“Oh! Calcutta!” (1972)
“In America, sex is an obsession. In other parts of the world, it’s a fact.” – Marlene Dietrich
There’s an interesting sequence at the beginning of Jacques Levy’s film version of the notorious theatrical revue “Oh! Calcutta!” in which the cast members are unashamedly mingling in the altogether as they go about their preparatory rituals backstage, while the arriving audience is seen sitting with a palpable discomfort as if each of the patrons were awaiting a court sentence. The dichotomy in behavior is both amusing and revealing: the performers enjoying complete ease with their bodies (how refreshing to see nudity portrayed as something other than for a lewdly sniggery effect instead of the casual celebration of the unselfconscious unencumbered state of the human body shown here) while the audience members seem to be layered in extra clothing as if the very act of sitting in the theater is tantamount to a shameful admission of prurient appetites (not to mention fleshy contact with the theater chairs might create an intimate contact with a sexually transmitted disease, as if they were sitting in a midnight showing on The Deuce).
The brief sequence is an unexpected (and, from the evidence of the rest of the film, unintentional) documentation of common extremes of the systemic popular hypocrisy here finding expression in behavior associated with the perceived acceptance of open sexuality in American society while contradictorily proffering an acknowledgement of an unspoken defensive societal posture in publicly denying any actual interest in sex. So restrictive were the watchdogs of the most influential art form of the 20th Century (cinema), who actively quashed any overt expression of the sexual impulse except as a provocation for moral condemnation, that it perpetuated a self-castigating mindset for an unhealthily extended period in popular cultural.
If in “Oh! Calcutta!” there are claims to any insightful observation or honest exploration presented concerning human sexuality, then either the makers of the production have magnified the stature of their efforts with a self-deluded blindfold, or the film is an unwitting but nevertheless scathing indictment of what results from a culture whose sense of mature sexual consciousness has been artificially retarded by decades of calculated, morally misguided parochialism; one in which the most intimate of human expression was restrictively represented as separate bed matrimony. But despite the more graphic content, both physical and contextually, “Oh! Calcutta!” presents a view of sexual freedom which is not free at all (the conundrum advanced in the far more observant “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”) but one which remains reflexively rooted in the common impulse to react with guilt induced nervous snickering rather than with an uncomplicated enjoyment of an uninhibited and relaxed cultural standard. Ironically, with the entirely optimistic opinion that American culture was celebrating a more free and open sexuality, the entrenched view of sex as a “dirty” thing (How else to explain the national tradition of puritanical censorial oversight of popular culture and its validation by the very acceptance of such institutional filtering by the public?) inevitably ensures that it will be referenced in the form of base vulgarity. “Oh! Calcutta!” advances a muddled view of sex as an insensate experience; a literal freak show in which a display of bush is immersed in a demeaning context not dissimilar to gawking at the facially hirsute ladies of a carnival sideshow. On the evidence of this film, if America had matured during its so-called Sexual Revolution, it was only to the age of a randy adolescent.
When the film’s opening pre-performance salvo (which was not a part of the scripted theatrical experience) displays an almost naively optimistic celebration of the naked human form as something to be celebrated, then why the callously noxious content comprising the rest of the show, promoting a level of base expression that deliberately make sex not just dirty, but shameful? Considering some of the talent involved in the revue’s conception- including John Lennon, Jules Feiffer, Robert Benton, David Newman, Dan Greenburg and Sam Shepard -the consistency of witlessness and lack of invention is truly noteworthy. The sopomoric tone with which every vignette to follow is tainted speaks of a creative mentality which either deliberately choose to vulgarize, or is paralyzed by its subject. Despite the bold roar of defiance against a national cultural puritanism asserted by the show’s very existence, “Oh! Calcutta!” has nothing new or relevant to express about sex or the human condition. Disappointingly, it appears to exist only to engage the prurient.
Such criticism is apropos in discussing the opening vignette involving a lecherous Jack who rapes an innocent Jill into a comatose state. Period. The scene is played out amid outsized building blocks and with the actors (especially Patricia Hawkins, portraying Jill) assuming the manner of childish naivete cruelly betrayed, reinforcing the illusion that there is an intention of fixing a childlike naivité to the scene, but to what point? That people are childlike but base? Or is the scene meant to be taken literally, that the social impulse driving people from childhood is abusive? Or that all sex is an act of violence? Surely not even the conveniently anonymous author of this piece (the celebrated writer and critic Kenneth Tynan– the creator of the show -thought it an amusing conceit to render authorship of the contributions anonymous, but it feels more as if the fugitives are avoiding the scene of a crime) intended offense without purpose? In the context of such a shapeless playlet and the absence of a moral core, one can construct interpretive arguments ranging from sociopathy, infantilism, misogyny or just old fashioned bad taste. Simply put, the material (it is too gossamer thin to regard as a skit, too vaporous as even a sketch) transcends misogyny and blithely communicates a smugly callous inhumanity: how’s that for a bold step into the cultural sandbox of Sexual Freedom?
The hesitant and nervous response of the filmed theater’s live audience is at once telling and jarring (Though technically filmed at a live performance, much of the reaction sounds suspiciously “canned”.) With the siren’s lure of forbidden pleasures, “Oh! Calcutta!” promises that sexual complacency and repressed prurient interest are to be challenged by a traumatic slap in the face against expectations. Fair enough, if what follows is challenging and substantive, or at least, witty or genuinely erotic or both, however this is not the case as subsequent segments fare no better, but disappointingly form a continuous string of pointless obscenities : a litany of erotic Victorian and contemporary letters to the editor awkwardly used as titillation by way of simply blurting out obscene word or phrases; a would-be farce involving sex experiments; an awkward assignation between experienced and rookie swingers; a masturbation competition and a pseudo-parody of The Way of a Man With a Maid. None of these sketches are developed beyond the obvious one-joke conception stage except to stuff every line of dialogue with as much tired double entendre or coarsely graphic language as indecently possible.
The one segment which contains what might be regarded as having legitimate artistic value is an interpretive dance duet featuring Margo Sappington, though even this is questionable as to whether or not any value inherent in the piece would be substantially altered by the inclusion of discreet ballet tights, so what’s the point? Unfortunately the full beauty of the human form is diminished as the film is shot in a less than flattering process in which videotape is transferred onto film, ensuring an interesting battle between competing offenses: that of the sordid content of the film assaulting both taste and intellect, or that of the fuzzy visuals inducing migraines and possible blindness.
“I Want What I Want” (1972)
A young man hesitatingly sneaks looks at peeks as pretty girls as they pass by, with an uncomfortable longing that will turn out to have less to do with desire with than a desire of the opposite sex. Seldom since Ed Wood’s notorious “Glen or Glenda?” have such mixed signals been so frankly expressed than in John Dexter’s “I Want What I Want”, the film adaptation of Geoff Brown’s novel that, in large part, thankfully foregoes the pitfalls of walking headlong into a potential minefield of demeaning sensationalism about its subject, a fairly notable accomplishment considering its production during a period when the commercial cinema was still having a difficult time dealing with sexuality in a straightforward manner, never mind dealing with the complexities of any variation outside of mainstream experience. (Sadly, decades later, the situation has progressed nary a step, despite the prolific volume of pornographically explicit material available with embarrassing ease, the public has become frightfully comfortable with material demonstrating sex without the slightest evident interest in any mature exploration of sexuality.)
Roy is that young man, a somewhat androgynous fellow whose obvious discomfort in his own gender skin finds an unwanted additional source of suppression through his martinet of a widowed father (Harry Andrews) who unwittingly reinforces Roy’s revulsion of his unwanted sexual identity by using him as a foil in which the father advances his own lascivious designs against women. Discovered wearing his mother’s clothes during one of his father’s assignations, Roy leaves the discomfort of his home in an attempt to isolate himself from his past and create a new identity for himself; Roy becomes Wendy by the intricate process of buying women’s clothing and growing his hair to a fashionable feminine length. The passage of time necessary for this illusionary transition is represented by little vignettes involving Roy’s initially awkward attempts at cosmetic makeovers, nail painting and the wearing of high heels. Eventually satisfied that his cosmetic transformation into Wendy has reached a level with which he might enjoy unsuspected identification as a woman, he/she rents a room where she settles into a welcoming relationship with her landlady (Jill Bennett) and fellow boarders, until a tentative but mutual attraction between Wendy and a man named Frank (Michael Coles) threatens to expose Wendy’s true nature, leading to a major life decision.
