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When I Die I’ll Make Films in Hell: Doris Wishman in Miami

Barron Sherer

Doris Wishman in the Alliance Cinema Gallery. Image: R Orcutt.

Doris Wishman was an American “sexploitation” director who started her career in the early 1960s and ended it in the early 2000’s in South Florida. Much of her late period work included the assistance of denizens and supporters of the Alliance Cinema and the Alliance Film/Video Co-operative on Lincoln Road in the mid- to late- ’90s. She passed away in 2002. Below are excerpts from conversations with some who knew her.

Tom Smith (composer, performer, producer, photographer, writer and publisher): I knew Doris’ work without knowing anything about her. One could find many of her films in the stadium-sized video barns of the mid-80s. “Keyholes Are For Peeping”, “The Amazing Transplant”, “Let Me Die A Woman”, “A Night To Dismember” -these were ubiquitous. Re/Search’s 1985 “Incredibly Strange Films” tome featured a Doris Wishman mini-chapter that served to whet appetites, and helped codify the tropes most contemporary observers still tend to trot out in reference to her liver-spotted oeuvre. (The ’60s “nudies” and “roughies” and the Chesty Morgan films didn’t really emerge in wider circulation until ’88 or so, when Something Weird Video -the mail order video retailer, began their surge.) And regarding that work: I fucking loved it. “Let Me Die A Woman” is particularly beyond critique.

Bill Orcutt (musician): I remember the first time that I spoke to Doris Wishman, it was on the phone. I had been reading those Re/Search magazine books and I was aware of Herschell Gordon Lewis (“Blood Feast”) but I really learned about Doris Wishman from the interview of her in that book which also mentioned that she lived in Miami and I had this idea that I would track her down. I spoke to HGL. He came to the Alliance Cinema and was as a total pro. He put me in touch with some sort of collector who had prints of Doris’ films. The collector had some information that Doris lived in Coconut Grove, this was a little bit of a foothold. So, armed with that infomation and the white pages I tried to start tracking her down. I managed to reach her brother. He gave me her number and she was living with her sister. I finally contacted Doris and boy was she reticent! She wasn’t really eager to appear in front of an audience. She kept asking me, “Do you know what kind of movies I used to make?” Eventually she agreed to come to the cinema. We scheduled the night, we secured “Double Agent 73”, and the day of the show I called to confirm that Doris had directions to the cinema. She told me that something had happened with her hair. She had some hair related incident and would not be able to make it (laughs)! It was Tom Smith who first made contact with her. He can blow smoke up anyone’s ass like no one’s business. He was able to get her out of retirement.

nude_on_the_moon_poster_01 2

Wishman’s 1961 “Nude on the Moon” was filmed at Coral Castle in Homestead, Fl.

Smith: I drove out to the Grove to buy a sex toy for my girlfriend. A nice older lady helped me with my purchase. I left the shop (The Pink Pussycat), motored out half a mile or so, then had an epiphany and made a quick U-turn. Parked, rushed in, said “You’re Doris Wishman! You’re a genius.” Then she asked me if I could give her $50,000 for a film she hoped to make. Instead, I invited her for dinner. She came.

Barron Sherer (cinema practicioner, artist): I’m so weird on the chronology, I was putting together clips of 35mm odds and ends, 16mm scraps of film to telecine. She kept saying this was for a project that she was going to call “Wanna Piece?” Kind of a double entendre, the project would be a clip job of her previous films. “WANNA PIECE?!” {laughs} She paid Continental Film Laboratory up in North Miami to transfer the scraps to Betacam and VHS and they were used in “Dildo Heaven”.

Mark Boswell (filmmaker, artist): I remember the situation was Syd Garon and Rodney Ascher were doing the original camerawork for “Dildo” in 1997 or 1998. There was another person involved named Faust, editing her material. Doris had borrowed money from her sister Pearl to finance the film. Her personality kind of burned Faust out so I got a call and she came in one morning 9 am with a bag full of VHS tapes, she was very professional, she was very curious, and obviously bluffing.

Rodney Ascher (filmmaker, “Room 237”): We only shot for “Dildo” only a day or two and I’ve never seen the completed film so I’m not sure how much of that made it in. We were driving around and there was an actor, a guy playing a nerd desperate to meet a girl. Syd Garon was driving a pickup truck and I was shooting out of the back (of course I could be confusing this with Mark Boswell’s movie “Subversion Agency”) Syd rode around on a bicycle in that. My favorite moment and Syd probably tells it better than I do, the two of us were shooting a scene where those nerd guy was peering through the bushes. The idea was to cut that with some nudist camp footage. And mid shot she told Syd who was working the camera to walk on to set.

