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Flash Festival Review, 8-21: That's Sexploitation!
Soft-core Dreams & Reel History at Anthology

Promotional poster for Frank Henenlotter's "That's Sexploitation!" Image courtesy Something Weird Video and Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

I confess: As a lonely guy eking out a living in the cultural wilderness of North Texas, I was looking forward to some cheap thrills when the package of screeners for "That's Sexploitation!," Anthology Film Archives' micro-history of this sub-culture cinema running through August 29 in New York, arrived in an unmarked brown envelope. But a funny thing happened on the way to the foreplay: I discovered that even the most sensuous part of the female form (the breast) loses its impact when presented in an objectified onslaught. Of course, it could also be that, as prototypical soft-core mogul David F. Friedman points out in "That's Sexploitation!," the lively and comprehensive primer on the form around whose premiere Anthology has built this very retro retrospective, none of these films proffer actual real sex. If you can put your rocks on hold, though -- or if you don't have rocks to be pre-occupied with -- what this festival and its marquee documentary do offer is a valuable (and legitimate) chronicle of a genre that for nearly a hundred years has been a propulsive piston of the movie medium, making it entirely consistent with Anthology's principle mission as a conservator of film history.

Perhaps because they knew that as long as they filled the quotient of T & A their viewers would be satisfied, the smut-makers also enjoyed a freedom their "legit" counterparts didn't have. My favorite film on view at Anthology is Dale Berry's 1965 "Hot Blooded Woman." Not because of the story -- which might strain credulity if you invested in it, the heroine of the title (Beverly Oliver) being considered hot-blooded, to the point of being interred in an insane asylum, because she gets pissed when her husband (Gregg Pappas) won't have sex on their wedding night -- but because the groovy score, a melange of vibes-infused "cocktail" music, space-age bachelor pad grooves, very early Hendrix-style riffs, and rhythm and blues, has almost nothing to do with the action. Because there's more score than dialogue, this sets up an aleatory experience that makes John Cage look like Stephen Foster. Even the segues are rudimentary; at times it sounds like a DJ has abruptly lifted the needle on one track and plopped it down on another. As an added bonus, the backdrop for much of this is a barren semi-urban, semi-rural Texas setting, its exotic drabness enhanced by being in black and white. (Like the Luxembourg Gardens, semi-rural other side of the tracks Texas always looks better in black and white.) It's the most authentic thing in the film, replete as it is with train tracks hovering over brooks hidden in the brush (where guys in fedoras and neck-ties huddled around a make-shift fire are ready to pounce on women who've strayed off the beaten path), sage-brush, grotto-fountains where a petite Jesus temporarily cools the protagonist's hot blood, a car junkyard littered with the carcasses of '50s mastodons ("No, I guess she's not there," a detective on the trail of the woman after she's fled the asylum concludes after peering into one trunk), and even a blues honky-tonk where the heroine shimmies on top of a bar counter as a black band (presumably the Tony Harrison Trio credited with the film's music) plays the title song. In all -- and in what is the saving grace of many of these movies -- "Hot Blooded Woman" has a home-made quality; when a French poodle (complete with bow) wanders into the living room while the main couple is shagging on the shag carpet, the director doesn't chase it off but leaves it to hover close to the love-makers, as pets are wont to do, in a moment of cinema-verite that rivals the best of Godard.

"Hot Blooded Woman" plays August 24 at 2 p.m. and August 29 at 7:15.

Promotional poster for Dale Berry's "Hot-Blooded Woman." Image courtesy Something Weird Video and Anthology Film Archives.

Also from Texas (as Friedman notes in "That's Sexploitation!" while talking about this film, which he produced) is Stacey Walker, who plays Sharon Winters, the venus man- (and woman-) trap of the 1966 "A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine." Her trick is to lure her prey to the point of consummation and then cry "Rape!," which also furnishes her with the best line in the entire series when she pulls this on her lesbian-leaning female roommate: "I may be a bitch but I'm not butch!" Perhaps if you're able to take these films with tongue in cheek this won't bother you, but as someone more prone to suspend disbelief, here's where I started to notice a disturbing pattern in many of these films. In this one, Sharon eventually gets her comeuppance when one of her would-be victims turns the tables and beats her into submission until she becomes his whore; in the final scene, we see Sharon, her spirit broken, leading a dirty old man to a sordid rendezvous. In fact, in most of the films I screened anyway, even the sickest male depravity is ultimately the fault of the woman. (One preview describes women as "the twisted sex.") In the documentary, an elderly but still Puckish Friedman -- he died in 2011, and "That's Sexploitation!" the documentary is dedicated to his memory -- laments the passing of the 'decadent innocence' of soft-core that came with the arrival of hardcore. I'm not sure, though, where the innocence is in a repeated motif where the woman is invariably found guilty for the licentious behavior of the men (including the mostly, though not entirely, male directors). The men, however, usually get off scott-free; in Richard Kanter's "Starlet," supposedly a send-up of the industry by itself, even rape (perpetrated by a male director on the fiance of a colleague) has no consequences. Perhaps we're supposed to see this as self-critical because the film is described as a "send-up," but I don't buy it; it's not quite funny enough to reach the satire threshold.

