Ars Erotica: Doc Films takes stock of sexploitation

In 1933, the Chicago Castle Theatre risked fines of $200 when it attempted to show the controversial film “This Nude World”. In that tradition, Doc Films risks inciting a storm of debate with their new Thursday night “Sexploitation” series that, according to Doc Films Programming Chair and Sexploitation series creator Kyle Westphal, “delivers the goods without the guilt.”

Westphal claims, “We haven’t faced any controversy–yet. [But] it’s early in the quarter.” Controversy may not be written in the stars for Doc Films, though, as history shows that it has treaded this path on at least two other occasions and survived unscathed. In fact, Doc Films experienced near riots when the film “Deep Throat” of the History of Erotica in Film series sold out a few years ago–but never as much consternation over the series itself.

Today, the Sexploitation series being shown is the love-child of two series that came before it, a sort of experiment to see if University of Chicago’s Doc Films sect can wade any further into the vein of pornographic cinema and still attract audiences with fresh voices and films.

Despite the fact that the first series–entitled The History of Erotica in Film–debuted prior to his arrival on campus, Westphal claims it was a “coy spin on a scatter-shot, grab-bag series of sex films” ranging from French boudoirs that came on single reels made in 1910, to the politically savvy and artistic films “Last Tango in Paris” and “I Am Curious Yellow” that were uplifted by the bourgeois art house audiences, including the more recent but far less bashful American pornographic movie “Deep Throat” that hit theaters in the summer of 1972.

But while the first series was somewhat haphazardly compiled–the only factor of coherence stringing the pieces it featured together being their common gratuitous exploitation of the act of sex –the second series, entitled “Cinematic Sexualities in the Twenty-First Century,” was more thoughtfully put together. It aimed to demonstrate the thirst that directors of the new century felt for creating the serious, adult-oriented sexual art cinema.

“’Cinematic Sexualities’ premise was that American exhibitors had finally thrown off the Reaganist impulse and returned to bringing audiences the kind of hardcore content that had been de facto banned from our screens since the late 1970s,” explained Westphal.

Unfortunately, most of the pieces were foreign films with, and so while the idea proved interesting and provocative, the series itself was not a ticket-seller, much to Doc’s disappointment. “Ultimately, the campus audience just was not interested in coming to obtuse and pretentious Italian cinema, even with a title like ‘Uncut’–with all that that implies,” said Westpham.

In order to achieve the past success of “Deep Throat” and to outdo the past two series concerning erotica, Doc Films is featuring Westphal’s ribald and unabashed “Sexploitation” series this Winter Quarter. The films here are arousing and fascinating, crafted by directors with drastically varying agendas and temperaments and yet all for the sole purpose of bringing nudity to the cinema and selling it as art.

“I thought for a long time about why the first series had been such a success and the second one had been such a disappointment–fiscally, not artistically, speaking. I surmised that if people wanted films about sex, they didn’t want subtitles–they wanted them to deliver the goods. They wanted the films to be fun,” said Westpham.

The Sexploitation series features films that, while regarded in some cases as avant-garde material today, were screened in secret underground venues when they first premiered, dogged by police interference, subjected to dubious hack jobs, sold as mere titillation material to covert audiences and seen by the public as mere skin-flicks–too salacious to be termed anything but smut. By focusing on works that best captured the essence of the sleazy yet artistic style that was unique to the sexploitation genre of the twentieth century, Doc Film’s new series showcases films that illustrate the full-circle aspect of the genre, beginning with early pieces like “This Nude World” that disguised its smut as didactic matter and moving on to later pieces such as “Flaming Creatures” and “Dirty Pool” that–despite their budgetary constraints–garnered relatively high praise. Succeeding those are rough films such as “The Scavengers” and “Thundercrack!” that meshed sex with violence in a way that was “guaranteed to offend anyone,” as Westphal puts it. Capping off the quarter are the films “Behind the Green Door” and “The Opening of Misty Beethoven,” both attention-grabbing pictures that combined real acting and intense narrative with the sexy overtones of the field, a veritable first for the sexploitation genre.

“We have an arty selection, a ‘cheapjack’ production with beatnik dialogue grafted onto the footage after shooting, a ‘roughie’ that appealed to the sadist trade–they’re fun, but they should also be taken seriously,” said Westpham. “[These films can] be examined as a reflection of the distinctly American attitudes towards sexual mores that first prompted them to flicker on our screens.”

Though shown first in the series, “Showgirls” is actually the most recently produced film in the sequence, and is known for its revival of the sleaziness that the sexploitation genre’s earliest films were renowned for, thereby taking the series back to its roots. Judging by the high turn-out rate for its screening on January 10, there may be reason for Westpham to anticipate that “Sexploitation” will yield more profits than even “Deep Throat” and the series before it.

“We had around seventy people for our Thursday screening of ‘Showgirls.’ It was a wonderful experience. Everyone was quite involved in the movie. They laughed in all the right places. They groaned at all the right lines. They even moaned a collective sigh of pity when fallen angel Nomni Malone succumbs to the demon cocaine, which she had sworn off earlier in the movie,” Westphal said. “It was a great atmosphere. ‘This Nude World’ will be even better.”