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Oh, for the days before anything-goes hardcore eclipsed the innocent, clumsy lust of nudie pictures! Or so goes the thinking behind Frank Henenlotter’s That’s Sexploitation!, a documentary ode to the many ways entrepreneurs found to dodge censors and get prurient images in front of eager moviegoers. Unapologetically hokey production values and a friendly attitude toward lechery will appeal to some of the retrophiles who’ve kept the burlesque revival going, but almost all viewers will enjoy it in the privacy of their own homes.
After serving as onscreen host in the introduction (where a pasties-clad cutie walks the camera up to his barstool), Henenlotter hands things off to David F. Friedman, who produced and promoted innumerable exploitation films. Friedman died in 2011, and this footage appears to have been shot not long before — the old huckster seems physically ill at ease, but takes visible pleasure in recounting the path movies took from pre-Hays Code naughtiness through the libertine ’60s. We see simple nudie arcade reels; watch morality plays whose preaching about premarital sex was a thin excuse to enact horny melodrama; and watch the first generation of “anthropological” films about nudist camps whose happy inhabitants were suspiciously young and firm of flesh.
World War II ushered in an era when “suddenly, dirty movies weren’t fun”: Glimpses of naked bodies had to be accompanied by clinical footage of live childbirth or venereal disease. But when a judge declared that simple nudity on camera wasn’t obscene in itself, the heyday of 42nd Street and similar skin-friendly districts began.
Friedman and Henenlotter were major players in the career of Mike Vraney’s Something Weird Video, the home-vid company that for two decades has rescued disreputable cinema from the dustbin. With Vraney as producer, they’re happy to offer generous clips from obscure titles and to highlight odd trends like the faux-ethnographic films in which topless brown- and black-skinned women might be slain by machete-wielding men or the object of simian lust.
The movie touches on the better-known filmmakers who made careers out of often comic, sometimes bizarre scenarios — Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman — and it sketches out the effect these bastard films had on the general film industry: “There’s many a theater I have saved from becoming a parking lot,” says Friedman, recalling movie palaces that might’ve been killed by television if not for an influx of raincoat-wearing patrons. (Friedman also claims that the sex hygiene film Mom and Dad “took in over $60 million,” no small sum in 1945 for a film costing around 60 grand.)
At two and a quarter hours, Henenlotter’s tour through the sleaze fields may try the patience of viewers motivated by hepcat irony. But it’s enlightening, in its way, for film history buffs, and it has a straightforward love of its subject that is oddly endearing. Ultimately, it’s as big an example of Sexploitation as an account of it: Surely few other documentaries contain this many bouncing breasts and jiggling buttocks. Somewhere in Grindhouse Heaven, earlier generations of smut mavens are beaming with pride.
Production Company: Something Weird Video
Director: Frank Henenlotter
Producers: Mike Vraney, Jimmy Maslon
No rating, 135 minutes
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