"Starlet" shows Aug 22 at 7:15 p.m. and August 26 at 9, and "A smell of honey..." August 21 at 9:30 25 at 4:30 p.m. . What I did enjoy in the latter program -- assuming you get in the theaters what I got on the DVD screeners -- is the generous helping of shorts and previews that followed the movie. "The Handyman" has the virtue of all good short stories, a simple theme, vividly explored. Here it's a new building janitor explicitly warned not to dally on the 19th floor, which of course serves as an invitation to do so. The apartment doors there not only open up to naked beckoning women, but change the picture's hue with amber and green-tinted lenses. And a long travel advertisement featuring a tropical lovely romping in an island setting uses double-entendre in way that might not have been funny at the time, but is today with the distance of nostalgia.

My own nostalgia for the year my family ventured from San Francisco to rural Northern California in 1968 is tempered by one guilt-ridden memory: When I accidentally saw the slip of Mrs. Klein, our teacher at the little red school-house in Fort Ross. I hid in my room, declning to go on a field trip the next day and refusing to explain why. It was an accidental viewing but even so, seven-year-old me felt intensely guilty. For this reason, the premise of Irvin Berwick's 1964 "Strange Compulsion," about a young man (Preston Sturges Jr., looking like a very young Alain Delon!) who guiltily spies on undressing women, was not all that far-fetched.

Promotional poster for Irwin Berwick's 1964 "Strange Compulsion." Image courtesy Something Weird Video and Anthology Film Archives.

While others might see the script as trite and even corny -- perhaps if I saw the movie in a theater among others, I might have even heard some giggles -- the presentation is restrained, with lighting choices (such as the shadow slats of blinds at a window through which the hero, Fred, looks across the way at a disrobing neighbor) that suggest the furtiveness of Fred's obsession without over-dramatizing it. (Indeed, the '60s cool-jazzy score makes "Strange Compulsion" much less over-wrought than Patrice Leconte's Michael Nyman latticed "Monsieur Hire," recently screened in Anthology's Simenon series.) (There's also a sense in which the moral line straddles generations; when Fred takes an impromptu photograph of girlfriend Helen after urging her to disrobe besides a lake, she flees him in repulsion; a few years later, Fred's explanation that he wanted to capture her beauty would have been accepted.) Laugh if you like, but the genuine story here seems to be about motherly imposed guilt; Fred's own hang-up over his 'compulsion' appears as much tied to his mother's punishing him the first time she caught him spying on an undressing maid as his remorse over the act itself.

"Strange Compulsion" plays August 24 at 5:30 p.m. and August 25 at 9:15.

Perhaps the most bizarre of the films I previewed is Albert H. Kelley's 1948 "Street Corner," an example of the so-called 'hygiene film' under whose guise sexploitation returned after World War II, as producer/narrator Frank Henenlotter explains in "That's Sexploitation!" In these films, a simple story was augmented by government-produced hygiene films intended for sex education classes, explaining where babies came from and graphically illustrating the consequences of contracting venereal disease. "The films promised sex," Henenlotter says, "and in fact delivered close-ups of vaginas and penises, but babies popped out of those vaginas and the penises were hideously diseased." Indeed, "Street Corner" features more hideously distended and swollen testicles than alluring breasts. And the 'murder' in which "the most intimate moment in her life" results is nothing less than an abortion, performed by an immigrant woman in a dirty smock, balancing the film's benign agenda -- advocating for sex education in the schools -- with an explicitly political one. ("And so in fear and ignorance the criminal operation is accomplished," the "doctor" narrator intones. "Another human life has been destroyed by one of the most malignant practices of a civilized society.") For either perspective, it's a useful window into the sensibilities of a different time. (To lend the venture mainstream credibility, network announcer Wendell Niles joins the party.)

"Street Corner" plays August 22 at 9:30 p.m. and August 27 at 7.

The surprise of this Anthology series is without doubt the marquee feature, "That's Sexploitation!," produced by Something Weird Video, which also furnished the rest of the films. It's ample, and by that I don't mean the topless hostess who ushers us into the theater bar where Henenlotter awaits (with drinks served by a naked male bartender, just to show how things have evolved). From this humble beginning we're treated to a history of the form which generously tastes from every stage of its development, from the peep-show loops of different generations, to the nudie cuties, the nudist camp features, burlesque, and much more -- a nubile Brigitte Bardot even makes an appearance, in Willy Rozier's 1953 "La Fille sans voile." (Check a sample here.) Octogenarian sexploitation mogul David F. Friedman shares the expository duties, with charm. (Although I had trouble swallowing his defense that even in the 'roughies' -- which married sex with violence, usually against women -- sex was still the 'raison d'etre.' )

This concern aside, Henenlotter, Friedman, and the legions who must have assisted with the research to unearth and seamlessly splice together all this cinema history have somehow pulled off the miracle of surmounting the actual silliness of much of the content -- the movie clips -- to produce what is obviously not just a 'labor of love,' but a serious work of scholarship (alimented with enticing trivia too) that researchers of genres typically taken much more seriously than soft-core cinema would do well to emulate. (In effect, Henenlotter and crew have produced a serious accomplishment with material that... isn't!) In the end, when Friedman rues that with the arrival of hardcore in the 1970s, "the movies became explicit, and the fun stopped," we lament its loss with him.

"That's Sexploitation!" plays August 21 at 6:30 p.m., August 23 at 9, and August 25 at 6:15.

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