Syd Garon (filmmaker “N.A.S.A.: The Spirit of Apollo”): Doris had me shooting video of a Peeping Tom’s POV through some bushes. Doris was going to cut this standard definition Betacam videotape with a some black-and-white nude volleyball footage from a previous film of hers as if that’s what the guy was watching! In the middle of the shot, with no warning or preparation and the camera rolling, Doris whisper/shouts into my ear “Syd! Syd! Now walk in front of the camera and say ‘Hey You! Get out of here!'”.

Boswell: In the garbage bag full of videotapes, Doris had most of her feature films, and the reason she had the tapes was that “Dildo Heaven” had a makeshift script about three secretaries trying to seduce their boss. There was sort of a MacGuffin in there, this wildcard, a boy named Billy. Billy conveniently lived at the same apartment complex as the three secretaries. He would roam through the apartment complex looking through peepholes. So Doris would creatively, try to fill in a void. When he looked in the peephole, she would cut to footage on the VHS tapes.

Sherer: Mark, did you ever ask her if she had any sense of continuity or matching? Did that even matter?

Boswell: She wasn’t really worried about it, when you look back at some of her older films, like a sex scene in “Double Agent 73” one sees footage from a previous film or even footage that she bought that she was simply inserting. I think the sort of collage element of her films never really needed any continuity. I think continuity was something in her mind, but only if it was there, onscreen. She blacked out the concept otherwise. Sex was a necessity and had to be in there to get people in the seats. Sex was the driving force behind what you are trying to address, continuity.

Sherer: Tom, What do you see in her films beyond skid row production values and unconventional editing practice?

Smith: They are dumbfoundingly direct. No irony, no analysis, no lingering in the interstices. Her blunt technique shoved the narrative down your piehole. She was a concupiscent Ida Lupino, unencumbered by craft, chasing dollars with fever dreams from the tenderloin.

Ascher: There is a common world view in a lot her work, Tom Smith has articulated it better than I ever could. Still, in my favorite Wishman films I enjoy seeing realism bumping against fantasy -down-to-earth locations and characters working in a dream logic. Also, since her films are set in a very real time and place, as they age, their documentary value of life and New York in the early to mid 1960s only grows.

Orcutt: Some time before I left Miami for San Francisco in 1997, I would see Doris across the street at the Co-Operative during the day, I would buy her lunch just to sit and talk, I was also working on her website around that time, which was one of my first it and it was a great opportunity to experiment, though I don’t thick it was used for much. At the lunches I didn’t have to say much, I could just bask in her stories, the flow of language. All she talked about was the future, about projects. There was a novel she was writing, film scripts. It was an endless flow of material. I would try to ask her questions about cinema history, like who was her favorite director. “Do you like Citizen Kane?” I was just trying to figure out where she was coming from and what her background was. She had no interest at all in the history of cinema. It was just all her own creativity. She did not see herself as being part of history.

Boswell: What she always said, and we all remember this, was she got her start doing clerical work for a movie producer. She would look at all the films made by the producer and because she studied acting she had a basic sense of what narrative structure was. When her husband died, she had a slight mental collapse and kept fantasizing that her husband was still alive. She felt like this obsession was unhealthy and so to keep herself occupied she started making films. She had the formula early on: work a story in which you can show a bunch of nudity. Her first film was apparently a disaster, one we’ve never seen. Then she got money for another film, “Hideout in The Sun” (1960). Because of her cockiness, she thought she could do anything, and she came down to Miami. Whatever happened, the first effort was technically a disaster. The footage was useless, I don’t know if it was out of focus or if the cinematographer was a hack. So for a burgeoning filmmaker, that was a great learning experience. It’s like when you teach films in film school. That’s the best lesson that you can have. Kids are afraid of making mistakes but in reality this taught her everything that she should not do, so she hit her family up again.

Sherer: Rodney, does experiences that you had with Doris and your familiarity with her work have any influence in what you do?

Ascher: I guess there are two things: her tenacity in making film after film without a ton of time or money, but also the way she followed her own interest and taste. Her movies weren’t cynical, anonymous cash-ins. She seemed to get a huge amount of satisfaction from dreaming up outrageous twists, titles, scenarios. She was driven not just to make films in general, but “Doris Wishman” films. And the films all reflected her personality, her humor, her fearlessnes. Her ideas would all make perfectly legit mainstream entertainments these days. It’s so easy to imagine Will Ferrell in a “Hideout In The Sun” remake, or Robert Rodriguez’s “Deadly Weapons”.

