'Lewd Looks' Frames Salacious 1960s Films As Meaningful History

Dec 19, 2017

It was in 1957 when the New York Board of Appeals ruled that nudity was no longer equal to obscenity in movies.  From those decisions, a genre of film known as “sexploitation” emerged. It became a cottage industry, while other parts of the classic Hollywood film industry world were declining.

Many of these films flew under the radar. Films we might term as “soft core” today spanned many different genres over the year – most commonly the sex melodrama.

Until very recently, the sexploitation films of the 1960s were largely overlooked or dismissed by film scholars. Elena Gorfinkel, former UW-Milwaukee professor who now teaches film studies at King’s College London, is working to change the perception and worth of this decade in film.

"I think it's quite important to look at these works closely and to take them seriously, regardless of what position you take on them," she says. "But to take them seriously means to actually watch them and to engage with them as meaningful texts."

Her book, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, takes a deep dive into the salacious independent films made on the margins of Hollywood. Although audiences have mixed opinions about the films themselves, Gorfinkel says there is no doubt that female sexuality was a "detonating force" during the time of their production.

"They're really quite interesting documents about a particular era's fantasies and anxieties about gender and sexuality and the autonomy of women in particular in a new order, economy, and environment."

What started out as fairly chaste exposure progressed to more explicit images by the late '60s.

According to Gorfinkel, a typical sexploitation film did absorb many cultural aspects of the time, but all were mainly known for being produced on a low budget ($10,000-40,000) in just over a week's time, with relatively unknown actors.

"These are films made by men, largely for men, but the audience does shift in the mid to late '60s as the culture becomes more permissive," notes Gorfinkel.

Although sexploitation films take up 10 years of film history, they are largely dismissed by scholars or were even thrown away by producers. With hundreds of films to research for her book, Gorfinkel relied on unlikely sources found outside of an official archive.

"These films were actually largely recovered by amateur historians and fans and collectors who actually created independent for-profit businesses selling them on video," she explains.

That cult fan factor is something that Gorfinkel believes adds to the importance of properly documenting these films. "There is something important about preservation in thinking about these films, because of their kind of cultish - almost like bad movie qualities," she says. "They often are not treated as seriously as other forms of cinema, and I think that has worked to their detriment."

Although many sexploitation films can be placed in the "B-movie" category, negative public perception has also played a large part in their lack of popularity.

"Public perception and a kind of perception of what is the obscene in some way is pretty terminative and over-determining, and it some ways becomes forbidding," notes Gorfinkel.

At first glance, many of these films may seem detrimental to women and their roles in cinema. However, Gorfinkel says that many actually embodied many feminist ideals just beginning to emerge at that time.

Plus, in a post-Harvey Weinstein environment of how women in film are treated and portrayed, taking a closer look at sexploitation cinema can add valuable insight. "The films are not necessarily the cause, but they're the symptom of a larger infrastructure of inequality," notes Gorfinkel. "At the same time I think it makes the work of close reading, of historical research, of reading women's stories in these films even more pressing in a variety of ways."

Elena Gorfinkel is in town to talk about her book Tuesday evening at Boswell Book Company.