“It’s hard to believe there was a time when such progressive politics could be expressed in a drive-in movie,” Dave Kehr wrote of Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island (1973), “but yes, Virginia, there was an early 70s.” I’d argue that the era of subversive exploitation cinema continued after the Nixon presidency, as evidenced by such works as George Romero’s Martin (1978), Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979), and Chuck Vincent’s Roommates (1981), which screens on 35-millimeter tomorrow at 7 PM at Doc Films. Roommates, in fact, is the most thoughtful and progressive-minded hard-core movie I’ve seen. Almost none of the sex scenes are intended to titillate, but rather to illustrate how sexual relationships can mirror power dynamics in society at large. That these scenes advance the narrative content instead of distracting from it reflects Vincent’s uncommon focus and attention to performance.
A couple weeks ago I described the openly gay Vincent as the closest exploitation cinema ever got to producing a George Cukor, and Roommates at times suggests an update of Cukor’s underrated women’s picture A Life of Her Own (1950). That film starred Lana Turner as a small-town woman who moves to New York to launch a modeling career, only to encounter hypocrisy, cynicism, and exploitation. Roommates features three female protagonists pursuing their dreams in New York: a small-town actress (Veronica Hart) who aspires to appear on Broadway; an aspiring model (Kelly Nichols); and a former prostitute (Samantha Fox) who wants to reinvent herself as a producer of TV commercials. The three come to live together when Fox decides to rent out the spare rooms in her high-rise apartment (in a poignant detail, she notes she can’t afford the place on her own while pursuing an honest living), and their ensuing friendship provides a bulwark against the cruelty they face in their working lives.
That cruelty is typically sexual in nature. Hart’s character has trouble breaking free of a sexually predatory acting professor, which reflects the same lack of confidence that limits her as an actress. (Is there another hard-core movie that takes acting this seriously?) When Fox’s new coworkers learn about her past, they force her to perform sexual favors in order to keep her job. And Nichols, the most tragic of the three protagonists, gets hooked on drugs by a sinister manager, who then abuses her sexually. Vincent ameliorates these sad stories with affectionate depictions of female companionship and of pounding the pavement in New York—he even achieves some nice comic moments when satirizing the pretensions of commercial shoots and fringe theater productions. (Come to think of it, this would make for an interesting double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s Model, which was shot in New York around the same time.)
Roommates also features some positive depictions of sex, although they occur only in the second half and after Vincent has illustrated how sex can be a form of subjugation. Both Fox and Hart enter into fulfilling romances—the former with a good-humored guy she meets on a shoot, the latter with a costar from her first off-Broadway show. (In what may be the movie’s most subversive touch, the costar is an openly gay man who’s never dated a woman before.) When Vincent shows the characters experiencing pleasure during sex, the effect, once again, isn’t titillating. In light of all that came before, these scenes feel cathartic—especially since Vincent and his stars so effectively portray the heroines as three-dimensional people.