Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)

The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.

That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.

I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.

You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet

Another Day Another Man (1966)

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three star

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Something I learned from my career retrospective of sleaze auteurist Russ Meyer is that as far as sexploitation subgenres go, I’m much more wired to enjoy the light-hearted kitsch of nudie cuties than the violent leering of roughies. Two films into Doris Wishman’s catalog, I’m only having my bias reaffirmed. The deliriously inane Nude on the Moon was a perfect intro to the world of Wishman, as it was a sexed-up version of the exact kind of cheap sci-fi dreck I often find myself watching anyway. Her black & white roughie Another Day Another Man was a little more outside of my comfort zone. Arriving soon after her roughies era started with Bad Girls Go to Hell, one of her more infamous works, Wishman’s black & white cheapie Another Day Another Man toys with all the hallmarks of the more disreputable end of sexploitation cinema (domestic abuse, misogyny, rape), but never indulges in them long enough to totally sour the mood. Too much of Another Day Another Man is lopsided in a memorably goofy, tangibly dingy way to completely dismiss the film as misanthropic erotica, but it does often come perilously close.

Two female roommates argue about the moral implications of earning rent money through sex work. One is, unapologetically, a prostitute with a brutish lowlife for a pimp. The other is quitting her reputable job as a secretary to pursue her dream career: housewife. Her newfound dependency on her husband becomes immediately troubling when he’s stricken with sudden illness and the housewife is, no surprise, pressured into sex work under the guiding hand of the same low level pimp. She’s initially shamed for flaunting her sense of moral superiority over former roommate’s head, but that’s only the start of her degradation. She’s roughed up for de-masking her first client, a wealthy politician. She suffers great anxiety over sneaking out nightly to cuckold her husband for “easy” money. Her pimp’s tactics of breaking down his employees’ wills and pressuring them into sex work is given great detail (over the course of a clunky dream sequence, oddly), making her plight as a protagonist out to be nothing special. It’s all very standard roughie territory, which leads to inevitable & predictable tragic end, a plot you could comfortably scribble onto a crumpled up cocktail napkin.

What Wishman excels at that makes this exercise watchable is texture. The camera work & production design in Another Day Another Man isn’t exactly masterful; I’m not even sure I would call it competent. There’s something endearingly dirty & off-center about the whole thing, though, that makes for a memorable picture. The movie gets off to a rocky start with a badly dubbed stroll through Central Park between our soon-to-be-doomed newlyweds, but it picks up as soon as the roomates argue about the respectability of the respective ways they earn a living. Drastically lit like a crime scene, the two women’s magazine spread living room is a kitschy nightmare where the roomates argue, undress, and overstuff ashtrays in furious torrents of chain-smoking. The camera slowly pans up from their high heels to their complicated, lacy underwear to their beehives, careful never to show actual nudity, but coming as hilariously close as it can without going there. Weirdly sultry, off-center rock music is a constant, oppressive presence as the film gets lost in minor, unerotic details like shoes & ashtrays and, in its weirder moments, buries its lens, unfocused, in its characters’ cleavage for multiple consecutive shots. It’s a strangely dizzying, convincingly seedy experience even if it refuses to deliver the goods in terms of actual nudity.

As similar as Doris Wishman’s career trajectory seems to be to Russ Meyer’s in terms of following sexploitation trends from nudie cuties to roughies to auteur weirdness to late-period pornography, it’s funny to see the way their visual calling cards differ. Meyer’s work is typified by a rapid-fire, machine-like montage style that smashes images of women’s bodies against inanimate objects like cars & street signs and somehow makes the juxtaposition oddly erotic through the sheer pervy will of its leering filmmaker’s eye. Wishman’s style, if Another Day Another Man is any indication, is a languid, decidedly unerotic version of the same technique. She cuts away from women undressing to focus on a cigarette butt or a clown painting or a bra discarded on the carpet in an amusingly dispassionate way that puts the audience libido on ice. The technique is a lot sillier & less controlled than Meyer’s, but it makes for some interesting camp cinema auteurism. Unfortunately, the rape-oriented seediness of the roughie genre kept me from falling in love with Another Day Another Man and, oddly enough, the film’s story loses a crucial amount of steam after its protagonist starts hooking that makes the film somewhat of a chore. Wishman’s amateurish, but strangely off-center eye kept its dingy visual palette fascinatingly unerotic despite all odds, though, and I’m curious to see how that dynamic is echoed in the rest of her sexploitation work.

