Who’s afraid of Doris Wishman?

HAVING RESURFACED late in life due to a revival of her sex films, an eighty-nine-year-old Doris Wishman, clad in leopard print and wedge sandals, appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2002. Conan is flummoxed by Wishman’s spiky retorts and willfully evasive manner. Affecting sheepishness when asked for the name of her latest (penultimate) film, she finally discloses the title: Dildo Heaven. Sensing discomfort, Wishman asks, “Conan, are you afraid of me?” The other guest, Roger Ebert, enters the fray to discuss Wishman’s work, announcing his familiarity with Deadly Weapons (1973) and Double Agent 73 (1974), which stars Chesty Morgan and her seventy-three-inch bustline. Ebert states that the only reason to watch these films, in his view, is to see Morgan entirely nude, and yet she remains mostly clothed. Wishman cannily replies: “Well Roger, I’m sorry you’re frustrated . . . Is there anything I can do?” Reframing male cinephilic desire as pitiful erotic disappointment, Wishman’s bait and switch is both the work of a cunning “exploiteer” in the old-school tradition, with some Borscht Belt thrown in, as well as a testament to the blurring of contraries she and her films embody: feigned prudery and ribald provocation, sincerity and self-consciousness. Asking Ebert why he didn’t put Dildo Heaven on his “Best Of” list, the filmmaker is met with the critic’s blanching reply—of course he likes to see films first before reviewing them! Wishman scoffs: “Ugh, how ordinary!”

Born in 1912, a Jewish New Yorker and child of Ukrainian émigrés, Wishman was hardly ordinary. By the time of the Conan interview, which aired five months before her death, she had titillated and bewildered adult and cult film audiences for many decades with idiosyncratic movies rife with sexual degradation, grotesque and preposterous bodily perfidy, and, as one of her advertisements blared, “Girls without Restraint!” Among the most prolific American women directors of the postwar period, her vastly eccentric body of work, counting thirty features, remains unknown to many film connoisseurs. In Wishman’s audacious films, breasts avenge crimes and kill their oglers (Deadly Weapons); a transplanted penis bestows on its host sociopathic intent rather than sexual prowess (The Amazing Transplant, 1970); a stalker controls a young woman by manipulating a found doll (Indecent Desires, 1968); an all-woman nudist colony inhabits a lunar landscape (Nude on the Moon, 1961); and viewers are shown explicitly graphic gender-affirmation surgery as part of a queasily sensationalizing yet oft sympathetic quasi-documentary on trans people (Let Me Die a Woman, 1978). Her films overflow with the strangeness and plasticity of sexed and gendered bodies, simmering with promises of corporeal liberation and its attendant dangers. Her devotees include trash royalty John Waters and avant-garde film and video artist Peggy Ahwesh, who once documented an encounter with the filmmaker in a sex shop in Miami’s Coconut Grove—where Wishman worked in the 1990s—for her Wishman fanzine in 1995.

Wishman, Ahwesh wrote, “had a feel for the newly exposed tawdry human body of the early ’60s.” In that decade, a cottage industry of sexploitation films emerged due to the recent legalization of onscreen nudity following a court battle over Max Nosseck’s 1954 Garden of Eden. Wishman was one of few female directors working in this burgeoning independent market. Entirely self-taught, she came to moviemaking as a widow in middle age, producing her first film, the nudist escapade Hideout in the Sun, with $20,000 borrowed from her sister Pearl. Before long, she was the biggest producer of nudist camp pictures, releasing eight in the early ’60s before shifting into black-and-white sex melodramas, or “roughies,” as the sexploitation mode adjusted to darker, more violent subjects and a grittier aesthetic inflected by noir, art cinema, and variants of realism. In her work, Ahwesh finds “a seedy underlying resonance of the fear and hostility toward women in our world, which Doris describes in her own profound and tawdry way.” The pleasures of watching Wishman’s bawdy, crass, absurd, and kitschy skin flicks heighten across their proliferative form, as the gimmicks, stiletto heels, polyester curtains, ashtrays, vases, and black lace panties pile up from reel to reel. They are replete with the contradictions of a time in which shame jostled liberally with pleasure, and “tease” was the code word of a popular culture teetering at the precipice between prohibition and release.

Wishman’s penchant for tawdry profundity and her disjunctive style flowers in the black-and-white roughies she made on the cheap in the mid-1960s. Wishman biographer Michael Bowen recounts that she would bristle when asked about her aesthetic, quipping, “What style? The lack-of-money style?” Wishman shot her films mostly using figure models as actors, without synchronized sound. She would then hire voice actors to dub in the lines, producing distinct aural and visual tracks that shirk the artificial coherence of continuity editing. The alchemy across these disjunctions between performance and soundtrack, image and sound, would induce its own hypnagogic effects. The opening of The Sex Perils of Paulette (1965), her first roughie, bears this out. A conversing couple in Central Park is heard over shots of a pond, walking paths, and a carriage driver; they reappear on the image track only a few times. A Lichtensteinian declaration of love is spoken by the boyfriend over a shot of a squirrel climbing down from a tree: “I’ve never felt about any girl the way I feel about you! You’re so good, so pure!” Without a stabilizing image of the couple to suture the narration, a viewer is left with the effects of befuddling distanciation as well as an ambiguous or unintended irony. Such strategies produce a cinema of fascinating visual and aural discontinuities that contain their own oneiric logic.

