Guilty expenditure and the implicit image in 1960s sexploitation cinema

review by Kevin John Bozelka

Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 320 pages, 44 b&w photos,  $28.00 paper ISBN 978-1-5179-0017-5.

Watching 1960s sexploitation films in an era of onscenity (as opposed to obscenity, to tweak a phrase of Linda Williams) can leave a viewer bewildered. Today one can take in ever more frenzied visuals via pornography that utilizes speculums, creampies (internal money shots), virtual reality, etc. to foster the illusion of the deepest burrowing into the truth of sex. From this vantage point, one cannot help but wonder what pleasures could be derived from sexploitation films that shunt much of the sexual activity and sometimes even nudity off-screen.

Elena Gorfinkel’s astonishing book Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s seeks, in part, to drain some of the historical chauvinism out of the notion that viewers of 1960s sexploitation films were naïve explorers who had to settle for implicit images before the explosion of hardcore pornography marked by the popularity of Deep Throat in 1972. At once a reception study, an industry analysis, a history, and a series of textual analyses, Lewd Looks lends sexploitation the kind of thick description the genre has so sorely lacked in film scholarship. It provides a much-needed bridge between two previous canonical works in porn studies — Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 and Linda Williams’ Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Best of all, Lewd Looks offers a glimpse into the audiences of sexploitation films, their negotiations and their place at a particular point in the history of sexual representation.

Speculum porn brings you ever closer to the “truth” of sex. The Spit and the Speculum (Mike Adriano, 2011)

Quite Foucaldian in its perspective, Lewd Looks’ first chapter concerns the ways in which various forms of censorship produced sexploitation’s unique generic syntax. The 1957 Supreme Court ruling Roth v. United States defined obscenity via a test:

“whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material as a whole appeals to prurient interest” (38).

Literary works like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover benefited most from this ruling since only certain passages, rather than the works as a whole, could appeal to prurient interest. Sexploitation filmmakers, however, had a much more difficult time convincing state and city censor boards that their films did not slip into the obscene. Therefore, they appeased the boards by keeping nudity a tease and all sexual activity implicit, the hallmarks of the sexploitation genre. Gorfinkel suggests that the advent in the mid-1960s of the “roughies,” a sexploitation subgenre trafficking in heavier violence and sadomasochism, can be traced to filmmakers exploiting the censor boards’ relative leniency with respect to violence.

Pornography that requires a virtual reality headset for full immersion. The Thief (Virtual Real Gay, 2017)

As censorship laws relaxed more in the late 1960s, however, sexploitation filmmakers were feeling competition from producers of 16mm hard core films often exhibited in store fronts. It was partially under this threat that the Adult Film Association of America (AFAA) was formed. Akin to Hollywood’s creation of the Production Code, the AFAA attempted to formulate some rules to distinguish their product from the harder core variants and to stave off problems with censorship boards. Gorfinkel notes how this ultimately unsuccessful self-censoring created a generational rift between older producers of sexploitation and the younger purveyors of hard core. It captures sexploitation filmmakers at a delicate moment in history that Gorfinkel renders palpable in this brilliant passage:

“Soft-core producers in the late 1960s and early 1970s were caught in a rhetorical double bind, dependent on censorship for their business yet on the brink of losing it should content restrictions — and representational conventions of filming sex —relax enough to eclipse their specific generic trademark of leering sexuality and suggestive omission” (90).

Another way sexploitation directors tried to keep censors at bay was by structuring their films around what Gorfinkel calls “guilty expenditure,” the subject of the second chapter. Stories of “guilty expenditure” concern characters who indulge in sexual activity but not without a price – loss of innocence, legal trouble, even death. This narrative mode worked subtly in the “nudie cuties” of the early 1960s. A film like The Immoral Mr. Teas (Russ Meyer, 1959) cocooned the viewer from any guilt in consuming images of scantily clad women by providing a gawking corollary in the film itself, here, the nebbish Mr. Teas and his x-ray vision.

The viewer looks via the lewd looks of The Immoral Mr. Teas (Russ Meyer, 1959). Lorna’s longing for sexual pleasures will have deadly consequences in Lorna (Russ Meyer, 1964).

“Guilty expenditure” gained traction with the “roughies” in which leering morphed into sexual violence, a trajectory typified by another Meyer film, Lorna (1964). These tales on the price of sin constitute a reticent engagement with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and paints a more much complex portrait of the decade than commentators usually allow.

By the late 1960s, however, sexploitation films, especially those directed by Radley Metzger and Joseph Sarno, focused more on female desire. As Gorfinkel notes in the third chapter, Helen Gurley Brown’s advice book Sex and the Single Girl (1962) had a great deal of influence on this aspect of sexploitation cinema. As a guide to single working women, Sex and the Single Girl compelled women to seek sexual as well as economic freedom, the ostensible subject of many sexploitation films. In these late-1960s entries in the genre, women move to the city for work or they remain at home in the suburbs as unsatisfied wives. Coupled with the relaxing of censorship laws, though, the narrative in these films becomes unraveled as filmmakers take advantage of this leniency by maximizing the spectacle of female nudity and simulated sexual activity. It is in this mode that sexploitation gained the reputation as an excruciatingly dull genre:

“The main characters spend exorbitant amounts of time lounging around, waking up and stretching, getting dressed and getting undressed, and languidly writhing on beds, couches, and chairs, caressing themselves either for a camera or for their own pleasure” (183-184).

But easily the best chapter of Lewd Looks is the last on sexploitation reception. Gorfinkel has excavated a frankly jaw-dropping array of contemporary testimonials. Central to this discourse is the notion of the sexploitation spectator as a dupe. For who else could sit through 70 minutes of sultry but near-nihilistic lounging around? But an article from Art Films International, a publication catering to the highbrow connoisseur of cinema, proposes that sexploitation’s very dullness safeguards any prurient interest and affords the viewer the disinterested distance associated with art cinema reception and necessary for intellectual discernment. Gorfinkel also uncovers a newsletter for sexploitation fans called Artisex, created to address sexploitation’s reputation for cheating the viewer. Reviews in Artisex judged films not only on sexual explicitness and the sexiness of the female characters but also on production values. The existence of Artisex puts lie to the idea of sexploitation viewers as raincoat-sporting rubes.

Artisex, the consumer report for the discerning sexploitation viewer.

My only qualm with this excellent book is that I wish there were more of an appreciation for the sheer weirdness of sexploitation films. Gorfinkel admits her fandom when she discusses becoming entranced with the baffling films of Doris Wishman. But too little of that wonder travels throughout the book.

Baffling point of view in Bad Girls Go to Hell (Doris Wishman, 1965).

A more precise sense of how stasis and repetition leaves the narrative structure of these films in tatters would be appreciated. But that is a minor complaint in this well-researched and insightful addition to porn studies.