Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics

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Bad Girls Go to Hell. Cannibal Holocaust. Eve and the Handyman. Examining film culture’s ongoing fascination with the low, bad, and sleazy faces of cinema, Sleaze Artists brings together film scholars with a shared interest in the questions posed by disreputable movies and suspect cinema. They explore the ineffable quality of “sleaze” in relation to a range of issues, including the production realities of low-budget exploitation pictures and the ever-shifting terrain of reception and taste.

Writing about horror, exploitation, and sexploitation films, the contributors delve into topics ranging from the place of the “Aztec horror film” in debates about Mexican national identity to a cycle of 1960s films exploring homosexual desire in the military. One contributor charts the distribution saga of Mario Bava’s 1972 film Lisa and the Devil through the highs and lows of art cinema, fringe television, grindhouse circuits, and connoisseur DVD markets. Another offers a new perspective on the work of Doris Wishman, the New York housewife turned sexploitation director of the 1960s who has become a cult figure in bad-cinema circles over the past decade. Other contributors analyze the relation between image and sound in sexploitation films and Italian horror movies, the advertising strategies adopted by sexploitation producers during the early 1960s, the relationship between art and trash in Todd Haynes’s oeuvre, and the ways that the Friday the 13th series complicates the distinction between “trash” and “legitimate” cinema. The volume closes with an essay on why cinephiles love to hate the movies.

Contributors. Harry M. Benshoff, Kay Dickinson, Chris Fujiwara, Colin Gunckel, Joan Hawkins, Kevin Heffernan, Matt Hills, Chuck Kleinhans, Tania Modleski, Eric Schaefer, Jeffrey Sconce, Greg Taylor

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“There is a certain thrill inherent in a scholarly anthology that wholly embraces those films usually deemed disreputable, disgusting, cheap, and perhaps even anti-intellectual. . . . A satisfyingly subversive addition to film studies and cultural studies. . . .” - Adam Dodd, M/C Reviews

“One of the most intriguing essayists in the book is Kay Dickinson, on how music figured in Britain’s banning of five Italian films from videotape distribution.” - Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

“Personally, I found the book’s first section, ‘Sleazy Historyies,’ to be the most compelling . . . . The book’s second section, ‘Sleazy Afterlives,’ contains some top-notch retrospective analyses of marginal films.” - Mikita Brottman, PopMatters

Sleaze Artists constitutes an honest attempt to trip the cultural rift. There's a becoming undercurrent of humility to most of the essays, which suggests that even the brightest minds in cultural studies are still refining their approach to what is generally a back-breaking endeavor—elevating the low into the rarefied (and suffocating) air of academic contemplation.” - Adam Nayman, Cineaste

Sleaze Artists represents an articulate, accessible, and thoughtful adventure into the world of cinematic bad taste and low culture. . . . Sleaze Artists provides us with clear, thoughtful discussion about some great sleazy movies.” - Parley Ann Boswell, Journal of American Cultures

Sleaze Artists is an excellent collection, which covers a wide range of topics important to the understanding of sleaze cinema, and is a great addition to both cinema and cultural studies.” - Lyndall Clipstone, Media International Australia

“Aztec blood sacrifices! Knife-wielding psychos!! Libido-crazed military men!!! Martin Heidegger!!!! With verve and vigor, Sleaze Artists offers this . . . and more! The book boldly rips the lid off the wacky world of sleaze movies with subversive delight and intellectual insight!! Don’t go into this volume alone!—unless you are ready for sharp scholarship, rigorous historiography, careful argument, and a deep commitment to an understanding of cinema in all its richness across a variety of taste cultures!!”—Dana Polan, Cinema Studies, New York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822339649
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 582,685
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Sconce is Associate Professor in the Screen Cultures Program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Sleaze Artists



Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3964-9

Chapter One


Pandering to the "Goon Trade" Framing the Sexploitation Audience through Advertising

Sexploitation films have always been a disreputable form. As "adult" titles proliferated during the 1960s, even those films that maintained the gloss of European art cinema were seen as little more than streetwalkers, classed up with better carriage and foreign accents. That disreputability also extended to the audiences for the films, the filthy old men in rumpled raincoats who peopled the public imagination. Whether it was journalistic accounts of the growing number of theaters that specialized in "dirty movies," snide asides in film reviews, or cartoons in the popular press, the audience for adult films was characterized as a shady collection of characters at best, deviant and potentially dangerous at worst. They were "the goon trade." I want to examine the way sexploitation films were advertised and consider the ways that advertising contributed to the stigmatization of their audience-despite the fact that in reality the audience was largely comprised of "respectable" citizens. This tacit framing of the audience for sexploitation-and later hard-core pornography-eventually led to bans on newspaper advertising for these movies in many cities across the country, a ban that had serious consequences for the production of adult films in the late 1970s.

