Goodbye, Doris

On longing for Wishman, the queen of camp

Naked alien goddesses, with big tits and bouffant hair, frolicking in the sun on Super-8 film. Buxom harlots smothering men to death with their breasts and slashing one another. Sordid kisses in wood-paneled rooms and toupéed men spanking creamy virgins on shaggy rugs. Ashtrays, closeups of ashtrays, weird velvet paintings. All the elements of style for one of the most prolific and twisted filmmakers in American cinema -- the little cranky lady with the renegade vision, Doris Wishman.

She died at 89 on August 10 after a bout with lymphoma. But a coterie of fans, B-movie aficionados, and just plain freaks will keep her memory alive in underground film festivals and via the Internet.

I am one of them now.

"The afterlife just got a little nuttier," one of her fans posts on the message board, and he may be right.

Wishman herself helped confirm this as she smilingly told British interviewer Jonathan Ross that when she dies, she'll continue making movies "in hell." I imagine Doris sauntering in her high-heeled mules into the great beyond. But while her friends and collaborators spoke of moving forward without her at a Doris Wishman memorial on South Beach several weeks ago, some of us can't help stepping back in time.

Watching the clips of Bad Girls Go to Hell, Indecent Desires, and a slew of other Wishman classics channeled my boyhood in pre-VCR Westchester, to a back-yard fort and sixteen-millimeter porn snatched from fathers' closets.

We'd sit around anxiously threading the smuggled film projector with low-budget silent skin flicks that would jump and scratch and sometimes melt on the screen. The details are hazy now, only vague memories of black-and-white reels with a horse, a German shepherd, a curvy brunette, and some mysterious cream.

But the hairdos and eyeliner, the heaving heavy breasts, and that back-yard shack all came back as a video of great Doris moments was projected through banyan trees onto a bare wall at the memorial. At the table was a woman named Linneah, one of Wishman's actors. She cried silently while videotaping the presentation. Across from her, a guy named Tom spoke of befriending Doris at her favorite dildo store, Coconut Grove's Pink Pussycat Boutique, and making her a part of his family. Then Joanne Butcher, Miami's Independent Feature Project executive director, told of watching the octogenarian scale a six-foot fence the day Doris lost track of her keys.

Soon the image of a crazy, obsessed, and ballsy genius began to emerge.

I somehow feel a connection with the crabby old broad even though I am a neophyte Wishman fan. I'd never heard of her before six months ago, when her 2001 film Satan Was a Lady played at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Specifically about fifteen minutes into the film, when what was transpiring, it was increasingly clear, was something awesome --Wishman's seedily artful shots of a perfectly siliconed stripper putting on a dress onstage at some sleazy Miami dive burned up the screen.

Afterward we met Doris in the lobby. She was dressed in a tight leopardskin wrap-around blouse and chinos and flanked by the stars of Satan, Honey Lauren and Edge. Perhaps it was a condition of inebriation, or the high of watching a truly original and effective piece of film, but we couldn't do much more than fawn blubberingly on her. Doris just leaned against a wall, behind large sunglasses, and coolly said thank you.

After watching the interviews and hearing friends' stories about her, I am inspired by Doris's insistence on realizing her wacky visions. Although everybody praised her as an unlikely great artist, the point was made over and over that she was pushy, belligerent, and a major pain in the ass. Doris's niece told of her obsessive drive to make film and her absolute indifference to criticism. She insisted on doing it her own way, the niece said.

The end of the memorial has lingered for almost two weeks now: Nico's voice singing the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and Doris talking about reaching for a dildo. The image of an ill-tempered, aging lady projected on a South Beach wall -- a place that was once ruled by little ill-tempered, aging ladies. And then the hot pink letters on a field of black: "Take Care Doris."

 
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