Ever since that train arriving at the station was etched onto emulsion by the Lumière Brothers’ new invention, film has been a time capsule.
Film documents the everyday. Even film fantasy puts on record the tastes and technology of an era. But more importantly, the method its creators used to conceive and present its subjects documents the philosophy and worldview of its time, whether consciously or unconsciously.
“What gives us more sense of 1946 than Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP?” was the rhetorical question posed by the cinephile in Bertolucci’s BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. It’s a tough question to answer, and a tougher statement to counter: indeed, in addition to the time-and-place glamor, design, and technology that film registers through the meeting of light and emulsion, this mix also captures that unique harmonic, the Zeitgeist, via the velvet light trap of the motion picture camera.
From this p.o.v. the first wave of films by Doris Wishman, filmed at Florida nudist camps in the early to mid-1960s and crafted to celebrate the nudist lifestyle (while simultaneously celebrating T&A), contains a library of the Great American Dream’s pinnacle. Wishman’s films etched forever an era of unencumbered weekend leisure when income exceeded debt, when the collective mind basked in secure futures and the wondrous enjoyment of a Shining and Golden Now.
In 1959 the recently-widowed Doris Wishman borrowed $10,000 from a family member and embarked on composing a dual-purpose film, to preach the simple joys of nudism in order to get nudists’ cooperation while packaging all the base requirements necessary for bookings into the grindhouses of the nudie-cutie variety. Along the way, she was teaching herself filmmaking. The eight films she made from 1959 through 1964 (before changing tastes and laxer morals behooved her to abandon nudist films and charge head on into sexploitation cinema) all shared an élan of breezy middle class relaxation. But none captured the essence of the Kennedy Era like DIARY OF A NUDIST.
The plot of a girl reporter sent undercover to a nudist camp by her hard-nosed boss to get the dirt on their doings was firmly situated in median-income Americana. Wishman’s previous film, the Space Age odyssey NUDE ON THE MOON (1960), and her post-DIARY movie vehicle for a popular-yet-aging stripper, BLAZE STARR GOES NUDIST (1962), never visually collected as much data on that blip in the American timeline when the average U.S. worker wasn’t debt-indentured and was required to work only a reasonable number of hours per week as DIARY OF A NUDIST.
In DIARY the reporter is eventually swayed to the nudist lifestyle by its relaxed openness. To get the narrative to this conclusion, copious footage of men, women and families engaging socially and pursuing recreation was put in the can. Precious little screentime is dedicated to the story’s conflict and resolution, yet images of the (albeit naked) greater American way of life are conjoined to reinforce the simplicity and fun to be savored in an era of social and economic stability.
Casting the film mainly with volunteer members of nudist organizations and shot at Sunny Palms Lodge in Homestead, Florida, the artlessness of the onscreen talent and the environment stonewall any access to a heightened cinematic event, yet ethnographically-speaking Wishman lensed and documented the bourgeoisie of the 1960s, relaxing in their abundant leisure time, loophole-free health coverage and affordable housing payments.
In her nudist film period, Wishman’s cinema eye lensed non-professional actors in genuine locations. In retrospect, she — among naked John and Jane Doe in backwoods locales — captured the apex of the American dream.