Though “I Want What I Want” was hardly the only commercial release to deal with the subject of gender reassignment at the time- Michael Sarne’s gaudy and gratuitously vulgar “Myra Breckinridge” and the heavily fictionalized Irving Rapper’s 1970 biopic “The Christine Jorgensen” Story” arrived earlier –John Dexter’s film is particularly notable for the rather dignified approach it brings to its subject, yet it is this same conservatism which ultimately makes the picture ring hollow at the core. After the initial discovery of Roy’s true nature by his father (his surprising absence for the remainder of the film is keenly felt), there is little in the way of dramatic conflict in what one might presume to be a time in the character’s life where serious, even traumatic, life choices would be addressed. Instead, Roy’s initial transitional phase (the length of which is suggested by Roy’s hair growth, a rather extended period in which his absence is never explained) into the persona that will be Wendy is characterized by breezy episodes of awkward nail painting, the testing of high heels and the accumulation of a suitable women’s wardrobe. Indeed, there are far too many occasions where the film averts the natural psychological complexities in a commitment to physical alteration of one’s gender simply by having Roy/Wendy enjoy further shopping sprees (there is more than occasion where a woman’s character finds definition in having a singular preoccupation with fashion). Is it any wonder that late in the film, when confronted with a situation of mutual romantic attraction that the film’s reticence magnifies a sudden expression of open emotion into something uncomfortably resembling overheated melodrama? When Roy initially, facing possible discovery and humiliation, reveals himself publicly in his Wendy persona, there is a palpable tension not dissimilar to an endangered agent in a espionage film, where recognition and exposure may lead to dire consequences. “I Want What I want” could use more of this psychological anxiety, which seems to dissipate as soon as Wendy undramatically settles into her boardinghouse digs. The film’s continued reliance on the cosmetic rather than the psychologically penetrating eventually suggests that what was initially admirable as creative tact is, in actuality, artistic timidity.
Despite the critical controversy over the decision to use a female rather than a male actor to portray Roy/Wendy (much of which seemed to stem from cosmetic rather than dramatic considerations), there is little to fault in the actual performance of Anne Heywood who is saddled with a script that relegates her character to a bizarre form of mutism; there are far too many scenes in which Roy/Wendy acts as a silent observer of other people’s thoughts or actions rather than expressing his/her own unique view, causing her character to reach an unprecedented third manifestation: from man to woman to enigma.
“Bad Girls Go to Hell” (1965)
Crossing the perilous chasm that separates the blasé nudie and the realm of the deliberately provocative roughie, director Doris Wishman appears to delve into the distasteful world of misogyny with “Bad Girls Go to Hell”, yet within the loose framework of her seedy narrative emerges an interesting variation of the time-honored knee jerk reactions to shallowly explored sexism whenever the subject of either the objectification or abuse (physical or sexual) of women is explored in the cinema.
Ellen (Gigi Darlene) is a young Boston housewife who enjoys the fruits of an existence of traditional but unremarkable domesticity- by all accounts, her husband Ted (Alan Feinstein) is loving and devoted -until she is raped one morning by the building janitor (Harold Key), who threatens to tell her husband what has happened. (Wouldn’t this amount to a criminal confession?) Returning to her apartment, Ellen finds a note under the door from the janitor, demanding that she comes to his room, which she foolishly does, hoping to bribe him from raping her again, which he wouldn’t be able to do if she had (a) called the police, (b) called her husband, or (c) not voluntarily walked into his room. However, during the second rape, she manages to smash her assailant on the skull, killing him instantly. Ellen, accompanied by panicked voiceovers and the sometimes overwrought stock jazz selections which Wishman leans heavily upon to carry the film through its more dramatically inert moments (as a writer and director Wishman seems more concerned with getting to a point in the narrative rather than in dramatizing it), she packs her bags and flees to New York City to “disappear in the crowd”, where she is summarily beaten, seduced and raped in her desperate attempt to find sanctuary. Eventually she finds a safe haven with a position as a live-in companion to an elderly invalid, however, but soon, through a startling coincidence that could only happen in the movies, her worst fears are realized. Or are they? Wishman provides one of those twists would have seem to allow the prolonged agony of a woman’s suffering without lasting emotional resonance or genuine consequences. Or does she? With its elliptical plot structure that bluntly projects (or sadistically enjoys, depending on how seriously one takes the film) a more despairing view of pessimism toward the human condition which extends far beyond a singular gender devaluation; unflinchingly portraying a spiraling descent into an existence of unceasing psychological and physical cruelty which, according to the film, innocent women are powerless to escape.
With every painful step taken by Ellen on her unjust but fated fall into ruin recorded in painstaking detail (Quite literally. Wishman’s obsessive habit of shooting feet is so pronounced, along with her habit of cutting away to often completely irrelevant location details, that a casual viewer might easily mistake “Bad Girls Go to Hell” as a film about an urban planner with a podiatry fetish.), the brutality of the journey goes a long way in obscuring the fact that Wishman’s film diverges from the undeniable misogynistic elements present in the sexploitation efforts of Russ Meyer, Hershell Gordon Lewis and Michael Findlay in that on her film- despite an equitable capitulation toward the tawdry -there is a nagging trace of a critical feminist viewpoint at work. Despite her heroine suffering an unbroken string of abuses at the hands of others, Wishman allows for the possibility that she is still the master of their own fate, with the continuance of her ruin exacerbated by horrifically bad judgment; her internal monologues strongly suggesting a willing concession to the role of victim, and therefore voluntarily Considering the fact that Ellen is not by definition “bad”, but ultimately a party to confused, submissive thinking, the film’s title bears some consideration as to whom Wishman regards as “bad girls”? She seems to be imposing an ideal that is commensurate with a rather strict theological orthodoxy upon her cinema universe in which all women are the progenitors of Original Sin and toward all women there is an excuse for recriminative punishment preceding their inevitable fall toward doom. In presenting a unrelievedly dim view of a woman’s place in the world, Wishman expands upon the notion that the confinement and persecution of women is not limited by the actions and attitudes of men, but by also by the selfish appetites and motivations of other women. In Wishman’s world of women, there is no safe room, only a revolving door from which every means of exit leads directly to a very dark place.
Despite the interesting thematic implications, none of this should obscure the fact that “Bad Girls Go to Hell” is a terrible film in almost every way, from the technical to each and every performance; the latter of which is emphasized by Wishman’s peculiar habit (obviously advanced by the fact that much of the shooting is done MOS) of shooting conversational scenes with the dialogue spoken delivered by the party off-camera, which might create a sense of dislocation, informing the director’s sought after dream state; if only the line readings weren’t so amateurishly delivered.
“THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS” (1959)
When sexiness is replace with the dull thud of the low-minded dirty snicker, there isn’t much room left for the engagement of such useful tools in the cinematically creative process such as a sense of suspense through anticipation, a feel for narrative drive, wit. All of the above are in apparent absence in Russ Meyer’s truly pornographic 1959 nudie film “The Immortal Mr. Tease”, a film that is obscenely vulgar not through its content of sex (there is none) or graphic nudity (the flesh revealed is limited to women’s buttocks and breasts), but through its prepubescent attitude toward sex in general, women more specifically and cleavage and breasts most obsessively. The extra mile this vile little film travels is in the true objectification of women as purely images to satisfy craven lusty appetites, and of men (as represented solely by Teas who is the only male presence in the film outside of negligible background extras) as the uncontrolled practitioners of that same drooling, objectifying misogyny. No where in the film is there a moment which might suggest (or celebrate) a happy, mutually consensual connection between men and women, whether romantic, sexual or merely platonic in nature, all of which is deemed unnecessary in Russ Meyer’s depressingly misanthropic world view in which both men and women are debased and the very concept of sex made to feel unclean.
Meyer introduces us to a town in which every woman seems to in the throes of an insatiable urge toward exhibitionism, a state of affairs which is convenient for the creepy dental appliance salesman Mr. Teas, who is described by the running narration of the film (there is no sound or dialogue of any kind, only the narrator’s voice and the repetitive strains of one of the most annoying soundtracks in the history of the cinema, comprised strictly of accordion, guitar and clarinet as if a hybrid klezmer/polka band had suddenly taken the projection booth hostage) as a ‘modern man’ despite the fact he practices his business riding a Schwinn bike, dressed with an omnipresent straw boater.
