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Thursday 2: The Golden Age of American Sexploitation

Forgotten Works from the Sexual Underground

The Hayes Code of 1930 outlawed any form of “immoral” sexual behavior from being displayed in motion pictures released in the United States and, consequently, prevented filmmakers who wished to depict explicit sexuality from seeing their work gain any legitimate attention. Pushed into the cinematic underground, countless stags, and what would later come to be known as sexploitation films, graced American screens in between burlesque acts, or were played back-to-back in all-night “grindhouses” within the country’s skid rows.

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The films themselves ranged from cheap 10-15 minute “smokers” to 60-70 minute “nudies.” None were narratively complex nor offered the viewer anything more than a shabby set-up before the repetitive carnality unspooled on the screen. The first hints of change came from former military photographer Russ Meyer and his 1959 debut feature The Immoral Mr. Tease in which Meyer’s keen sense of vaudevillian comedy and exquisite cinematography won him acclaim as the first “artist” to make sex films.

This ushered in a wave of softcore features with more complex plots, good acting, and much more explicit sex. The films became the B-pictures of the B-pictures and all through the early to mid-60s, they played to packed houses in slightly more “upscale” venues. Everything changed when, in 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on obscenity, stating that no film which included “literary, scientific, or artistic value” could be declared obscene. With this decision, a wave of even more explicit pictures was unleashed, breaking every taboo with one major exception: hardcore sex.

In 1969, this last frontier was crossed when President Johnson’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography declared that there was no harm to be caused by viewing explicit sex. Suddenly countless filmmakers began pushing the boundaries of what was shown in their work, though many of these early productions remained in keeping with the extremely simple narrative set-ups which had been prevalent in earlier decades.

However, as more people accepted explicit sex in films, filmmakers themselves became more open to artistic experimentation and creating complex narratives around carnal scenes. The rise of “porno-chic,” a term coined by critic Vincent Canby, saw American hardcore films emulating European art-film aesthetics, as seen in works such as Jon Fontana’s Resurrection Of Eve and Orson Welles protégé and cinematographer Gary Graver’s nihilistic 3 A.M.; adapting works of literature, as seen in Sharon McKnight’s Autobiography Of A Flea and Bud Townsend’s explicit musical adaptation of Alice In Wonderland; and subverting popular genre film aesthetics, as seen in distinctly bizarre features such as Jonas Middleton’s surrealist horror Through The Looking Glass and Gerard Damiano’s pseudo-autobiographical X-rated marionette musical, Let My Puppets Come.

Just as many independent films of the era emerged from areas of the country not known for being centers of filmmaking, regional hardcore productions became more and more commonplace, such as Karl Krogstad’s experimental feature The Last Bath and a now lost Chicago-shot work, The Last Affair, the production of which is chronicled in Robert Flaxman’s fascinating documentary, A Labor Of Love.

Despite moderate social acceptance of hardcore sex in feature films, there was still a great deal of criticism, especially from conservative religious and feminist groups, which viewed many of the films being made as misogynistic. Bonnie Sherr Klein’s documentary Not A Love Story remains the most prominent cinematic example of the era’s anti-porn feminist rhetoric. This criticism, however, was met with the production of numerous female-centric and pseudo-feminist productions, such as Roommates, a 1981 film by New York-based gay filmmaker Chuck Vincent.

With the emergence of video as a popular means of movie-watching, many producers were no longer willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on 35mm feature production and consequently, by 1985, most filmmakers had either abandoned sexually explicit projects altogether or succumbed to video, leaving behind just over a decade’s worth of uniquely American, and all but forgotten, cinema. Joe Rubin

Please note that two of the final titles originally scheduled for this series (Through the Looking Glass, 2/25 and Roommates, 3/11) are no longer available to us, and will be replaced by Fleshpot on 42nd St. and Wet Rainbow, respectively.

