Lust in Space

Abbey Bender on Doris Wishman’s Nude on the Moon (1961) and Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Love (1994)

Doris Wishman, Nude on the Moon, 1961, 35 mm, color, sound, 83 minutes.

NUDE ON THE MOON, a 1961 oddity by the trailblazing sexploitation director Doris Wishman (under the male pseudonym Anthony Brooks), offers a compelling if implausible premise. Eight years before Apollo 11, Wishman envisioned the moon as a tropical paradise, filled with frolicking, topless women (and even a few men). There’s only the faintest hint of a plot, and the sci-fi framing of two jumpsuit-clad scientists going to explore the moon quickly gives way to a parade of nudie cuties. Recently restored by the American Genre Film Archive and showing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on January 14, the movie shimmers with ultra-saturated color. The lunar landscape, here populated with verdant trees, sculptural stone formations, and lipsticked ladies wearing nothing more than panties and cheap-looking antenna headbands, suggests that of a postcard sent from an uncanny tourist trap (Wishman shot the film in Miami-Dade County at Coral Castle, sometimes called “Florida’s Stonehenge”).

Given Wishman’s work in a genre so often thought to be the sole province of leering men, it’s tempting to read a feminist message into the film. Nude on the Moon’s salient trait is its innocence. The contemporary audience was no doubt paying solely for exposed flesh—“Man Discovers A NATURE CAMP On The MOON!” reads a typically sensationalist poster. Wishman directed a number of nudist-themed films (their titles include Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist), but here, nudity is presented just as a convenient fact of life on the moon. On a minuscule budget, the spectacle of nakedness is far easier to create than that of outer space. The two scientists speak woodenly (“Science is my life,” one says), incapable of generating a believable spark with any of the silent yet playful moon babes.

Experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh’s 1994 ten-minute short The Color of Love, playing alongside Wishman’s film and dedicated to the director, also manages to preclude conventional sexual frisson, albeit through entirely different means. Where Wishman treats nudity with a fun yet vaguely anthropological eye, Ahwesh obfuscates it, making found pornography feel like a nightmare. Chemically malformed X-rated imagery featuring an inert man and two active women is overlaid with lurid purples and greens that pulse and crackle as they conceal bodies of unknown provenance. An Astor Piazzolla soundtrack, which could be danceable, only makes this imagery even more unnerving. How can one tango when something ostensibly sexy is intentionally degraded? The subversive collaged aesthetic of The Color of Love recalls contemporary zine art (fittingly, a reissue by Light Industry of a 1995 zine Ahwesh made in tribute to Wishman will be on sale at MoMA’s screening) and might be best described using the title of fellow iconoclast Sonic Youth’s 1983 debut album: Confusion Is Sex.

Peggy Ahwesh, The Color of Love, 1994, 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

In perfect ’90s fashion, Ahwesh once maintained an online Wishman fan page. Yet despite the directors’ affinities, Ahwesh’s work is overtly experimental, while Wishman’s becomes experimental, and memorable, by virtue of its outsider-art-like approach. As Wishman said in a 1997 interview with the Miami New Times, “I don’t think I have a style, and yet people will look and go, ‘Ah, that’s Wishman.’ And I really don’t know what they mean, because nothing’s deliberate. Sometimes I did things because I had no money, and they’ll say, ‘Isn’t that great, look what she did,’ and I only did it because I had to.” This self-effacing quality can be felt in Nude on the Moon. Why does the sci-fi setting look so much like Earth? Well, because it had to. Is the free and easy nudity on display for much of the short run time meant to be read as a grand statement on the societal view of women? In the same interview, Wishman admitted, “This may sound weird, but very often I would get a title in mind and write a script around the title.” There’s a streak of creative brilliance here—surely, it’s not easy to follow through with the whole cinematic tableau once you come up with an evocative title, but Wishman did it several times over. And while she didn’t say it specifically, it seems almost certain that Nude on the Moon was one of these title-first endeavors. The Color of Love may be in conversation with Wishman’s work, and its director may be an avowed Wishman auteurist, but the approach is quite different. While Nude on the Moon delivers on the promise of its title (well, at least the “nude” part), The Color of Love seems to be an ironic descriptor for abstracted porn. It’s hard to tell what the color even is: It keeps shifting. Meanwhile, the gaudy palette of Nude on the Moon pushes its very real nudity into stylization, whether intentional or not. Sometimes the blue of the sky or the green of the trees even threatens to distract from the naturism. Surely, this is one of the most colorful filmic couplings one can hope to see.

The men in Nude on the Moon spend their time taking pictures of the moon’s denizens. The photographic observation may be part of their scientific work, but the audience knows that’s not really true; the “science” here is a pretext for us to look with wonder rather than outright perversion or shame. Hilariously, the scientists end up leaving their camera, and thus their best evidence of lunar life, behind. But what matters is that they (and, by extension, we) had an opportunity to see the nudes for themselves. Were the scientists magically dispatched to Ahwesh’s world of decoupaged hard-core, they’d have no idea what to do. But in this pairing, the opportunity to look at flashes of color and flesh, no matter how obscure, is enough to intrigue.

Doris Wishman’s Nude on the Moon (1961) and Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Love (1994) will screen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on January 14 as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” festival. The screening will include a talk by Ahwesh.