The Implacable Progress of ‘Porn’

[15 August 2007]

By Tim O'Neil

Where do you draw the line between “erotica” and “porn”? The usual explanation for the split is economic: porn, with its low production values and attendant controversy, is for the proles, while erotica consists of slightly artsy romps, the type of stuff you can freely discuss at art gallery cocktail parties. Porn appears inherently inhospitable to subtext, context, or artistic aspirations, cruel, mechanistic, and antithetical to sustained narrative. Porn filmmaking is practically a contradiction in terms: any “artistic” obfuscation of the action on display risks alienating the genre’s core audience.

As demonstrated in First Run Features’ The Radley Metzger Collection, Vols. 1-3, Radley Metzger’s career might be understood to exemplify porn’s willful naïveté. For decades, sex films were poorly made and shoddily distributed; by the mid to late ‘60s, however, “sexploitation” films split the line between grindhouse and art house, with new distribution channels expanding audiences beyond the traditional stag-and-bachelor circuit. During this period, Metzger’s movies delivered a kind of impossible ideal, commingling of artistic ambition with a frank sexual appeal. He came on to the scene with movies like The Dirty Girls (1964) and The Alley Cats (1965), pushing the limits of sexual content as far as they could be pushed at the time, with very brief toplessness and mostly obscured softcore action. Just a few years later, the coy content of these films was superseded by the hardcore content of Score (1972) (fellatio! bisexualism! Amyl nitrate!), and final barriers fell.

Despite Metzger’s talent as a filmmaker, one man couldn’t fight the tides. For all the optimism that accompanied the early years of erotic filmmaking, the arrival of hardcore porn into the mainstream—heralded by the likes of Deep Throat—essentially destroyed the legitimate commercial and critical potential of “erotica”. Porn gave the audience exactly what it wanted: gratification. Sex and nothing else was front and center in the new pornography, without any artsy filigree to distract viewers from getting their rocks off. With the invention of home video, it became plentiful, even as its taboo production and distribution methods boosted the genre’s appeal and kept mainstream Hollywood from ever attempting any serious incursion into porn’s hegemony. To this day, the dreaded NC-17 remains a kiss of death for distribution and advertising.

Metzger came to prominence in the early days of international cinema, working for the legendary Janus Films when art house was still synonymous in many quarters with heedlessly risqué. He absorbed techniques from French New Wave (his Carmen, Baby [1967] and Therese and Isabelle [1968]) as well as Bergman, Fellini, and Bunuel (the latter two are represented in the styles of Camille 2000 and especially, The Lickerish Quartet).

Lynn Lowry in Score

Lynn Lowry in Score

Seeing an opening for domestically produced erotica, Metzger formed an independent production company, Audubon Films. After a first, disastrously ill-received feature, the thriller Dark Odyssey (1957) (unfortunately not included in the Collection), Metzger found his calling with The Dirty Girls and The Alley Cats. Crudely filmed and poorly written, they retain today a nearly electric charge, if only for their verve and good cheer, nearly antithetical to the cynicism that dominates in contemporary porn.

The sex is as forthright as possible, given the constraints of the time. The films also feature remarkably multi-dimensional characters. The whores in The Dirty Girls and vindictive lesbians in The Alley Cats are wholly sexual creatures, at once sensual and personable. Though the screenwriting in these early features is weak, the characters are still more believable than today’s porn pin-ups. In the context of a Metzger film, even these early experiments, sex is—just as for most people outside the constraints of porn film—an integral aspect of their lives, not a brutish annex. It’s primitive and sensationalistic melodrama, but compared to modern “erotica” it’s practically a revelation. The Alley Cats is especially distasteful in its forthright portrayal of casual misogyny: after a man upset with his fiancée’s lesbian experiments slaps her silly, she apologizes and they live happily ever after.

These early, slightly wobbly experiments give way to a far more confident vision with 1967’s Carmen, Baby. Metzger took most of his plots from literature and theater, and this film updates Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen (previously made famous as Georges Bizet’s opera). Set in a 1960s Italy filled with pimps and crooked cops, it’s an effective film for those who may have forgotten just how brutish and nasty Carmen actually is, separate from Bizet’s high-culture imprimatur. A story of obsession, murder, manipulation, and extortion, it’s a perfect fit for Metzger’s hyper-sexualized milieu, even if the filmmaking remains quite rough around the edges. It reveals as well the evolution of Metzger’s motifs. He had a mania for reflective surfaces, using looking glasses and distorted lenses to obscure raunchy content while still showing quite a bit. Even his later films, such as the occasionally hardcore Score, use mirrors and lenses to create stylish effects at seeming odds with the full-Monty exploits on display.

Therese and Isabelle

Therese and Isabelle

If Carmen, Baby represents a significant improvement over the rugged, untested enthusiasm of his early films, Therese and Isabelle was an even more profound leap forward for Metzger’s skills as a filmmaker. Following a brief, tempestuous love affair between two lesbians at a French boarding school, it’s shot in crisp black and white (after the garish, evocative Technicolor of Carmen, Baby). It’s at heart a story of unrequited, ultimately doomed, love between two lost souls, their late adolescent disappointments rendered in crystal clarity. The film is gorgeous, with long tracking shots of the French countryside that could have come straight out of Truffaut: think The 400 Blows with adolescent girls. While voiceovers narrate the erotic action, both overheated and banal, Metzger wisely avoids sensationalizing the girls’ lust—the narration is pretty convincing for anyone who has ever spent any time around overdramatic teenagers.

