By Sherrie Li
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Before there was Sundance, before there was sex, lies and videotape, Harvey and Bob and Quentin, there was exploitation cinema - the original independent film. Off-Hollywood in every respect, exploitation movies were born out of the hypocrisy and fear of a studio system that gave up creative freedom in the name of decency, but whose real motivation was an oligarchic stranglehold on the industry. Produced and exhibited outside mainstream channels, exploitation films are a crucial part of the legacy of America's parallel cinemas, which include Yiddish film, the Negro movie industry of the '20s, '30s and '40s, avant-garde film, industrials and educationals. Some of the most notorious names in exploitation are well known, among them Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Ed Wood Jr. One of the least known was also one of the best: Doris Wishman.
Wishman has shot 24 independents - or "skindependents," as legendary exploitation producer Dave Friedman once put it - since 1960, four of which are now lost. Born in New York some 70 years ago, she worked for Joseph E. Levine (the distributor turned producer who forced Godard to reveal more of Bardot's ass in Contempt), taking up directing after the death of her first husband. Her debut venture, Hideout in the Sun, was the first of eight nudist pictures she shot in her current home state of Florida, making her one of the subgenre's most prolific auteurs, or, as exploitation historians Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris describe her in their book Grindhouse, "queen of the nudies." In Wishman's crude relic Nude on the Moon, two spacemen stumble across an Apollonian lunar retreat; in the charming Diary of a Nudist, a girl reporter discovers the joys of letting it all hang out - "I want to write for nudism, not against it!"
When interest in nudist films waned, Wishman began making "roughies," grind-speak for features that mixed violence with the softest softcore action. Released under her Juri Productions banner and, like all of Wishman's films, produced and written by the director herself (albeit under various pseudonyms, including Dawn Whitman and Louis Silverman), these roughies constitute the main of her oeuvre. Without question the greatest of Wishman's extant features is Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), a no-budget Justine in which a winsome housewife flees and, in one case, murders wolfish admirers at every click of her well-shod heels. (The director seems to have a thing for feet.) Like Sade's most famous heroine, Wishman's Meg (delectable GiGi Darlene) embarks on a peripatetic adventure that brings her into contact with all manner of depravity, yet she remains guileless throughout - even when being vigorously whipped with a belt.
Meg's problem isn't that no one can keep their hands off her - not the Good Samaritan who strays, not the bouffanted lesbian, not the horny landlord - but her own healthy libido: The film opens with Meg and her husband in bed, and her urging him to stay there. Eventually the law catches up with the runaway bride, but her capture reads as more unjust than righteous, something the movie's head-spinning finale makes clear. It's not Meg's fault that she inspires such bestial behavior in others: She's an innocent bystander to everyone else's insatiability. That doesn't make Bad Girls one for the feminist archives (Meg's agency is less than zero), but it's the sort of contradictory sexual politics that makes Wishman's work fascinating.
Wishman's career, as with all of exploitation, took a dramatic turn with the advent of hardcore porn in the early '70s. Deep Throat and its like meant the death of the roughie (of course, its spirit lives on in cable, straight-to-video and the films of Paul Verhoeven) but not of Wishman, who neatly rebounded with the kind of ingenuity Roger Corman might admire. The results are two of Wishman's most famous gimmick features, Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73, both made with the sublimely untalented Chesty Morgan, a stripper whose claims to fame splay across her torso like cataleptic twins.
In Deadly Weapons (1971) Morgan smothers men in the embrace of her bosom; in Double Agent 73 (1974) she's a secret agent who not only can knock a man down with a well-slung tit, but has a camera surgically implanted in her left breast. (John Waters included a clip of the film in his Serial Mom.) Wishman has said she didn't enjoy working with Morgan, which is evident from the numerous unflattering angles she used to shoot her star; when the camera aims up at Chesty's unsheathed mammaries, the point of view is truly alarming - it's as if Sydney Greenstreet had loomed not just large in The Maltese Falcon but naked.
Although the Chesty films afford their degraded pleasures - her towering platforms and clown clothes, along with Wishman's foot fetish and a succession of unrelievedly squalid rooms are reason enough to recommend Double Agent 73 - they aren't the director's best. Bad Girls remains Wishman's triumph, which is not to say her later career isn't without interest. Two of her most memorable features are 1970's The Amazing Transplant, about a man who musters up the courage to lose his virginity only after undergoing a very special organ transplant, and her sole excursion into documentary, a sympathetic curio about transsexuals called Let Me Die a Woman (1978). (The poster for the movie carried the tag line: "See a Man Become a Woman Before Your Eyes!" Though not exactly true, the doc does contain some unfortunate post-op footage.)
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