Sunday, October 06, 2013

THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! (2013) reviewed

Frank Henenlotter's new documentary for Something Weird, THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! is a rollicking ride through the tassled hills and cat-masked valleys of America's uniquely uncomfortable history of silver screen erotica.

Co-hosted by Henenlotter and veteran exploitation king David F. Friedman (who died in 2011), the movie covers a lot of varied ground in its generous 136-minute running time: arcade shorts, pre-code peekaboos, nudie-cuties, pious STD mellers, goona-goona, '50s Euro imports, burlesque films, nudies, roughies, druggies, white-coaters and more, everything up until the time, as Friedman groans, "hardcore put an end to everything." Each excerpt is properly identified and their particulars are so fascinating (absurd/silly/funny, rather than seriously erotic), and the gear shifts between chapters so extreme, that each subheading begs for its own feature documentary -- or further investigation of the Something Weird back catalogue, which was surely part of the plan.

Though the necessarily shared narrative duties give this the feel of television rather than documentary, it holds together because the footage is always lively and interesting, because each new twist in the tale says something different and valid about the changing face of 20th century America, and because Friedman keeps the story's focus on how these films filled a need and were sold. Because the story is left to a producer's perspective than that of directors, it's not really about who set the highest artistic standards in the genre (Radley Metzger and Joe Sarno don't really get a mention or a showing) as much as it's about less-than-beautiful hootchie-coochie girls coyly modeling 1930s pubic hair or motor-boating the camera. As the narration freely admits, most of these films seemed able to cope with their content (and remain within the bounds of the law) by keeping it as infantile as possible, or, in the case of the roughies, as violent as possible to counter the temptations of the imagery. Adding to the fun, Henenlotter sometimes uses screen text on clips to direct our gaze, to help us overhear things we weren't meant to hear (like one hapless man in an orgy scene, telling his partner that he's wearing two pairs of briefs to help discourage his arousal), and to follow-up on unkept promises like the "Coming Soon to This Theater" OLGA'S GARDEN OF TORTURE.

The on-camera host approach probably doesn't work as well as a traditional narration/montage approach would have (Henenlotter taking a long walk to Friedman's house, in the rain, no less, and elsewhere addressing us from a stool in a nude bar, while ogling a nude male bartender, feel particularly forced), but the film deserves particular credit for allowing men a place in this history, reserving space for gay exploitation and the history of male nudity in straight features. The clips are extremely well-selected and cleverly edited together throughout, and Friedman's raconteur revelry, albeit token, nevertheless brings us into the raucous presence of the enterprising, carny-barker spirit that got most of these films made in the first place.

THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! is presently playing different film festivals here and abroad. There has been no announcement as yet about its home video release, which is surely forthcoming.

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