The film follows Teas about town for a few days, gaping at and salaciously leering at women until a tooth extraction (actually the blood-tipped horn of an elk, which should give some indication as to the sophisticated level of humor at play here) gives him the ability to imagine seeing women unclothed (these segments are signaled by spinning hypnotic spirals and a shift to neon painted backdrops with minimalistic set design, obviously to prevent any confusion from the less sophisticated in the audience that the new fashion for females (only) is nakedness. (This begs the question: Was Teas unable to mentally imagine anything before this dental metamorphosis? The vacancy of his facial expression suggests this was not the case.) Teas spends the entire film in a transfixed state of ogling at women, whether they are in a public venue or he creepily breaks his way into a burlesque house to spy on a stripper in her dressing room and offstage (how the stage hands take as long as they do to spot him in his unobtrusive orange jumpsuit is one of the film’s many mysteries, or why he simply doesn’t buy a ticket to the show is another), though it is apparent from the inertia of the film (the sixty two minute running time feels as long as that of “Our Hitler” as there is absolutely no plot to the film) that Teas’ day is (in many ways anticipating “Groundhog Day”, though only in the impoverished resource sense, not the thematically creative) spent doing the exact same things; to the point where the same shots are used to stunningly infinite use, resulting in an example of one of the most shamelessly padded films ever: the endless shots of Teas baring his teeth is depraved grins of lust are not a celebration of healthy sexuality but a commercial for leering perversion (a study in creepy physiognomy which might be minutely less painful had someone suggested a good flossing before taking those close-ups). When he patronizes a soda shoppe, the attending girl is naturally wearing a low cut cocktail dress and finds herself compelled to provocatively lean over him as if she were preparing to have her breasts tumble out onto the counter at any moment. (Beyond the gratuity of the scene, there may be several health codes at risk of violation here.) While fishing at an isolated pond, a statuesque blonde in a bikini moves past our intrepid heavy breather, removes her top and begins to sunbathe, as if the most natural impulse in the world for a woman is to expose herself in a desolate area while overlooked by a grizzled stranger.
Even the narration breaks away from the film and begins to ramble on about unrelated subjects such as water density, photosynthesis and measures of shipping cargo tonnage, in apparent revolt over the sheer torpidity, the inexcusable sameness of every moment of the film. At the end of Teas’ work day, the narrator concludes: “and so ends another day on the seeming eternity in the complex scheme of things.” Writing of this nature brings two questions immediately to mind: (1) Just what the hell is being expressed here? and (2) How did Edward D. Wood, Jr. get chosen the worst filmmaker of all time, while Russ Meyer enjoyed salutary symposiums sponsored by major academic and film institutions around the country? Later in the film, the narrator, now evidently displaying every sign of disassociative disorder, caps off another of Mr. Teas’ days of leering, voyeurism and stalking with the priceless comment: “Another dull day like the last or has the pressure of modern living begun its insidious task of breaking down the moral fiber of our indomitable Mr. Teas?” First of all, how kind of the narrator to acknowledge the dullness of the film, however, reason is immediately lost with the rest of the statement. Just what moral fiber could he possibly be referring to?
Moreover, the film is deadly dull. Since there is no direct interaction between characters, therefore no conflict, there is no basis for drama. “The Immoral Mr. Teas” exists for its own sake, a large screen version of quarter peep show attractions. Strip. Salivate. Repeat.
The film is supposedly notable as being the first non underground American film without a nudist camp background (known as “naturist” films during the Production Code era to openly feature nudity, promising the breaching new and sensual directions, yet even this is a cheat, as there is nothing exhibited in “The Immoral Mr. Teas” that isn’t present in any naturist movie (this is especially true of the films set piece [for lack of a better description] in which three nude women lounge, bathe and frolic interminably in the water intercut with Teas demonstrating the vast array of his one sleazy expression). Except for the odious presence of this friend of Meyer’s (whose name in real life is Bill Teas; one shudders to think that any of this might be biographical) the entire sequence could just have easily be taking place in a nudist camp. The only evolution in cinema sexuality to which Meyer can be credited is the removal of the innocent blandness of nudism and the introduction of crass sexploitation.
“The Autobiography of a Flea” (1976)
It begins promisingly with an attention to detail rare in adult films, even during the so-called “Golden Age of Porn” (Has anyone noticed what a contradictory label that is: if pornography is presumed to be material that is by nature obscene [otherwise how is it pornography?]- explicit sexuality on its own merit [or not] is not necessarily a criteria for such a designation as evidenced in other artistic forms -then a “Golden” elevation of the what would necessarily characterize the film as obscene and pornographic would necessitate a prominent escalation in that which makes the film a greater social offense?) including, what is often called the finest of adult films, the opulently mounted but inescapably shallow Radley Metzger opus”The Opening of Misty Beethoven”. “The Autobiography of a Flea” makes no similar claims for outwardly pretentious literary pedigree (ascribing Paris’ film with heightened merit simply because its script borrows its theme of a mentored transmogrification from Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is like ascribing stature to “Zontar the Thing From Venus” because it shares a cultural form with “Citizen Kane”), but begins with a rather richly faithful rendering of the opening passages of the 1887 novel including a evocative mise-en-scene enhanced with the appropriately ample figure of Jean Jennings as the initially innocent Belle, who is possessed of a more ample fleshiness in keeping with the popular image of the amply voluptuous temptress of Victorian erotica. (But couldn’t someone do something about all of the men in the cast sporting obvious 1970’s haircuts?)
If the adult cinema is a cultural territory defined by chauvinistic male dominance, then an interesting turn of events would come with the production of a prominent adult feature created by a woman (this, of course, is excluding the more thematically extreme examples of the “roughie” contributions of Doris Wishman and or the pseudonyminous work of Roberta Findlay), a circumstance which arises with the 1976 sexually explicit film “The Autobiography of a Flea” directed by legitimate stage actress/singer Sharon McKnight (who would be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical twelve years later). Compounding the interest in the film is that it is based upon a recognized “classic” of the initially “Anonymous” school of English erotic literature, a fertile territory which previously culminated in several lackadaisical efforts including “Fanny Hill” and “The Lustful Turk”. But it is interesting that in her pornographic foray, McKnight uses the Victorian era erotic writings as her basis rather than an original contemporary concept, though a closer examination will reveal a surprising sameness to the more prominent examples of classic erotic literature including the popular depiction of authoritarian figures (school teachers, clergy) and noblemen as the purveyors of moral corruption, often with females far too young in age for comfort, the almost complete inattention of the possible consequences of randy sexual indulgence in that era including disease and pregnancy, as well as a disturbing predilection toward both masochism and rape as a central tool of seduction (which naturally leads the recipient of unwanted intimacies to take the sudden turn into rabid nymphomania- clearly a bit of extreme chauvinist wish fulfillment); novelistic characteristics which would seem unappetizing to a feminine sensibility, especially since they are elements which to which there has been a continuous attachment of- often undeniable -accusations of sexual misogyny. It then becomes interesting to see a woman at the reins, not only in the capacity of director but assuming the mantle of adapting screenwriter as well, and see how a controlling perspective other than a man’s might deal with certain elements which- under male control -have been regarded as having the singular result of being insultingly objectifying to women.
The virginal fourteen-year-old Belle is caught by the lascivious Father Ambrose (Paul Thomas) in an attempted act of sexual congress with her friend Charlie. Ambrose threatens the girl with exposure and disgrace unless she returns to his quarters where he seduces her by assuring her she has been specially chosen to sate the passions of the Holy (the attempts at ironic satire are forced, predictable and obvious, but also true to the spirit of the source, an example where a little judicious embellishment might have yielded satisfying results), the enraptured Belle surrendering to immediate act as the willing concubine to not only Ambrose, but his two companions Father Superior (Ken Scudder) and the enormously endowed Father Clement (the inevitable John Holmes). Belle is then subject to molestation by her uncle M. Verboux (Dale Meador) with whom she lives and with whom Father Ambrose has been conspiring all along, none of which seems to matter a whit to the now insatiable Belle; who in the tradition of classic English erotica shrugs off multiple rape as a pleasurable erotic adventure, immediately becomes a conniving nymphomaniac enthusiastically corrupting her close friend Julia (Joanna Tilden), and instantaneously expert in all manner of sexual techniques of which moments before she supposedly was entirely ignorant. (Much of the literature in this genre is not complimented by the furtherance of logic when subjected to close scrutiny.) The vagaries of the plot are only heightened with the absence of any real character development in which the motivational gaps created by cardboard archetypes might be fleshed out. Despite a sufficiency of attention to detail in the physical production, the lack of well defined characters allows for an absence of dramatic depth, exposing how truly shallow the original material is, with the narrative resembling a simplified and smutty version of Les Liaisons dangereuses.