Sexploitation films emerged around 1960 in the form of moving cheesecake pictures known as "nudie cuties" (e.g., The Immoral Mr. Teas, 1959), a new crop of nudist camp epics (e.g., Daughter of the Sun, 1962), and racy foreign entries often goosed up with additional inserts of nudity and sexually suggestive scenes (e.g., The Twilight Girls, 1961). Low-budget and unashamedly lurid, the movies initially played in urban theaters and other failing venues, programmed by product-starved exhibitors who wanted to keep their struggling operations alive. By the end of the 1960s, however, sexploitation movies were plentiful enough, and some sufficiently improved in quality, to cross over into the showcase theaters of established chains.

The Art of the Eye Stopper

Advertising for sexploitation films came in two primary categories: trailers and print. Although copy for radio spots was sometimes included in pressbooks and prerecorded spots were occasionally made available, radio seems to have been used only sporadically, and television advertising was almost nonexistent. Trailers were the most important for sexploitation films in the early years because they were seen by the clientele that regularly patronized theaters specializing in sexploitation product. But it was the print ads that appeared in newspapers and the posters slapped up in front of theaters that were seen by the largest numbers of eyes-people who went to the movies, as well as those who would never dream of seeing an adult film. Print ads for sexploitation films were placed on the same newspaper pages with mainstream films and offered sexploitation the most direct opportunity to differentiate itself from Hollywood movies and more conventional foreign films.

As the independent sexploitation films began to appear in the late 1950s and early 1960s, members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) were still governed by the Advertising Code for Motion Pictures. The Code stated that "good taste shall be the guiding rule of motion picture advertising," that "profanity and vulgarity shall be avoided" and that "nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be used." Yet the confirmation of First Amendment rights on the motion picture by the Supreme Court's 1952 Burstyn v. Wilson decision, the gradual erosion of the Production Code and state and municipal censorship during the 1950s, and an increasingly adult slant in Hollywood films led to more provocative ads through the period. Whether it was showing off Jane Russell's most famous assets in posters for films such as Underwater (1955) or presenting a thumb-sucking Carroll Baker sprawled on a day bed in posters for Baby Doll (1956), Hollywood movie promotion increasingly favored feminine pulchritude and provocative situations. Advertising for teenpics and films from low-rent outfits such as American International Pictures (AIP) often focused on suggestive scenes or revealing costuming that seldom appeared in the films themselves (e.g., Naked Paradise [1957], High School Hell Cats [1958]). By the time Lolita was released in 1962, with the infamous art showing a cherry-red lollipop resting between Sue Lyon's pouting lips, the early sexploitation films were already being given a run for their money by the majors. Thus, the low-budget sexploitation film was faced with a problem: how to convince ticket buyers that their movies were more suggestive, more revealing, and ultimately more "naughty" than the increasingly "adult" pictures coming out of Hollywood-not to mention the growing crop of frank foreign films.

