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Monday, September 12, 2016

Director Report Card: Frank Henenlotter (2013)

8. That’s Sexploitation!

In 2013, Frank Henenlotter continued his new career as a documentarian. After chronicling the most notorious trash-horror filmmaker in “The Godfather of Gore,” he turned his attention towards another favorite subject of his: The ‘sexploitation’ genre, the precursor to pornography as we know it today. “That’s Sexploitation!,” a two-hour and fifteen minute long history of the titular genre, was originally released exclusively to MUBI, an online film distributor. Luckily, it was finally released on home video by Severin Films just earlier this year. Sleaze fans rejoice and prepare to dip your toes into an extensive tour through the early days of exploitation.

The tour isn’t just extensive but also guided. “That’s Sexploitation!” is introduced by Frank Henenlotter himself. Henenlotter is an expert in the skin flick genre, often narrating and peppering the film with factoids and opinions. Quickly, he introduces us to David F. Friedman. Friedman had an extensive career in sexploitation, producing many of the genre’s most notable works. With these two as our guides, “That’s Sexploitation!” progresses through each decade and the types of sexploitation films that were made then. Backing up these two men is a seemingly limitless supply of clips and trailers provided by our friends at Something Weird Video.

Obviously, the relationship between sex and movies is as old as the format itself. “That’s Sexploitation!” begins in the 1920s, in the silent era, when filmmakers would sometimes put naked bodies up on-screen as a way to draw in audiences. With the dawn of the sound age, and a more traditional morality, exploitation makers had to be slightly sneaky with the sleaze. The roots of the genre can be found in “scare films.” These movies would display nudity and wanton acts through an air of fake morality. The films were pretending to warn people about the horrors of sex and drugs while still exploiting these desires. The scare film would lead to the hygiene movie, films that taught about venereal diseases and sex in outrageous manners, and the native movie, which showed naked actresses in fake islander or African garb under the guise of education.

By tracking the history of skin flicks, “That’s Sexploitation!” also tracks the history of censorship and the ways wily filmmakers subverted the rules. The Film Code of the thirties and forties meant the end of mainstream films showing nudity and salaciousness. In the years leading up to and during World War II, the nudist camp film became popular. Amusingly, the nudist camp flick actually has its origins in Nazi Germany, where the films were made as a way to show off superior Aryan physiques. In the U.S., they were mostly devoted to girls playing sports or lounging in the sun while naked. Films warning about V.D. continued to be produced and became increasingly graphic. Meanwhile, pin-up girls, which were sometimes filmed, became a relatively PG-rated ways for film watchers to experience naughty thrills.

Of course, there were others avenue of distribution for sexploitation flicks. “Peepshow” machines existed as early as the 1920s and continue to be found as late as the sixties. Customers would look inside a small box, powered either by a hand operated crank or a machine, and watch a short loop. A penny or so would get you a few minutes of gyrating girls. Often, the clips were broken into parts, in order to get more coins out of the viewer. They were wide spread, popping in seedy arcades all around the world. Friedman says that even locations like police stations had the machines inside. Naturally, not all the clips were relatively innocuous shots of naked women. Some featured hardcore pornography.

Of course, all of this was strictly under the table. Friedman discusses how different states had different obscenity laws. Distributors would often pop into lower rent theaters, set up carnival-esque signs and banners. These would draw in huge crowds, with Friedman estimating that some of these early sexploitation flicks might actually be some of the most profitable films ever made. Before the cops could find out what they were showing, the exhibitors would pack up their dirty movies and head to the next state. This display and dash technique was even more the case for the more explicit films, whose sellers often set up screens and projectors by themselves.

What’s sort of funny about “That’s Sexploitation!” is, aside from the V.D. flicks and the hardcore porn, many of these early skin flicks are amusingly quint. The burlesque movie proliferated throughout the thirties and forties, reaching its popularity in the fifties. Shown in the less explicit precursor to strip clubs, the films usually featured an attractive dancer stripping down to a g-strip and pasties. This was the avenue that Betty Page, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Virginia Bell and many others followed to notoriety. Of course, the strippers were only one half of the burlesque show. The other half was devoted to stand-up comedians, who often performed highly pedestrian and broad jokes to audiences who were just there for the girls.

