The Body's Failed Labor: Performance Work in Sexploitation Cinema

Article excerpt

We see four women posed and positioned in front of a chain- link fence. Two are sitting on a concrete ledge and the other two standing. Behind them is a pier in New York City in the mid- 1960s, the water's waves providing refracting reflections through the pattern of chain link, as long shots alternate with close- ups of each of the women's faces looking offscreen, some made obscure with dark sunglasses, their hair mussed by visible wind and other extradiegetic unknowns. The actors, seemingly nonprofessional in their carriage, exude a distressed, fatigued ordinariness that evinces the primacy of in depen dent cinema's association with traditions of hardscrabble realism and the seepage of an actual situation, a condition of the film's production. Trash blows along the street, collecting at their feet. A female narrator, speaking in a collective mode on behalf of the profilmic figures, insistently intones:

You've seen us before, maybe not here, but it could have been in Chicago, in Hollywood, or in a bikini along the hotel strips in Miami. You've seen us on every street where a pretty body is an easy mark for a price. Our names, it really doesn't make any difference, you won't remember, nobody ever does. To the rackets we're Zero Girls, no present, in the future even less. Nothing. Zero. We're all owned by the Syndicate, body and soul. Or should I just say body. Because after a few nights you don't remember being a woman, or even having a soul. Men ask the usual questions, how did a pretty girl like you get started in this racket? Money. We don't even own ourselves.

Standing and sitting, waiting and wasting time, these women are announced to us as emblematic- of both the film we are about to see, its oncoming narrative pretext of prostitution, and of a larger social and existential condition- of a gendered labor, of bodies that have labored and will labor, and of their substitutability within a seamy market of exchange. Authenticating a place, a situation, a certain mode of production, the women perform a listless inbetween temporality, a dead time between work, which is also another kind of work, working for the camera (see figures 1 and 2).

In its realist textures as well as its melodramatic hyperboles, this scene marks the opening of The Sin Syndicate, a 1965 sexploitation film directed by the New York filmmaker Michael Findlay.1 This film- as well as many others of its era and of its par tic u lar mode of production- presents us with a challenge: how to theorize the conjunction of screen per for mance and labor both through and despite the terms in which they are made visible? This essay thus explores the problem of labor's visibility in analyses of nonprofessional acting and looks at the aesthetic stakes of per for mance in low- budget in depen dent cinema. If craft, skill, training, and professionalism- in a conventional understanding of screen acting- necessitate a dematerialization of the conditions and techniques of work in the interest of diegetic illusion, naturalism or verisimilitude, what constitutes the labor of such visible, if emphatically ordinary, per for mance?

Discourses of film acting and screen per for mance as effortful work have a complex history in film studies, although the bulk of attention has been devoted to stardom, actors unions, and studio industrial or ga ni za tion.2 The immaterial nature of cinema was considered, especially in classical film theory, to dispossess the actor from the presence of his or her audience and the audience from the live presence of the actor (Benjamin); to reduce the actor to a function of editing (Kuleshov), cinematography, and mise- en- scene (Balázs); and to collapse performing and being, actor and character.3 Indeed, the work of performance- screen acting itself- can be seen as a form of what recent po liti cal theorists and phi los o phers have come to call "immaterial" labor, as it has always been wrapped up in ontological concerns of cinema as a machine, a reproductive technology, and of the medium's capacity for aesthetic dispossession. …