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Female-exploitation films seen in new light

A UCLA series highlights the feminist angle in movies such as 'Terminal Island,' 'Bad Girls Go to Hell' and 'Gator Bait.'

July 24, 2009|Mark Olsen

The UCLA Film & Television Archive series "No She Didn't!: Women Exploitation Auteurs" looks at the unlikely intersection of female filmmakers and the grubby titillation of prison flicks, biker pictures and slasher movies. It kicks off tonight at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater with a screening of the 1973 film "Terminal Island" with director Stephanie Rothman scheduled to introduce the movie.

Finding the sweet spot where egghead academicism and thrill-seeking movie-fandom meet, the series, which ends Aug. 8, also includes Doris Wishman's "Bad Girls Go to Hell" (1965) and "Another Day, Another Man" (1966), Beverly Sebastian's "Gator Bait" (1973), Barbara Peters' "Bury Me an Angel" (1972) and Amy Holden-Jones' "The Slumber Party Massacre" (1982). These films are hard to find on home video, being either out of print, only on VHS or never issued.

"The films are really flat-out fun genre films, but there's something else at work," said Paul Malcolm, programmer of the series, of what brought these particular films together under the unlikely aegis of the normally more high-minded classical Hollywood and international programming of the film and TV archive.

"Our job here is either bringing in new stuff audiences haven't seen before," Malcolm said, "or recontextualizing old films so they can be seen in a new and different way. There's a way to be smart about good, dumb, fun programming. And these films have a lot of smarts to them."

"Terminal Island" takes a story of a brutal island penal colony -- male and female prisoners are sent there to fend for themselves without guards -- and manages to transform itself into a gripping tale of power, sexism and social upheaval. Critic Dave Kehr wrote, "Terminal Island" can be seen as a "lurid exploitation subject turned into a crafty feminist allegory . . . It's difficult now to believe there was a time when such progressive politics could be expressed in a drive-in movie."

Films such as "Gator Bait" and "Bury Me an Angel" locate female-centered story lines within the confines of a seemingly conventional swamp-set "hicksploitation" or biker revenge movie, adding layers that were recognized as something different even as they were initially being released.

"Even in the mid-'70s, the kind of proto-feminist element was being written about," said Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. "Feminist film scholars were writing about Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman, locating a feminist impulse in the standard plot, where you have these powerful, self-assertive, one might even use the term 'extremely aggressive' women who are wreaking vengeance against forces, people, men who are trying to keep them down."

"Bad Girls Go to Hell" director Wishman, who died in 2002 at age 90, was in many ways the forerunner of the feminist exploitation genre. With sharp editing and a startlingly tactile sense of texture, her most obvious counterpart is the more widely lauded filmmaker Russ Meyer. It nevertheless can still require a certain mental leap to get from imagining Wishman's tawdry tales of girls gone bad playing in a sleazy grindhouse to being taken seriously in the halls of academia.

"We also do like disreputable feminism," McHugh added. "A significant part of feminism was women taking charge of representations of sexuality. And you clearly see, albeit in an extreme and sort of trashy way, you do see it in these exploitation films."

In "The Slumber Party Massacre," with a screenplay by noted feminist author Rita Mae Brown, the film has barely begun when a girl changes her clothes for no apparent reason other than to briefly be out of them. Amid their greater ambitions, these films still manage to cover the B-movie requirements of T&A, gore and other puerile kicks.

"That's the other side of what makes these films so complex," said Malcolm, "is just how feminist can they be, how subversive can they be within this system? It's like what you're looking for with any auteur director, how they are working within the system to make their personal statement, either by complicating the genre or outright overturning it."

The issues raised by the female-directed exploitation films screening in "No She Didn't!" are still at play today. The upcoming film "Jennifer's Body," written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, could be seen as a knowing throwback/loving homage to the work of these pioneering female filmmakers.

By working within the exploitation field, filmmakers such as Rothman, Peters and Holden-Jones were largely following what was at the time the most viable career path to directing in Hollywood. Where many male filmmakers who worked the same route moved on to more respectable projects and acclaim, their female counterparts largely faded into obscurity.

"These directors got their start at the same time and worked for the same companies as guys like Coppola and Scorsese," Malcolm said, "but they were never able to make the jump into mainstream Hollywood. In some way the series raises the question of just how new was the New Hollywood?"

For a complete schedule and screening times, go to www.cinema.ucla.edu

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