Boswell: She probably had more influence on me than anybody over there, I kind of work like she does. Because I’m heavily influenced by Godard, I found a similar style. Working with Doris I realized you can create the script during the editing process by throwing in random dialogue. Shoot the backs of heads, cutaway shots. Coming out of film school quite often with rigid Hollywood rules you feel a bit of pressure to conform so you have a shot at distribution. The whole experience with Doris was kind of liberating seeing how she was inventing stuff in the editing process. Shoot what you’ve got on paper, and make up shit in the editing.

Blaze Starr Goes Nudist

35mm film frame “Blaze Starr Goes Nudist” (1962). Courtesy: Barron Sherer collection.

Sherer: Tom, In effect, did bringing Doris into the fold of the cinema and art scene of 90s South Beach jump started her career?

Smith: That’s really not for me to say. She certainly was extremely generous to me. She agreed to give a lecture to my “Cinema Depreciation” students at Miami-Dade Community College in 1992, and was kind enough to direct several hours of footage (1993) for a long-form video intended to accompany the first release by my To Live And Shave In L.A. group. (The film and EP were both titled “Spatters of a Royal Sperm.”) Rodney Ascher, Syd Garon, Oscar Perez, Tigre De Rougement, Tracie Phillips, Angie Terrell and Mark Holt were the crew and fellow performers. Degrees of separation, etc. Doris was very approachable. Eccentric as fuck, but approachable. Things grew from there. Peggy Ahwesh was the first academic to come calling—I introduced her to Doris later in ’93.

Boswell: The Re/Search publication kind of kicked off the attention of her genre work and other directors as an art form. There was a search for what’s missing from film history. There was also that BBC television documentary series about cult film directors based on the publication. So there was a domino effect, people were talking about that genre. Ed Wood was still alive. Wood was dead when we were editing Doris’ film. Bill Orcutt dropped this bomb on her during an
argument. That with Wood dead, some were saying she was the worst filmmaker alive. “What do you know, you’re nobody!” she told him.

Orcutt: I have no memory of that, but it’s possible.(laughs).

Bill Orcutt & Doris

Alliance Cinema Director Bill Orcutt presents Doris Wishman with a lifetime achievement award at the “Anti-Film Festival” held at the Colony Theater. Courtesy: Mark Boswell collection.

Sherer: Mark, we have spoken before about complexity in Doris’ films, with critical attention, analysis and revisionist history aimed her way. Do you think there’s something there or is it all bullshit?

Boswell: I really believe that she was an artist, she wasn’t really making art but she crossed over into all this weird stuff. It was commercialism but the same time it was so eccentric and kind of unique that has an artistic quality. I think when you make some thing like that that is no longer yours it belongs to anybody who watches it. So you can interpret that stuff any kind of the way that you want because of the strength of her personality and the unusual oddities she inserted into the films it doesn’t matter if she consciously did it or not. It’s kind of like Rodney’s film “Room 237”. You can read it anyway you want. What does it mean? Did her films say “I’m a feminist” or not? In a way she was a feminist because she was the only one in that field. She was tough, she was bare knuckled, she would bust balls. I think it’s easy to have a feminist reading of her films especially “Deadly Weapons” or “Double Agent 73”. But with half the stuff in her films, she’d never admit the reason that she did it.

Sherer: I don’t think you can argue that this feminism in her films was commercial, or opportunistic. She was doing this late-’60s early-’70s, before one could argue that the Women’s Liberation Movement had reached critical mass with mainstream media.

Garon: I’m not sure I would call her films feminist, but in a male-dominated industry in a male-dominated time period, she did manage to make more films than Scorsese and Kubrick combined.

Boswell: I consider her a feminist before the feminist movement, a feminist by her actions. Look at Margaret Thatcher. She had to be tougher than anybody else in the room and that’s what Doris did. Doris was the same way. She wasn’t copying the way that other people were making their films and I find her films remarkable. Honestly though, there was no gender issue with Doris. Her thought process was simply “How can I make these films sell?”

Barron: As the rediscovery of Doris began -the festival awards, new films, re-releases- she knew how to work it.

Rodney: Oh God, yeah! As they would say in acting school, she had great control of her instrument. She was hilarious and had amazing style, I’m halfway surprised she didn’t jump from that “Conan” bit to a second career as a character actress.

Smith: I was very happy for her when “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and NPR and Harvard University extended their invitations and accorded their honors. Long overdue, well deserved. The memory of her pluck and indominable resolve is powerfully resonant. She lived FTW to its fullest.


Bill Orcutt interviewed Doris for the great Muckraker Magazine zine in 1997.  (Posted online for the first time.)

“I Edited Dildo Heaven – The Mark Boswell Interview” 2013 print only zine

Keyframe: Doris Wishman, the Mother of Sexploitation