That Old Feeling: When Porno Was Chic

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(5 of 5)

Recently, simply for you, dear reader, I saw some of them again. Here are thumbnail reviews of five:


Mona, 1970: The Jazz Singer of fuck films, Mona was pretty sure of itself for a lonely pioneer. It had a busy soundtrack: clavichord, old pop tunes, harmonica and jug band music, an Indian raga and a long audio extract from The Taming of the Shrew. It revealed Mona as a kind of fellatio virtuoso: when a guy she has solicited for a back-alley blow job tries to pay her, she replies daintily, "I didn't do it for money. I have a taste for these things." It boasts a piquant blend of tease and sympathy, and has a few laughs at its audience's expense. Mona says she's going to see a film, and Mother advises: "You be careful now. You don't know what kind of people are in a movie house nowadays."

School Girl, 1971: The friendliest, most naturalistic porno I know, Paul Gerber's film about a San Francisco college girl's research into swinging sexuality has no bondage, no discipline, just nice or slightly bent people doing what comes hornily. Debra (charming, unaffected Debra Allen) investigates phone sex, a father-son duo and pornographic literature, plus the inevitable group grope. The finest liaison involves a woman, Elizabeth, who wants to keep her five-year marriage fresh by giving Debra as a present to her husband Tony. The catch: Elizabeth has to "direct" the scene, which she does with a gentle, practiced bossiness. "Tony, your knee's in my way —down!" "Harder, harder!" "Come on, Tony, have a good time. You look so bored." Somehow Tony manages an erection, and Elizabeth joins the party. It's a lovely, and hot, demonstration of the thesis that sex is power —and Elizabeth's the dominatrix. Highly recommended.

Behind the Green Door, 1972: The film became a hit when producer-directors Jim and Artie Mitchell revealed that their star, Marilyn Chambers, had posed for the Ivory Snow box. But it had more going for it than notoriety. Except for the framing device, there is hardly any dialogue. Chambers' mass seduction scene, 10 mins. or so, is accompanied only by the sounds of heavy breathing, moans and the occasional audible wince. One of the film's money shots is given a slo-mo instant replay of the kind Jackie Chan later used for his best stunts; then the same shot in super slo-mo, then in Pablo Ferro-style psychedelic greens and pinks. The last two minutes are extraordinary for a porn film: one extended closeup of a man's and a woman's faces as they kiss (and have sex) —as if the Mitchells understood Bergman's dictum that "Film begins with the human face."

Sensations, 1975: Trying to be a hard-core Emmanuelle, this bit of Euro-decadence by Alberto Ferro (aka Lasse Braun) featured Penthouse Pet Brigitte Maier. She's quite a pretty lass, but doesn't get to do much more than watch until the end, when she accedes to the climactic orgy scene. Seven acolytes of various genders crowd around her, matching their protuberances to her orifices, until she is nearly smothered in closeup. Cut to the seven slowly withdrawing from their feast, and, presto, Maier has disappeared. That's the end —except for the closing credits, where we find that "Julio" was played by "Mexican Anonymous. The lighting cameraman was Dutch Anonymous, the script girl Belgian Anonymous and the assistant editor: English Anonymous. The whole Anonymous family worked on this one.

Alice in Wonderland, 1975: Produced by Osco and directed by Bud Townsend in soft and hard versions, this is a musical fantasy update of the Lewis Carroll tale, with eight or ten perky songs (by Bucky Searles, who had written for the TV show Julia) and orchestrations by Peter Matz, who was Barbra Streisand's music man in her first bloom. Playmate Kristine DeBell, a most engaging cutie, manages the wide-eyed wistfulness as deftly as she executes the phallus-in-wonderland scenes. (Other performers do the hard-core stuff.) The film is spiffy and frolicsome, with a distinct vaudeville tone. Toward the end, during some vigorous sexercise, one of the characters remarks, "After a while they all look the same, don't they?" They do. But Alice is one hard-core comedy that is at least as appealing in its R version.


In The Other Hollywood, writer Jack Boulware reminisces: "But —as it happens with everybody who had a great time in the 60s and 70s —it can't last forever, you know?" Though he's referring to the Mitchell brothers, one of whom killed the other in 1991, he could have meant the whole porno chic scene. Professional actors, even of marginal competence, gave way to born-and-bred porn stars like John Holmes in the 70s and Traci Lords in the 80s. "The turning point," says porn director Ed Deroo, "came in 1982, when it finally went all video. I missed film tremendously. Film had soul; video had nothing. Video's just a way of making money. It flows like water, but film had a texture, a feeling, something you could grab onto and feel." Then tragedy struck with the AIDS plague, which took Chuck Vincent, Wade Nichols, Tony Taylor and Holmes. "What happened to the sexual revolution?" asks Humphry Knipe. "It caught AIDS and died."

But porno chic died long before that. If Throat in 1972 stoked the hope that hard-core might fruitfully intersect with mainstream, Jaws in 1975 ended that dream, and a few others. The Spielberg film's success, and that of Star Wars two years later, proved that the big-bucks audience comprised kids and teens, not adults, and it was the young who had to be pandered to. Adult films were largely marginalized, the hard-core back to the old grind houses (and later to video), the Hollywood ones to art houses and Oscar season. It's been that way for 30 years.

The ambitious porn films of the early 70s have basically gone missing. Deep Throat is available (though not through on DVD, and Alice in Wonderland on VHS, but most of the others I've mentioned required a video-store or mail-order scavenger hunt to track down. Some, like It Happened in Hollywood and Damiano's The Story of Joanna, I couldn't find even at my refuge for all things weird and esoteric, Kim's Music and Video in the East Village. Even the major research website makes it difficult to find 70s-porno data. If you go to the IMdb and type in the words Deep Throat (or School Girl, or Behind the Green Door), you will not find the movie; porno is listed only under the actor or director's name. The genre is too scuzzy to list on a big site, and doesn't have the slumming or nostalgia value of the Ed Wood oeuvre.

So you'll have to take my (and Damiano's) word for it. Pornography, and movies, used to be a whole lot more interesting. Granted, I can't authoritatively swear that today's hard-core stinks. That's because I haven't seen a porn video, or digito, whatever they call them, in decades. Except once, a few years ago, in a hotel, for about five minutes.

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