-Brandon Ledet

Nude on the Moon (1961)

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While we were performing our various autopsies on the best movies we watched in 2016, I noticed something embarrassing about my own viewing habits. Out of the near-400 films I watched last year, less than 40, a mere 10%, were directed by women. As a minor corrective to this massive oversight, I’ve decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge this year, a very simplistic resolution that only urges that you watch one film a week directed by a filmmaker. It’s very little to ask of someone who watches film with any regularity, but I think it’s an important means of consciously paying attention to who’s behind the camera in your media production. My first step in achieving this goal, and my first viewing experience of this year overall, is proof positive that this 52 Films by Women pledge will in no way limit the variety of films I’m watching in terms of genre, style, or content; it will only make sure that a woman is behind them. The light sci-fi nudie cutie Nude on the Moon, directed by undercelebrated sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman (under the psuedonym Anthony Brooks), is not likely to be a typical inclusion on most people’s 52 Films by Women lists. It was a solid start for the year in my mind, though, considering how much it tickled my lowbrow sensibilities.

Two amateur rocket scientists tinker away with vaguely defined bleep bloop machines & chem lab beakers in order to pull off a self-funded trip to the moon. Ignoring the all-too-obvious romantic desire of his sheepish, but buxom secretary, the youngest scientist buries his head in his work until an inheritance payment from a deceased uncle fully funds the trip, newly energizing the ultra-macho nerd. The two-man expedition to the moon goes beautifully smooth . . . almost too beautifully smooth. The men land in a crater teeming with unexpected treasures: water, plants, “moon gold,” and, most treasurable of all, half-naked space aliens. The citizens of the moon are beautiful humanoid specimens, both male & female, who wear only shiny lamé booty shorts & dumb little antennas that allow for telepathic communication. Much like in the similar erotic fantasy piece Cat-Women of the Moon, they follow a matriarchal Moon Queen, except in this case the monarch is topless & means no harm for the Earthmen. Our two rocket scientist heroes frolic in this nudist colony for as long as they’re allowed, then return to Earth unharmed, but without proof of what they’ve witnessed. The only thing that’s changed upon their return is that the hunkier professor finally notices that his adoring secretary looks an awful lot like his beloved Moon Queen (both roles were played by an actress billed simply as “Marietta”) and he rapturously returns her affection.

As the title suggests, there’s not much more to Nude on the Moon than an indulgence in light-hearted kitsch. The main innovation Doris Wishman brings to the post-Immoral Mr. Teas nudie cutie genre is in transporting the typical nude colony setting to an extraterrestrial locale. Adding a sci-fi touch to its genre’s flimsy excuses to leer at beautiful, naked bodies makes the film a memorable novelty, especially in its dinky rocket ship model & ASMR telepathic space alien whispers. Nude on the Moon is careful not to frame its actors in the same shot as its kids’ science fair project moon rocket, which is only shown from a distance. We do get a close look at the astronauts’ space suits, though, which feature exposed skin where the helmet doesn’t meet the body and vaguely resemble either the green Power Ranger’s 90s getup or The History of Future Folk, I can’t decide. The dialogue is exactly as goofy as you’d expect, given the circumstances. For instance, an astronaut points for his Earth-buddy to notice a ladder that’s leaning on a wall, only to tell him in perfect deadpan, “This leads to the top of the wall.” All of this cheap sci-fi silliness combines with an original lounge crooner number “Moon Doll,” set to a a picturesque, starry sky moonscape, to pad out the film’s opening half, which has been tasked with the dubious honor of entertaining audiences before the film delivers on the nudity promised in the title. It’s all delightfully inane.

Don’t be surprised if when I recap the films I watched for the 52 Films by Women pledge at the end of the year, over half of my selections are Doris Wishman productions. Although this light nudie cutie territory is far-removed from the nastier “roughies” genre pictures her career would eventually devolve into (strangely mirroring Russ Meyer’s own sexploitation career path), it was wildly entertaining stuff. Making an interesting picture solely out of near-nude actors & cheap sci-fi effects is a much more difficult kind of genre film alchemy than you might imagine. Although Nude on the Moon didn’t quite match my enthusiasm for the less bawdy, but similar-in-spirit Cat-Women of the Moon, it was still a delightful novelty and I can’t wait to see what else Wishman delivered with that innate understanding of what makes this kind of half-cooked frivolity so appealing to audiences like me.

-Brandon Ledet

Up! (1976)

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After Roger Ebert’s first & final official screenwriting credit in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls his employers at the Chicago Sun-Times gave him an ultimatum: either to further pursue his journey under the wing of sexploitation schlockmeister Russ Meyer or to continue his career as a newspaper man & a film critic. They wouldn’t allow him to do both. It’s just as well, since Meyer’s post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls work witnessed a decline both in quality & in financial success, something that might’ve done damage to Ebert’s reputation on the snobbier end of film critic circles. Although he officially cut professional ties with Meyer, Ebert did continue to contrite to the director’s work behind the scenes, sometimes under a pseudonym. These contributions included generating the dialogue for Kitten Natividad in the sexploitation comedy/murder mystery Up!. Natividad functions as Up!‘s Greek Chorus. How do we know this? She helpfully explains, “I am your Greek Chorus,” in her opening monologue. Meyer instructed Ebert to produce something, anything for the buxom Greek chorus to blabber as a means to tie his 20th feature together and that method of storytelling is exactly how loose & pointless Up! feels as a final product.

