One may accuse the cinematic works of Argentine actor-director Armando Bo of many things, but subtlety is not probable to be high on the list of likely suspects. In the initial clumsily executed moments of “Fuego” we are introduced to the main characters via a casual case of exhibitionism, an amused example of ungentlemanly voyeurism and a dash of furtive and hostile glances from a housekeeper suspiciously protective of her mistress for reasons obviously more personal than a mere devotion to domestic professionalism. It is readily apparent from this blunt tableaux that whatever follows is intended as a hothouse of unrestrained hormonal exertions punctuated by as much exposure as possible of star Isabel Sarli’s already well-traveled flesh. To admit in any way that the film succeeds in its primitive intentions is to acknowledge that the purveyors of 42nd Street grindhouse bump and grind have been met in tepid global partnership with a bar that is set to such a depressingly low level of aesthetic competence that makes the output of Michael Findlay seem artistically composed by comparison.
Sarli plays Laura, an overripe seductress whose atrocious fashion sense is boldly accented by the excessive eye make-up and towering hairstyles from later career Elizabeth Taylor embarrassments, and who, by convenient happenstance, suffers from the most childish exhibitions of public nymphomania one is likely to encounter in the adult cinema. (Her favored self-stimulative move involves rubbing her cheek against a lifted shoulder, resulting in an intensity of erogenous gratification so exaggerated one wonders what orgasmic ignition might result from slinging a purse over her shoulder.) Laura’s insatiable appetites are recognized and exploited by housekeeper Andrea (Dorothy Neumann look-alike Alba Mujica), who becomes hysterical when her secretive enjoyment of her mistress’s ample endowments is encroached upon by the relentless romantic pursuit of local businessman Carlos (Armando Bo) despite Laura’s frank cautions to him that she cannot be satisfied by any one man. The couple pursue a brief and rather dreary course of courtship culminating in a bizarre encounter in which Laura rolls about in the snow as if to extinguish her internal fire while Carlo, in the throes of desire, haltingly stumbles toward her as if he were a stiff-jointed Frankenstein’s monster. From such peculiarities of behavior are legendary movie pairings seldom born.
The film consists of little but a repetitious pattern of Laura’s shopping herself around for infidelities, while both Andrea and Carlos anguish, both for the same reason but entirely different motivations. In this way, there is no advancement of plot nor character, with the film surrendering to fruitless and endless bouts of Sarli heaving strenuously whether anyone else is even in close proximity. Carlos, for his part, is afflicted with a glacially protracted understanding of Laura’s affliction (despite being told in their very first encounter) and proves himself not only an exceptionally dull-witted fellow, but a hunk of petrified wood as a romantic figure; someone whose displays of passion couldn’t ignite a fire with the aid of a box of matches and a can of gasoline. Perhaps cognizant of the movie’s lack of genuine fire (despite the film’s title), Bo saturates his soundtrack with intrusive barrage aural offenses that either resemble roller rink music or music cues from third-rate spaghetti westerns; oddly inappropriate compositions when such embellishments are intended to suffuse the viewer with the heightened intensity of ardor sadly missing from the narrative, dialogue, direction and performance
“Deep Throat“ (1972)
The only remotely interesting aspect of Gerard Damiano’s “Deep Throat” is that the film which is credited with the popular launching of the so-called era of “Porno Chic” and, with it, the blueprint for what was to be quickly vilified as an anti-feminist cultural industry beholden to the notion of the sexual objectification of women and the furtherance of the blindly accepted cultural assumption of male dominance in the war of the sexes, should in itself be primarily concerned with the pleasure principle of a woman. What is most remarkable about all of the film’s attention, notoriety and influence is that it is, in fact, a film of no significance as a work of cinema, not even in the realm of the about to explode hardcore scene (in which it stands as a fairly primitive effort), except for the fact that it happened to enjoy a situational “perfect storm” in which bellwether influence is attributable from a film with no appreciable cinematic value. (Isn’t it simply possible that the whispered mystery behind the film’s eponymous sexual talent created a novelty cultural anomaly with the forbidden lure of a carnival freak show; a cause célèbre for the respectably curious who might enter in to the national conversation [“Didn’t Carson talk about it on TV?”] about that thing called “The Sexual Revolution” by way of merely attending what could safely be regarded, not a dirty movie, but a cultural tourist attraction?)
