Screen Queen

The director who gave the world Nude on the Moon and Bad Girls Go to Hell enjoys a critical revival

That man was Tom Smith, an avant-garde musician and film enthusiast now living in Atlanta. Smith declares that the story of his finding Wishman in the lingerie store in 1994 is "not apocryphal," and that he did indeed begin telling his friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about Wishman's presence in Miami and her importance in the world of underground film.

"You're just stupefied by the really incredibly rarefied vision this woman had," Smith says. "It's unlike anything you've ever seen. When I first saw Nude on the Moon I was floored, and not just because it was kitschy. I really abhor that whole thing, that well-intentioned, loving ridicule, the fact people can make such light of these films because they're poorly staged or because the acting is inept. Those are limitations of budget, not limitations of imagination, and Doris's imagination runs circles around most people's. I was sitting there watching Batman & Robin and wondering how a film that cost $120 million could be so appallingly poor. Doris spent $50,000 or less on Hideout in the Sun, and it's riveting from start to finish. Why should a movie that cost $120 million suck 120 million times more?

"Imagine if Doris had $120 million," Smith muses. "You'd probably have breasts morphing into rabbits or something; it would be completely fucked up."

Smith's enthusiastic boosting of Wishman's works had a ripple effect, and not only in getting her hooked up with people at the Alliance. "I got a call from Harvard asking me to come up there and talk to some students or whatever," Wishman says. "At first I didn't want to go, and then I decided, maybe I'll start again. Anyway, I went to Harvard, which was a wonderful experience. It was amazing, it was a fantastic time. So that's really why I started again."

It was at the Harvard retrospective in 1994 that Wishman met Michael Bowen, a Boston native and Brown University graduate student. Also a Wishman votary, Bowen approached the filmmaker after a screening; the two of them are now collaborating on her biography. "Doris has a way of thinking about herself and her work that is counterintuitive to what people think constitutes a good movie," Bowen says. "She's a truly innovative filmmaker, even an important filmmaker. She inverts some of the standard structure of narrative filmmaking. Her work does in many ways problematize what I would call the standard sensibility of what constitutes a good film."

Wishman's comeback attempt also reached the attention of filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh, who was one of Tom Smith's musical collaborators in her film class at Bard College. Like Bowen, she struck up a correspondence with Wishman; also like Bowen, she finds thematic and technical significance in Wishman's films that Wishman herself doesn't care to discuss. "Enough time has gone by to re-examine formal issues in the films, to see how women were portrayed," says Ahwesh, much of whose work centers on women's feelings about their sexuality. As far as the sometimes primitive camerawork and dubbing, Ahwesh doesn't see these as impediments to a serious treatment of Wishman's work. "I don't have this fetish for Hollywood production values," she declares. "I'm looking for other stuff."

Ahwesh found enough of such stuff to include Bad Girls Go to Hell, along with other films she found personally important or influential, in a retrospective of her own work called "Peggy Ahwesh: Girls Beware," which was held throughout August at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Not everyone was as taken with Wishman's oeuvre; the Village Voice called Bad Girls "a hilariously dismal drive-in picture."

"There are a lot of things about her work I find totally fascinating," Ahwesh says. "Her editing style is unique. It deconstructs narrative logic -- although she thinks she's building a narrative. All these awkward shots of someone listening, off-screen someone listening. And she has these outrageous cutaways that don't match anything: paintings, table lamps, plants, shoes. There are these loving, overly long close-up moments.

"Doris is really into sexual tension, really into the dark underside of sexuality in this period right before the women's movement hit," Ahwesh emphasizes. "Most of her work is about sexual anxiety. She's an amazing creature, like one of those pioneers that went west in the 1840s seeking fame and fortune without knowing what they would find. After the women's movement, people started to know how to talk and think about these things. Feminism was a system in which people could discuss women's sexuality."

Wishman herself pooh-poohs all this talk of feminism. "I want my door opened when I leave, I want you to cater to me as a female," she says. "Equality is fine. I want that, but that's not being a feminist, that's just being another human being. If I do the same job that you do, I want to be paid as you are. But that does not make me a feminist. I think the word has absolutely no meaning. What is a feminist? You tell me."

The resurgence of interest in Wishman's works is not confined to the hallowed halls of academia. Movie moguls and celebs have spent much of the Nineties trying to coax her into the limelight. The Late Show with David Letterman has called. She proudly declares that her script for an upcoming film, Each Time I Kill, will cast Natasha Lyonne, youthful star of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, and Fred Schneider, vocalist for what Wishman calls "the renowned musical group the B-52's."

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