That the film fails at being sexy is not unusual in explicitly sexual cinema, but its failure to achieve a sense of lustiness- essential to the literary form from which this particular film finds its basis -is a major problem as it never elevates the sex scenes beyond a succession of mechanical thrusts and tugs, with the actors conveying the intense passions of the novel’s encounters (explicit visualization coming a far second behind the book’s enthusiastically overripe language) with the usual adult film air of with the actresses exhaling plastic moans with robotic regularity of a sonar ping and the men looking blank faced and preoccupied, evidently in a mental zone to maintain an erection through all of the shot changes. However, if in the midst of physical intimacy, in moments when the the minds of the performers are light years apart- perhaps a mental necessity of delaying actual orgasm, but boredom may also be a factor -the illusion of personal connection seems to become unconvincing in relation to the more explicitly unsimulated it becomes.
If anything, “The Autobiography of a Flea” fails to rise above the blank redundancy of the regular insertion of graphic physical engagements which stop the narrative dead in its tracks, but finds no way of integrating these lengthy scenes where they would advance or contribute to the film’s theme. In fact, where in the original, the first-person narrative is able to continue in its pithy observances during the various sexual couplings, the film exposes what may be an unalterable difference between the differing cultural manifestations between the same erotic material. Certainly, if there were a more successful method of translating the continuation of interior monologues (essential in the relating of sexual encounters in erotic literature), it is not present in the cinematic adaptation of Sharon McKnight, nor does the writer/director bring a new dynamic in any attempted redefinition of gender roles in erotic fantasy; the film could certainly use some of the sardonic energy of the original, though once the sex starts it becomes disappointingly clear that that is where the film’s emphasis lies, though there are only so many angles in which a director can film the missionary position. If it is assumed that the bulk of adult films are made to satisfy the male image of sexual dominance, then McKnight’s film offers no food for alteration of this concept, nor does it promote an independently motivated heroine who acts outside of the machinations of Father Ambrose and her uncle, nor do any sexual conquests supposedly conducted solely for her own pleasure amount to more than convenient surrenders to randy acquaintances or (in one rather distasteful scene of father-son collusion in rape) random wanderers to whom Belle is merely a vessel in which to satisfy their own sexual appetites. If these sexual roles are entirely consistent with the source novel (they are) and are representative of the greater amount of “classic” English erotic literature from the 1800’s (again, they are), then it can also be inferred that the dominant male gender fantasy within the realm of the erotic is a product of tradition rather than that of contemporary sexual politics in which the masculine ethic is embattled with the emerging prominence of women in what were traditionally assumed “male” social roles. (Just to clarify: men have been capable of cloddish chauvinism for centuries without the added excuse of Women’s Lib.) Any curiosity as to whether a woman’s hand might bring a new and refreshing perspective to the “pornographic” film will find little in “The Autobiography of a Flea” in which to rejoice, though at least it doesn’t engage in insultingly false claims of female sexual empowerment with which a pair of prominent films from the so-called “Porno Chic”, Gerard Damiano’s “Deep Throat” and “The Devil in Miss Jones”, managed to elude deserved criticism with the transparent illusion of promoting the modern sexually liberated woman. Beyond a competent but uninspired visual scheme- in which the abundance of master shots carrying the burden of the narrative though making much of the film appear almost stage bound, the only significant personal derivation McKnight makes from the adult cinema playbook is to minimize the number of ejaculatory “money shots”, though this editorial choice has hardly proved seminal.
Jean Jennings certainly looks the part of Belle but matters take a drastic turn for the worse as soon as she is obliged to open her mouth. The acting is, with the exception of a few moments by Paul Thomas in which he seems to grasp the appropriate balance of satirically corrupt authority, is almost universally amateurish, a predictable circumstance for if the performers were capable of better work, chances are they probably wouldn’t be making mainstream career killing adult films, yet this is one of the most egregious commonalities of adult films, even in the “Golden Age”: finding an acceptable level of performance ability to coincide with the physical attractiveness to which the adult film industry is beholden: the priority is always on comely individuals willing to have sex on camera rather than seeking a resume attuned to the skills needed for convincing dramatic performances. None of the women of the film achieve any memorability beyond a certain scrubbed comeliness: Joanna Tilden is painfully incompetent, while on the opposite end of the spectrum Annette Haven, in the unlikely role of Belle’s pious aunt Mme. Verboux is haughty coolness to the point of resembling polished alabaster, a trait which neither emphasizes sexiness and certainly fails her in making her later crazed, impassioned moments credible. The men are even worse. John Holmes handily demonstrates that his talent is entirely within his engorged member while John Leslie, as Julia’s randy father, manages a rare feat in negative performance, appearing simultaneously smirky, callow and creepily oily: a true trifecta of obnoxiousness.
Regarding sexuality in popular culture, if there’s anything more annoying (and dishonest) than priggish cultural puritanism, it’s sanctimonious moral liberalism masquerading as open-mindedness when, in fact, the canonical emphasis diverges into a campaign of ulterior agendas. With this participatory caveat in mind, we now approach the Brian Grazer (Opie’s lesser half) produced documentary “Inside Deep Throat” which purports to examine, not the “Woodstein” deep cover informant of the Watergate investigation, but the unlikely financial success of the 1972 smut film, the resultant social and political ramifications surrounding the evolution of “porno chic” based upon that success and the subsequent legal and socio-sexual (especially among the feminist camp) wave of outrage, coupled with technological advances that combined to detour subsequent predicted advances in mating explicit sex and cinema art instead into an assembly line cookie-cutter industry of interchangeably anonymous gynecological thrusts and couplings. That’s quite an agenda for any one film to handle and so it’s probably no surprise that “Inside Deep Throat” fails miserably on all counts. However, it’s a fine excuse for a major Hollywood studio peep show which pretends to document and celebrate a revolution in sexuality, while its jaded attitude reveals a documentary that is both uninformed and patently dishonest: a film that cannot wait to ridicule the purveyors of their subject film while simultaneously mocking those opposed to its creation, and, by extension, the original film’s (and the documentary’s) disregard for the obscenity laws of the United States.
It may appear a confused editorial stance, made more so by the a deliberately disingenuous intent, born of obvious calculation: a documentary film advancing only its own smirking righteousness while standing for nothing except an intellectual vacuousness that is entirely too prevalent in contemporary American cinema, an intolerable anti-art posture which celebrates attitude rather than achievement. and is especially ruinous when it infects an art form whose propagandistic possibilities infect a (theoretically) more pure cinema form such as the documentary. With this limiting- and entirely dishonest -perspective at work, the slick film making team may advance the facade of sincere investigative methodology (though, interestingly, there is no legitimate consideration anywhere in the film of an artistic standard) while the film exploitatively (though teasingly: the film is spineless at its core) focuses on the lurid details of sexual debasement, yet shamelessly reverses gears and clucks with impertinent disdain at the true scapegoat of the film’s seedy calculation: Nixon, and by extension, political and religious conservatives.