Linda Lovelace (billed as appearing as herself) is a young woman who, despite the prodding of her enthusiastically promiscuous roommate Helen (Dolly Sharp), has come to the realization that she is unable to feel (as she puts it) “bells ringing, dam bursting, bombs going off”. (What are the odds that her eventual success in reaching an orgasm will be illustrated by the timely arrival of some fairly predictable stock film clips?) Being that this is an “adult” feature and not a practical guide in the curing of frigidity, Linda visits the quack Dr. Young (Harry Reems) , whose bedside manner would be suspect in any venue outside of a burlesque house, expressing his diagnoses in the broadest vaudevillian caricature terms or banging his sleepy eyed nurse (Carol Connors) to the point where his sorely fatigued member requires the aid of a splint. Dr. Young diagnoses Linda’s problem immediately by first informing her that she is lacking a clitoris (a pronouncement that has already been visually established as incorrect, but this isn’t meant as a medical documentary), and then discovering the elusive little imp imbedded in her throat, a situation which initially causes her to indulge in a great display of distress, until the good doctor concocts a therapeutic solution involving having Linda enjoy her sought after stimulation through “deep throat” oral sex.
Since the titular theme of the film is the pursuit of female sexual gratification, it would appear sneakily disingenuous that the prescribed curative for Linda’s condition is fellatio, a sexual act which men generally receive the greater benefit. In the same spirit of a sexual version of musical chairs there is the matter of consistency in the film’s handling of the nature of Linda’s anatomical anomaly. There is an excess of frenzied stimulation of a nonexistent spot that is clearly visible or how this results fewer actual sessions of “deep throat” and an indulgence in fetishistic incidents, such as one which involves the use of Lovelace as an ersatz Coca-Cola fountain dispenser.
The film fails as a piece of erotica. For all of the literature, representative art and thought given over to sex, could it be that the actual act of intercourse isn’t particularly photogenic? Especially if the action is magnified and gynecologically isolated as working parts divorced from the collective human form? Doesn’t the nature of the pornographic film cry out for talents to whom in this particular specialty form of cinema they have a special affinity? This would seem to call for a specialized class of performer, presuming that “legitimate” actors would never consider adding filmed engagement in genuine sex acts to their list of skill sets in their agency résumés (Though considering some of the offensive trash churned out by A-list “talent”, would pornography be that much of a comedown?), and while the stars of “Deep Throat” all exhibit a capability of reliable sexual performance on the screen (though the level of competence in screen acting is at an entirely different and more disappointing level), they are, almost without exception, a physically scruffy bunch; certainly none being a model of erotic fantasy represented anywhere within the extremes of paperback romance novel covers to the images conjured in the most desperate of prurient fantasies. Certainly without the presence of a pleasing physicality, the erotic lure of the film is fated to be reduced to the observance of the bare mechanics of sex rather than in a stimulative enjoyment of the sexiness of physical intimacy.
Much of this absence of eroticism can be excused by the lighthearted frivolous manner in which Damiano frames his film, but that simply reduces the entire enterprise to yet another coarsely constructed leaden sex comedy- only with the insertion of real sex –that is otherwise indistinguishable from dozens, if not hundreds, of unmemorable drive-in movies. Otherwise, just what is “Deep Throat” beyond a crudely assembled collection of littered with broad humor and hammy performances in the context of a dirty movie? Ironically, for a film credited with jumpstarting a trend toward popular pornographic entertainment, “Deep Throat” makes sex truly dull.
Audiences seeking erotic satisfaction solely for its own sake could do worse than Allen Savage’s obscure but bizarre softcore effort “Submission”; and this is only considering that the bar for eroticism in the cinema has been set so perilously low that even the most fleeting scrap of genuine sexiness, no matter how seedy the source, is an occasion for attention. That these morsels are wrapped in a film that neither makes sense, has a point, nor seems to have the slightest inclination toward advancing the most primitive form of dramaturgy is, perhaps, proof positive that in the world of sexploitation, the smallest taste of sin is offset by a trip to cinema purgatory.
Vickie (a pre-porn Jennifer Welles, credited as Lisa Duran) is a young woman whose behavior indicates that she is possessed by some irregular form of infantilism which manifests itself whenever she crosses paths with a pet store bunny or a candy bar. This atypical behavior appears to incapacitate any judgment or will power on her part, allowing her boyfriend Barry (Gary Judin) to exact some strange hold over her, engaging Vickie as a confederate (though what her part in the plan is never defined) in the defrauding of successful women, though what the nature of the scheme is (the film suggests they insinuate themselves into households as live-in help, though Barry’s skill set seems limited to shaking TetraMin flakes into an aquarium tank) never clarified, nor makes a bit of sense even in retrospective consideration. Most of the film is immersed in random sexual encounters which are either meant as flashbacks or fantasies (this is never made clear) which are (as is much of the film) shot MOS and overlaid with off-putting library music cues that sound like a creepy and ill-suited soundtrack cut from the opening scenes of “Night of the Living Dead”.
