John Waters and Sandra Bernhardt are among her thumbs-up enthusiasts, and the Boston Globe's Betsy Sherman has written articulate tomes situating her nonpareil filmmaking career. Also, credit the Harvard Film Archives for its pioneering 1994 mini-retrospective, "The Renegade Cinema of Doris Wishman."
Still, when Wishman, a Miami resident, made a return visit to Boston several weeks ago, New England puritanism reigned. A workshop-panel at the Boston Film Factory sponsored by Women in Film and Video/New England was almost empty of Women in Film and Video, except for a couple of the organization's officers. The membership had been informed, via a mailing, to bring their senses of humors to the free event. No senses of humor, practically no members, even though Wishman, with 24 credited features, has directed (and written, produced, edited) probably more movies than any women in the history of cinema!
What went awry is obvious: Wishman, so prolific in the 60s, made inappropriate kind of flicks for terribly proper New Englanders. Her low-low-budget oeuvre includes nudies, "roughies," sexploitations. Her biggest actor names were stripper Blaze Starr and the 73-inch-bosomed Chesty Morgan. Her anti-PC titles (she began with the titles) include Diary of a Nudist, Sex Perils of Paulette, A Night to Dismember, Keyholes are for Peeping.
Plots? The Amazing Transplant concerns a guy who grafts his womanizing friend's penis onto his own body. Nude on the Moon is about two astronauts' happy discovery of a lunar race of barebreasted extraterrestials.
Is Wishman the exciting missing link between the daffy 50s cinema of Ed Wood and the 60s sex kittens-with-knockers world of Russ Meyer? Or are her movies just amateurish sexist piffle? Bard College filmmaking professor Peggy Ahwesh, a zealous fan, has argued strongly in favor of studying Wishman's cinema: "Enough time has gone by to re-examine formal issues in the films, to see how women were portrayed," as many Wishman movies deal with women's feelings about their sexuality.
A prime example: Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), recently at the Coolidge Corner, about the life-in-turmoil of a Boston woman after she has been raped. The Phoenix's own Peter Keough described it as "a comic-book variation of Sade's Justine... [I]f this film is indicative of the rest of her many features, she's indeed a '60s filmmaker worth reclaiming."
So, who did show up to see Doris Wishman, a petite, direct-talking, flirtatious Jewish grandma type, live at the Boston Film Factory? An audience of leather-jacketed intellects who knew Wishman's cinema career cold, and knew Wishman too, because she seemed able to address each of her devotees by his/her first name. For instance: "Billy, you haven't stopped talking for ten minutes, and I'd still like to know what you are saying!" she interrupted the peripatetic Billy Ruane in the midst of a convoluted speech/question.
Wishman gave a dumbfounded look to local filmmaker Hilary Weisman, who asked about her genre choice of exploitation films. "Hilary, did it ever occur to you that every film ever made is an exploitation film? Gone With the Wind was an exploitation film." Emerson College film professor, Eric Schaefer, wondered if she used post-sync, always dubbing her actors later, so that she could concentrate on camera movement and visual style.
"I did it because most of my people couldn't speak well," she answered. "Some of the actors had Southern accents, so you couldn't understand them. Chesty Morgan had a Polish accent that was unbelievable."
Fortunately for Wishman, who doesn't like to intellectualize about her career, she has an eager Boswell who does. He's Michael Bowen, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Brown, who is writing an erudite book on Wishman's movies and collaborating on her autobiography. At the Boston Film Factory, he was also the foil for many of Wishman's puncturing remarks. He talked about the "sense of space" in her movies, she shouted out, "I don't buy that, Michael!" He showed a lovingly edited selection of her hilarious Coming Attractions. She complained, "Michael only showed what is violent. I'm going to defend myself. I made love stories, and stuff like that."
He talked of her cinema: "There's a lot of joy, a lot of humor and happiness, and very strong evidence of a talent outside categories of avant-garde or European masters." She shrugged, "You may like my films, Michael, but that doesn't mean everybody likes them."
But Wishman was teasing him. She's obviously thrilled to have a clever young man who is so obsessed with her work. And Bowen deserves applause for arranging events such as the above, which was really splendid fun. His love for the cinema of Doris Wishman is genuine, and infectious. As he shouted after showing sections of Wishman's incomplete A Night to Dismember, "David Lynch, eat your heart out!"