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.)
Ironically, as grindhouses were shuttered, in part because of civic planning (see Times Square), in greater part because of the home-video explosion, a nostalgia market opened up for exploitation cinema. Cult-video stores, zines and Web sites are some of the consequences of that market; another is the mainstreaming of the exploitation aesthetic, discernible from Silence of the Lambs on through any number of Miramax releases. Where movie directors once felt it necessary to graduate out of exploitation (Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich all worked for Corman), younger filmmakers like Tarantino and Scream's Kevin Williamson aren't interested in leaving exploitation behind, but instead liberally inform their own work with its tropes, as well as its audience savviness.
Given this, it's surprising that Wishman has been such an elusive presence in the annals of exploitation. One of the earliest available articles about her shows up in RE/Search's Incredibly Strange Films (1986), which includes an interview by then RE/Search editor Andrea Juno. Oddly, though, the only Wishman title listed in Michael Weldon's otherwise comprehensive Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film is Let Me Die a Woman, which is described as "humorless and sleazy," but which Wishman enthusiast Michael J. Bowen has more generously termed "the terminal point of the sex-hygiene films."
The neo-exploitation climate has been a boon to Wishman. New York-based avant-garde filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh discovered the director's work a couple of years ago, and has since screened Bad Girls Go to Hell in a program she curated called "Girls Beware!," undoubtedly the first time French filmmakers Straub/Huillet shared billing with both Warhol and Wishman. Ahwesh also maintains a beautifully designed Web page devoted to Wishman (www.echonyc.com/~peggy/doris/), which includes a filmography, two movie clips and the transcript of a 1974 interview conducted for a never-completed documentary.
Leading the Wishman revival is Bowen, a Brown University Ph.D. candidate. The 34-year-old met Wishman in 1994 at the Harvard Film Archive's mini-retrospective of her work, "The Renegade Cinema of Doris Wishman"; he's now working with her on a book about her life, and has helped to coordinate the Wishman sampler screening at the Nuart (the director is scheduled to attend both nights). "Doris' vision is so unique," Bowen said from Boston, where, when not attending to the Wishman renaissance, he's at work on a dissertation about "19th-century French pornographic photography." Bowen, whose fondness for Wishman is unmistakable, has a felicitous way of talking about her work. The films, he says, "are about women discovering themselves through undressing themselves." Make that films about us discovering women discovering themselves through undressing themselves.
Doris Wishman: Queen of Sexploitation
Bad Girls Go to Hell, Double Agent 73, and Let Me Die a Woman
At the Nuart
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.