Director Allen Savage, for his directorial debut, has chosen to do something a bit more ambitious in his sexploitation opus, rather than the usual shallow excuse for a plot with embellishments of ritual carnality, by instead upping his game by engaging in the rites and passages of European art film; in other words by presenting a shallow excuse for a plot with embellishments of ritual carnality with an added denial of traditional linear storytelling and the use of a fractured point of view. Unfortunately, while such ambition is admirable in the abstract, the literal results are not. The fragmented shifting of eroticized action and point-of-view perspectives are especially reminiscent of the films of Nouveau Roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, though in “Submission”, there is no reason to the structural rhyme. So little of what is presented is useful as expository material (which is never developed) or in clarifying any purpose to the rather random and context bereft use of the elliptical memory play. The plot, what little can be gleaned from the film’s fragmentary construction isn’t of sufficient depth to justify the intrusion of such a pronounced level of stylistic affectation. Neither is it helpful that further obscurity is cultivated with the dearth of dialogue. Savage’s choice to cloak his proceedings in aural obstructionism only serves to fragment a vaporous level of clarity from one of confusion to a state of exhausted frustration.
However, Savage does achieve one unintended goal which may be a first for sex in the cinema, in that some scenes manage a genuine erotic charge while simultaneously being subject to a creeping ennui. How this is possible is more a matter of context than of aesthetic failure. There are certain tableaux in which the posturing of performers and subtlety of lighting evokes an artistic sense of composition, which would mean little were it not for an accompaniment with an elevated level of performance composure.
One of the most overlooked aspects in evaluating sex in the cinema is the standard by which actors acquaint themselves in the rendering of the sex scene, since any depiction of the sex act would merely be a continuance of that actor’s ability to maintain a credible consistency in their characterization. However, sex scenes are most often regarded as anomalies in the world of film acting, in which professional disciplines are subject to the burdens of self-consciousness and embarrassment since the actor is forced into an exposure running deeper than that of a pretense of emotions or the reading of lines. Somehow the very physicality of filming sex scenes; with the necessity of nudity and the intimate proximity of bodies demanding a dedication where emotional expression plays equal partner to biological mechanics. This is especially true in an industry in which sexual intimacy of any kind (even in the abstract) had, for decades, been condemned as something exceeding a private matter between two people to something that was nonexistent in a world of decent human behavior. (Where did all of those noisy tots in the movies come from anyway, Mr. Mayer?) Three of the most annoying features of the average softcore sexploitation film are the curiously impenetrable garments with which the actors are fitted (the number of occasions where the men, despite the full exposure of the woman’s assets, are still clothed in pants with hermetically sealed zippers, suggest that there are a great many filmmakers working who are in need of a primer on the Birds and the Bees) as to make the faux couplings comfortable, not to mention physically possible, and the curious variety show of gesticulations substituting for foreplay (including pawing more suggestive of sanding planks than in erogenous stimulation), and finally, the comedy of errors in continuity in which the tempo of lovemaking swings abruptly from one edit to the next; an arrhythmic phenomenon clearly due to inattentive direction than in exotic technique. (The later “Porno Chic” era had its own problems in which eroticism was too often sublimated by the aggressive jackhammer approach to sex.)
In “Submission”, the actors distinguish their sex scenes (especially Ms. Duran, in both a poolside encounter and a bizarre but heated encounter with a lit candle) with an impassioned hunger for stimulation and satisfaction that is palpable; projecting a need for and enjoyment of carnal sensation that is surprisingly rare in the genre and, thus, generating a real carnal heat. That the erotic quality of Savage’s staging of his sex scenes is enhanced by bordering just shy of hardcore explicitness is a successful tease tactic suggesting that the imagination is still the most sexual tool in the audience’s shed. However, existing, as they do, in a narrative vacuum (in which the same performers so committed in the sex scenes are otherwise dramatically flat), in which clarity is abandoned by design, the resulting viewer disengagement is bound to give evidence to a bold hypothesis: it may be difficult to be arouse an audience if it is already fast asleep.
“Love” is Gaspar Noé’s least controversial and most emotionally accessible film to date; an astonishing statement when one considers that the film is liberally packed with scenes that even under the most charitable of circumstances might be priggishly deemed as explicitly pornographic.
That “Love” manages to skirt the discomforting sensation generated by films which embarrass both its makers and audience when naked exhibitions of heavy breathing are gratuitously intended only for exploitative purposes, is an impressive and welcome accomplishment in the cinema’s long struggle to effectively use unsimulated sexuality as a legitimate and contributory substantive element. If the film’s level of sexuality commands initial attention, it would be an injustice for a worthy evaluation of the film not to move beyond such shallow contextual controversies. Though the title suggests a traditional romantic diversion, being that this is a Gaspar Noé film, the odds are pretty favorable that the characters will, at some point, slip from the giddy orbit of amatory ecstasy and make a hellish descent into a crushing psychological anguish. Such is the mystery, the joy and the agony that is “Love”.’
