Exploiting Feminism: An Interview with Stephanie Rothman (Part Two)

Yesterday, I shared the first part of an interview I did with feminist/exploitation filmmaker Stephanie Rothman. Today, I conclude the interview. But before I do, I wanted to share a few passages from my essay on Rothman which can be found in The Wow Climax. It sets up some of the issues we discuss below.

"I think films are a compromised and corrupted art form, a combination of business and art. And I think filmmakers who treat it completely as a business fail. A business-oriented film is too blatant. It must have something more. To me, films that succeed are those that are slightly corrupted, that attempt to be both business and art, knowing they can never be a full work of art and should never be a full work of business."

-- Roger Corman

Two women -- one white and blonde, the other black and wearing an Afro -- are harnessed to a plow, struggling to move forward through thick muck. Glistening sweat slides through their exposed cleavage and down their taunt, muscular thighs. Their expression is at once determined and humbled. They are dressed in tight cut-off jeans, halter tops tied off at the midriff, no bras and no shoes. Behind them, a man snarls, driving his human "cows."

This disturbing image is the core icon on the advertisements for Terminal Island. In the same ad, we see a stereotypical image of the black "buck," his broad chest bare, crushing a black woman's head into the dirt with his foot, "Welcome to Terminal Island, Baby!" The promotional campaign for an exploitation film characteristically reduces the movie to its most sensationalistic images, images that make its desired audience want to see more. Terminal Island is being "exploited" as a film where one can see beautiful women "put in their place" by powerful men.

Another image circulates around Terminal Island -- the only photograph I have been able to find of its director, Stephanie Rothman. Rothman, an attractive young woman with flowing black hair, is directing an early scene set in a television studio control-room. Her look is passionate, her expressive hands stretch wide, as she is delivering instructions to the actress who plays a documentary film maker in the movie. The actress bears more than a passing resemblance to Rothman herself. As a result, the image takes on a reflexive quality -- the woman director as artist producing an image of the woman director. The caption alongside this Omni magazine article reads: "Terminal Island is consistent with her other films in that it is about several men and women who unite, then live together as friends and lovers without sexual distinctions being made, or infighting and petty jealousies developing. Her ideal world is one of equality and harmony."

Omni identifies the elements in Terminal Island and the other Rothman films, such as Group Marriage (1972), The Velvet Vampire (1971) and The Working Girls (1973), which attracted feminist interest.

Omni's juxtaposition of these two images leaves unreconciled two contradictory accounts of the film's politics and its audience appeals. Images of women as chattel compete with images of women as artists. Appeals to fantasies of male control compete with appeals to fantasies of "equality and harmony." Any film which negotiates between these two competing discourses warrants closer consideration. Such films may help us to better understand the ideological fault-lines within the popular cinema.

As Christine Gledhill suggests, the political commitments of filmmakers often have to get "negotiated" through generic traditions for constructing stories and marketing appeals which sell those stories to demographically desirable audiences. Such "negotiations" produce ideological contradictions within the texts being sold, contradictions which, in turn, get "negotiated" by viewers seeking certain kinds of pleasures from going to the movies. In Rothman's case, a further series of "negotiations" occurred amongst feminist critics: after an initial flurry of articles advancing her case as a feminist filmmaker, references to Rothman all but disappeared. A generation of critics schooled in Screen theory and in Laura Mulvey's assault on "visual pleasure" found it difficult to resolve the ideological contradictions surrounding a feminist exploitation filmmaker. They stopped looking for signs of feminist resistance in such an unlikely place and recoiled with puritanical discomfort over her eroticized images. Rothman's Terminal Island suggests the complexity of the "negotiations" which occur between feminist politics and popular entertainment within the marginal commercial space of the exploitation cinema.

As more recent feminist critics have sought a more complex account of the pleasures of popular culture, a reconsideration of Rothman seems in order. Re-examining Rothman in the 1990s seems of critical importance, since the issues she poses are closely related to those raised by a whole range of contemporary Hollywood films which similarly seek to insert feminist politics into commercial genres (Aliens, Blue Steel, Silence of the Lambs, Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own). Many of these films were either directed by veterans of the exploitation cinema or were strongly influenced by its legacy. To fully understand the complex ideological negotiations within these equally "corrupted" works, we need to reclaim both the progressive generic traditions upon which they build and the critical tools by which an earlier generation of feminist critics sought to interpret and evaluate those traditions. This essay examines what may be at stake for feminism in the exploitation cinema, using Rothman and Terminal Island as a point of entry. Rothman "exploits" the progressive potential already embedded within the exploitation genres to get her liberal feminist messages to a larger viewing public; Roger Corman's New World Pictures "exploits" the topicality of feminism in the early 1970s and the volatile emotions which surround it to attract an audience of men and women filmgoers. Emerging in this context of negotiation and exploitation, Terminal Island will be analyzed as a "partially corrupted" film, one which resists placement in a simple ideological category but which never-the-less shows the possibility of expressing resistant politics within mainstream genres...