From an early time, European exports were often used as an excuse to display content that never would’ve passed the censors in mainstream American studios. A bit of history I wish “That’s Sexploitation!” had spent more time on was when the art house met the grindhouse. European art films – we see a trailer featuring Bridget Bardot – would be shown in swanky art theaters, attracting an audience of hipsters and cinema nerds. In the evening, the same movies would attract an audience of horny men, hoping to see some glamorous European beauties in the buff.  Disappointingly, this period only takes up a few minutes of “That’s Sexploitaitons!’s” long run time.

The fifties were David F. Friedman’s most prolific period for producing pictures. The nudist camp film, bolstered by the advent of cheap color, returned to popularity during this time. This led to the rise of the nudie cutie, those films which featured naked women in totally sexless environments. At this point, there’s some crossover between “That’s Sexploitation!” and Henenlotter’s previous documentary on Herschell Gordon Lewis. Friedman tells some of the same stories about shooting in a real nudist camp while Henenlotter reiterates his opinion that nudie cuties are some of the dumbest movies ever made. What’s most interesting about this portion of the film are the famous names bandied about. Russ Meyer is name-dropped, as is Herschell Gordon Lewis. We also get some information on Doris Wishman, a prolific exploitation filmmaker who just happened to be a woman. We learn that even Francis Ford Coppela made a skin flick in the early days of his career.

Friedman refers to the sixties as the golden age of sexploitation. Many formerly glamorous movie theaters fell on hard times and started to show skin flicks as a way to rake in easy cash. During this period, there was an influx of young film students with little opportunities to break into the legitimate business. Many of them turned to sexploitation, bringing an artier edge to the genre. This period also had filmmakers returning to drugs, adding a frequent element of psychedelia to their movies. During that same time period, the inverse of the “nudie cutie” came into being. The “roughie” would often feature sexual sadisim, women being brutalized and tortured by men. There was even a popular franchise during this period, devoted to a dominatrix named Olga. Despite the lack of explicit sex, these films still come off as disturbingly mean-spirited to modern eyes.

“That’s Sexploitation!” covers just about every facet of the lifespan of sexploitation. The documentary even devotes some time to a range of late sixties films devoted to gay and lesbian manners. Early gay-centric exploitation films were less salacious then they sound, mostly devoted to men frolicking in the nude or touching behind clouds of smoke. The lesbian centric films were allowed to be more graphic, featuring explicit simulated sex. This shows the slow slide from “nudie cutie” into softcore pornography. The gay centric films can be unintentionally hilarious to modern eyes, such as one we get clips of here which studies lesbian subculture with the dryness of a nature documentary.

“That’s Sexploitation!” concludes by discussing the birth of the “white coater.” These films would show real, unsimulated sex under the guise of giving romantic advice to newly weds. Like the hygiene films of the thirties and forties, an actor pretending to be a medical expert would monologue over the action. Thus, the genre had come full circle. The popularity of “white coaters” would led to the rise of hardcore pornography and porno chic in the seventies, effectively ending sexploitation as it existed. David Friedman says that things stopped being fun at this point.

Whether or not you’re interested in the history of skin flicks that “That’s Sexploitation!” dives so thoroughly into is a matter of taste. At over two hours, the documentary is definitely much too long. Maybe if the history isn’t to your liking, the countless clips presented might be more amusing. We see hilarious segments from bizarre genre mash-ups like “Nude on the Moon” or “House on Bare Mountain,” which combined extensive nudity with sci-fi and monster movies. Were else are you going to find context for a clip of a girl stripping out of an astronaut suit while watched by voyeuristic space aliens? Though admittedly appealing to a niche audience, “That’s Sexploitation!” is an amusing, breezy, informative, and comprehensive trip through the seedy side of film history. [Grade: B]

Don't think Frank Henenlotter's hiatus from movie-making has resumed. The director has completed a new narrative film, currently awaiting release. "Chasing Banksy" is a fact-based dramedy about art thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans. The film has Henenlotter re-teaming with Anthony Sneed, his "Bad Biology" leading man. The film has played several festivals and the reviews so far have been largely negative. But I'll still give it a look whenever it hits home media.

Thus concludes my Frank Henenlotter Director Report Card. Thank you for reading.

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