The film recounts a single day in the life of young married father and film student Murphy (Karl Glusman)- the film either suggests that much is autobiographical in nature, or simply indulges in a jokester’s amount of self-homage – who receives a phone message from the mother of his ex-lover Electra (Aomi Muyock) who has been missing for three months. Rather than exercising an initiative to find his lost flame, Murphy surrenders to an extended session of brooding retrospection, which begins rather self-indulgently but eventually transmutes into a stunning wave of self-realization when he grasps that the consequences of his recounted collective mistakes in judgment have created within him a soul-stirring void of devastating permanence. By the end of the film it is clear that “Love” is less about the spiritual transcendence of ‘true love’, than the intense psychic pain which bears down upon and cripples Murphy; consumed with the scarring loss of the idealized recipient of his immutable ardor, he is rendered inconsolable.
The film indulges in Noé’s signatory nonlinear time structuring, with the narrative weaving back and forth between present day where Murphy finds himself restless in marriage to the pretty young Omi (Klara Kristin)- introduced as an enthusiastic subject of a heated ménage à trois, playfully initiated by Electra -and equally nonlinear flashbacks, with Murphy buried in deep remembrance of every aspect- the beautiful and the ugly -of his love affair with the fiery Electra; a woman who is touched with an eccentricity that is occasionally hinted at as having a basis in a more volatile mental disturbance. However, though both Murphy and Electra are initially proffered as creatures sympathetically spontaneously in their reckless impulsiveness, Electra’s cavalier incaution masks a fragility which harnesses a more practical view encompassing the need for deeper commitments and long-term loyalties, whereas Murphy, is rather dimwitted where relationship politics is concerned, and is hard pressed to consider beyond the pleasures or impulses of the moment. The violently brittle nature of their relationship is powerfully demonstrated in a bravura extended scene in the back of a taxi cab, where the couple breaks into an argument which quickly escalates into an a frighteningly violent verbal war, then retreating back into tearful, pained reconciliation; a remarkably observed sequence which by all rights should have been recognized as the attention grabbing centerpiece of the film, rather than the faux scandalous furor over an irrelevant bit three dimensional tomfoolery concerning an ejaculation aimed at the camera lens. (It is possible that the needless addition of 3-D, which in no way enhances the film, may serve an unwarranted function as a filtering aesthetic distraction to the more critically puritanical at heart in the audience.) Ironically, as Murphy’s agitation increases through his process of remembrance, he finds himself cursed with a newfound clarity that seems to mockingly magnify every misstep traveled in the slow but rather obvious course of the enamored couple’s acrimonious dissolution, especially in his resentment of Omi, with whom he betrayed Electra by bedding on the side and unintentionally impregnating; a liaison which forever ruptures their union and condemns him to an emotional purgatory with a loving woman whom he increasingly despises as the cause of his unhappiness; when the very absence of Electra implies a more damning accusation.
Of the three principals, Aomi Muyock fascinates as the contrary, self-destructive Electra, in a performance of raw intense abandon rivaling that of Maruschka Detmers in Marco Bellocchio’s “Diavolo in corpo”. As Omi, Klara Kristin mixes engaging, delicate layers of innocence and underlying sadness. Unfortunately, as Murphy, Karl Glusman seems to suffer from that syndrome affecting males of the adult film persuasion: an emotional stolidity that suggests that stiffness isn’t limited to merely a hydraulically inclined portion of the performer. Nevertheless, “Love” is clearly a personal film for the notorious cinematic provocateur in that despite the central relationship being ultimately implosive, and that the romantic relationship is largely depicted through intensive bouts of disputatious jousting and carnal athleticism, it does not shy away from a core romantic sentimentality that is unashamedly celebrated (if doomed) when two persons are painfully attracted by feelings more powerful than the incompatibility of their primal needs. “Love” is painful, provocative, essential mature cinema.
Has there ever been a more overwrought, exhibitionistic vaudeville designed to celebrate the loss of virginity than John Derek’s 1984 potboiler “Bolero”? Concurrent with the actor cum writer/director’s other exercise in spousal exhibition, his rancorously sexualized version of “Tarzan the Ape Man”, “Bolero” is less a coherent motion picture than a flimsily veiled excuse for the shooting of on-location photographic magazine spreads.
The title of the film is meant as a double entendre of sexual footnoting, both as a derivation of the name of his wife and star Bo Derek and as a reminder of the source of her initial fame (and thus the male Derek’s excuse for exploiting his better half to resuscitate his career), the 1979 Blake Edwards film “10” in which her love scenes were scored with the erotically rhythmic Maurice Ravel composition Bolero. By the film’s attention to past glories (if Edwards’ typically pandering, oafish farce could be considered glorious) and desperate attempt to capitalize on them, “Bolero” becomes embarrassingly blatant at setting a surprisingly degenerative standard in erotic cinema by witnessing how low even the mangiest might dig to subterranean levels. There are hints that the carnality of the film may have been partially inspired- beyond the filmmaker’s baser self-interests -by sources as disparate and disconnected as erotically charged images of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, the photography of David Hamilton (who directed his own exercise in carnal surrender with “Bilitis”) and certainly Lady Godiva of Coventry (naturally bereft of historical context as well as garb), though the film’s slick. greasy nature may have just as likely found its genesis with the perusal of a Tijuana Bible.