Now the interview:

Your works were embraced by feminist film scholars such as Claire Johnson and Pam Cook. Were you aware of their celebration of your work and if so, how did it impact the ways you thought about your films.

I was unaware of their interest in my films until fairly recently. I met Pam Cook for the first time about seven years ago and it was only then that I read what she had written about me. It was around then I also learned that my films were initially in favor and then later fell out of favor with some feminist film scholars and critics. For this reason,I am very grateful to scholars like Pam Cook in the English speaking nations and Verena Mund in the German-speaking ones for taking a serious continuing interest in my work.

I am happy that people have observed the thread of feminism that runs through my films. When I was making them, the main thrust of the women's movement was to establish equality in the workplace and the family, through law and custom. Since then, a more far-reaching body of thought has developed, some of whose concerns my films don't address.

Feminist critic Pam Cook argued that one of the most progressive aspects of your films is the way you play with and encourage our awareness of the stereotypes which were the basic building blocks of the exploitation cinema. For example, the key characters in Terminal Island are introduced through a discussion of the casting of a documentary. How did you reconcile the exploitation genre's reliance on broad stereotypes with your apparent interest to provide a more complex understanding of women's experiences.

First, let me say that I wanted to provide a more complex understanding of the experiences of both women and men. Men are also stereotyped in some exploitation films. While there is a feminist viewpoint in my films, it was not intended to be the only one. I viewed this initial stereotyping of both sexes as an opportunity, a starting place, from which to surprise and intrigue the audience, as the characters behavior upended the audience's expectations.

The introduction of the characters in Terminal Island with their prisoner identification pictures, or mug shots, and a brief summary of their crimes, was deliberately done for another reason besides stereotyping: It was as an efficient narrative device for introducing a large number of characters, so that the audience would recognize them when the story switches to Terminal Island itself.

Perhaps the one stereotypical element in the film that I have never been comfortable with is some of the costuming and makeup of the women prisoners. One of the exploitation rules I had to follow strictly was that the women must always look very attractive and "sexy," which meant they couldn't look the way women really would as prisoners on an island with harsh living conditions. I have watched Terminal Island several times in recent years with audiences who have an interest in seeing revivals programs. When they first see the women prisoners on the island, there is sometimes laughter at their unrealistic appearance. I don't take any offense at this, because it just validates my own uneasiness with the message sent by the way the women look.

When you left Corman and started your own production company, Dimension Pictures, you continued to produce exploitation films, even though you had much greater creative control over your work. Can you share some of the economic, creative, perhaps even political factors that went into that choice?

I stopped working for Roger Corman because he did not pay me a living wage. In his opinion he didn't need to pay one to his directors, since he was giving them the chance to have their work seen widely, which might lead to more and better paid work, maybe even with a major studio. And for a very few, it did. For most, it did not. My work was seen, and I received a few offers, but only to make more exploitation films.

Dimension Pictures was a new company, partly financed by the same regional film distributors who distributed my earlier films. My husband and I were offered a minority share in the company and a living wage. In return, we were expected to make exploitation films that we co-wrote, he produced and I directed. But we did not have final approval over the subjects, advertising, or distribution plans for them. In no sense, did I have greater creative control over my own work while I was working there.

Exploitation cinema no longer exists today--except perhaps in terms of direct to video production. Yet many of the genres which dominated the exploitation cinema have become a part of the commercial mainstream. What do you see as the consequences of this loss of the b-film mode of production?

I say let the commercial mainstream have the exploitation genres. Today, I don't think filmmakers need to start the way I did, working within the restrictions of exploitation films, because the same financial and work place limitations no longer exist. I can't speak about other nations, but in America the following changes have occurred.

Due to new laws, motion picture and television unions have had to open up their apprenticeship programs; they can no longer discriminate by race, ethnicity, or sex. Today more attention is paid to the work of outstanding student filmmakers by artists' agents and film and television studios, and some of these students even find work as writers and directors soon after graduation.

Then there are the film festivals that have multiplied worldwide, and that are open to exhibiting unusual and adventurous independent films. Sources of financing and distribution can be found at these gatherings that were either nonexistent or difficult to find in my time.

Arguably the most revolutionary changes are the new advances in technology, which among other things have brought increasingly cheaper camera equipment and computer programs for editing and special effects. This benefits everyone, including filmmakers who work independently, by choice or necessity, outside the system.

Finally, there is also the future potential of the internet itself as a method of distribution, not just for major production and distribution companies, but for self distribution.

With all the options that exist today, if I were beginning my career as a filmmaker, I would not choose to make exploitation films.