realizing that my teacher might even reject my topic (topics must be pre-approved, you know).

That topic was exploitation movies. I wasn't clear on the thesis yet, or even what films I would choose to watch, but if there was one genre no one else in the class was going to tackle, it was exploitation movies. I breathed a sigh of relief when my teacher, Mrs. Tormey, allowed me to go ahead with the project, even knowing that my paper would feature films whose content would be rather (*ahem*) "unsavory" in a Catholic school setting. Mrs. Tormey, in her infinite understanding, only ask that I make a coherent enough thesis to defend writing the topic, so that if some scholastic higher-up were to stumble upon the paper, it could be easily defended and not result in either of us getting in trouble.

I'm sure I'm making the issue sound far more controversial than it really was. In reality, I chose my three films and was set free to research the topic and write the paper as I pleased.

But it occurred to me that there were a lot of even more specific topics about exploitation movies that I could tackle. Maybe I should handle one genre, I thought, like the blaxploitation movie. Maybe I could write a paper about the portrayal and role of women in exploitation films.

None of this really appealed to me. For one, I didn't want to limit myself to watching just one kind of exploitation movie. The paper had to be as wide-ranging as the scope of the genre itself. Furthermore, I didn't want to be forced to talk about exploitation films in terms of their morality. For instance, a discussion about women in exploitation movies would lead inevitably to the many films that blatantly depict rape. And if there is one thing that I learned from your reviews of "Chaos," "The Last House on the Left" remake, and "I Spit On Your Grave," there is no task quite as annoying and mentally exhausting for a film critic or analyst as criticizing or analyzing a rape scene.

The topic, then, must encompass all of exploitation cinema, from the earliest hygiene films to modern day "torture porn." (Incidentally, and on a completely unrelated note, this research paper of mine has not completely yielded a deeper wisdom of or respect for cinema. Lars Von Trier and those Serbian gentlemen have received quite some flack for combining hardcore depictions of sex with acts of extreme violence, but none of these guys holds a candle to Shaun Costello, director of 1973's "Forced Entry," a movie that really is a rape/slasher/porno movie. Your book, "Your Movie Sucks" was relatively popular. I'm wondering if you might not want to make a follow up: "Your Movie is a Morally Reprehensible Piece of Shit That Has Disillusioned Me of My Ridiculous Conceptions of Artistic Integrity or Basic Moral Functioning Within Human Beings, So Thanks for Turning Me Into a Nihilist in 90-Minutes, I Guess, Now Go Fuck Yourself." You can already smell the Peabody, can't you?)

Anyway, back to my paper. It finally occurred to me that, while I was about to write a paper on exploitation movies, I couldn't really define what an exploitation film was. Okay, a film that contains exploitable elements...well, what the hell does that mean? "Sex In the City" contains exploitable elements. It's not an exploitation movie, it's just stupid.

And so I finally hit upon my full topic: I would pick three films and analyze them to help me define what exactly makes an exploitation movie.

I set to work, first finding the movies, which was actually harder than it sounds. Knowing Dario Argento's work from such movies as "Suspiria" and "Deep Red," I decided I might use his original giallo film, "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage." But, upon seeing the movie, I got the feeling that I had been sent on some sort of wild goose chase. How can anybody consider this to be an exploitation movie? What about it exactly is so exploitative? Okay, so it's handling is a little sloppy, and it's a tad misogynistic. But all that means is that Argento's chops were still developing. And it's an Italian mystery-thriller, so of course it's going to get a little messy.

It hit upon me that before I could begin defining exploitation movies, I needed to find three movies that, upon initial viewings, did not leave me with any shred of a doubt about the popular consensus on them as exploitation films. There had to be a deep, visceral reaction that told me "Yep, this is an exploitation film," not simply "Yep, this is an exploitative film."