To experience sexual bliss for the first time, graduating students “Mac” (Bo Derek) and Catarina (Ana Obregón) announce that they intended- fueled by a lust for the cinematic image of Rudolph Valentino -to travel the exotic locales in order to replicate their pop culture fed fantasies of romantic ardor; emboldened by the rather naive assumption that any starry-eyed illusions given seductive attraction in the guise of overheated exotically located romantic melodramas will find realization as soon as one crosses past a customs desk. However, no amount of soft focus can disguise the fact that these are mature women playing these inconsistently conceived ingenues (who are alternately naive and given to unfettered provocative solicitation) with a dim vacancy of performance that, presumably, is meant to represent giggly naivete but comes uncomfortably close to undiagnosed mental retardation. Seldom have so obvious examples of well traveled bodies been placed in the service of masquerading as the chastely innocent.
The pair travels to Morocco and Spain, armed with an abundance of ugly clothing (despite the extensive periods of undress) and accompanied by chauffeur cum pimp cum guy Friday, Cotton (George Kennedy, whose appearance seems intended to grant the film some type of legitimacy, though a quick viewing of his willing participation in the equally odious “Airport ’79: The Concorde” could easily dispel that theory) whose presence as not only Mac’s employee, but friend and chaperone, remains unexplained since Mac indulges her most incautious instincts at the drop of every pair of pants, without even a hint of concern from her presumed protector. If the true nature of this murky partnership remains cryptic in John Derek’s sketchy excuse for a screenplay (perhaps a homage to Cynthia and her chauffeur Carl from “Young Lady Chatterley”?), it is in heavily populated company, since there isn’t a single character in the film whose presence is explained nor role that has more depth than skin deep.
The irrelevancy of the film’s subject is staggering. For this dim character to initiate a multinational adventure for the sole purpose of relinquishing her virginity (NASA didn’t expend this much labor in getting Man to the Moon) is the height of triviality: one cannot fail to speculate what form of global conflagration might ensue over her grappling with other issues of the day, such as what type of fabric softener to use: unscented or Mountain Rain? This missionary singularity also treats her sexuality, not as an expression of love, romance, passion or even raging hormones, but as a trade commodity. Seldom has a woman been represented. with misplaced earnestness, as equal parts the goddess Diana and the Whore of Babylon.
What is lacking in the film- beyond a misplaced desire to revive the very special misogynistic celebration of sexuality that was interminably explored in the cinema of Roger Vadim -is both a frank exploration of the mystery of romantic love and the concurrent allure of sex. Director Derek’s intentions, certainly never aspiring toward any direction which might stimulate the mind or the libido, are entirely centered on the exploitation of his current mate, and his limited creative resources fail to address a peculiar thematic conundrum he constructs for himself: just how does one portray a woman’s sexual innocence when the entire production is based upon a persona whose only talent is showing off the goods? Ultimately, there isn’t a sexy moment in the entire movie. If “Bolero” stimulates any spontaneous biological sensation, it is far from one of arousal (the type which are typically used by judicial watchdogs to define pornography), but only that of the regurgitation reflex.
Bo Derek only presents a pathetic frozen mask of panicked incompetence accompanied by a shrill, whiny voice to whom inflection if a foreign conception. However, in cataloging the artistic offenses offered by the film, perhaps no two are as egregious as the inclusion of the one truly terrible performance by the usually reliable George Kennedy, and, more significantly, the inexcusable sexual exploitation of the minor Olivia d’Abo.
As administrator over his adolescent cinematic wet dream, Derek (the John, in more ways than one) manages to make sex seem not teasingly dirty but crude, ill-fitting (ouch!) and terminally dull; so ham-fisted is his erotic aesthetic, that by comparison, he makes Doris Wishman look like Carl Dreyer. In the John Derek erotic landscape, the boundaries are drawn by the stench of clueless artistic pretense and mercenary desperation: there is no hint of allure, just the stench of manure.
“About Cherry” (2012)
In days of old, the pastor, priest or conveniently situated village moral wag would extend the quivering finger of damnation at those to whom the communal boundaries of decency were found to be disrupted through alarming breaches of acceptable conduct. Nowadays, Civilization may take comfort that the tradition of condescending damnation by way of self-appointed moral superiority has been rejuvenated by that most unlikely of suitably qualified candidates: Hollywood (or, more accurately, the independent filmmaking community), whose occasional acknowledgement of its “unclean” idiot cousin from the seamy Valley, of late, appears to generate a surprisingly sympathetic dimestore philosophical view on the subject of the professional sex worker. However credible Tinseltown’s moral posturing is on any subject, the prevailing viewpoint now expressed indicates a redirection from dismissal and condemnation to a more empathetic gaze; an unexplained, antithetical reversal from moral immoderacy to blind altruistic acceptance brought on by an intellectually lackadaisical extension of political correctness. Equally curious is the concurrent attitudinal shift resulting in the subsequent elevation of the denizens of the porn industry (inexplicably portrayed here as morally superior and enjoying greater emotionally stability) and a devaluation of the remainder of the human population; an abstractive nobility of ideals suddenly finds itself an unlikely bedfellow with the ignobility of exhibitionistic action.