Behind-the-head shots and avoidances of moving mouths ostensibly enable an easier sound montage, but they also require other fill-ins; in Wishman’s world, this means a predilection for ornament, her version of the “pillow shot” of Ozu. This montage aesthetic is what Wishman is now most known for in the cult sphere, her “cutaway style,” per Bowen. Actors are frequently filmed not for their faces, but for their bodily extremities—shoe-clad feet in all varieties being a notorious Wishman delectation. She was a cinematic materialist and a true bricoleur, as evidenced in her films’ sustained attention to bodies, decor, props, costume, and framing. After her nudist camp period in Florida, she typically shot in and around New York, which lent her images a denotative quality, a raggedly jazzy thereness. An inveterate recycler of her own used and unused footage, Wishman also used and reused locations, including her Woodside, Queens, apartment, whose orientalized furnishings adorn many of her films. Objects recur, becoming their own intertextual threads and traces of habitus: that ceramic vase here, that foliate textile there, this wood-paneled office, and that checkered sectional making repeat cameos, a bric-a-brac-laden photogénie. Of the ashtray used by her heroine Meg to kill her rapist in Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Wishman joked, “That ashtray has committed so many murders!”

Bad Girls, her violated-woman-on-the-run opus, epitomizes Wishman’s topsy-turvy gaze. A spiraling, unmoored camera often supplants normative structures of perspective, allying viewer and victim. Cinematographer and frequent collaborator C. Davis Smith tilts and spins his 35-mm handheld camera in many of Wishman’s ’60s works, creating a roiling disturbance in the image. Along with the presence of the cameraperson’s labor, Wishman’s films emphasize the onscreen heft of working women’s bodies lounging in lingerie, in private moments of self-reflection, attending to their prosaic gestures. Abrupt zooms and unmotivated pans across actresses’ lower extremities, frequently in heels and black lace undergarments, satisfy sexploitation’s compulsory prurience. Yet in their strange, almost nonerotic fragmentation and predilection for surface detail, they too become reflexive devices. Like the whirligig camera, such techniques assert the obstinacy and independence of a wandering attention as well as an estranged, meandering female subjectivity. In My Brother’s Wife (1966), an unsatisfied woman in love with her husband’s visiting brother catches her reflection seen in the steel base of her kitchen blender, Wishman’s disarticulated domestic mise-en-scène producing its own alienation effect.

Wishman’s vexed relationship with second-wave feminism speaks to a generational intransigence even as her attitude toward filmmaking reflected a refusal to be diminished by being perceived as “less than” a neutralized masculine norm. Although the director mostly rebuked feminist readings of her films, her work has been embraced by latter-day feminist viewers and historians, not least because her films baroquely embody the absurdity of a rotten world within which women must seek their autonomy and pleasure. Laura Mulvey’s theorization of the male gaze in 1975 as a system of scopic relations in classical Hollywood cinema is obviated by the sex film, which makes the pleasure derived from sexualization explicit, rather than occulted. The emergence of feminist anti-porn activism in the late 1970s and ’80s only throws the audacity of her career into further relief.

These films present their own ulterior theories of looking and critiques of the patriarchal structures that organize women’s lives, attuned as they are to the tensions between urban working women’s inner worlds and social convention. Made in an era when women’s economic and sexual relations were loosening from family bonds and reproductive imperatives, Wishman’s ’60s roughies found their dramatic crux in the push-pull between self-expression and commodification, between autonomous labor and economic dependency. In this Wishman’s is also a resoundingly classed cinema, in which sex as a form of necessary work is frankly acknowledged. (As in most sexploitation cinema, Wishman’s politics of desire attends mainly to white and heterosexual subjects, with some minor digressions.)

Wishman’s narratives have the melodramatic fatalism of Mizoguchi and a soap opera’s hairpin turns of fortune. In Another Day Another Man (1966), a young woman, Ann, enters a blissful marriage with a man who suddenly falls ill. His big raise had promised that she could devote herself to the role of contented housewife, a plan thwarted by his malady. As her former boss forbids the employ of married women, Ann is forced into prostitution to pay the bills, following the lead of her ex-roommate, a dissolute working girl under the thrall of a pimp. Husband, who becomes suddenly well, finds a note with an address and, remaining unseen, catches Ann in flagrante delicto. Ego destroyed by the humiliation, he commits suicide with a knife. Ann, resolving to quit the indignities of sex work on the walk home, finds hubby’s crumpled body. THE END. For Wishman, the domestic sphere contains and combusts expectations of gender, labor, and economic dependency. Women’s inner and erotic lives are always in the crosshairs, and self-definition and pleasure remain fleeting. Despite her films’ air of uncompromising negativity, Wishman, some kind of deranged romantic, frequently presented utopias of ardor, however thwarted by capitalist economies of exchange.

