- Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s by Elena Gorfinkel
by Elena Gorfinkel. University of Minnesota Press. 2017. $112.00 hardcover; $28.00 paperback; also available in e-book. 320 pages.
For all the attention to gender and sexuality in American film history over the past forty years or so, sexploitation—the hundreds of rapidly produced films promising ever more scintillating exposés of female flesh, suburban sin, and urban perversion between 1959 and 1972—have received surprisingly little scholarly attention. Although popular with a devoted set of enthusiasts, collectors, and filmmakers, sexploitation films are either written out of or receive a modest paragraph in most American film histories. Even Eric Schaefer's magisterial work on classical American exploitation films ends with the rise of sexploitation, and Linda Williams's foundational Hard Core slides directly from the stag film to the pornographic feature.1 In Williams's later Screening Sex, sexploitation takes its place among the many modes of screening sex in the 1960s but receives only three and a half pages, jostling alongside Hollywood adult films, blaxploitation, and avant-garde.2 When scholars have investigated sexploitation, they have mostly looked to the industry's "auteurs," Radley Metzger (the "Ophuls of Orgasm," according to one critic), Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, and Bunny Yeager.3 Lewd Looks is the first academic [End Page 194] monograph to turn its full attention to the large, diverse, and curious body of work that makes up sexploitation.
Having viewed hundreds of hard-to-find sexploitation films and combed through some surprisingly fertile print archives, Gorfinkel brings a new perspective to sexploitation cinema. She offers a wide-ranging and fine-grained cultural history, from the legal wrangling through which sexploitation producers negotiated with local regulators to the films' shifting aesthetic strategies and modes of address, and also the ways the films and their audiences were written about by film critics, sociologists, and lawmakers. Sexploitation films, she points out, were "at the precipice between different regimes of sexual representation."4 Although they promised new spectatorial access to naked female bodies, sex acts, and increasingly varied and taboo kinds of sex, the films nevertheless "remained suspicious of sexual liberation's value or social effects."5 In contrast to the euphoric "pornotopia" of 1970s hard-core feature films, sexploitation films were characterized by a "pessimistic, frequently shame-drenched imaging and imagining of the changing conception of social relations, sexual identities, and gender roles in the 1960s."6 Gorfinkel explores this key tension between sexual promise and sexual shame as it runs through the films' narratives and formal aspects, their legal regulation, and audience responses. She argues that "sexploitation films . . . foreground the conditions of looking at erotic spectacle, making the subject and object of sexual looking the crux of their drives."7 Central to these films is "the anxious status of autonomous female labor and desire, unhinged from the reproductive certitude of family and marriage."8
The book's introduction outlines sexploitation's distinctive mode of address, what Gorfinkel (borrowing from Andrew Sarris) calls its "coy leericism," arising in response to its status on the precipice between repression and license.9 It also helpfully thinks through the "cult afterlives" of sexploitation enabled by VHS distributors like Something Weird Video. The first chapter explores the legal battles over obscene content waged by sexploitation producers, as well as attempts at self-regulation. The second and third chapters examine the content and form of sexploitation films, particularly the ways they "thematized their own conditions of reception" and the "'problem' of [End Page 195] consuming sex" more broadly.10 Chapter 2 spans the period 1960–1965, from the tongue-in-cheek, comedic "nudie cuties" of the early 1960s to the more violent and melodramatic "roughies" of the mid-1960s. It explores the figure of the "gawker in the text" and the films' inventive formal strategies whereby the sexual act is "systematically deferred, while [also] connotatively summoned forth."11 Chapter 3 investigates the emergence of "girls with hungry eyes" between 1965 and 1970, when sexploitation films expanded their focus from the frustrations of male gawkers to women voyeurs, narrators, and adventurers...