Somewhat hypocritically, this sugar coated aggrandizement of the “adult” industry is merely a cosmetic application of high-minded tolerance that sounds edifying in press releases but does little to explain why such liberality does not extend to real-life participation of genuine porn “talent” (that which might exist) within the lofty gates of Hollywood studio productions (in non-sexual roles or otherwise, [see “Inside Deep Throat”]), nor has there been any movement toward that once predicted bridge between mainstream commercial cinema and explicit sexual content. If anything, the move to a greater immaturity in subject matter, especially toward film explorations of adult themes. which might find even a modest interpolation of sexually graphic content (not necessarily hardcore) thematically contributory, have been virtually erased within the confines of the mainstream corporate system, contributing to the continuing stunting of the evolutionary advancement of the art form through an insatiable economic appetite catering to the celebration of the infantile.
Ironically, the increasing widespread commonality of the pornographic occurred concurrently with the rapid deterioration of Hollywood’s carnal doppelganger from an almost spontaneous alternative film industry to a baseless collection of producers of marketed sexual acts absent of any context beyond the narrowest presentation identical in nature to the most primitive form of film loops. As always with the film capital, the operational methodology of the industry is in direct contradiction with its traditional posturing of superiority; in essence: “do as we say and not what we enjoy behind locked doors.” How else to account for hypothetically sympathetic posturing while remaining creatively timid? While the next leap in the evolution of commercial film in moving toward a more committed exploration of adult themes hardly necessitates the inclusion of herdcore graphic sexual action, one might presume that a creatively insightful filmmaker truly interested in the advancement of complex and mature themes might avail themselves of the same frank explicitness in the expression of ideas to which the other art forms (certainly in literature) have indulged with meaningfully artful results.
Just what is it about the makers of pornography (as opposed to the product itself) that fascinates so many “legitimate” filmmakers as a subject? The earliest notable practitioners of commercial pornographic feature filmmaking are now casually regarded as pioneers of a sort, if viewed through a more commonplace fuzzy lens directed through historically incautious critical thinking by setting the evaluative bar to record depths and fueled by, among other distractions, an unwarranted nostalgic glow in association with what has now been labelled “the last Golden Age of Hollywood”, during which the essential elimination of the Production Code (replaced by the MPAA ratings system, which would prove to have its own set of problems) allowed for greater thematic freedoms (generally squandered by creatively petrified industry thinking) within the rank and file of the traditional motion picture production outlets. However, what was also new was that this hastily enjoyed creative freedom also accounted for an atmosphere of total censorial abandonment amid a number of fringe exploitation entrepreneurs recognized the lucrative siren call of forbidden sex; producing an escalating number of explicit features that were essentially patterned on the already exhausted formulaic tropes readily available in low budget exploitation cinema at the local drive-in or grindhouse. The difference in these films was the inclusion of unsimulated hardcore sex; in fact, this inclusion and the resulting legal limitation of the audience for these films was the only reason for their existence. The resulting boom of this new alternative incarnation of the film industry became an expansion of sexploitation forms which had been struggling along for years in various forms, from nudies to sexualized suburban potboilers to roughies, with uninhibited intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus and sodomy substituting for the previous sexually inarticulate menu of awkward pawings and bodily grindings that made it seem as if the makers of the movies were unfamiliar with the fundamental mechanics of sex. The leap forward of wink-wink legitimacy of genuine gynecological widescreen action has been commemorated with ill-conceived hyperbole as the “Golden Age of Porn”; a severely premature and unaccountably optimistic assessment considering there was not one film produced during this brief but celebrated period which could even suggest the remotest ambition to Art.