Sometimes the film’s who-cares? approach to narrative structure or general cohesion can be sublimely refreshing. In fact, in its first fifteen minutes Up! seems as if it might amount to one of Meyer’s finest works of rapidfire inanity & sexually charged nihilism. Images of bananas being eaten through zipper holes of S&M masks & disembodied tongues (much like off-screen gloved hands of giallo films) licking dangling cherries mix with ecstatic, nature-set fucking & close-ups of pubic mounds during the opening credits. This out-the-gates visual assault is followed by a scene of Adolf Hitler (billed here as Adolph Schwartz  for reasons unknown) being whipped by a Pilgrim in a dungeon while motorboating a woman in an S&M hood, an onlooker stirring a mysterious cauldron & acting like a kitten in the background. This bizarre, ritualistic act is followed by Hitler paying extra for the Pilgrim to fucking him with his comically oversized dildo-dick while of one of the other participants sneaks out to have sex with a lesbian trucker who sports a strap-on dildo so large that it requires shoulder straps for extra support. These representations of homosexual kink are far from progressive in their intent, but they at least bring the homoerotic subtext of Supervixens out in the open where it cannot be denied. It’s a bewildering sequence, one that concludes with, of all things, Hitler being murdered via a bloodthirsty piranha dropped in his private bathtub.

The sublime pleasures of this opening assault fade hard & fast, unfortunately. The 1970s were a particularly gross time for the exploitation trade, leaning heavily on sexual violence for shock value in a way that always leaves me cold. Every time I watch a slice of 70s schlock I always prepare myself for the possibility of a grotesque rape scene, which makes the era my least favorite cinematic run for B-movies. Not one to miss a beat in following/pioneering the evolving tone of the sex film, Russ Meyer includes two extensive rape scenes in Up!. An early sexual assault of a jogger immediately ruins the good vibes of the film’s opening. The film almost recovers when the jogger immediately breaks her attacker’s neck & kills him, but that retribution is muddled by her decision to then have vigorous, consensual sex with the cop assigned to the scene (immediately following her assault). This is repeated later when a gigantic Franken-brute simultaneously rapes two women in a bar until he’s murdered with a chainsaw & the two freshly-assaulted women immediately engage in consensual cunnilingus. There’s so much cartoonish insanity in Up! that makes it an ultimately worthwhile oddity, but Russ Meyer’s irreverent approach to sexual assault makes the film impossible to defend in its entirety. It’s difficult to say if he was aware of the full impact of what he was representing in these ugly scenes of sexual violence, but the effect is troublesome nonetheless.

Where Up! escalates its sexual content to an unfortunate degree, finally earning the “hard sex” label only feigned in films like Vixen! & Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!, its violence is also exaggerated for an over-the-top effect. The film’s chainsaw, axe, and piranha murders build on the violence of Supervixens‘ vicious bathtub stomping, suggesting what almost amounts to Russ Meyer’s version a of a slasher film, a concept that would be worth drooling over if Up! were only more focused & discarded its irreverent representations of rape. Instead, its bloodshed plays just as pointlessly nihilistic as the films pornstar fuck sessions & references to old Meyer one-liners like “I’d like to strap you on sometime” (this time said by a man) & “Taste the black sperm of my vengeance.” A few of Meyer’s critics & friends cite Up! as an early sign that the director’s mental facilities might’ve been slipping (although I’d say traces of that were visible in Supervixens) and there’s some legitimacy to that theory, especially in the film’s ecstatic adoption of kink, something Meyer would normally avoid like the plague.

At the very least, it’s safe to say that the director was losing grasp of how to control the tone & effect of his work, which means that Up! comes across as the ultimate mixed bag, a collection of Russ Meyer’s best & worst tendencies presented side by side without rhyme or reason. Ebert was a good friend for contributing his isolated aspect of the film, but also smart to keep his name off a project I doubt he, or anyone but Meyer himself, could defend in its entirety. Up! is a fascinating mess of a misfire, one that soars in its finer moments of wild abandon, but is barely watchable in its darkest impulses. It’s 100% Meyer, but in an unfortunately unfocused way that makes no effort to keep his vilest id in check.

-Brandon Ledet