Why Mike Clark-Madison's cover story will be informative even to the most experienced city veteran, and why the work of exploitation director Stephanie Rothman deserves serious study.
There is no way that exploitation director Stephanie Rothman and her work (including The Velvet Vampire and Terminal Island) can seem as exciting or as important as they once did. It's not just age that changes taste (and the very sensations of taste), but it is also the malleability of American culture. What were once stunning, innovative, and unique are now television commercials. Cultural ideas that once exploded are easily tamed. Historic moments -- staggering at the time -- are now forgotten. What was once important is now beyond mundane.
The Austin Film Society is presenting "Dance, Girl, Dance: Women Directors of the 70s and 80s," Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre. The series documents the two-decade period in which Hollywood went from having no female directors to at least a significant handful. (Just so it's not an issue: I'm president of the AFS Board and offered suggestions for this film series.) Next Tuesday, May 22, is Stephanie Rothman's 1973 exploitation classic Terminal Island, clearly her finest work.
In the late Seventies, I ran with the CinemaTexas gang, the film programming society of the UT Radio-Television-Film department. Four nights a week we showed films on campus. One of our shared passions was drive-in/exploitation films, the spawn of Roger Corman and AIP. When we first discovered Stephanie Rothman, she was one of the only women working as a director of theatrically released films. The fact that she worked in exploitation films, which already seemed a renegade cinema, made her even more exciting. Few could argue that Rothman had any unique cinematic or narrative skill, though her films are consistently understated and fluid. She was a woman, however, tackling women's issues with a unique sensibility. Now, I am hesitant to trumpet "The Films of Stephanie Rothman" as any kind of feminist body of work. But that is because it is so hard to remember how completely barren the landscape once was. If it seems laughable to suggest that a filmography that comprises The Student Nurses (1970), The Velvet Vampire (1971), Group Marriage (1972), The Working Girls (1973), and Terminal Island (1973) deserves serious study, then name another theatrically released film directed by a woman in the early Seventies. These films deal with issues of gender and society. At the time, women didn't make movies, and if they did, they were avant garde/experimental (see Marjorie Baumgarten's "Working Girls," p.54). The invasion of the industry began with Rothman.
In the late Seventies, before video, it was an adventure just tracking down these films. It took years to see them. They had a charm, and they were all centered on social issues. Terminal Island is the most specifically political of Rothman's works (though The Velvet Vampire just as aggressively deals with social and gender issues). It is an exploitation film. Male and female prisoners are shipped to Terminal Island, an anarchistic hellhole run by the inmates. Rothman was sick during the production of the film, and it is her last directorial credit. For half a decade, she had been writing, directing, and/or producing movies with her husband and partner Charles Swartz, but after 1978, it is hard to find a credit for her.
At the time, Rothman loomed large on the horizon. She was relatively alone. These works seemed so precious. Hell, they were so precious. We had a hint of where they might lead, and we're still a generation or two away from serious creative parity. But back in the beginning, there was Stephanie Rothman.