That the content and meteoric ascension of Gerard Damiano’s pornographic opus has been deemed so historically noteworthy as to be the sole catalyst a significant cultural evolution meriting in-depth documentary is a dubious prospect at best, it is most decidedly so in the incapable hands of co-directors/writers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato who either prove that too many cooks indeed spoil the broth, or that cluelessness loves company. Certainly, if one were to pursue a sweeping examination of the evolution of sexuality in American cinema- and the general national culture -the film would have you believe that “Deep Throat” represents a significant bellwether, which may be true, but to assert that its influence rose in the center of a contextual void is the height of documentary ignorance and without the inclusion of that historic context, any assertions are rendered indefensible and meaningless. The place of “Deep Throat” in cultural history, within the context of the evolution of adult cinema is impossible to ascertain in the documentary as it contains not even a cursory mention of the prior steps taken by other filmmakers including (but certainly not limited to) stag loops, the “nudie cuties”, the regional “tent circuit” curiosities of Kroger Babb, the exploitation productions of the George Weiss/David F. Friedman mold, the rise of explicit sexual ideas and imagery in European cinema, the films of Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Michael and Roberta Findlay, Radley Metzger and Joe Sarno, the emergence of the Danish sex documentary, the art vs, pornography controversy over “I am Curious (Yellow)” (not to mention Lawrence, Joyce and Miller), the production of 1971’s “Mona”, which is generally regarded as the first hardcore feature in America or, perhaps most importantly, the abolition of Hollywood’s notorious Production Code and the emergence of the similarly odious though structurally short-sighted MPAA. Such a contextual vacuum leads to the absurd suggestion that the oily Damiano invented sex in the cinema single-handedly (the self-mythologizing is also false, as Damiano pretends film making was a spontaneous leap from hairdressing to “Throat”, when in fact he has already directed non-hardcore features) and that once “Deep Throat” was released the impact wasn’t contributed to by the already evolving curve toward more enlightened and artistic sexual content in film (the film trumpets the explosion of the sexual revolution and then forgets about as if “Deep Throat” was the one and only catalyst), not to mention the release of other sexually explicit features including the Mitchell Brothers‘ “Behind the Green Door” and “The Resurrection of Eve” and Damiano’s sophomore sexually explicit effort “The Devil in Miss Jones” which contributed as much industry and commercial fervor at the time as “Throat”. Many “expert” witnesses are brought to the forecourt- Hugh Hefner, John Waters (?), Andrea True (who serves no function except to hawk her contribution to disco vacuousness “More, More, More”), Camille Paglia and Dick Cavett (whose self-amused smirkiness is the only possible reason for his appearance as he has absolutely nothing to contribute: He hasn’t even seen the film in question!) – but there is a conspicuous absence from the fifth estate critical watchdogs. Why should this be when many were used as expert witnesses during the actual “Deep Throat” obscenity cases? There is only one significant mention in the entire film as to the merit of “Deep Throat” as a film and that is by Damiano himself who- in a vintage moment of candor -admits the film is not good.
In the end, “Deep Throat” is an irredeemably grimy little picture made by odious no-talents for a quick buck (it’s really an extended stag loop with a few dumb jokes thrown in), whose only source of enduring interest as a cultural oddity is the “perfect storm” of circumstances which led to it become enormously successful financially; yet in terms of eminently impractical to be labelled as a cultural touchstone, as even in the realm of what is “the Golden Age of Porn”, the film is a dinosaur. This is made evident toward the end of the film, when current porn performers are made to appear foolish for not having seen “Deep Throat”, as if the vast majority of contemporary “legitimate” actors could pass an equitable film literacy test by having personal familiarity with “The Birth of a Nation”. This unmerited sense of cultural superiority advanced by the filmmakers again raises the contradictory example of their own aforementioned ignorance about the seminal influences of their own subject. However, sadly this is in keeping with what is becoming an alarming trend in nearsightedness when it comes to historic cultural heritage as examined through a brazenly vacuous contemporary media. Hollywood has always focused on itself in only two myopic instances: (1) how to elevate its own status as omnipotent artistic colossus, usually through hyperbole though without genuine consideration of cultural worth, and (2) the evasive subject of box office success and how to achieve it.
A title at the beginning of the film announces the budget of “Deep Throat” as $25 thousand, with an estimated box-office take of $600 million (an entirely unrealistic figure, calculable by using simple mathematics) and then claims the films to be the “most profitable film” of all time and that “Inside Deep Throat” will be the story of “the lives of those who made it and the price they paid”. From the start there seem to be a confusion of intention: what exactly is the editorial direction of the film? If the subject is to be considered the proverbial cultural landmark, why the emphasis on financial success? Such an economic windfall is seldom equitable to cultural stature (not to mention artistic worth), yet this is mentioned as a consideration of value at the beginning of the film, and in relation to Hollywood’s endless fascination with itself, what could be a subject to approach with greater enthusiasm than monied success? (It is not an unlikely suspicion that if industry hustlers such as Grazer could unravel the “supposed” formula for a financial return proportional to that of “Deep Throat”, that multiplexes across America wouldn’t be choked with 3-D, IMAX enhanced productions highlighting blowjobs?) In this regard, there is an inordinate amount of time spent following the money trail to which all paths lead back to organized crime. While this is certainly a legitimate part of the story- especially in this awkward relationship’s importance in initial FBI investigations which morph into criminal obscenity prosecutions – it is of subsidiary interest (of which the “documentarians” make no attempt to explain), yet the filmmakers are suddenly seized by a rather blatantly finger wagging pose of sanctimonious disdain over the thought that a pornographer like Damiano didn’t get his fair share of the lucre from his underworld partners. (A display of genuine courage might be for Grazer to back a film exposing a similar widespread industry of book juggling and thievery within mainstream Hollywood studios- does the Cliff Robertson / David Begelman scandal ring a bell? -but that taboo subject might hit too close to home.) This fascination with the money trail leads to an obvious comparison to the voluminous troubles Hollywood has always had in fraudulently withholding contracted earnings from its talent, yet never once does this film make a connection when it is always easier to point a finger at the odious shadow of organized crime when similar corporate criminal enterprise is funding your documentary.Far more time spent following the criminal money trail (but parodically, as if all serious organized crime found its basis from a Donald E. Westlake caper. In fact, so much time is spent on the participants rueing over their lost profits it becomes almost suspect that the film might not turn into a charity fundraiser.) especially when the film is attempting to claim that any government probe into the makers of the film is tantamount to a censorial witch hunt.
This sense of confusion purpose runs like an express train throughout the film, which may go a long way in explaining why the audience must continuously extricate itself through the distraction of an incessantly lurid and quite meaningless miasma of graphic montages, all without even a function to bookend thematic segments (the film suffocates the viewer in these bits of business which serve no clear function except to callously extend a short subject into feature length running time), but decorate the film with additional views of nudity and non-penetration shots of sexual activity (unrelated to the subject film) that may excite the prurient but merely confuse the casually curious. Eventually the film finally settles down to tell the story of the creation of the film “Deep Throat” through the use of a series of interviews from the participants, including director-writer Damiano, production manager Ron Wertheim, location manager Lenny Camp and actor Harry Reems. Problems immediately surface with the documentarian’s approach to their subject as the interviews, rather than being a source of cumulative information, quickly devolve into a freak show atmosphere. None of the commentary is particularly illuminating nor is there any evidence that the filmmakers attempt to draw more incisive information from their witnesses as they engage in a general campaign of mocking derision, taking every opportunity to make their subjects look ridiculous (hardly a stretch). This is amply demonstrated by the introduction of Damiano, the central figure of the film’s interest outside of the late Linda Lovelace, yet in the achingly protracted shot used to establish the interview with the director, he is insultingly reduced to the stereotype of the doddering retiree shuffling about the neighborhood wearing his pants up to his chest. Camp spends the entirety of his participation with ear cupped in hand screaming that everything about the film was “shit”. (Finally, an honest critical viewpoint.) Wertheim, on the other hand, is a creation perhaps only Fellini could love, wild-eyed with a shocking mane of electrified hair, he is the real-life embodiment of Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmett Brown and he contributes nothing but eccentricity for it’s own sake: rambling cacklings calculated to both shock and amaze but much of what is said is well trod territory without new insight or even eccentric interest. His value to the documentary seems entirely decorative; to add another dimension to the sideshow carnival atmosphere that is the film’s raison d’etre.