It is an interesting yet ironic contradiction that the porn movie world is continually referred to as an “adult” film industry, a designation which suggests a loftier-posture-than-Hollywood immaturity within a very generic label- acknowledging the fact that the material is only for those of legal adult age and may also be an unconscious admission that mainstream film fare has generally yet to advance beyond the tittering adolescent phase of the engagement of genuine adult themes -while offering up little more than peep show exhibitionism without the benefit of related thematic contextual sophistication. If the porn film widely enjoys identification as “adult” simply by the sexual content making it appropriate for adult eyes only, then could not such a arbitrarily generic label be equally useful for the bulk of commercial cinema: “toddler” cinema perhaps? The “adult” designation also presumes that the mere insertion of explicit activity is in and of itself a reliable indication of content conducive to a mature presentation of sex; though the nature of the pornographic legacy appears to favor the performance of professionally robotic coupling without even a utilitarian consideration of emotional or psychological consequence. Sex without emotion or psychological connection. (Oddly, the procreative aspect of sex is never addressed in the porn film, lending the proceedings an distancing from reality- the fantasy factor -while emphasizing the psychic remoteness for which the genre might be justifiably disparaged as dehumanized.) This unexplained concession to an extreme arm of the entertainment industry, which through its very extremity. grants the occasion for mercenary mainstream producers to both exploit and recoil against the more unapologetically gratuitous aspects of this aberrative cultural arm with equal (if uncommitted) zeal. Moral and artistic hypocrisy allied arm in arm in a shameless exercise in cultural tail chasing. The irony of this contradiction has yet to find conscious acknowledgment anywhere within the Hollywood establishment (purveyors of a different kind of fantasy, but with a shared love of profit as an endgame) and for this reason, mainstream cinema’s public attitude on the subject of porn will always reveal more about the mainstream cinema than it ever will about the porn industry.
Stephen Elliott’s vaporous, slight portrait of a good girl gone porn, “About Cherry”, would appear to arrive with something resembling a knowledgeable, insider’s pedigree, considering the participation of writer-director Elliott, himself no stranger to edgy S&M erotica, and his co-writer, porn veteran Lorelei Lee, who might certainly be expected to bring to the film a sense of unflinching verisimilitude concerning all aspects both emotional and psychological, central to a life in porn. However, what is on display is merely another example of filmdom’s rose-colored embrace of a career choice of erotic exhibitionism in what is rather naively depicted as an alternative, but fun loving, artistic community, unjustly chastised by the acutely judgmental, hatefully persecutive, narrow-minded cowardice of non-porn outsiders, most especially- and this is where the film ultimately loses whatever nerve it pretends to have -the familial or those intimately bonded in emotional relationships. It’s not that the film completely shies away from the arguments arising in a career choice in the sex industry, but in stacking the deck by portraying porn performers as the only characters blessed with emotional stability- naive innocence seemingly resistant to an enthusiastic coarseness of behavior -the film becomes a biased valentine to wanton libertinage. The occasional anti-porn vantage point is raised and then summarily dismissed without further recognition.. Seldom have so many opportunities for vigorous debate between the agents of appalled disbelief and indignant defensiveness been denied even the briefest flirtation with coherence. What this film encompasses and expands upon is a Disneyfied view of a Faustian compact popularized (especially by a mainstream critical community which would still rather throw its first-born to the lava pit rather than to openly admit any attraction to the explicitly carnal) in the wildly overrated, embarrassingly delusional portrait of porn brokers as an unzipped, urbanized version of The Waltons in Paul Thomas Anderson’s shallow hipster opus “Boogie Nights”. Elliott’s film advances this happy notion of psychological naivete to preposterously insane levels. What is the justification of the filmmaker’s fascination with the porn world if their artistic integrity is tainted by such a paralytic hands off approach?
In “About Cherry”, the domestic existence of high school teen Angelina (who will later assume the porn alias “Cherry”) is depicted as existing in something resembling an adolescent Hell, featuring a full compliment of the usual suspects in the depiction of homebound horrors: rampant alcoholism, violence, irresponsible parenting and a strong hint of at least the threat of sexual abuse. This last is referenced with a vagueness peculiar to a film supposedly dealing with a subject that demands a more frank depth of engagement, otherwise what’s the point, except as a seed for cheap sexploitation titillation? This reticence to directly confront the grittier, more unpleasant aspects of Angelica’s story is characteristic of the script’s pedestrian dismissal of the fundamental importance of connective details. Right away the film stumbles with contradictory story elements and characters haphazardly introduced and disappearing quickly, as if the filmmakers were afraid of any scene which might touch upon inconveniently unattractive background information which might suggest anything but healthy incentives to enter the world of the enthusiastic sex performer. As portrayed by Ashley Hinshaw, Angelica is a comely, well scrubbed young lady; a country club blonde from the wrong side of the tracks who, despite the initial evidence of an upbringing of misery, maintains such an unusually cheery, wide-eyed doltish disposition, so much so that one can’t help but imagine her drooling rather than achieving climax during her sexual entanglements. For a novelist, Elliott has constructed a scenario that is starved of essential detail and consists of a ramshackle series of ill-defined incidents which lack both substantive narrative and character development, as if important connective scenes were either ignored or never filmed. These gaps are of expositional consequence, especially