Was '60s Sexploitation Cinema More Than Just Pornography?
Film history work Lewd Looks argues that sexploitation films provided an underground and important bridge between the end of old Hollywood and the start of something else.
Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s
University of Minnesota Press
The genre of quick and easy disposable films produced primarily for sexual titillation should not be immediately connected with our current media focus on #metoo and #timesup movements. Nor should they immediately be shelved in the pornographic sections of stores. The genre known as "sexploitation", which writer Elena Gorfinkel carefully documents in Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, was a by-product of several elements coming together at the same time.
Equal parts cheaply shot salacious nudies, low budget independent cinema with mere germs of artistic credibility, and the result of loosened standards regarding the definition of obscenity in film, the sexploitation cinema became a cottage industry. In 1957, after the New York Board of Appeals ruled nudity was no longer equal to obscenity in movies, the "skin flicks" meant only to meet immediate needs became something realistically marketable. The sexploitation cinema of the '60s, at least from Gorfinkel's perspective, was an underground and important bridge between the end of old Hollywood and the start of something else.
What we need to understand before we go any further is that "…sex in sexploitation cannot end happily." Gorfinkel lays out her argument very clearly in her Introduction, and it's convincing enough:
"Instead of [the]… multiplication of sex acts that we see in hard-core pornography, sexploitation films offer a more stringent economy… sexploitation as a mode provides a fascinating semiotics of the currency of… salacious imagery."
In other words, what the form represented in its time was a reaction to restrictions, a loose moral construct dictating that pleasure can be taken from a display of the forbidden, but it needs to come with a cost. For Gorfinkel, these films were "time capsules" that documented changing attitudes regarding gender and sexuality and they also had a short shelf life. Gorfinkel doesn't affix any value judgement to this notion that the sexploitation films were disposable. Instead, she seems to be arguing here that their very shallow nature served a major purpose. Moreover, their very presence served as testimony to shifting times.
In the opening chapter, "Producing Permissiveness", Gorfinkel argues that the elements of legal regulation in the early '60s (remnants of the Hayes Code restrictions) were primarily responsible for the production of sexploitation. They were a response to legally-sanctioned repression. Gorfinkel's description of the 1965 film Censored, for example, seems to nicely capture the essence of the form: "….one part bluenose, and one part lecher." This film, and many in the genre, seemed to want it both ways. They catered to the demands of the regulatory boards while at the same time brazenly flirting with themes of voyeurism, sado-masochism, and potential (but not quite all the way) obscenity.
There are many side roads that need to be taken on the journey towards tying together initial threads of sexploitation's origins. There were nudist camp films, both the documentaries and fictionalized categories. Gorfinkel elaborates on Max Nosseck's The Garden of Eden, a 1954 fictional story about a widow whose car breaks down. She's helped by a group of nudists, and the film's objective seemed to be "…showing nude bodies without any purported prurience… was not obscene."
Fans of Russ Meyer's 1969 film Vixen will enjoy Gorfinkel's side trip narrative about an organization called Citizen's for Decent Literature (CDL) and its founder, Charles H. Keating, Jr. The CDL was determined to use "…tactics of intimidation and political and community pressure in an attempt to shame exhibitors [and others]… into submission." Keating was appointed to Richard Nixon's Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The essence of films like Vixen (more mainstream now in retrospect) was threatening not just in soft-core sexual imagery but also social issues of the time. Even there, though, Meyers and others seemed to like having it both ways. Gorfinkel quotes Nicholas Von Hoffman:
"…the director had to reinforce the stereotype of male and female… He pushes the thought that you aren't what you do… but that the real you… is the role that you occupy."
