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VIDEO ESSAY: Doris Wishman: The First Lena Dunham

Doris Wishman: The First Lena Dunham

In just a few short years, Lena Dunham has quickly made a name for herself in the indie film scene.  In 2010 she caught everyone at the SXSW Film Festival by surprise with her detached but deeply personal debut Tiny Furniture.  She was heralded as the Woody Allen of our generation (or rather, of a generation), and landed at the top of the so-called Mumblecore movement.  Two years later Dunham returned to SXSW with the first three episodes of her new HBO series, Girls, which premieres April 15th.  The event also marked the release of Tiny Furniture on DVD, which could be considered to be the ultimate accomplishment for Dunham or any fledgling filmmaker: acceptance into the Criterion Collection.  (For more insight on the topic Dunham gave a very revealing interview with IndieWire’s own Nigel M Smith.)

When Criterion first announced that Tiny Furniture would be in the collection, the decision to include Dunham with such esteemed filmmakers came as quite a surprise to many (who troll the Internet), and even more surprising was the announcement that Dunham was developing a series with HBO, and beyond that, Judd Apatow would serve as producer.  Although it may have seemed to some as if Dunham sold out, Girls is very much a continuation of Tiny Furniture.  Dunham’s style is indicative of what independent film has become in the new century:  personal character studies, naturalist, improvised performances in sometimes aimless narratives, all produced on a micro-budget level.  The term Mumblecore itself may be irrelevant at this point, but that label certainly helped a lot of filmmakers get more exposure in a market that relies heavily on categorization.  Dunham has had a privileged upbringing, but her films remain grounded and self-aware.  Dunham is also aware of the implications of setting Girls in New York City, the old stomping grounds of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.  The story revolves around Hanna (played by Dunham) and her friends as they try to make do in the big city.  Although Dunham’s Girls may have been influenced by Sex and the City, it is much more in tune with the generation it portrays.  Playing with the cultural cliché of a girl coming to NY to seek her fortune, Girls might just be the antidote to Bradshaw’s artificial quest for love and fame.

Now that I’ve got your attention with something currently relevant, I’d like to talk about another woman whose films closely resemble Dunham’s work and (forgive me) the Mumblecore aesthetic.  Doris Wishman was one of the most prolific female directors working in the sexploitation genre in the 1960s.  In fact, she may have been the only woman working in the field at that time, at least behind the camera.  She began her career making “nudie-cutie” films like Nude on the Moon and Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls.  Set in Florida’s nudist communities, Wishman’s early films were loosely tied narratives, haphazardly thrown together for the sole purpose of showing semi-clad (and usually middle-aged) men and women sitting around a pool, playing volleyball, checkers, and other mundane activities.  Like most nudist films, the mere fact that they are partially nude does nothing to make the films more exciting.  In fact, the majority of the films in the nudie-cutie genre are completely unwatchable.  What makes Wishman’s films exemplary is her seemingly complete disregard for narrative structure and continuity.  Appropriately regarded as “The Female Ed Wood,” Wishman’s work was so poorly executed that it amazes me that she was able to continue for nearly half a century.  But there is a genuine innocence in her work, and a strong visual style that makes her work distinctive.  Albeit unintentionally, her films almost reach levels of paracinematic genius.  She worked cheaply, using non-professional actors (or anyone willing to take their clothes off in front of a camera), shot repeatedly in her own home, dubbed most of the characters with her own voice, and produced completely without outside investors.  Wishman was always able to conform to the shifting demands in the sexploitation market, relying on gimmicks to keep audiences coming (pun intended).

In the mid-sixties Wishman relocated to New York City, which marked a drastic change in her work.  Known as her “roughie” period, these films became much more ambitious but also entered into much darker territory.  Harmless titles like Diary of a Nudist and Hideout in the Sun were replaced by Bad Girls Go to Hell and Indecent Desires.  These films usually centered around a guileless sylph who spirals down to sexual degradation and shame.  The first film in her Roughie Cycle, the wonderfully titled The Sex Perils of Paulette, focuses on an innocent country girl being corrupted by the big city.  In many ways the film is allegorical to Wishman’s own life; she left Florida’s sunny beaches after a messy divorce forced her to seek out her new life in NYC.  Paulette arrives in the Big Apple with dreams of finding love, success, and becoming a better person.  Once there, Paulette falls into a bad crowd of sexual deviants and sadists.  Like Carrie Bradshaw, Paulette finds her Mr. Big in Tony Lo Bianco, but denies herself the happiness of a normal relationship because NYC has turned her into a “bad girl.”