The roster was built rather quickly: "Foxy Brown," "Cannibal Holocaust," and, a movie that you yourself wrote, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." As I watched the films and did further research into the history of exploitation films, I identified three characteristics that I felt adequately defined the exploitation movie:

1) The most obvious one: The film must contain exploitative elements. While these elements are often lurid, they do not necessarily have to be. Motorcycles and teens are surf boards can be just as easily exploited as blood and sex. Furthermore, even legitimate social concerns are ripe for exploitation. But it is also not enough that these elements be exploitative in the sense that they are trying to draw as large an audience as possible. The content must be gratuitous. In order for that content to be gratuitous, it must be used in the film despite having little-to-no narrative relevance.

2) If you make a movie with the intent of making a masterpiece, and you are accused of making an exploitation film, this is not always true. In fact, subjective views on what constitutes exploitation counts for fairly little. To a very religious person, for instance, any use of sex outside of the context of marriage could be seen as exploitative. Subjective viewpoints are crucial, but the first defining characteristic provides us with a base that is a little more objective. It is easier to definitively say that something is exploitative because it makes no coherent sense and has a lowest common denominator appeal, rather than saying it is exploitative because there is nudity or gore. But the second characteristic almost does away with and invalidates the first one: The movie must be intended to be an exploitation film. Whether in the form of the director or the producer, for a film to be an exploitation film, it must be intended to be that way. If a movie contains gratuitous, incoherent elements but was not necessarily intended to be an exploitation film, then we can conclude that, perhaps, the movie is not so much exploitative as it is poorly made or handled. If, on the other hand, the creators have no pretentions about the true nature of the film, then, by all means, the label of exploitation is valid.

3) Finally, a movie is an exploitation film when it is intended to be that way, with little-to-no regard for or even in spite of notions of cinematic legitimacy or artistic integrity. It simpler terms, the filmmakers needed to know on some level that they were making an exploitation movie, and they needed to not give a shit.

Each film in my viewing roster was used to defend these ideas. The first example was easy enough to defend. It was the second characteristic, however, that I felt I defended the most eloquently. Mainly using Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust," I reasoned that the continuing debate over whether or not the film constitutes exploitation or legitimate social criticism is actually the product of very good filmmaking. As disgusting a film as it is, "Cannibal Holocaust" makes a compelling argument against the mainstream media. But the bitterest irony of the film is that this is also a part of the movie's illusion. In summary, by making a movie that criticized the mainstream media, Deodato was trying to disguise just how blatantly exploitative and intentional his movie was. Ultimately, Deodato's concerns about the media's exploitation of people's most basic lusts for violence in entertainment extends only so far, in that it does not extend very far at all. The social commentary that surrounded "Cannibal Holocaust" is really just there for us. I mean, why would I sit through a film filled with rape, cannibalism, and real animal death if I didn't think there was some sort of deeper meaning to it?

Meh, I explained it better in my paper.

With the third characteristic, however, I had no choice but to tackle Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Strangely, Roger, it was almost like you yourself were challenging me to call the movie you wrote an exploitation film. In the audio commentary for the DVD you spoke so vividly about Russ Meyer's visual and narrative style, about your own feelings about the film, about Meyer's love of silent movies and "old fashioned" filmmaking techniques. And it was true. Russ Meyer is a perpetually unrecognized visionary. I find it more than a little insulting that Roger Corman has had his day of recognition, and yet Russ Meyer (a much more competent and ambitious filmmaker) is still mired in the notorious subject matter of his work.

That being said, my research into the film even led me to an old New York Times article on the making of it, which proved invaluable to my thesis. While the article itself is, ironically, biased towards a little of its own sensationalism, Russ Meyer gladly plays into the stereotype of the man who is out to make a very specific kind of film: "At 'The Killing of Sister George,' people sat through 80 minutes of boredom to see one very erotic scene at the end. In my films they don't have to wait"

Watching the film over and over again was even more valuable. There were many incidences of cinematic faux pas, utterly irrelevant moments of exploitative ecstasy. Now, it was good exploitation ecstasy, but exploitation none-the-less.

