Director: Jack Hill
Stars: Jo Johnston, Rainbeaux Smith, Rosanne Keaton
Is there such a thing as an elevated exploitation film? In the documentary on the Filipino B-movie boom Machete Maidens Unleashed, cult director John Landis laughs off the notion, rejecting the idea that filmmakers who indulge in exploitation pictures have any loftier intentions than to draw audiences with the promise of sex and violence. His suggestion is that journalists attempt to justify their own base pleasures by imprinting highbrow meaning on the literally meaningless.
This moment springs to mind when thinking about one of my favourite movies; Jack Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders. The lead character, Kate (Jo Johnson), is writing her journalism term paper at Mesa University, and she decides to pitch it as an exposé on the ‘demeaning’ cheerleader squad. In effect, she hopes to exploit the exploited for her own intellectual gain. Joining the squad challenges her perspective, however.
But The Swinging Cheerleaders has other characters, other stories, and other social commentaries on its agenda. Over the course of its breezy 91 minutes, it’ll tackle misogyny and systemic corruption head-on. Landis would no doubt be rolling his eyes already.
The thing is, Jack Hill’s B-pictures often carried a progressive streak. Coffy offered a serious critique of the urban drug trade. Foxy Brown made a case for grass-roots activism. His stock and trade was the drive-in movie, but he frequently ensured that his offered a little more than the anticipated cheap thrills.
The cheerleader movie was a curious subgenre that bloomed, briefly, throughout the 70’s, concurrent with the rise of softcore porn. Young women in overtly sexualised outfits? It tapped lecherously into the male sexual fantasy of the virginal, the youthful, veering dangerously close to the peadophilic (something latterly challenged by Alan Ball’s American Beauty, now soured by the too-perfect casting of Kevin Spacey). With a title like The Swinging Cheerleaders, Hill’s movie sounds like more of the same. In fact, The Swinging Cheerleaders is comparatively light on the explicit. The film is written by women; Jane Witherspoon and Betty Conkey. There’s scattered nudity, but more commonly the film confronts the leering male gaze, rather than fanning it.
Consider the arc belonging to Andrea (Rainbeaux Smith). She’s the story’s stereotypical virginal type, nervous of sex. Having rebuffed her beau, Andrea is riddled with self-doubt, feeling the pressures of a sex-obsessed youth culture. She reacts against herself and falls into the craven arms of Kate’s manipulative boyfriend Ron. Hoping for a no-stakes fling, she is instead coerced into a “nihilistic happening” as Ron invites his friends over to take advantage of the girl in a “really depraved” gangbang.
Hill doesn’t depict this scene. He doesn’t need to. The idea is odious enough. He does show us the consequences for Andrea, though. It isn’t played sexy. It’s played as actual exploitation. The “asking for it” argument doesn’t hold water and the sour taste is underscored. Andrea is carried home the next morning covered in scratches. Anyone watching for guilt-free perving rights will no doubt feel complicit. The Swinging Cheerleaders here turns into a well-sprung trap.
Ron gets his just-deserts almost immediately in one of Jack Hill’s numerous well-staged and solidly executed fight scenes, and the film is quick to return to its bright, skipping tempo. Still, the memory remains.
Another common sex fantasy is given more playful attention. Lisa (Rosanne Keaton) sleeps with her professor (a staple of erotica), a B story which plays out along dependable soap opera lines. Still, Lisa’s naivety is exploited. The Swinging Cheerleaders starts to look like a film about exploitation, rather than an exploitation film. The second half of the picture stops leaning on the sexual misadventures, instead focusing on the principal’s impulse to rig the football games for his own benefit. Kate’s paper evolves, and becomes ‘The Mesa State Watergate’, a pointed reference to real-world upheaval. Her focus changes from an outsider’s character assassination piece to a genuine journalistic investigation. This strand, too, culminates in low-stakes entertainment. The final reel descends into mild slapstick farce and is plenty enjoyable for it.
Even though The Swinging Cheerleaders has its laudable thematic meat, these things are bonuses in a movie which I return to, again and again, for simpler reasons. It’s such easy comfort viewing. Jack Hill’s cinema, though edgy, is also kind of cosy. There’s no pretence. His work is bright, quick and direct. Those things encourage frequent returns.
And, reminiscent of the nostalgia Richard Linklater tapped in 1993’s Dazed And Confused, a Brit like me finds a certain romanticism in American high school movies centred around the 70’s. I love the clothes and the hairstyles; the patterns of speech and the muscle cars. I love the sense of an agitated generation, influenced by the hippies before them but more driven, more inclined to the political. In terms of the viewing experience, I love the grain of the film stock that remains preserved in these pictures; the sense of looking into an idealised past, in spite of the dramas itemised by the story; the worms wriggling beneath the surface.
But the surface is green football fields, bleachers and, above those, blue skies. There’s an enduring, summery wholesomeness to this visual of America that, as an outsider, remains winsome and dreamy. It’s one of the things that comes to mind when the topic of American patriotism comes up. The American Dream as seen from afar. The Swinging Cheerleaders‘ visual aesthetic leans into these romantic dreams even as it punctures them. It shows us the fantasy and acknowledges that it is just that; fantasy. As Kate says to Ron, “Things aren’t always what they seem to be.”
Hill’s movie, then, feels like a bit of a contradiction. It is loveable as a time machine to a particular milieu, but also plays as a criticism of those times. It’s playful, yet thorny. Light but gets heavy when it needs to. A breeze that makes you think. Disposable… yet so easy to return to. And isn’t America itself perhaps the greatest, most fascinating contradiction…?
Sorry, Landis, this one’s about things.