Since the subject film appears to have been made off the cuff, with little practical planning and no discernible expertise, any practical dissection of the movie’s aesthetic or artistic value will hit a dead-end (admittedly it would be a brief discussion), therefore the questions raised by its unprecedented reception require far greater disquisitive acumen than on displayed by either Barbato or Bailey, who seem contented to assume the glittery mantle of Barnum & Bailey in creating a garish carnival atmosphere rather than a reasoned presentation exploring even the most basic (and obvious) questions surrounding the “phenomenon of the film’s popularity- outside of merely financial considerations -such as: what was the magnetic pull of “Deep Throat” specific to its attraction to a more mainstream public that would never before be caught dead viewing a stag film, never mind a full blown publicly screened pornographic effort? What was the cause of a spontaneous relaxation of public timidity to account for such a popular success, and was the subsequent attention and success of other pornographic films the signal of a new trend of acceptance or merely extended curiosity? Was the designation of “Porno Chic” legitimate in signalling a new trend or was it merely a bit of colorful reportage which added a window dressing of legitimacy to what otherwise would have been too disreputable to consider under normal circumstances. (After all, isn’t it alright to patronize this pornography as it’s being serious discussed in The New York Times!) And just how was the $600 million profit amount (and thus the justification for the film’s preeminence) determined if it was all pocketed surreptitiously by the underworld? To answer these questions (and more) would require a dedication to actually researching the subject of their film, rather than settling for amusing curiosity seekers with a glossy collection of surmises, half-truths (If the profit numbers are fraudulent, then what is the credibility of the rest of the presented information?) and politically motivated knee to the groin attacks against the prosecuting parties, whose conservative leanings suddenly veer the film from a dubiously informed pseudo-history of the sudden shifts in the sexual culture, into a series of unflattering introductions of some of the major players in the prosecution of “Deep Throat” as both obscenity and a product of criminal enterprise, including Charles Keating and prosecutor Larry Parish, the latter of whose every sincere and dedicated utterance is presented to be that of a demagogic crank. Unrelated, out of context footage of Richard Nixon is continuously inserted at inopportune moments in an attempt to give the impression of a nation under the throes of sexual repression due to the presence of a single public figure, regardless of office.. This brand of excited editorial nonsense is furthered with the introduction of Barbato and Bailey’s contemporary version of the cavalry, the Hollywood liberal establishment by whom- while the publicity cameras are clicking -“Deep Throat” actor Harry Reems is championed as a martyred poster boy of Constitutional freedoms; but was Reems considering Constitutional law while schtupping Thora Birch’s mom in the film, or perhaps considering contradictions of Amendments while enjoying the Big Gulp? (Evidently this “Throat” was far deeper than we imagined.) Or perhaps thoughts of free speech are merely what stimulated his reportedly reliable on-camera erections? Hollywood liberalism (here in the form of Jack Nicholson and the odious Warren Beatty– was he born with a smirk?) cloak Reems in a wave of protectionism, at least that is until he is dismissed from a legitimate acting job in Paramount’s “Grease” for reasons of his participation in pornography (how was this a surprise considering the obscenity trial predated that film by a full two years?), as if the hiring of director Randal Kleiser didn’t already demonstrate a studio tolerance for obscenity. And where did his industry champions disappear once Reems was faced with typical industry “blacklisting”? In the same year of the release of “Grease”, both Nicholson and Beatty directed feature films for the same Paramount , neither featuring their amigo-by-way-of-photo-op du jour, and neither Hollywood power broker coming to the aid of their overstimulated protégé with the studio. Interesting. The film’s lack of context also falsifies the presumption that Reems’ undesirable image sprang from “Deep Throat” alone (thus falsely elevating the importance of the film by making it the only point of reference) when, in fact, he had participated in over one hundred adult features. Reems’ absurd proclamations of “Art!” are undercut by their own infantile nature, however, even in this, the film makers attempt a cheap and undeserved consideration of his claims by including a clip of the truly reptilian Roy Cohn as the only voice to directly contradict such nonsensical defenses.
The film also obscures the chronology and details of both commissioned governmental investigations into pornography (the 1968 Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography is briefly and loosely mentioned, though its relevance as being instigated by the like of Damiano’s film is slight since the film came out four years after the report) and the later obscenity trials, with Nixonian moralizing taking it on the chin for a state prosecution in which the federal government had no party (the film’s sloppy scholarship reveals itself by ignoring all but the initial New York prosecution, nor does it bother to reveal that this was far from the first such film prosecuted in that jurisdiction) or that by the 1976 Tennessee prosecution, the adult film industry had widened its public notoriety considerably. However, it doesn;t require a film scholar to recognize “Deep Throat” as a film of no artistic merit (despite the claims of one critic who, during the initial New York obscenity trial, asserted the film contained socially redeeming value simply because the photography wasn’t grainy); even in the realm of comparative pornographic features to follow, it stands as not only a raggedy affair, but a spectacularly unerotic effort as well; it’s significance resting solely on the mythical level of its financial success, not for it’s role in the rapidly evolving blind search for cinema “maturity” following the capitulation of the long-standing Hollywood Production Code, a censorial entity that didn’t entirely fade away but rather mutated into the watchdog MPAA ratings board; a subject which is also ignored by this myopic documentary.
Damiano, for his part, is nothing if not filled with hubris, fortified by the interest of the filmmakers, his every action now filled with a bitter sense of self-importance. Even a cursory knowledge of his filmography reveals that he had actually directed several non-hardcore films before “Deep Throat” making his assertions of just falling into the directorial world of porn straight from hairdressing, a fraud. His disappointments appear to be entirely monetary (He seems to have no regrets- nor aware regrets might be appropriate -over his absence of worthwhile film making abilities.) as he professes to have never made a nickel off of his pornographic films (there is also no mention that he enjoyed quite a lengthy career in directing adult cinema, a fact that may cast a dubious eye on his claims of nonexistent profiteering) conceding all monies to the sinister open palm of the Mob, without a modicum of reflection that his films, outside of the aesthetic roadkill standard of American “adult” cinema, was paltry, graceless and without any effective contributory evolutionary value in the merging of explicit sex within the possibility of practical aesthetic (never mind artistic) contexts.
With the untimely passing of star Linda Lovelace, perhaps the most famous fellatrix of modern times, the directors hit a brick wall into the real subject of interest their film might have had which is the legitimacy of Lovelace’s claims, shown in brief clip, that in watching “Deep Throat” the viewer is watching “me be raped”. It is no secret that the former porn star had for years denied her voluntary participation in the film or in porn in general, claiming to be under the hypnotic influence of both her boyfriend Rob Traynor and his threats of violence; the bulk of her post-porn career memoirs Ordeal campaigning for a laundered image that saw her as the victim of sexual exploitation rather than the free spirited self-declared icon of a new sexual freedom as expressed in numerous articles, interviews, forums and earlier published memoirs without the benefit of Traynor or other controlling factors within the vicinity. These claims of innocence abused find no original expression in the film, except for a brief show of anger of Ms. Lovelace’s sister and an equally brief, but heartfelt recollection of sadness from a former schoolmate (surely the application of minimal research effort might have uncovered more); the two episodes But no where is there any indication from the film’s participants (no surprise there) The claims that she was forced into the sexual acts in this film might be taken more seriously if that would explain prior film loops especially a notorious epic with a certain dog that was the central source of outrage for obscenity trial judge in his rabid excoriation of the “actresss”. None of this, nor Lovelace’s subsequent forays in film, early career publishing (three separate memoirs with no , pictorials or interviews- all contradicting many of her later assertions -are mentioned in the film, nor are the supposedly voluminous documentation of the actress cavorting like a one woman sexual revolution (much of this behavior within the proximity of Hugh Hefner’s universe, making his silence on the subject- he is present as one of the “expert witnesses” but the subject, interestingly, never comes up) However, this is not casting aspersions on Lovelace’s claims; merely once again, demonstrating the shallow ends to which the film makers have betrayed their own asserted intentions at the beginning of the film, to protray:”the lives of those who made and the price they paid.” What price indeed? (The frat boy mentality of the film extends to a lurid and tastelessly unnecessary coda in which Lovelace’s daughter is said to have been offered a substantial sum to keep her late mother’s legacy alive.)
Beyond the lack of preparatory work to properly tell the story of Lovelace, the film is also conspicuously missing elements absolutely necessary- given the proper contextualization -in defending film’s assertion of the historical importance of “Deep Throat”, anything to give legitimate weight to the film’s hardcore sexual content as both an attraction to an awakening openly sexual society and its role in the process of legitimate cinematic sexually oriented storytelling. This might also lead to a useful discussion of the nature of what is considered pornographic content in a deliberately elemental context. To define pornography simplistically as content which intends to arouse and stimulate sexual responses is a regressive, ignorant limitation of the nature of sex in both art and our general culture. Certainly, if a film is meant as comedy, the generation of laughter as a result of the film’s humor would be considered a desired and successful result. Similarly, if one were to produce a three handkerchief tearjerker, the resulting flood of tears in the audience would be a more desirable effect. It is only with the subject of erotic content that a specific response of sensorial arousal (not even manifesting itself in a physiological response but merely intellectual) is found problematic. Why? No answers will be found here. (Nor questions.)
The film concludes with the statement that ” ‘Deep Throat’ was less about the joys of oral sex than it was about the freedom to speak out against shame and hypocrisy.” Surely, when Damiano when to his underworld connections to partner into funding his porn, he presented his proposition with the claim of a desire to “speak out against shame and hypocrisy.” Surely, what attracted millions to his little sex film was the promise of a civics lesson. Surely, Barbato and Bailey have lost their minds.
