In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on MovieJawn.
Kino Lorber, home video distributor extraordinaire, has released a series of films under their Kino Classics label titled Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture. Highlighted in these releases are some of the strangest oddities from the early history of film distribution, in which many different social forces coalesced to provide audiences with alternative cinema that ran as counter programming to the mainstream movie houses.
The latest volume, in conjunction with Something Weird, brings a film that found its way to America in the 1960s. At the time, exploitation distributors were looking for transgressive material, but were running out of pre-code films from the early days of American moviemaking. So in seeking something fresh, they imported films from overseas, where a different set of values could be repackaged in the states as something truly beyond the pale. At the time, “beyond the pale” might’ve just meant “frank about sexual matters.” But in a market hungry for off-kilter material, it was the perfect fit. In this volume (10) we find a dramatized documentary called Wages of Sin.
Wages of Sin, aka The Price of Sin, aka The Doctor Speaks Out takes place in and around a women’s clinic, dealing with the ethics of birth control, abortion, and the responsibility of the medical community in addressing these matters. There is some pretty horrifying stuff contained within, but perhaps most shocking, at least for American audiences of the time, is the position it takes toward abortion. The battle for female bodily autonomy is still being fought today, and it seems that it may never end. There’s always seems to be some uptight dude who wants to wrongfully exert power over the bodies of women, and this was even more true in decades past. Wages of Sin, while not progressive to the point of framing the pro-choice argument in a sense of bodily autonomy, is still quite forward thinking. Here, birth control and abortion rights are lauded by way of logistical sense. Basically, whether you find abortion to be ethical is irrelevant. It’s going to happen no matter what, and making it available and legal also makes it safe. It’s a pretty undeniable fact if you ask me, but in the 1960s, it very likely ruffled a ton of feathers to see it stated so plainly.
Where does the exploitation angle come from? Well, if I were to guess, it’s the inclusion of two actual childbirth sequences. Full disclosure: when we were shown a video of childbirth in my high school health class, I was so freaked out by it that I passed out and had to go to the nurse’s office. The birthing process is one of those things that, while beautiful, isn’t pretty. I don’t know why it affects me the way it does, but it does. I can’t be alone, right? Well, I didn’t pass out this time around, but the frank depiction of a real birth remains a pretty effective piece of imagery. Exploitation film is meant to rock the squares out of their comfort zone (and typically to hit them with some messaging while their defenses are down), and well, I guess you could call me a square in this department. Luckily, I’m already on board with the messaging.
The dramatized portions of the film are naturally dated, with the added bonus of English dubbing over the original German performances. The male doctors are stern, stoic types, while the women, despite being the dramatic focus, play second fiddle. While the messaging is on behalf of the safety of these women, the plot, if one could really call it a plot, is centered around the male doctors. This is to be expected of the time, and speaks to the slow creep of societal progress in areas beyond birth control, such as film. The documentary aspect is a mixed bag as well. An insider’s view into the ins and outs of both birth control and abortion are remarkably educational, even in the present day, but there are also plenty of dated elements, namely in the depiction of non-white women as, for lack of better term, more primal.
Plainly stated, it’s not a very good movie, but it’s a fascinating artifact nonetheless and one well worth checking out both for film historians and audiences who want to see a truly unique piece of history that you won’t find anywhere else.
Also included in the set is a film from 1929 called The Misery and Fortune of Women, aka Women’s Misery – Women’s Happiness. While not released as an exploitation film here in the States, it is of similar thematic concerns as the main feature, featuring a variety of women from different backgrounds and their experiences in the world of pregnancy and abortion. This shorter feature is directed and edited by Eduard Tisse and Sergei M. Eisenstein, the duo behind Battleship Potemkin. This was actually my preferred film of the two featured on here, but once again, it’s more of a fascinating artifact than it is a compelling film in its own right. But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?
The disc also includes commentary for Wages of Sin by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas as well as the medical lecture given to American audiences by Donn Davidson, the man responsible for the initial stateside release.
Two additional short films are on the disc, both of which depict real childbirth. I did not watch these because I was eating dinner.