in the early part of the film preceding Angelina’s escape to San Francisco with her best friend and confidant Andrew (Dev Patel), whose relationship is also muddled with glaring inconsistencies (is he gay or merely easily susceptible to his surroundings, and if the former, why his later outburst denouncing Angelina for excluding him from romantic consideration?) that culminate in a ruinously illogical confrontation when Angelina discovers him masturbating to one of her films. (Is Angelina so naive that she doesn’t realize this is the commonly expected reaction to porn videos?). By this point in the film, the stunted confrontations- those in which the characters seem gripped with a spontaneous mutism rendering them incapable of expressing the simplest thought -have revealed a stunning intellectual paralysis on the part of the screenwriters. Is it possible to initiate and produce a film in which no thoughts are deemed necessary? (The only accomplishment- if it can be called that -of the film seems to be that Elliott has struck a parallel model between the contextually vacant porn loop and the narrative film. Surely the director must have had something more in mind than this gossamer thin faux cautionary tale, so lacking in honesty that it emerges as a recruitment film for directionless nymphets. One can sense that the director feels that any measure of disapproving tongue clucking might seem unhip to a young audience submerged in a world of easy and almost commonplace voluminous profusions of lewd sexual material available at the touch of an internet link. However, Elliott lacks even the crude dedication of a true exploitation hawker by failing to go the logical extra mile and have his little opus feature genuine sexual action; an act of back peddling which completely undermines the overtly pro-porn message of his film. If one works to compliment the porn life, why the reticence? Ultimately, the film elicits only exhausted annoyance, similar to that of a dirty joke told by an eight year old, who ignorantly chortles over what they’re convinced of is a leap of imaginative adult daring.
If the film intends to show that porn performers are people too (and who doubts this?), there is there any reason to present them in so defensive a manner that it discredits the film’s point of view? Or treat them as anything but facile sex dolls? It is a cautionary tale which fails to be cautionary, yet never musters up enough artistic honesty for understanding (or desiring to understand) the people who populate it. What is ultimately missing- yet would seem supremely central to such a specific portraiture -is any character’s attitude toward sex. Despite the ultimate shallowness of the production, there is a proliferation of supporting characters, each given sufficient screen time to create a densely novelistic verisimilitude, yet all opportunities are wasted. Not one character one is fleshed; every thought expressed is strangely truncated, every exchange of dialogue vague and unfinished. Important characters disappear without further reference; abandoned at critical moments, allowing for important plot points and conflicts to dissipate without resolution which only reemphasizes the frustrating lack of depth of both narrative and character development. The film shouts boldness while displaying timidity at every turn, and in the end, every motivation is unexplained, every character undefined, unstamped and unfinished. (With little effort the movie could be converted into a sexualized version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers since, by the conclusion Angelina remains a soulless blank.) If the scenarists intend to suggest that girls who sell themselves for sex are bereft of essential emotional and psychological development making them susceptible to the easy but destructive draw of quick cash and a distorted conception of celebrity, this would be entirely consistent with the portrayal of Angelina, but contradictory to the Candy Land optimism to which the film subscribes.
The one bit of originality in the film is that it ultimately depicts a career in porn as, not a descent, but an ascension. This would be an audaciously original point of view if the filmmakers demonstrated any backbone in the method in which they approach their subject, and thus even such a provocative perspective smells suspiciously like the result of conceptual incompetence rather than the product of boldly idiosyncratic intentions. This provocative perspective is unsupported the transparently manipulative anti-intellectual calculations that characterize Elliott’s and Lee’s scripting, in which both Angelina and the general porn industry seem suffused in a cloud of radiant fairy dust to which all negative provocations are granted immunity.
The surprisingly high quality cast is technically proficient but wasted, given the absence of opportunity to give sufficient shape to their characters that might clarify any thought, action or motivation, most notably perpetually underused Heather Graham (portraying Angelina’s pseudo-mentor/director Margaret), whose panoply of conflicted emotions visibly churning under the surface, demands a better film, Neither Elliott nor Lee seem to realize that their only creation is a cast of shadows. Now, it is possible that this vacancy of thought, personality and character in the film’s central role was a clever but misguided conception on the part of the screenwriters, perhaps suggesting that to accept a life in the pornographic trade one must be incapable of emotional insight or introspection, or, at least, functioning in a rationale deadening cloud of self-denial. But to what end? Since Margaret has been seen as trolling for the freshman Angelica since her first film shoot, the final scene of the film strongly suggests that such mercenary emotional stalking may be systemic to the type of person who finds a position of control over a vast buffet of gullible girls within the porn industry. However, this would cast a noxious motivation on every character in the industry who could suddenly be seen as unhealthily predatory, with Martha acting as a Svengali to Angelica’s Trilby. This contradiction of the film’s uncritical view of porn is presented without a hint of irony, failing to explain how this predatory denouement reconciles with the film’s singularly gee whiz attitude toward the rest of the adult industry. The one point of consistency in “About Cherry” is that not unlike their written creations, neither Elliott nor Lee seem to have formulated any credible ideas about sex.