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Doris Wishman

     I bring you sad news: Doris Wishman is dead. The genial Jewish sultaness of softcore sexploitation, who directed more feature films by far – 24!!! – than any woman in the sound era (silent filmmaker, Alice Guy Blache, is her only competitor for prolificacy), succumbed August 10 at the Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami, after grave complications from lymphoma. I give you the e-mail from ex-Bostonian Michael Bowen, her dedicated As-Told-To biographer:

     "...our dear friend Doris Wishman pased away last Saturday night after a thankfully brief illness. Her immediate family had decided not to hold a public service... Cards and condolences can be sent to her beloved sister: Pearl Kushner, 430 Valencia Avenue, Apt. 3RW, Coral Gables, Fl 33134."

     Doesn't everyone in America know her unlikely story, of the little New York-to-Miami lady who looked most fit for Mah Jong? No NYU Film School for Doris Wishman. Totally self-taught, she wrote and directed, 1959-1983, nudies, "roughies," and sexploitation films, some starring the stripper Blaze Starr and the aptly named "Chesty" Morgan, she of the 73-inch bosom. The New York Underground Film Festival had a retrospective of the filmmaker's unusual oeuvre, as did, in 1994, the Harvard Film Archive, "The Renegade Films of Doris Wishman." Here are some typical titles: Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, A Night to Dismember, Keyholes are For Peeping. John Waters worships Wishman's Chesty Morgan cycle, The B-52's Fred Schneider calls her sci-fi Nude on the Moon "one of the greatest films ever made," and the Phoenix's own Peter Keough has opined "...she's indeed a 60s filmmaker worth reclaiming."

     The female Ed Wood? As with Wood's defense of crossdressing in Glenn or Glenda?, Wishman used her "B" cinema for stirring didactic purpose: The Amazing Transplant concerns a penis attachment, and the pioneering Let Me Die a Woman (1978) was a sympathetic look at transsexuals faced with "trial by knife." As with Wood, her films are sublimely daffy and deliriously incoherent, on the cusp between beyond-belief-badness and primitivist genius, and with editing choices so odd they challenge Eisenstein. I can't imagine a more accurate description of Wishman's signature mise en scene than this brilliant paragraph from The Onion's Noel Murray hailing a DVD release:

     "While the narrator lays out a befuddling array of facts, Wishman cuts rapidly between footage of human butchery, lovely outdoor photography, and handheld shots of feet walking. Eventually, A Night to Dismember settles into a steady rhythm: new characters show up, converse in overdubbed and asynchronous non sequitors, creep around tacky apartments, and then meet their untimely ends to the accompaniment of disconnected pieces of stock music."

     Precisely.

     Check doriswishman.com for a touching memorial photograph, she in shades and a spiffy polkadot dress, and beneath, Doris Wishman (????-2002).

     What better tribute to Wishman than a video-store peek at what's newly available in straight-to-cassette sexploitation? Here are four movies that I found, all with lurid come-on covers, and in descending order of interest:

     The Pornographer. Writer-director Doug Atchison. Michael Degood plays convincingly a Dilbert-like paralegal who lives gloomily in LA among cabinets of XXX videos and with obsessive visits to an orally talented masseuse. But he can't attract a date, even with tickets to Les Mis. It's a short hop to making his own pornos, under the tutelage of a mephistophelean trafficker (Craig Wasson), for whom he entraps a nice belle from Tennessee (the persuasively ingenuous Kathryn Cain). A stupid melodramatic ending mars a tight "B" movie.

     The Smokers. Writer-director Christina Peters. Lolita's Dominique Swain is one third of a messed-up high-school girls' gang, which puts the breaks to being the weaker sex. They pack a gun to bully the guys to screw them, reverse date rape. A misguided idea, a confused script, though Thora Burch enlivens this 2001 movie as a nihilist, semi-Goth little sister.

     Tart. Writer-director Christina Wayne. Swain again, a year older and heftier, as an impatiently virginal 17-year-old, pal to free-spirited Bijou Phillips (who, wildly promiscuous also in Black and White and Bully, is replacing young-hussy Drew Barrymore). Swain snorts drugs, makes whoopee, witnesses murder, and hugs her mother in consolation.

     Tease. Writer-director Dennis Berry. Rosanna Arquette should have said "No" to portraying the self-deceived mother of a psycho killer trampy daughter (boring Mandy Schaffer). Offings-by-the-number, lousy throughout.

GERALD PEARY
(Phoenix - August, 2002)

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