On Thursday, March 3, Elena Gorfinkel (University of Wisconsin – Madison) presented her talk, “’The Gawker in the Text’: Allegories of Reception in 1960s Sexploitation Film” at the Chicago Film Seminar. Jeffrey Sconce of Northwestern provided the response. In this talk, Gorfinkel discusses the reflexive, self-referential nature of sexploitation films, particularly around the generic problem of ‘consuming sex’, to better understand the specific conditions of reception of adult films and sexualized media in the public culture of the 1960s. Gorfinkel notes that sexploitation films of the 1960s, refracting the era’s contentious sexual politics, frequently retained a dystopian tenor, in which sexual activity and exchange often came at a grave narrative cost. The paradox of sexploitation films, she argues, is the that the expanding sexual marketplace is both exploited economically and aesthetically and disdained rhetorically, negotiating the tensions between strategies of display and denial.
To resolve these contradictory aims, sexploitation films incorporate the figure of the voyeur, the gawker, into their narratives, thematizing the process and ramifications of erotic looking, and, more broadly, sex as an object of consumption and exchange, as both a diegetic and extra-diegetic ‘problem.’ These figures and other devices that narrativize the act of looking enable erotic looking while simultaneously exploring that figure and the looking that he performs. Gorfinkel quotes critic Leslie Fiedler on The Immoral Mr. Teas: “It is not merely like the strip-tease, the candy-box cover, the girlie calendar and the foldout nude; it is about them.”
Gorfinkel provides several case studies, including Teas and Barry Mahon’s 1965 film This Picture is Censore (aka Censored), which she asserts to be indicative, in its extremity, of a tendency that takes many forms in sexploitation film practice of the 1960s. Censored presents itself as a compilation of scenes that have been excised by censors. Actor Sid Berry serves as an onscreen narrator, directly addressing the camera with such commentary as: “Why was this censored? What do you think?” In trying to make the extra-diegetic conditions of regulation into a diegetic narrative, Gorfinkel notes, the film becomes about its own conditions of possibility. By addressing the spectator in this manner, the film conflates the offense-seeking censor and the sensation-seeking gawker, and articulates the conflicts and layers of dissimulation at work between sexploitation filmmakers, their audiences and the censors. Sexploitation films’ mode of address, their consistent allegorization of their own mode of spectatorship, creates a fissure between the textually designated, imagined and actual audience.