In Chapter Two, "Peek Snatchers: Corporeal Spectacle and the Wages of Looking, 1960-1965", Gorfinkel looks at the separation of softcore and hardcore styles. "Sexploitation films are less deceptive than self-knowing, and reflexive texts, functionally conscious of the limits of their own conditions of production, exhibition, and reception." Sexploitation knew what it was and stayed in its lane. There were no apparent aspirations for greater levels of artistic integrity. These films resided "…between the register of the implicit and explicit, in the space where seeing (enough) and knowing (the rest) commingle." The chapter examines "nudie cuties" (innocence and teasing) the nudist camp phase (documentary examinations of a subculture) and burlesque. Gorfinkel notes:
"Harnessing the novelty of female nudity within narratives involving the gimmick of altered sight, the act of looking at bare female flesh was thematized in the films through various narrative devices and plot twists."
There are some actresses mentioned who probably were not covered by SAG insurance or other contractual obligations of propriety and decorum. Glossing over them here is not a dismissal of their work so much as an indication that Lewd Looks is about the form rather than performers. Reading about films like Herschell Gordon Lewis's Lucky Pierre (1961) reinforce the idea that some of the creative forces responsible might have been aspiring for something deeper and higher at the same time. One need only look at the sensuality in films by Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman) and Louis Malle (The Lovers) at the time (late '50s - late '60s) to know that everybody was influencing everybody else, and the Europeans were responding to stateside expressions of pushing limits. Here are some lines from the press release for the 1961 film Nude in Charcoal:
"AUDIENCES WILL TALK ABOUT:
The deep moving emotions of tender young love
YOU WILL BENEFIT FROM:
An Adult production with the 'European Art Film' look."
It wasn't all aspirations towards some sort of artistic legitimacy. In Chapter 3, "Girls with Hungry Eyes" Gorfinkel writes about William Rose's Rent-a-Girl (1964), which was a bridge film linking underground cinematic narratives that treated "…the female experience of erotic labor and its exploitation." It was still dark, though, still depraved, and the informed reader understands that many of these filmmakers ran the risk of never returning unscathed if they wanted to explore sadomasochism, bondage, the consequences of prostitution and the cheap thrills of renting out (or purchasing) intimate human companionship for an hour or so. In the chapter's section "Sexology, Deviance, and the Sex Expose", Gorfinkel notes how the form's examination of lesbianism seemed to relegate it as something both illicit and "wrong". It was hardly progressive, but its daring was in its willingness to explore. The same can be said for the section "Remapping the Voyeur: Bisexuality, Lesbian, and the Female Observer".
"The prevalence of the female watcher, the "girl with hungry eyes" …comes precisely in a moment when female sexual agency and expressivity are being negotiated in new and diverse forms…"
Did this mean sexploitation was an early form of "woke" cinema for women? An argument can be made for that perspective. While women may not have been behind the camera during these productions, the narrative was shifting to the effect that exploitation was becoming politicized. Were women able to own the narrative? Looking at the form in 2018 allows for more patience and understanding than it might deserve, but it's unavoidable. Sexuality was about primal expression and empowerment and politicized enlightenment. Women were objects and subjects, but they were not alone.
In her conclusion, Gorfinkel contemplates a future without skin flicks. She bases this on the narrative of Paul Rapp's 1969 film The Curious Female, set in 2047, which recalled a life (in 2004) when a relationship simply between two people became extinct. The purpose of Lewd Looks is to "…account for the culture that produced these films and the culture these films in turn gave rise to." Perhaps like the Blaxsploitation film movement of the '60s, which seemed aimed towards empowering a marginalized population to retain ownership of their own bodies and fates, sexploitation had to balance the aims to educate and enlighten with the needs of the market.
Elena Gorfinkel has written a fascinating historical account of a form that blossomed as a reaction to loosened legal standards and became something deeper than one might expect. Whenever and wherever shocking exploitation and unbridled sexual expression is mixed, the results can be toxic. In Lewd Looks, Elena Gorfinkel reminds us that the ripples of this movement over half a century ago are still being felt, and this book proves a compelling examination of a form too often dismissed as an embarrassing subculture rather than a bridge that would link us to sexuality in film that was comparably daring but much more enlightened.