Now that the Barghouti-Butler whatever-it-was has left Brooklyn and New Yorkers ask themselves what all the fuss was about, my mind turns to Kroger Babb, king of the exploitation film makers.
Who is Babb and why do I mention him with regard to last week’s BDS brouhaha? Well stick with me for a few moments while I dredge up something I wrote years ago when I compared Babb to a different contemporary equivalent (in that case, Michel Moore):
While contemporary readers think of “exploitation” as a generic term, historically the “exploitation film” was a product created by a largely unknown industry to fill a specific niche. During the era when many downtown cinemas (and eventually drive-in theatres) were independent and locally controlled, a film production and distribution world that existed separately from Hollywood served to fill the need for a more puerile product than Tinseltown provided.
While the number of exploitation titles produced from the 30s through the early 60s was huge and varied, they all had certain elements in common, notably:
Exploitation films targeted subjects that were considered off limits by mainstream film producers, such as sex (She Shoulda Said No), drugs (Reefer Madness), and gore-drenched violence (Blood Feast). In many cases, these pictures were couched as morality plays, promising to teach audiences important lessons regarding the evils of pre-marital sex, teen marriage or drug-and-alcohol sodden lifestyles, by exposing movie goers to these horrid sins in graphic detail.
The most successful exploitation film succeeded by “building a ballyhoo” around the product. When a “sex shocker” like Child Bride arrived in a town, it was often accompanied by a lavish poster and leafleting campaign that promised an experience that would “dare to explain sex as never before,” sometimes segregating audiences by gender (men only for the 6 and 10 shows, women only for 8). When successful, such marketing would bring out the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency to picket the theatre, ensuring swollen crowds for weeks.
Despite the hype, exploitation titles normally failed to deliver the goods. For example, audiences expecting to see some skin in the premarital-sex-induced-pregnancy tale Mom and Dad, had to be satisfied with the “naughty bits” provided in a so-called “square up” reel that featured medical footage of a baby being born (thus earning the genre the title “birth-of-a-baby” pictures). Much like the Royal Nonesuch chapters of Huck Finn, six-o-clock audiences would leave the theatre singing the praises of a film, not wanting to let on to the eight-o-clock attendees that everyone was being had.
The exploitation film industry eventually succumbed to the film genres it spawned, notably pornography and the mainstream slasher movie. The tell-tale moment arrived when Kroger Babb’s company went bankrupt trying to play a New York market with access to erotic mainstream European films that had little use for the low-skin quotient of flim-flam like Mom and Dad.
Fast forward several decades and we finally arrive at the point vis-à-vis BDS, Barthouti , and the cult of self-promoters that travel under the name of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”
For just as Babb and his fellow exploiteers worked feverishly to gin up controversy (the John Goodman movie Matinee – a homage to Babb and people like him – had a scene in which the exploitation film producer hired actors to picket the theater, just in case no genuine protesters were outraged enough), so too the boycotters will do anything in their power to goad others into a reaction that they can then exploit.
Why try to reel in the politics department at Brooklyn College (rather than have the usual suspects sponsor the talk ) if not to find some way to rile alumni and other New Yorkers into complaining or (better still) calling for the program to be shut down. And once a controversy was manufactured, out came the nails and crown of thorns which were used to turn huckster and Israeli college student Omar Barghouti into a free-speech martyr and make the BDSpointation program the talk of the town.
But just as audiences for Mom and Dad and other trash films soon realized that they weren’t going to get what they paid for, so too did audiences for the Barghouti-Butler fest likely understand only after the twin speakers droned on for hours that they had spent time in line waiting to hear a monotonous dullard and a pretentious hack spew clichés that were tired when most of the audience’s grandparents attended college.
But admitting this would require an honest appraisal of who is leading this flailing “movement” (and where he is leading it), which is something the Israel haters can never do.
Which brings up the greatest irony of the whole parallel between Babb and Barghouti. For in the 1950s, it was the sophisticates of New York with access to even more sophisticated erotic movies from an enlightened Europe that brought an end to the traditional sexploitation era. But today, these same New York sophisticates are the ones playing the rube to the exploitation boycott-peddler’s con.