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February 12, 2014

Sex Shop Cinema

Korean poster for Moebius

I'm not sure if calling this series "Sex Shop Cinema" is a good idea. It's bad enough that there are people who will easily lump any sexually provocative film as pornographic. And then, with some films presented by the Denver Film Society, there is the possibility that there may be an audience member or two that doesn't find the films graphic enough. Be that as it may, a look at some of the titles indicates why some of us miss the Seventies, when there seemed to be fewer hang-ups about on screen nudity, and for a brief moment, there was a merging of porn with mainstream cinema. 1972 seems in retrospect to be a banner year.

I still remember Pauline Kael's review of Last Tango in Paris, comparing Bernardo Bertolucci's film with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". It's a film I saw theatrically three times. The last time viewed was on DVD, several years ago, close to the age of Marlon Brando at the time he made the film, and more sympathetic to his character. I saw Deep Throat in Portland, Oregon while doing some work with the then nascent Northwest Film Study Center. I found out later that I was invited to the preview screening, attended mostly by an auditorium full of curious lawyers, so that if the film got busted, to use the term of the time, I might be called to testify on the "artistic merits" on display. I was curious enough to see director Gerard Damiano's more critically acclaimed Devil in Miss Jones, but in general find hard core cinema to be boring.

the sarnos.jpg
Peggy and Joseph Sarno

Two films related to Deep Throat are included in the series. The documentary Inside Deep Throat is a far more entertaining than the film itself, not only retelling the history of the film, but also its cultural impact, then and now. I remember reading about the death of Linda Lovelace in The Denver Post, totally unaware that she had moved here. I haven't seen Gerard Damiano's Let My Puppets Come, but that film should serve as a reminder that when the "South Park" guys made Team America, they weren't the first to film marionette sex.

I took the opportunity to check out a couple of the newer films. The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies started out as a documentary on the efforts of "sexploitation" filmmaker Joe Sarno's attempts to make another film in an attempt to cash in on the recognition received for films made over forty years earlier. With Joe, is his wife, Peggy, professionally known as Peggy Steffans, a former off-Broadway actress who served acted in supporting roles, and helped produce many of the films. There are clips from several Sarno films, as well as the gallery of talking heads, the most famous being John Waters and Annie Sprinkle.

One of the surprises is the appearance of Adolfas Mekas, who served as editor on a couple of Sarno productions. One of those films was a reportedly shelved musical, an attempt to go legit, called Step Out of Your Mind, featuring a very young Kelly Bishop and Broadway star Patrick Adiarte. What is glossed over is that most of the films discussed as from the first fifteen years of career that spanned over forty years. A review of Joe Sarno's filmography shows that he kept busy. He may not have cared much for hard core movies, but it didn't stop him from making them, sometimes with his own name, like Deep Throat II, but more typically under a pseudonym - my favorite at the expense of silent cinema's Ben-Hur, "Francis X. Bush".

Joe Sarno is touchingly presented as being a bit out of touch - Peggy reminds him in revising his newest screenplay that his characters would not be using pay phones. Sarno does his writing on what appears to be a twenty year old word processor, while Peggy does her work on a computer. There is also Peggy's quite funny and candid admission of wanting a role in one of the simulated sex scenes that Sarno made in the Sixties.

Grim, and sometimes grimly humorous, is Kim Ki-duk's new film, Moebius. One thing is certain, Kim isn't getting any mellower with age. If anything, he's more aggressively looking to provoke his audience. I'm familiar enough with Kim's other films to know that the work that brought him the most attention initially, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring was an anomaly other than in its overly deliberate artiness. With the past couple of films, it seems like Kim has jettisoned the visual qualities, a reminder of his training as a painter.

I'm not sure if I can make sense of what Kim is trying to say here. The characters sure aren't saying anything in this dialogue free study. I'm not sure if describing the work here as phallocentric is quite right, but what I could glean seemed to be about the role of the penis as one of the ways to assert masculinity, homosocial behavior, the Oedipus complex, pain as pleasure, and the emasculating female. With apologies to Iris Murdoch, this film could well have been titled, A Severed Head.

Still, I won't begrudge the opportunity to see some films theatrically that otherwise might not be seen at all. i only wish that with the name of this series, it would have been apropos to include Claude Berri's Le Sex Shop.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 12, 2014 09:00 AM