What could have been in more capable hands, an interesting and provocative film has been clumsily and lazily rendered with all of the depth of a bathroom limerick.
Steven Soderbergh’s quickie experimental feature “The Girlfriend Experience” is not so experimental as formless, featuring his usual linear dislocation which by now is becoming an annoying personal affectation without organic point to his narratives. A fractured portrait of the life of a young high-end escort named Chelsea played by real-life porn actress Sasha Grey whose inert eyes betray a soullessness in the film that’s at once enervating and dramatically compromising: are we to interpret the emotional distance of the lead performance as an illustrative enhancement to a central theme of the commerce of emotional pretense (The girlfriend experience being a more specialized form of prostitution which intrudes on the delicate emotional connections of the desire for true intimacy by the illusion of acting as a genuine “girlfriend”.) or are we to assume the lead actress is crippled with performance deficiencies?
Unfortunately, beyond his bit of stunt casting, Soderbergh seems to have no ideas on the subject. The heavy handed dialogue weighed down by endless conversations about investments and economics fails to add any substantial subtext to the arid emotional core of the film. That Chelsea, in her escalated profession of moving beyond sexual services to a heightened artificiality of personal intimacy, transforms herself into a “commodity” as Orwellian unhuman as the discussed bars of investment gold, is clear; but it’s an obvious observation to which Soderbergh fails to impart any new insight.
“The Devil in Miss Jones” (1974)
After the release of “Deep Throat” there were a number of graphic, sexual films that met with both unexpected public enthusiam and excited media attention, that would form the basis of the temporarily fashionable trend known as “porno chic”. This designation, by New York Times writer Ralph Blumenthal (predating the sadly optimistic labeling of this period as “The Golden Age of Porn” as if the addition of coordinated decor and fashionable wardrobe- soon shed -were enough to elevate a sow’s ear into a silk purse), was in acknowledgement of the new permissiveness of the American cinema which within a period of less than a decade went from the depiction of married couples in separate beds to the out-of-the-peep-show-booths-and-on-to-the-widescreen gynecological “tunnel shots”, culminating in a number of films of commercial interest to “average” audiences and critical consideration by mainstream media watchdogs.
With this tremendous leap (not necessarily forward) in the visual insertion of the explicit sexual act in motion picture features, it was presumptively credited that the progression toward a form of commercially “legitimate” sexually explicit film was underway- a filmic strain separated from the traditional stag reels of the “raincoat” crowd -one that evolved up the “sexploitation” ladder through trends in nudies, roughies and Euro-erotica to the mainstream, though there was insufficient indication that mainstream American film, in any way shape or form, had developed the capacity to accommodate such a proverbial meeting of the minds, nor had the American cinema reached maturity in its newly found sexual freedoms in an artistically contextual sense: using human sexuality as an elevating component in the service of adult stories rather than as anything more than for decorative, snickering nudity.
The question arises as to whether such a merging of the explicitly sexual has a proper place within the confines of mainstream cinema, and thus granting legitimacy to the very concept of a “Porno Chic”. The answer to that is simple and relative to whether cinema is to be regarded as a true Art Form or merely a cultural enterprise aspiring only to the pleasures of trivial amusement; again, the ugly war between Art and Populism. For it cannot be denied that sexuality, even in the most graphic of forms, has been a major part of many forms of artistic expression and the contributions to genuine Art is undeniable,considering the major role sex plays in the full human experience. The timidity with which the subject has been seriously approached in the international catalog of cinema bespeaks of a modern Art Form which is still in its infancy. One will note the reference to international film rather than specifically to the presumptive puritanical base in American film, for though the permutations of explicit carnality has been more prevalent in foreign film productions, most are an extension of the sexploitation or pornographic arenas, whose purpose is the entirely gratuitous depiction of the sex act, rather than the filmmakers providing an opportunity for the inclusion of explicit sexuality as an important thematic element contributing to a more profound artistic expression.
Director Gerard Damiano hit the proverbial jackpot with his 1972 “Deep Throat”, and his 1973 follow-up to the Linda Lovelace film stimulated many critical minds to the point of showering hosannas at the supposed breaching of the abyss between rank pornography and genuine artistic expression; one critic going so far as to compare the film favorably with Bergman. According to many cultural observers, there was an inevitability that the adult cinema would find a point of intersection with the mainstream commercial cinema in movies that sought to explore more intimately adult themes than permitted before under the Production Code, and that this still-emerging sense of free expression would include the depiction of more explicit sexuality, as opposed to the more prevalent nudity in mainstream American films, which at the time was patently gratuitous- and in many disturbing instances saved, more often than not, for unsavory scenes of sexual sadism and rape.
“The Devil in Miss Jones” shares a similarity in thematic pretense with “Deep Throat”- unusual in both pornography and mainstream American cinema -in that its subject is not merely sex, but more specifically, the importance of sexual satisfaction by (gasp!) a woman. The important caveat, however, is the word pretense, as once the film moves beyond the sedate, langourous opening in which the nude form of Miss Jones is on extended display in a decidedly unerotic, matter-of-fact fashion (a decided difference from the Hollywood peek-a-boo method of flashing nudity as if the concept of sex was a “naughty” idea), a depressed tone and and content that must have wreaked havoc on the expectations of the regular patrons of the Pussycat Theaters, but was complimentary enough to the familiar downbeat aesthetics equated with “art” films that mainstream audiences and gullible critical gadflys could be comfortably eased into a film which by all rights would have “decent” suburbanites racing for the cathedral doors.
Director-writer Damiano, no slouch he, obviously was a fast study and lessons learned from objections to his fellatrix opus were skirted with an obscuring bookends of dramatic content sandwiching an unrelenting stream of sexual activity, given a supposed purpose but betraying even that slender thread of legitimacy by abandoning a basic logic needed for the pornographic smorgasbord to connect with Damiano’s ironic denouement.
The film opens with a somber, emotionally desolate sequence in which the eponymous Miss Justine Jones (Georgina Spelvin) commits suicide by cutting her wrists in the bathtub. It is a deliberately paced scene designed to draw the viewer into a despairing psyche, except that we know nothing of the woman; we are introduced to her precisely at the execution of her demise, so her final pathetic, empty stare of Death lacks the proper resonance for tragedy. When next we see Miss Jones, she is in the office of a sympathetic bureaucrat named Mr. Abaca (John Clemens) supervising a way station for the departed, puzzling over the “unique” plight of what to do with a good woman who is damned for taking her own life, posing the absurd suggestion that an innocent had never before committed suicide. After a brief discussion- her choice of either an eternity in Limbo or Hell, Miss Jones pleas for an opportunity to merit such an unjustified eternal damnation. Happily, even ethereal beings have a back-up plan and offer the lady an offer to balance the cosmic scales by allowing her to indulge in one of the Deadly Sins. What are the odds she chooses Lust? (Hint: Just look at the rating of the film.) In terms of narrative sophistication, the film, at this point, is already light years ahead of Damiano’s prior film provocation, whose idea of narrative was strictly based on a dirty anatomical joke, though his films’ common preoccupation seems to be that of female sexual satisfaction.
Entering through a great door, she encounters an individual only known as “The Teacher” (Harry Reems from “Deep Throat”) who absolves her of all inhibitions by a mere tap on her head as if he were some sort of sexual Uri Geller bending a spoon. After a great deal of psychosexual mumblings, “The Teacher” penetrates his student who naturally enjoys the ride (otherwise making for a very brief film) instantaneously converting her from timid spinster to insatiable nymphomaniac. Thus her carnal journey begins in which all mathematically probable combinations of physical intersection are indulged in, including intimate encounters with assorted combinations of mute but willing orgiasts, fruit, a water hose and a snake: this last taking no advantage of the satiric possibilities considering the Satanic backdrop of the film; since traditional Biblical references to Original Sin are unanimously attributed to Eve, any commentative irony in the situation is absent- an odd omission for a film which makes claims for higher (any) artistically tinged dramatic aspirations.