In his classic 1957 exposé of the advertising industry, The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard wrote of "eye stoppers," those sexy images that can arrest the eye. There was certainly nothing hidden in the persuasive power of the earliest sexploitation advertising, which relied first and foremost on eye stoppers-images of scantily clad women. Ads for nudie cuties display a great deal of similarity to the burlesque films of the "classical exploitation" era that preceded them, and which were on the wane in the early 1960s. Such images could take the form of artwork or photographs. Like burlesque films, but unlike most classical exploitation movies that had preceded them, nudie cuties made no pretense of having any educational motives or material. This was made clear in their humorous taglines and joking titles. Humor can often be found in the titles of the films themselves, which at times relied on wordplay, alliteration, and a general sense of playfulness: The Immoral Mr. Teas, The Ruined Bruin (1961), Mr. Peter's Pets (1962), The Bare Hunt (1963), Bell, Bare and Beautiful (1963), Boin-n-g! (1963), Goldilocks and the Three Bares (1963), My Bare Lady (1963), and so on. In addition to humorous titles, an accompanying use of cartoons or cartoonish imagery in nudie-cutie advertising was also standard. For instance, all of Russ Meyer's earliest films were advertised with cartoon imagery. Ads for Eve and the Handyman (1961) included caricatures of star Anthony-James Ryan wearing his handyman togs and toting a plunger. In one image he knocks on the glass door of a shower, behind which stands a curvaceous female silhouette. In other art he hauls a claw-foot tub, filled with bubbles and a smiling young woman. In each instance Ryan wears a sly smile. The ads for the film promised "You'll NEVER See This on TV!" as a way of indicating the fare in the film was something not for general viewership. Another tagline was blatant in its dual-meaning, claiming the movie was "A Riot of Voluptuous Laughs & Sex! For the BROAD-minded adults only." The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis's first foray into nudie cuties, featured a cartoon Frenchman, complete with beret, ogling girls through binoculars. Not only were ticket-buyers offered "Delightful, Delectable, Desirable, Delicious Damsels Devoid of Any and All Inhibitions," the film was served up in "Fleshtone Color and Skinamascope." Similarly, AFD'S Paris Ooh-La-La! (1963), with Dick Randall, included a caricature of the grinning Randall along with the line "See Our Hero Get Plastered in Paris!"

The joking, fraternal nature of the advertising linked the films to traditional male smokers where stag films were screened. Just as joking and commentary served to diffuse some of the erotic tension in such homosocial situations, the cartoonish and playful strategy of nudie-cutie advertising served a similar function. To acknowledge sexual desire or the generation of lust in the ads would have been to admit that the films were made to appeal to prurient interest under the Supreme Court's Roth decision and thus potentially obscene. In that 1957 case, the Court held that protected expression included anything that contained "ideas" no matter how unconventional or controversial, and that the only expression that might not be accorded protection must be "utterly without redeeming social importance." Sexually oriented material was protected, according to the ruling, if it was not obscene, and obscenity could be determined only if, for "the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." The vast majority of nudie cuties thus attempted in their advertising to displace direct erotic appeal with humor. Effective, perhaps, in avoiding censorship, such a strategy also left the films open to charges that they were juvenile, if not downright infantile, in their approach to both humor and sexuality. Writing about nudie films in 1962, David Moller described the plot of Hideout in the Sun as "so ludicrous that had it been intended for a ten-minute short it would have been one of the funniest, wildest ever. Spread over seventy minutes, it was like slow death." A Los Angeles critic sneered that The Immoral Mr. Teas "has much the same subtle, urbane wit to be found in any one of our undergraduate humor magazines." A Philadelphia judge who declined to find Mr. Teas obscene still said the movie was "vulgar, pointless, and in bad taste." Those who attended the films could also be singled out as being vulgar and having juvenile taste for their willingness to sit through such witless films. When the early nudie movies were reviewed-which was a fairly rare occasion-critics often commented on the childish nature of the films and their audience.

The two other major categories of early sexploitation, nudist movies and pseudo-art films, used other techniques to blunt potential criticism. Nudist films stressed "beauty" and "nature" in their ads. World without Shame (1962), for example, was the "fascinating story of young people who left civilization to commune with nature" and promised "Beauty as it was created." Topping things off, the film was "In Beautiful Eastman Color." Let's Go Native (ca. 1962) presented "The Untold Mysteries of TRUE NATURE LOVERS!" and claimed to be "Beautiful ... beyond comprehension!" Protected by a string of court decisions from the mid-1950s, the associations with beauty and nature provided a shield against charges that nudist films were salacious. Foreign films with an art slant, meanwhile, coupled suggestive imagery with nods to drama and emotion. Ava Leighton and Radley Metzger's films for Audubon specialized in this strategy. Ads for the French film The Twilight Girls, released by Audubon in 1961, hinted at lesbian themes in the art while the taglines served up passion: "No longer children ... not yet women ... caught in the turmoil of their unformed emotions!" Although the ads for nudist and art films were somewhat more sophisticated than those for nudie cuties, the fact that all the films played in the same venues, often on double features, meant that they were aligned in the public's imagination as often indistinguishable dirty movies.

Not surprisingly, most sexploitation ads in the period before the creation of the MPAA ratings system in 1968 stressed that the films were for "Adults Only!" Earlier classical exploitation films may have been pitched as "Adults Only," but those with an educational imprimatur often permitted high-school- and junior-high-school-aged boys and girls to attend. The age of admission for sexploitation films may have varied slightly, depending on community tolerance, but seventeen or eighteen was generally the minimum age for admission. The lure of films made for adult eyes only was sufficient to set them apart from the pack of mainstream films, the bulk of which were still directed at as broad an audience as possible.

