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Canuxploitation!

Mondo Nude

1979, Directed by Anthony Tudhope (Manesco Films).



A documentary on the 1978 Miss Nude World pageant, Mondo Nude is one of the more interesting tax shelter films out of Canada. The first instalment of a trilogy of exposed-flesh exposes produced by Anthony Kramreither, it's a surprisingly compelling documentary for different reasons than viewers might expect.

Under the guise of a respectful portrayal of the Naturalist philosophy that has steadily gained popularity since the 1920s, "adults only" nudist films weren't exactly subtle about their real intent--sexualized depictions of the female body. While similar to 1960s fare like The Immoral Mr Teas and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre--nudie cuties that pitted bumbling protagonists against buxom distractions--many nudist films opted for a documentary structure in which a narrator extols the health benefits of a clothes-free lifestyle while topless models and dancers strike cheesecake poses. As the boundaries of on-screen sex were demolished by more daring features in the 1960s and early '70s however, the cheery tone and look-but-don't-touch photography that largely characterized nudist films cast them as naive and campy relics of a more restrictive time.

The short lifespan of the nudist camp film boom may explain why Canada's moviemakers never really got in on the actor maybe it's just too cold to bare all for very long in the chilly north. Canada's only contribution to the trend was 1963's Have Figure Will Travel, a breezy travelogue by CBC veteran Leo Orenstein that saw a trio of Toronto girls innocently touring nudist colonies south of the border. Coming more than 15 years later, Anthony Tudhope's Mondo Nude is a far more accomplished work, a behind-the-scenes peek at the Miss Nude World competition, where dozens of female Naturalists vie for the title before an ogling audience at The Four Seasons Family Nudist Resort in Freelton, Ont. (just outside of Niagara Falls).

After the traditional title card that frames the movie as an educational exercise, the camera takes viewers on a brief tour of the Four Seasons' impressive facilities before pausing at a nude volleyball game for a series of lingering close-ups. After this frothy introduction, the film introduces the resort directors as they prepare for the annual contest intended to promote Naturalism to a wider audience. On their arrival, the young, fresh-faced contestants, most of whom were raised in nudist families, plan their routines on a huge outdoor wooden stage built especially for the event. The candidly shot film then follows several of the girls as they promote the event to the media and by greeting passerbys on the streets of Toronto and Niagara Falls. The tone is all very light until the pageant dress rehearsal (or should that be non-dress rehearsal?), where it's revealed the sleazy resort owner has charged a group of "amateur photographers" $15 apiece for ringside seats to snap pics of the girls practicing their stage struts.

What's intriguing about this development is that it portrays the owner as a businessman more interested in exploiting the girls' bodies than in a true believer promoting nudism, ironically the same criticism levelled at the nudist movie directors of the '60s (and, by extension, this film too). Rather than sweep aside the obvious issue--the thorny relationship between Naturalism and sex--Tudhope interviews one of the girls who expresses real concerns about the direction of the contest and the intentions of Four Seasons. She was right to be concerned--as the day of festivities get underway, the event's sizable audience is revealed to be primarily made up of whistling, cat-calling male gawkers, with a few less-interested nudists in lawn chairs off to the sides. And then there's one girl who explains to the judges that she only "officially" became a nudist a few days prior, obviously only to satisfy the pageant's rules.

When the onstage competitions finally begin, Tudhope eschews expectations and ignores the suspense over who will win to focus on the minutiae of running the event. From this point on, the film follows girls being ferried to and from a nearby motel, engaging in nervous backstage banter and brushing off harassment from the sweaty autograph seekers. Through it all, Tudhope maintains a distinct Direct Cinema style, using handheld cameras to achieve an unobtrusive, naturalistic feel pioneered by Michel Brault's National Film Board documentaries of the 1950s and '60s. While other exploitation-focused docs of the 1980s also ape these techniques, few are as heavily indebted to the NFB's documentary movement as Mondo Nude, which instills the film with a disarming honesty that seems totally at odds with the intentionally titillating subject matter.

One can't help wonder if Tudhope was removed from the picture once producer Kramreither saw that the film rose above its more salacious purpose. It's possible, since the leering volleyball game at the beginning doesn't really match the more respectful coverage of the pageant itself, and Kramreither slipped into the director's chair for two follow-ups, Mondo Strip (1980) and Mondo Macho (1983), more sexualized documentaries that covered the exotic dancing profession from both genders (and featuring footage Kramreither later recycled in his 1983 comedy, All in Good Taste). It's also telling that Tudhope never directed again (his planned dramatic feature Anne and Joey was an apparent casualty of the tax shelter collapse).

That's a shame, because Mondo Nude is an often accomplished work that is more expertly crafted than similar docs like the sideshow freak survey Being Different and Bonnie Sherr Klein's hand-wringing anti-porn screed Not a Love Story. While drawing heavily on the tradition of Have Figure Will Travel and other nudist cinema of the 1960s, Tudhope's distinctive Canadian curio is an engaging (if unexpected) example of Direct Cinema that reveals the naked truth in more ways than one.


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