Much like Dunham, Wishman frequently shows us scenes of women inexplicably standing around in their underwear (black lace, a Wishman trademark).  When we are introduced to Tracy (the incomparable Darlene Bennett), Paulette’s new flatmate, the camera starts on her face, then slowly moves down to show off her body.  In the film, Wishman abruptly cuts from images like these to images of various knickknacks that happen to be nearby, or sometimes the camera will just sort of meander away.  Although the film was obviously made for men to rub one out in a dark grindhouse theatre, Wishman seemingly avoided all the ‘money shots’ by inserting images of feminine desires, or as in this case, by showing off the interior of her house.  Scenes are often cut out of sequence, much like Jean Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, which coincidentally was released the same year as Sex Perils.  Although it is highly unlikely that Wishman was aware of Godard’s work and the distancing techniques of the nouvelle vague, Wishman seemed to have tapped into the creative consciousness at that particular cultural moment and interpreted them in her own unique way.  Wishman made her narratives even more complicated than those of the New Wave style.   Since Wishman used silent film stock, she often relied on reaction shots, so that she could dub her own voice in afterwards, seemingly improvising the voice-over narration after she edited the footage together.  The result is a bizarre, almost surreal exercise in anti-erotica, completely composed of reaction shots and random cutaways.  Wishman didn’t seem to have much interest in sex. Instead she focused on potted plants, radios, beauty accessories, and lots of foot shots, with just enough accidental yonic imagery to validate its cinematic worth and allow film students like Lena Dunham to keep turning in term papers. While it might amuse some film students to ironically distance themselves from Wishman’s work, it could be just as rewarding to simply accept Wishman’s bizarre world view like that of any other auteur.

Doris Wishman had 30 films to her credit, although the exact number is uncertain, since she used multiple aliases, and in some cases disowned certain titles that she wasn’t happy with.  She would also rerelease her films with different titles to make a quick buck.  She eventually dipped into hardcore in the late seventies (although Wishman was adamantly opposed to it, supposedly leaving the room whenever hardcore scenes were shot).  When hardcore pornography became too extreme, Wishman gave up her career as a filmmaker and returned to Florida, getting a job at a cosmetics store.  Her career comeback came long after the sexploitation market had dissolved.  Thanks to the home video market, Wishman was able to enjoy a brief return to filmmaking with Dildo Heaven in 2002.  Sadly, Doris passed away while making her final film, Each Time I Kill later that same year.  John Waters helped to release the film posthumously in 2007 and has a cameo as well, as does B-52’s frontman Fred Schneider, but no DVD is available at this time.  Criterion should just release all the unedited footage as a supplemental feature, much like Charles Laughton Directs Night of the Hunter—it would be an outstanding document of a genius at work.  Wishman’s legacy needs proper recognition if we are to truly appreciate Dunham’s Girls and the evolution of the girl-in-the-city subgenre.  An Eclipse set of Wishman’s Roughie Cycle would be an ideal starting point for Criterion, followed by a set dedicated to her nudie-cutie films.  Should Criterion decide to include Wishman in the collection for a mainline release, The Sex Perils of Paulette would be the perfect choice.

Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. Born and raised in Panamá, he then moved to the US, working at the University of Pittsburgh and co-directing Life During Wartime, a short-lived video collective for local television. After fleeing to Japan, he co-founded the Capi Gallery in Western Honshu before becoming a permanent resident. He currently is designing for DVD distributors in Japan and the US, making short and feature films independently, and is a contributing artist for the H.P. France Group and their affiliate companies. All of his designs can be found at Primolandia Productions and his non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration.

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