I really do hope you read the research paper that I included in this email. It expresses my ideas in a much fuller and more convincing way.

I guess the reason I'm writing this to you now is that, well, I'm really not sure if I'll ever have the opportunity to actually correspond with somebody who worked on the so-called "exploitation movie," the very genre of film I wrote about.

I guess my question I right? Was I right? Are my assumptions accurate and logical? Do they correspond with how you, as the screenwriter, viewed the making of the film?

I mean... surely you knew that you were making a Russ Meyer film? Who would know better than you the kind of film you were writing?

There were so many moments when watching the film that just seemed so out of place. Okay, fine, you made a nudie picture. But did Russ really have to use a nose-diving-plane sound effect when a character committed suicide? Now, really, Roger, as a man who I am sure is very sensitive to the subject of how women are used in cinema, was cutting to a frying egg right before Casey gets her abortion really in the best taste possible?

Why was it necessary that Z-Man's butler be a Nazi? You see him, like, three times in the whole friggin' picture.

Just some of Z-Man's lines! "E'er this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!" I was speechless. You wrote that? I mean, I'll admit it, that is the single greatest line ever written in any language in the history of written anything. Nothing I will ever write will be nearly as good as that line. But how am I supposed to picture you writing that, Roger? As a person who doesn't think it's superfluous? I gotta tell you, every time Z-Man opens his lips, the only way I can imagine you writing those lines is sitting at a type-writer with the worst writers block and then finally saying, "You know what? Fuck it."

I remember one reviewer saying that Guy Ritchie's "Rocknrolla" was nothing but tangents. If my argument is that content is gratuitous when it is done regardless of narrative coherency, then surely "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" fits that definition. Like Ritchie's film, it is nothing but tangents. I honestly can not tell you, after seeing the film five times and taking notes that are way to detailed for a soft-core porno dramedy, what exactly the plot of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was. Because there wasn't any. I mean, not really. Every set piece is just a way to get to the next Playboy model, scene of drug use, or random act of violence against a man in a thong by a transvestite.

And the ending! Oh, Jesus Christ, Roger, the ending! Here's an idea: if you're movie is going to suddenly turn into a morality play, how about you not shoehorn it into the last five minutes in the form of the narrator explaining how every minor character (in a skin-flick!) has something to teach us about human morality. And what better way to end a Meyer film than a triple wedding. With Porter sadly eyeing them outside the courthouse. Ah, yes, Porter, the man who we have literally not seen since about mid-way through the second act. Have you heard of the term "jumping the shark," Roger? Because your movie is nothing but "jumping the shark" (which, incidentally, is the name of my upcoming book). It is perfect and utter insanity of the best kind. It is completely gratuitous and exploitative. And I think you knew that. And I don't think you care in the least about narrative coherence or artistic integrity or other things that those people who its your job to deride care about.

I don't begrudge you in the least. In spite of every flaw, you wrote a pretty damn good movie. You and Russ both did. But that alone doesn't preclude the fact that you guys both knew that you were trying to make an exploitation film.

So, I guess my question is two-fold.

The first question is a simple one posed from one film-lover to another: Do you think that my criteria for defining an exploitation film is definitive, or, at the very least, adequate.

The second one I pose to you as a filmmaker, one who can tell me if my instincts are right about his film, there-by lending even more weight to my thesis: Did you know and believe that you and Russ were making an exploitation movie, and did you particularly give a shit?

I apologize for my vulgarity. I guess I just want to give you the most accurate portrait of me I possibly can. In any case, my tirade is over and I have posed my question. I only hope that you will take the time to even give me a brief answer. I hope you enjoy reading my words as much as I enjoy reading yours. I'm not trying to put myself on a pedestal or anything, but just the idea of having Roger Ebert read something I have written gives me shivers.

The best of luck to you and everybody you know and love, always,

Ebert: It was many things. It was above all a satirical comedy.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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