It is during this sudden cataloging of stimulative techniques that the “The Devil in Miss Jones” comes to a sudden halt; the film cannot wait to abandon the burden of narrative content and for the next thirty minutes (the film runs only just under 67 minutes in duration) is simply a series of concupiscent couplings and episodes of self-stimulation: the latter creating a direct contradiction to the film’s last minute grasp at legitimacy (and the source of much of the film’s reputation) by referencing Sartre’s “Huis Clos”, an example of monumental overreaching and arrogant presumption that in borrowing from important philosophic antecedents some of the artistic luster might rub off, though without the existential threads the film’s ironic coda becomes less Sartre and more EC comics.
The film’s concluding sequence where Miss Jones is consigned to Hell falsely invests the film with the unlikely stature of Morality Play, a most peculiar posture from a film whose previous half hour is indistinguishable from a low grade porn loop. The now insatiable nymphomaniac, eternally locked in a room with an impotent madman who will never administer to Justine’s entreaties to be “touched”, is a finale whose level of punishment not only seems unfair (Justine’s appetites not being a mortal result of Satanic temptation but rather a condition of afterlife entrapment), but the nature of her agony is illogical (she cannot achieve the desired orgasm without the participation of The Man) as she was shown to previously experience the same pleasure through her own autoerotic devices. It’s a phony gotcha ending that punishes any pleasure experienced by Miss Jones, with the permission of the Devil or God, since Abaca’s true nature remains an enigma.
If Damiano has intentions to present a commentary on women and sex, the message is confused and dishonest. Both “The Devil in Miss Jones” and “Deep Throat” promote a pretense toward opening the sexually explicit film into a realm of legitimacy to be enjoyed and accessible to both genders- eclipsing the boundaries of the strictly peep show-level pornographic film -by the celebration of female sexuality, not in the traditional objectifying of women as the source of men’s pleasure, but in a woman’s pleasure as its own reward. What “Miss Jones” actually shares with “Throat” is the message of the film’s content existing in direct conflict with the film’s stated theme. If one gives weight to the assertions that the celebration of the female pleasure principle is the raison d’etre of “The Devil in Miss Jones”, there is much to explain: the inconsistency of her budding sexuality as a direct and conscious device in which to condemn her, suggesting a streak of puritanism (Could this be the first instance of a cinematic sermon against the evils of sex perpetrated by an active pornographer?) entirely out of place in an unceasing revel of explicit sexual acts. What exactly is the film’s point if the engagement of sexual activity is portrayed as immoral? Is this not contradictory to the very nature of the “adult” film itself? And if the themes of the film embraces female sexuality, why is the film awash in the staples of male dominated “adult” cinema including the incomprehensible exhibition of ejaculatory excesses?
The most disturbing aspect of the film- it’s too amateurish to be annoyed by it’s lack of artistry -is the apparent about face Damiano took between “Deep Throat” and this film. In the earlier film, the only pretext of interest (dishonest as it was) was that the film was focused solely on the sexual gratification of the female, a novel concept for adult films (or films of any kind in America, to be honest), but in “Miss Jones” that sexual identity is contemptuously discarded (by a male hierarchy no less) with the promise of unthinkable retribution. Quite a despairing, misogynous message but unhappily prescient toward the dismissal of sexual equality between genders in American cinema, before and ever since.
“Mes chères études” (2010)
Emmanuelle Bercot’s “Mes chères études” (the title translates into “My Expensive Studies” as opposed to the English title “Student Services” which is reminiscent of far too many sniggery teen sex comedies) is a filmization of the pseudonymously penned book of the same name by “Laura D.”; an extremely downbeat film following the destructive path of a university student whose live spirals out of control when she enters into the sex trade business to pay her bills. In depicting a self-created mire that is insufficiently explored, the film never explains what draws Laura to the conclusion that her only salvation from a dire lack of funds while attending classes (she falls into a dead faint from hunger during one lecture) is the sordid road to prostitution. Nor does the film explain her reasons for continuing on this path if we are to find her considerable and constant episodes of extreme self-disgust credible.
Without any exploration into her thoughts as to what continually motivates her, it is left for the viewer to search for clues to supply their own connective assumptions, yet in this effort, inescapable contradictions emerge: are we to assume that the conditions of Laura’s life are so controlled by outside forces she would be incapable of pursuing a more conventional path toward her financial goals, and if so, if her desperation were so absolute, why the constant suggestions that she is frivolously materialistic with her earnings? There seems to be no sensual enjoyment on her part- just the opposite in fact, as Laura fails to disguise her abhorance of the sexual act with her clients -so again why not pursue a different course, or are the theatrics of this latent disgust meant as a commentary by the director on the submissive role women are forced into by the crass masculine sexual ethic? Is it a feint on her part? Or is Laura simply as thick as a brick? (There is actually much to suggest that this latter is the case, especially in the frustrating repetition of her making the most fundamental errors of judgment in getting paid, a naivete that escalates into a later crisis situation that seems more of a plot contrivance to have something happen in lieu of character development.)
Considering the film has been adapted and directed by a woman, one would think there would be a sympathetic perspective toward the film’s protagonist and a critical eye toward the outward factors which form unfathomable hardships on young academics, both in their public endeavors (financial) and private (sexual); especially due to the inclusion of a puzzling coda in which a recitation of statistics indicating the frequency with which students are forced into an epidemic of prostitution to survive during the economic belt tightening, as if the entire graphic illustration of sexual perversity we have been privy to has been in the service of a public service announcement; a wide leap that unconvincingly suggests a tightrope walk between Penthouse Forum and an ABC Afterschool Special. (This editorial trope, reminiscent of “Z” but in this context eliciting more of a response of “Zzzzzz” also raises the most basic question: if French students are so desperately impoverished they must turn to prostitution for survival, why is this condition limited to the female? What about the male students?)
Indeed, there is much attention paid during the course of the film’s narrative concerning an almost alarmingly constant state of unreliability in the male of the species, with Laura’s privately intimate connections proving themselves as unsteady, vacant and unambitious layabouts and her sexually professional encounters as populated by the expected series of coarse, dismissive and deceptive tricks who are there not for human contact but mere sexual release in any form. The one provocative exception, who is the most developed character in the film (at least in terms of comparison to the others) is Laura’s initial and most regular client Joe, whose pretense toward genuine communication is continually undone by an escalation of bizarre sexual activity which Laura incautiously allows herself to be sucked into. It is clear that Joe is a predatory creature, yet Laura continuously allows herself to be used by him under the pretense that she needs the money; a claim that is difficult to swallow when she incautiously ignores the advice of her boyfriend and doesn’t demand advance payment.
By portraying Laura in a manner of such unrelieved naivete- Xaviera Hollander by way of Laurie Partridge –Bercot undercuts the presumed underlying theme of her film, which is the tragic abuse of a society that forces students into prostitution merely to survive. Or is that really the message of the film? To rationalize the cautionary ending one would have to accept this at face value, yet either through a disingenuous intention or sheer conceptual incompetence Bercot presents an unrelieved procession of sexual encounters, each more repugnant than the last, that indicates a willingness for exhibitionism without productive purpose. It’s a cheap carnival peep show under the guise of social commentary, tied up with ribbons of fabricated feminist outrage. (That a woman can produce sexploitation as readily as a man one need only look at the filmographies of Roberta Findlay or Doris Wishman.)
Déborah François contributes little to her vaporous role of Laura except an insipid pout which grants the unfortunate appearance of making her seem more simple than the director hopefully intended, and a casual proclivity toward shedding her clothes at the merest suggestion. She inhabits her role so vacuously- and not in the way of the fashionably “chic” shallowness of a Deneuve from “Manon 70”, but as in mentally clouded -that she presents herself as the least street smart whore in the history of cinema. François is not in the least assisted by Bercot’s staggeringly underdeveloped script which emphasizes the cretinous image of Laura with such whoppers as an unbelievable scene in which she tries to recover erotic pictures taken by a client photographer who seems to have to explain to her the nature of irretrievability from the Internet, despite her heavy use of the same resource for her work and studies. Alain Cauchi fares better as the incontrovertible sleazy Joe, whose calculatedly reptilian manner is so blatantly obvious, the only way he might achieve his ends is for the subject prostitute to be openly masochistic or a complete moron (bingo!). Nevertheless, it’s a skilled performance that is effectively creepy, but in the context of the film’s limitations he is a sexual bull in an infantile china shop. As Laura’s boyfriend Benjamin, Mathieu Demy provides a few welcome moments of genuine humanity, but it is too little in this grim swim through Bercol’s aimless and ultimately pointless cesspool of a film in which the only recompensation granted the viewer is a foul odor.