In the 1970s, hardcore, a genre Wishman discreetly dabbled in and later publicly repudiated, was threatening the soft-core sexploitation market with films that showed explicit penetrative sex, rather than its simulation. The sexualized body that powers Wishman’s art becomes grotesque in that decade, stretched to the limits of desirability, hyper-spectacular, occasionally horrific. Bowen has aptly called this period of her filmmaking, now back to color, her “cinema of somatic betrayal,” as gendered bodies rebel or assert their independence in fantastical ways. The Amazing Transplant, for example, elaborates the hydraulic fixations of hardcore into a borderline parodic psychodrama of male homosocial obsession, penis envy as ghastly farce. In Transplant, Wishman captures the fantasies and hang-ups of the masculinist imago, as one impotent man instructs a doctor to transplant his dead friend’s penis onto his body. He anticipates a more promising sex life augmented by the corpse’s member. Instead, he realizes he is now haunted by his friend’s sexualized psychosis as he proceeds to serially rape and murder women at the triggering glint of their golden earrings.

Such dramas of corporeal agency and instrumentality reach their apotheosis in Wishman’s most renowned films, the Chesty Morgan pictures that that so titillated and frustrated Ebert. In Double Agent 73, Morgan’s breasts become a deadly spectacle, as well as unwitting exercises in screen theory. The premise rests on an espionage plot in which Jane (Morgan), our spy, has to crack a narcotics ring by taking photographs of her soon-to-be victims from a secret camera implanted in her left breast. The camera is also a ticking time bomb, hastening Jane’s mission. The breast-camera is visible in copious shots of a topless, frequently slack-faced and fatigued Morgan lifting her pendulous boob to snap, the click producing a flash, accompanied by extreme close-ups of her flesh “smothering” the lens and engulfing the spectator, as her onscreen subjects drift off to death. Wishman’s recursive plot device makes another showing in the film’s conclusion as Jane, barely escaping the explosion of the camera implant, is left with a different bombshell: Her beloved was the culprit all along.

Wishman’s output dried up in the 1980s, but she was never not striving to make more films. Consider the fragmentary A Night to Dismember (1983/89), itself dismembered due to the loss of half of the original footage by the film lab, which required Wishman to shoot new material. My first viewing of A Night to Dismember in its reconstituted form coincided with my first meeting with Wishman herself, when she visited a feminist film theory course I was taking at NYU. I recall her being perturbed by my fellow students’ howls of laughter at her doggedly pastiched film, made over years of trying and failing. In contrast to the flavors of camp proffered by her films, Wishman’s drive to make movies was unironic, the place where her sincerity and tenacity always prevailed. This was no less the case toward the end of her life when she appeared on late-night television. One recalls Wishman’s most-quoted credo, about never retiring—“When I die, I’ll make films in hell!”—when considering two late-career titles, the aforementioned Dildo Heaven and the posthumously released Each Time I Kill (2007).

Dildo Heaven is a shot-on-video Wishman multiverse, a charmed revisitation of her earlier output. Three women try to draw the erotic attention of their male bosses in this lighthearted soft-core caper, which includes a Peeping Tom, a schmuck who fantasizes about having two penises, and a nocturnal dream sequence involving dildos squiggle-floating across the screen. The Pink Pussycat sex shop that employed Wishman also makes an appearance. The director uses cut-in scenes from her earlier films as fixtures, spackling the gaps between Wishmania past and present, united here in exuberant asynchrony. The finale features a kaffeeklatsch in which the women recount their erotic adventures, each brandishing a rubber member aloft in a toast: “Viva la dildo!” Keeping faith in the fundamental elasticity of the cinematic medium, Wishman’s vernacular vanguardism rests on a conviction in film’s carnal, Kuleshovian possibility.

Two decades after Doris Wishman’s death at the age of ninety, 2022 may be her year. Her provocative and profuse films are being released on three Blu-ray box sets in a collaboration between the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird Video, which originally catapulted Wishman to cult status in the VHS era of the 1990s. Various revivals at international festivals and a run of several Wishman films on the Criterion Channel have also broadened her audience. An anthology devoted to Wishman, edited by Finley Freibert and Alicia Kozma, was published last year by Edinburgh University Press (this author has an essay in the volume).

Although Wishman is indeed making films in the netherworld, new gems of ephemera continue to surface. Doris Wishman Directs a Music Video (2020), drawn from footage by Rodney Ascher of a 1992 music video shoot in Miami, offers a rare glimpse of what her creative process looked and sounded like. Tom Smith, a fan who found her working in that Coconut Grove sex shop, invited her to direct a music video for his band To Live and Shave in Los Angeles. In the “making of” segment, Wishman is heard on the soundtrack spiritedly instructing a crew of musicians and punky bohemiennes to move, pose, and strut, dictating with her New York accent to the cinematographer: “Zoom in, zoom in! Now pan slowly!” Bidden by Wishman’s voice and impish imagination, bare feet on a bedspread enter the image, fondle each other, then leave the frame.

Elena Gorfinkel

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Elena Gorfinkel