Close Up

19 November 2017: Lewd Looks Book Launch + Vibrations


Launching her new book Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, Elena Gorfinkel presents a screening of Joe Sarno’s late 1960s sexploitation gem Vibrations, in a new 2K restoration by Film Media. Gorfinkel will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A about the book, which will be available to purchase following the screening.

Joe Sarno, belatedly branded the “Bergman of 42nd Street,” was lauded by Andrew Sarris as an unacknowledged auteur amid the 1960s skin flick scene, a filmmaker whose mise-en-scene and approach to filming bodies exhibited a “charmingly naïve Satanism.” Sarno, a prolific and tireless maker of well-plotted, character driven erotic melodramas, infused the sometimes boilerplate sexploitation formula with a sincerity and attentiveness to female subjectivity and the panache of arthouse aesthetics. Vibrations signals Sarno at the apex of his achievement. The story of two estranged sisters, drifter and poet, hip and square, who collide in bohemian New York, the film was shot primarily in the tight space of a small apartment, but also captured the streets and sights around Times Square and midtown Manhattan. Constructing a hothouse environment of burgeoning sexual exploration and a treatise on the recursive power of repression, Sarno posits the fundamental perversity of filial relations. The quarrelling sisters discover and become embroiled in the polyamorous trysts of the hippie neighbours next door, who brandish a vibrating massager with pulsing regularity. Along with the pristine black and white cinematography and expressive lighting schemes, Sarno’s signature long takes manifest an emphasis on corporeal presence witnessed at tremulous close range. The striking performances of Maria Lease and Marianne Prevost as Barbara and Julia, Sarno’s photogenic approach to shooting bare flesh, and the film’s articulation of the temporality of erotic suspension led semiologist Marshall Blonsky to effusively rhapsodize on the film in Artforum in 1974: “Sarno gives eros, and Sarno takes away. Sarno seduces you and Sarno douses you. Sarno constructs, one after another, erotic systems that capture your consciousness; and then he disintegrates them. They were illusions and you – fool! –…lived them as real.”’’ – Elena Gorfinkel

Elena Gorfinkel’s Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s is the untold story of the American sexploitation film – a major development in screen sex in the decade before “porno chic”. One of the most fascinating phenomena of 1960s film culture is the emergence of American sexploitation films – salacious indies made on the margins of Hollywood. Hundreds of such films were produced and shown on both urban and small-town screens over the course of the decade. Yet despite their vital importance to the film scene, and though they are now understood as a gateway to the emergence of publicly exhibited hardcore pornography in the early 1970s, these films have been largely overlooked by scholars.

Defined by low budgets, quick production times, unknown actors, strategic uses of nudity, and a sensationalist obsession with unbridled female sexuality, sexploitation films provide a unique window into a tumultuous period in American culture and sexual politics. In Lewd Looks, Elena Gorfinkel examines the social and legal developments that made sexploitation films possible: their aesthetics, their regulation, and their audiences. Gorfinkel explores the ways sexploitation films changed how spectators encountered and made sense of the sexualized body and set the stage for the adult film industry of today. Lewd Looks recovers a lost chapter in the history of independent cinema and American culture – a subject that will engross readers interested in media, sexuality, gender, and the 1960s. Gorfinkel investigates the films and their contexts with scholarly depth and vivid storytelling, producing a new account of the obscene image, screen sex, and adult film and media.

Joe Sarno
1968 | 75 min | B/W | Digital

Aspiring poet Barbara moves to Manhattan to jump-start her career and sex life, only to spend her evenings listening to the sounds of her neighbor’s vibrator. When her extroverted sister Julia comes to town, Barbara is forced to confront her repressed sexual desires. An early classic by sexploitation director Sarno, Vibrations is “classy and sophisticated, beautifully shot, a juicy script, filled with wonderful performances and sexy as hell” – Casey Scott

Elena Gorfinkel is senior lecturer in film studies at King's College London. She is author of Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, and co-editor with John David Rhodes of Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image

Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s was published by University of Minnesota Press in October 2017

Many thanks to Film Media, Film Movement and Pop Cinema for making this screening possible