Helen De Witt on Sexploitation – Riding the Wild Pink Horse
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Helen De Witt on Sexploitation – Riding the Wild Pink Horse

The Immoral Mr. Teas (Poster), Russ Meyer

A season of Sexploitation films for the BFI last year, curated by Julian Marsh III, brought tantalising new terms into the vocabulary of underground film fans – the ‘nudie-cutie’ and the ‘roughie’ being two. Both are the names given to two of the subgenres of Sexploitation, which is, of course, itself a subgenre of the Exploitation film, a form of independent filmmaking that emerged in the 1950s to exploit controversial and subversive subject matter, such as juvenile delinquency or beatnik culture, in order to attract and exploit audiences by appealing to their baser instincts. Followers of the season will now know their ‘kinkies’ from their ‘ghoulies’ and their Thighs of Satin from their Wild Pink Horses.

True Sexploitation lasted a mere ten years, from the diminution of the Studio Production code, effectively the Hollywood’s censorship regime, in the late 1950s to the emergence of hard core in 1969. Initially, films were so-called innocent titillation – Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr Teas being able to see through women’s clothes and Doris Wishman’s Nudes on the Moon, a colourful feast of female flesh as an allegory of true love.

The sweetness and light didn’t last long, though. Having opened the door to an openly sexualised representation of women and all that that implies for women’s autonomous desire, the genre then sought to subjugate this through the emergence of the ‘roughie’. The films of this subgenre dealt with more extreme sexual scenarios in which the women did not come off well. This was possibly a move to ensure that women’s sexuality could still be contained and owned, if necessarily through violence and rape. But Pandora’s Box had been opened, and what these films ultimately reveal is a crisis in male identity that resulted from the dramatic shifts in society in the 1960s.

There can be no denying that Sexploitation films were made for largely male audiences for their sexual gratification. Productions were cheap, and production values low. Films were made fast to capitalise on a quick buck, and an insatiable appetite fuelled by the 1960s sexual revolution. Nevertheless, the ways and means by which the films were made speak about their times as the films of Studio-based industrial production rarely do. In a way, the season represented a return of what Hollywood had repressed.

People may be surprises that one of the greatest exponents of the ‘roughie’ was Doris Wishman, a woman director. How could a women make so many films that are about the degradation of and violence towards women? What these films point out, however, is the vulnerability of women in the 1960s, despite, and sometimes because of, the sexual revolution. Her heroines are working class girls trying to make it in a world set against them. They show these women’s resourcefulness in navigating the sexual and economic landscape. Her films, particularly Another Day Another Man and Bad Girls Go to Hell, reveal sex as a commodity of power and exchange that women themselves need to control in order to survive.  Nevertheless, at points we can still witness Wishman’s female-focussed romanticism, evident in her earlier films, for instance showing us that the hooker in Another Day is only sexually satisfied by the pimp she is in love with. Another major exponent of the ‘roughie’ was Joe Sarno. His films, Sin in the Suburbs and Come Ride the Wild Pink Horse, deal with the decadence of out-of-town married middle class women. But by golly, can you blame them for indulging in ritualised masked games of swinging or joining a free-love art class? Their bourgeois lives are so dull.

Another Day, Another Man by Doris Wishman

Another Day, Another Man by Doris Wishman

Stylistically, Wishman, Sarno and the other ‘roughie’ directors work with a pared-down black-and-white mise-en-scene. This is very different from the naturalistic lightness of the ‘nudie-cutie’. It’s as if they are Film Noir in contrast to the MGM Musical. Wishman makes a virtue out of the necessity of her low budgets – in a way, anticipating contemporary guerrilla filmmaking. She unofficially shoots on location, camera angles are chosen for expediency. Sync sound is rare and as a result, characters’ feet or other seemingly irrelevant details are shown as the dialogue is spoken in voice-over. The effect is a detachment from the narrative that gives the viewer greater opportunity to assess the implications of the scenario. Sarno, by contrast, created a minimal but menacing back-drop to his scenes. The sparseness adds to the sense of moral bankruptcy of the characters. Wishman’s women generally survive but Sarno’s find it harder to escape their milieu, possibly because of its economic privileges that they have bought into.

What the realist paradigm of the ‘roughie’ offers is an opportunity for gender and class analysis of the socially turbulent 1960s. This prospect is not so clearly available in the earlier fantastical and comic ‘nudie-cuties’. Wishman and Sarno may show us the dangers and desires of women from different classes in these times, but what we can clearly see that they have in common is the same 1960s high-waisted lacy pants.

About the Author: Helen de Witt is the Producer of the London Film Festival and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival for the BFI. She also teaches Film Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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