Thursday, January 7 at 9:15 • 75m
Alice in Wonderland
Bud Townsend, 1976 • Conceived as the “first X-rated musical,” this bizarre, and surprisingly faithful, adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic novel manages to pack no less than eight original musical numbers, and tons of dirty puns, between various carnal couplings. Alice, a conservative librarian, is transported to Wonderland where she must find the White Rabbit and defeat the evil queen. During her adventure, she encounters many strange characters, including the Mad Hatter, Humpty Dumpty, and an incestuous Tweedledee and Tweedledum, all of whom help her become more open-minded and less prudish. Archival 16mm
Thursday, January 14 at 9:30 • 84m
Resurrection of Eve
Jon Fontana, 1973 • Directed by cinematographer Jon Fontana, Resurrection of Eve is a stirring examination of female sexual repression and white male insecurities, set at the tail end of the hippie era. Eve, played by three actresses over the course of the film, including Marilyn Chambers, is a naive woman who meets and marries a popular DJ whose sexual and emotional insecurities force his wife to abandon her friendship with a black boxer. However, when Eve is nearly killed in a car accident, her physical resurrection results in an emotional awakening as she starts asserting her newfound independence. 35mm
Thursday, January 21 at 9:45 • 125m
Let My Puppets Come
Gerard Damiano, 1977 • Directed by Gerard Damiano, Let My Puppets Come is a farcical look at how the director made his best known film, Deep Throat, except this is a musical and the cast is almost exclusively composed of fornicating puppets. In a money jam, The Creative Concepts Inc. decides to make a cheap porn to pay their bills. Unfortunately, their plans go awry as the director is more interested in art than profit and the mob slowly starts to muscle their way into the production. One of the strangest genre film composites ever made, Let My Puppets Come mixes song and dance with marionette sex. Archival 35mm
Thursday, January 28 at 9:30 • 91m
Autobiography of a Flea
Sharon McKnight, 1976 • The first major sexually explicit narrative feature directed by a woman, and based on one of the quintessential Victorian erotic novels, The Autobiography of a Flea flirts between bawdy slapstick humor and not-so-subversive social commentary. Fourteen-year-old Belle is discovered having sex with her boyfriend by a priest, who, as recompense, makes her the monastery sex-slave, opening her eyes to the perverted sex lives of the bourgeoisie. Soon Belle has become just as scheming and manipulative as the evil priests. Flea is a colorfully photographed and remarkably sleazy period piece oddity. Archival 35mm
Thursday, February 4 at 9:30 • 74m
The Last Bath
Karl Krogstad, 1973 • Made by a group of film students at the University of Washington in Seattle, this until recently considered "lost" hardcore experimental feature is a fascinating example of a commercial piece of avant-garde cinema. The scant narrative involves two women who pick up a man for a weekend of sex and drugs with far-from-innocent intentions. Filled with psychedelic optical effects, surreal dream sequences and erratic editing, The Last Bath is both a rare forgotten gem from the golden age of underground cinema and a wonderful example of regional American cinema. 35mm
Thursday, February 11 at 9:45 • 86m
3 A.M.
Gary Graver, 1975 • The first X-rated feature directed by Orson Welles collaborator and protégé, Gary Graver, 3 A.M. is a study of guilt and loneliness in the wake of death. A husband, his wife, her sister, and the couple's two children live in an isolated beach house. The husband and his sister-in-law, Kate, have been having an affair. During a fight, she kills him, but the death is ruled accidental and there are no witnesses to the crime. In the weeks that follow, each of the family members is forced to cope with their loss while Kate becomes wrapped up in feelings of guilt over her dark secret. 16mm
Thursday, February 18 at 9:35 • 72m
A Labor of Love
Robert Flaxman & Dan Goldman, 1976 • A documentary on the first and only hardcore feature film made in Chicago (Hyde Park no less), A Labor of Love is just as much a chronicle of the production of a low-budget feature as it is a study of the personal conflicts which come into play during the creation of a piece of "pornography," and the social mores which are violated. As each of the actors and crew members are interviewed, Directors Flaxman and Goldman weave an intricate tableau of how those involved with the film are both bonded and disheartened by their work on the production. Archival 16mm
Introduced by directors Robert Flaxman and Dan Goldman.
Thursday, February 25 at 9:30 • 76m
Fleshpot on 42nd St.
Andy Milligan, 1973 • Gay exploitation maverick Andy Milligan wrote, directed, photographed, and edited close to 30 bizarre and angry sagas of sex and violence over the course of his 25 year career. Perhaps his most personal work, Fleshpot on 42nd St. follows the exploits of Dusty, a young prostitute, as she wanders through the bowels of Times Square, eventually moving in with a lonely drag queen. As close as American cinema could ever come to true cinema verite, Fleshpot combines anti-erotic sexuality with Shakespearean-like plot twists and Tennessee Williams-esque characters. 35mm
Fleshpot on 42nd St. will be replacing Through the Looking Glass (Jonas Middleton, 1976).
Thursday, March 4 at 9:45 • 71m
Not a Love Story
Bonnie Sherr Klein, 1981 • This documentary made by Canadian filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein was one of the major anti-porn feminist works at the time of its production; however, in the internet age, its message has become somewhat dated. Klein chronicles the day-to-day life of a stripper, who looks at her job in the sex industry as a form of performance art. Over the course of the film, she begins to rethink her attitudes towards her work and starts believing that she is indeed being subjugated and objectified by men. Klein also interviews various porn actors and female director/photographer Suze Randall. Archival 35mm
Thursday, March 11 at 9:30 • 74m
Wet Rainbow
Duddy Kane, 1974 • Made at the height of the so-called "porno chic" period, this big budget character study drama was directed by the mysterious Duddy Kane, this being his only credit. Sexploitation stalwart actors Harry Reems and Georgina Spelvin play married Greenwhich Villiage artists who become obsessed with a young hippie named Rainbow. While Spelvin fears her desires might make her a lesbian, Reems wants to introduce Rainbow into their relationship, but fears Spelvin will not accept breaking their monogamy. Wet Rainbow is a rare film which deals earnestly with bisexuality and uses explicit sex to develop its characters. 35mm
Wet Rainbow will be replacing Roommates (Chuck Vincent, 1981).

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