The Student Nurses + Exploitation
The Student Nurses
Movie trailers have long been an obsession of mine, a finely tuned piece of marketing that serves as a promise: “This movie is going to feel like this! This movie’s going to be great!” In the official trailer for 2007’s Grindhouse, there was an explicit promise to deliver something that audiences didn’t even know that they had been missing: “It was called the grindhouse,” a rasping male voice intones, “theaters that played back-to-back movies featuring uncensored sexuality and hard-core thrills! Now Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are bringing the grindhouse back!” After actually seeing their film (and realizing that the fake trailers bundled with the feature were the best part of its throwback trip), I heard it argued that exploitation films had become fully integrated into the Hollywood system, and that there was no longer a distinction between that mode of filmmaking and contemporary mainstream action blockbusters. Looking at the thematic concerns of the Fast and Furious franchise—which charts a multiethnic group of Angeleno drag racers’ evolution into international secret agents—this seems like a fair assessment. The financial model seems identical, too: include as many explosions as possible, and win big at the box office so that you can make another one just like it. (There might be a couple more zeroes on the end of the numbers, but the principle is the same.)
Yet when revisiting these films it becomes apparent that the edginess that Tarantino and Rodriguez were hoping to recapture comes less from the nudity or violence in and of itself, but from the counterculture values that underpinned their use. These are movies brought to you by free love, with all of the attendant problems (namely sexism) that comes with it. Though Boxcar Bertha (72, produced by Roger Corman) was certainly trying to imitate the model of Bonnie and Clyde (67) which itself tapped into AIP’s aesthetic, Bertha and Big Bill aren’t just petty criminals looting for their own sake, but for their fellow railroad workers. You get a little labor history with your Barbara Hershey sex scenes. Likewise, the Corman-directed youthsploitation movie Gas-s-s-s (70) pairs a dystopian scenario (a gas developed by the military kills everyone over the age of 25) with broad comedy and some light, left-leaning social commentary (what remains of the world is as divided, violent, and messed up as before, thanks to the jocks and Hells Angels).
It would be foolish to argue that this sort of liberal (or libertine) milieu in any way “excuses” any and all gratuitous shots of bare breasts, or to say that every instance of them struck a blow against the puritanical; instead, it’s more useful to think of these directors and writers working within a system that at times could be as restrictive and assembly-line as Classical Hollywood’s. Anything could go—as long as it contained the prescribed amount of titillation. This contradiction is especially apparent in the career of Stephanie Rothman, a woman who began her career as Roger Corman’s assistant, directed several films for his American International Pictures and New World Pictures, and then, after being unable to find directorial work elsewhere in the industry, went on to co-found Dimension Pictures with her husband Charles S. Swartz and Lawrence Woolner. A profile of the director-producer by Terry Curtis Fox, in the November/December 1976 issue of this magazine, concludes with an all-too true, sadly prophetic statement: “The most bitter irony of Stephanie Rothman’s career is that the one woman filmmaker of the Seventies with a consistent and solid body of work—a body of work that expresses the possibilities of American society—seems to have a better future as a cause than as a director.” With most of her films out of print on DVD (or only available on VHS) almost 40 years later, a corrective has arrived in the form of a revival: Rothman’s second film, The Student Nurses, will receive a weeklong run at Metrograph Theater, starting this Friday.
The Student Nurses
Were it made for a different, low-budget, not explicitly exploitation outfit, The Student Nurses would likely be held up a depiction of female friendship, sexuality, and coming of age as realistic as Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (78). Instead, it kicked off a cycle of nursesploitation films (two of which George Armitage wrote and directed). In a straightforward manner befitting the genre, the film follows the very different paths taken by four women living together while finishing up nursing school. The premise, as Rothman recently explained to Interview magazine, arose out of the belief that “nurses were a popular male fantasy because they were caring, and they were women who could legitimately touch men all over. [chuckles] So they requested a film be made about very pretty student nurses with as much nudity as an R-rated film could have.”
Despite this skeevy mandate, the film expresses the nuances and contradictions of each woman. Phred (Karen Carlson) embarks on a sex-heavy relationship with a handsome young doctor, but breaks things off after he performs an abortion on her roommate Priscilla (Barbara Leigh). Priscilla (who doesn’t like to wear bras) got pregnant because she took acid and had sex with a biker on a beach, but her hippie ways don’t prevent her from taking her studies seriously. Sharon (Elaine Giftos) grows very close with a terminally ill teenager she’s been assigned to care for, and decides to continue confronting death by going to Vietnam. Lynn (Brioni Farrell) falls in with a Chicano paramilitary organization, and starts a free clinic in el barrio, revising her initially overly cautious approach to practicing medicine. Rather than be defined solely by their jobs (despite the title), their families, or their relationships with men, each of the women starts off with her own set of beliefs that either get challenged or evolve with the experiences they have. We’re given ample evidence that they’re fully formed human beings who think rather than just mattresses with hair who only have things happen to them—distinguish them from the busty denizens in other AIP offerings like Attack of the Crab Monsters (57) or The Trip (67).
Such emotional complexity in exploitation films of the era was unheard of, and the carefree attitudes towards sex and frankness about terminating a pregnancy (one of the nurses’ professors comes out in support of Priscilla’s decision, and criticizes the vetting process that could bar women from access to the procedure) are often hard to find in contemporary film of any sort today. Only Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (14) offers a recent, rare exception of a film in which abortion is not only discussed as an option but doesn’t result in the woman’s death—unlike mainstream offerings like Juno (07) or Knocked Up (07). Yet this openness is hindered by how rushed the proceedings are, as one might surmise from that breathless plot summary. Lynn’s political awakening happens in large part thanks to her interactions with Victor Charlie (Reni Santoni), the leader of the community organization, but their interactions are so brief and one-sided (and machista) that it feels as if she’s just being bullied into his point of view. There are also several instances of painfully conventional (or inexplicable) moments that lock the film into its time, such as when Priscilla and her biker boy canoodle in the woods, and a dog enters the frame out of nowhere and plays with them. (To me at least, this goofy detail pushed the scene from “slice-of-life marathon hangout sesh” to “Earth Day advertisement.”)
The Student Nurses
The shortcomings of The Student Nurses don’t entirely dilute the power of Rothman’s overall project, largely because they speak to the movie it could’ve become in unskilled hands. To quote Fox in FILM COMMENT: “While Rothman herself tends to shy away from too great an emphasis on feminism in her films, there is no question that even her earliest work contains a bedrock of feminism which derives from the simple fact that the person behind the camera is, after all, a woman.” Rothman’s other films for New World, such as the alternately revolutionary and racially problematic Terminal Island (73) and the surrealist The Velvet Vampire (71), also evince an palpably immediate tension between a system and the artist trying to work within it. (Terminal Island was also heavily reworked because lead Ena Hartman pulled her tendon during shooting; a non-Corman production would’ve likely suspended production or re-cast rather than attempt to shoot around a problem of that magnitude.)
As Rothman herself has said, watching her films underlines what could’ve been instead of what was. But what else could it have been? As the industry makes gestures toward being more open—and I say “gestures,” because the results of diversity initiatives have yet to be completed or promoted with the same vigor as our current media offerings—it’s important to revisit trailblazers like Rothman whose work bears the scars of multiple barriers to entry.