A Book Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
There’s a shared lightning bolt moment I’ve discussed at length with many other film critics and academics – mostly (although certainly not only) women – where in our university undergraduate years we were first rocked by the realization that there was a whole body of work where our simultaneous love of trash film and intellectual passion for gender politics were not necessarily contradictory. My area of expertise is horror with a focus on sexual violence and, in particular, rape-revenge film and, like many others, my introduction to books like Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (University of Minnesotta Press, 1992) and Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1993) was nothing less than a radicalizing experience. Through books such as these I discovered it was possible for me to speak in my own voice and on my own terms in a focused, serious way about films I had until then broadly assumed were beyond the preview of “proper” criticism.
But while the huge influence of books such as these not only on horror studies but on gender studies more broadly obviously cannot be underplayed, for those of us who had not so eagerly drunk the psychoanalytic Kool-aid that would dominate feminist film studies for decades following Laura Mulvey’s foundational 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” I confess something about the ubiquity of Freudian analysis in particular just never sat comfortably with me. As significant as the psychoanalytic feminist film theory that somehow became a synonym for “feminist film theory” in general, some of this work for myself at least typified a cart-before-the-horse tendency that privilegd theory before text, manifesting in what in some notable cases was an often heavily biased cherry-picking of case studies to prove a theory that more obvious examples would challenge. As I read my way through this era of feminist cult film writing, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the universalizing tendency of this particular dominant critical approach that at its worst verged on outright dehistoricization.
While Elena Gorfinkel’s Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) looks towards another commonly derided body genre – sex films instead of horror films – as Linda Williams famously noted in her 1991 essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” both horror and sex films have much in common. A charming anecdote early in Gorfinkel’s book tells of her interest in the subject being sparked by a visit from legendary sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman to her graduate feminist film theory class in 1998. Like Roberta Findlay (another sexploitation filmmaker of this era mentioned throughout Gorfinkel’s book), Wishman would work in “roughies” – sexploitation films that combined violence with sex that would, amongst other things, go on to influence the later slasher subgenre – and both women would later in their careers move from making sex films to horror movies.
Gorfinkel cites both Williams’ 1989 book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible and Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 (Duke University Press, 1999) as influential predecessors, and it is not difficult to see how Gorfinkel’s area of fascination culminates at the intersection of these two significant works. Yet for me, what is even more remarkable about Gorfinkel’s book is how convincingly she effectively reclaims the act of looking itself (and thus gender politics more generally) from its dominant historical tethering to psychoanalysis, turning instead towards a deep, historical analysis (and the texts themselves) to reconceive and reframe the significance of movies from this particular historical moment.
From the outset, Gorfinkel underscores just how vital sexploitation films of this era are in terms of broader film history because “as a viable niche in the 1960s [sexploitation] augments and complicates a picture of the rise of independent production in the postwar period” (5). Emphasizing notions of consumption and labor both in regards to audiences of these films and in terms of her own scholarly work that takes place in the explicit context of historical reception studies, Gorfinkel provides a compelling argument that drills down into precisely how sexploitation films of the 1960s “foreground the conditions of looking at erotic spectacle, making he subject and object of sexual looking the crux of their drives, self-consciously underscoring their own status as cultural artefacts caught in a period transitioning from restriction to license” (11).
Divided into four chapters, Gorfinkel logically begins in Chapter 1 with the industrial context where a range of different forces aligned to allow sexploitation films to flourish in terms of both their production and reception at this particular historical moment. Questions of censorship and the very real legal challenges producers faced in terms of questions of obscenity are examined here, crystalizing broader debates about aesthetics, morality, politics, and economics. Chapters 2 and 3 use this as a springboard to look even more closely at the films themselves, exploring sexploitation tropes and taxonomies across the decade with an emphasis upon the representation and reception of naked women as an erotic spectacle. Key here, she argues, is how the films themselves often demonstrated a fascination with their place in the broader cultural debates that surrounded them, typified nowhere more profoundly than in the labor-act of watching itself, the “lewd looks” of the book’s title.
Chapter 2 tracks the path from the so-called “nudie cuties” to “roughies,” the former typified by the early films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (another filmmaker who would transition across body genres later in his career to horror), to the much nastier latter category, made famous through the films of cult icon Joe Sarno and – most notably, perhaps – Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965). The privileging of notions of “deviance” in the roughies leads to Chapter 3’s broader exploration of how sexploitation films in the 1960s increasingly revealed a core fascination with sexual transgression and experimentation, demonstrating much wider social shifts within the United States in particular about gender, agency, and sexuality. The shifts mapped out across these two chapters underscore the centrality of the gendered look – from male “lookers” to female ones – expanded in Chapter 4’s focus on reception and the discursive trends that dominated this period and how that in turn played a central role in the evolving public discourse surrounding not just sex films themselves, but the way sexuality and representation was more broadly conceived.
So critically focused is Lewd Looks on historical precision that in part the question “where does this go?” is an almost inescapable one when reading the book, making Gorfinkel’s task of concluding this book a curious challenge. In her introduction she notes – amongst others – the important work being done today by conservators such as the American Genre Film Archive and boutique film distributors such as Something Weird and Vinegar Syndrome which reveals a fundamental longevity in the appeal of such films.
But even more intriguingly, she privileges films in her conclusion, such as Anna Biller’s delightfully radical Viva (2007) – a lush, smart film that transcends simple pastiche and instead enters the realm of a virtual cinematic feminist manifesto. Again emphasizing the notion of labor, the Viva discussion segues neatly into a summary of what makes Lewd Looks such a significant work of scholarly criticism, transcending the specificity of its eponymous subject matter and presenting a convincing call to arms to a rethinking of film history more broadly: as Gorfinkel herself puts it, sexploitation films “contest both the ways in which cinematic value, contingent on the merits of aesthetic exceptionalism, is distributed and theories and histories of sexual representation in popular media” (254).
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018).