Just as sexploitation films ran the gamut from elegant European imports made in exotic locales to shabby black-and-white quickies shot in cold-water flats in New York, the ads also deployed a range of styles. Higher-end films from companies like Audubon, or movies that had crossover potential, tended to feature slick, well-designed art and copy, in many instances the equivalent of those from their major studio counterparts. David Friedman has commented that Harry Novak's Boxoffice International often used the talents of Steve Offers. "His ads looked more like regular ads. I disagreed with that. I thought they should look like adult film ads. The art and the layout looked good, but not the copy." According to Joe Steinman of Boxoffice International, the company used "different artists depending on the type of campaign that we are working on. The planning and inspiration behind these is always a joint effort. That is why we are able to achieve diversification in our campaigns, but the overall credit must be given to Harry Novak. He gives every campaign his personal attention." Friedman's Entertainment Ventures, Inc. (EVI) and several other producers used the talents of Rudy Escalera, who made most of his money cranking out art for Azteca, a company that distributed Mexican films to Spanish-language theaters in the United States. According to Friedman, "He had great imagination. He worked from stills to create the artwork." Escalera's art is distinctive for its curvy women and use of heavy black line. Low-end companies often relied on staff at poster companies such as Consolidated in New York. Friedman claims, "They probably handled art for over 1,000 pictures."

For promotional campaigns, sexploitation film producers tended to use the services of smaller accessory companies, such as Consolidated, Donald Velde, Louis Scheingarten, and Bartco, rather than National Screen Service. These smaller companies generally offered a more limited range of promotional materials, usually restricted to trailers, one-sheets, stills, and pressbooks. In 1966 EVI joined with producers Bob Cresse and Armand Atamian to create United Theatrical Amusement (UTA), a company that produced one-sheets, pressbooks, and stills. Friedman explains, "The whole idea was to keep as much as possible under one roof." EVI also operated a wholly owned subsidiary called Ultra Volume Photo, a photo processing operation that could crank out thousands of photos per day. "In addition to doing our stuff [EVI]," Friedman said, "they did all Cresse's, Novak's, UTA, Bartco, and some for Velde. They also did [Los Angeles] Dodger fan photos for a year."

Regardless of who produced or distributed the advertising material, as with sexploitation films themselves, the ads for the movies have a large degree of intertextual similarity. This extends from the images to the words used in taglines. Some words turn up over and over in the advertising for sexploitation films. Not surprisingly, "adult" is the most constant signifier, usually to indicate the intended audience either with "adults only" or "strictly adult." Other words that recur repeatedly include "sex," "erotic," "passion," "intimate," "pleasure," "love," and variations on "lust." "Daring," "shocking," "raw," "thrills," "lurid," "orgy," and "sin" also appear often. Finally, descriptors such as "exotic," "abnormal," and "bizarre" turn up with some frequency. Movies weren't just in color, they were inevitably in "revealing" color (Notorious Big Sin City [1970]) or "throbbing" color (Acapulco Uncensored [1968]).


Excerpted from Sleaze Artists Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


PART 1: Sleazy Histories....................19
Pandering to the "Goon Trade": Framing the Sexploitation Audience through Advertising Eric Schaefer....................47
Women's Cinema as Counterphobic Cinema: Doris Wishman as the Last Auteur Tania Modleski....................71
Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film Harry M. Benshoff....................96
Pornography and Documentary: Narrating the Alibi Chuck Kleinhans....................121
El signo de la muerte and the Birth of a Genre: Origins and Anatomy of the Aztec Horror Film Colin Gunckel....................144
PART 2: Sleazy Afterlives....................167
Troubling Synthesis: The Horrific Sights and Incompatible Sounds of Video Nasties Kay Dickinson....................189
The Sleazy Pedigree of Todd Haynes Joan Hawkins....................219
Para-Paracinema: The Friday the 13th Film Series as Other to Trash and Legitimate Film Cultures Matt Hills....................240
Boredom, Spasmo, and the Italian System Chris Fujiwara....................259
Pure Quidditas or Geek Chic? Cultism as Discernment Greg Taylor....................273
Movies: A Century of Failure Jeffrey Sconce....................311
Selected Bibliography....................321
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