Camille 2000

Camille 2000

Camille 2000, an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ Camille, ups the emotional stakes of Therese and Isabelle. Set in the dissipated jet-set Rome of the 1960s, it shows Metzger’s style at its most evocative, his camera gliding over candy-coated surfaces and mirrored walls, reflecting the continental decadence. Finally, we arrive at the apotheosis of Metzger’s sexual expression: sex as character, sexual desire illustrating internal struggle and metaphoric transformation. (It’s hard to show sex in films without falling into gratuitousness; most often, like action sequences in big budget movies, sex in erotic movies usually brings plot to a standstill.) By current standards, Camille 2000 isn’t anywhere near porn, but it’s sexy, made even sexier by the characters’ believable lives and emotions.

The Lickerish Quartet, loosely inspired by Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, is Metzger’s most overtly “arty” film. But while it includes dazzling sequences, the film suffers from a tepid obeisance to the template of European expressionism. Metzger’s set pieces are fantastic: the creepy film-within-a-film stag reel that serves as the story’s catalyst; a non-sex scene involving stunt motorcyclists at a Fellini-esque carnival; a sex scene in the castle library, with an illuminated floor on which dictionary definitions of “sexual” words are underlined for the viewer’s edification. The patchy narrative is obviously influenced by Bunuel, in particular his late satires (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty), but Metzger falls far short of this template. In his earlier films, sex exists as an organic expression of character and plot, but this movie’s episodic surreality turns characters into ciphers who engage in what seems arbitrary sex.

Score, an adaptation of Jerry Douglas’ infamous off-Broadway play of the same name, details a day in the life of two couples: a predatory pair of score-keeping swingers, and a recently married, willfully innocent and sexually repressed white-bread husband and wife. The first sets an elaborate trap to seduce the second, and that’s essentially the movie. It’s hard to conceive of a more thunderously dated plot. Since AIDS, it’s hard to accept the forced seduction, spouse-swapping, and hard narcotics abuse in any sort of “playful” spirit. The overheated sexual climate would cool and swinging would be repudiated. No matter how marvelously shot the erotic sequences may be, an impending doom hangs over the picture like a pall.

But the same year as Score, Metzger also filmed what would become his masterpiece, Little Mother. Ironically the least “sexy” of his films, it’s without doubt the most well-made and consummately interesting narrative of his career. Inspired by the rise and fall of Eva Peron, it transplants her story from Argentina to an unnamed, imaginary Eastern Bloc country ruled by a military junta and riddled with poverty and corruption. Little Mother utilizes an almost constant quick-cut technique, splicing scenes and snippets from different time periods in rapid succession to create a hazy, dreamlike evocation of memory that brings to mind the consciously artificial technique of mid-period Bergman.

Whereas almost all of Metzger’s previous films were studies in luxury and sensual abandon, this is set in a land of economic privation, dominated by oppressive Soviet Realist architecture. The beloved “Little Mother” uses sex to manipulate men in power whom she must conquer to achieve her position. The most chilling scene sees her bringing a friend to a party at an officers’ club, having arranged for the friend to be gang-raped in order to ingratiate herself with the officers. It’s a brutal film, uncharacteristically political and surprisingly affecting in its demonstration of the costs of untrammeled ambition—certainly a welcome bromide to Evita‘s sentimental imbroglio.

It is here that our story changes direction. Metzger produced 1973’s The Punishment of Anne (not included in the Collection), then embarked on a stretch of five hardcore films produced under the name “Henry Paris.” While these films are regarded by many as the high point of ‘70s porn, they are also singularly futile gestures. The vision of pornography championed by Metzger failed to win a constituency. The adult film industry’s best attempts at creating thoughtful, sexy films with crossover appeal have fallen far short of the standards for conceptual erotica established by Metzger in the 1970s.

In 1978, Metzger returned to the mainstream with The Cat and the Canary, a remake of the silent film of the same name. Its reputation has grown in the years since its release (again, it is not included in this set), but soon after, Metzger fell into semi-retirement. His last film to date, 1984’s The Princess and the Call Girl, is a regrettable last hurrah. Directed for the Playboy Channel, it betrays its softcore cable roots with limpid direction and long sequences of painful expository dialogue.

As much as Metzger’s films make their own argument for his cultural and artistic significance, First Run’s presentations leave a lot to be desired. The film transfer quality simply could not be worse. His early films, particularly The Dirty Girls and The Alley Cats, suffer unto near incoherence from poor film stock, with the black and white contrast so abominable as to render entire passages almost unintelligible, monochromatic shapes moving in a gray haze. The later movies look sharper, undoubtedly because better quality film stock was available for the transfer. Carmen, Baby is presented with bad English dubbing and no alternate Italian language track. Little Mother is titled “Blood Queen” because the only print available for the DVD release was a foreign print with that title.

To make matters worse, those films with hardcore content (such as Score) are truncated “hard R” edits, not the full cuts. Grating and incompetent, they include scenes that are borderline nonsensical, with clipped musical cues and jerky jump cuts that plainly eliminated cock and beaver shots. (Ironically, the early films are bundled with deleted scenes, originally cut to ensure distribution, mostly snippets of bare breasts; one scene cut from the theatrical run of The Dirty Girls features a prostitute dressed like a nun.) These DVDs show little attention to detail. I’m willing to cut the producers a little slack in this regard, considering the films’ limited audience (cult) appeal, but there’s a basic level of professionalism that these releases simply do not meet. I’m not so churlish as to spurn what is available, but I can’t help but think the shoddy presentation also represents a missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, it is likely this is the only presentation of these movies we are going to see anytime soon, so it behooves us to overlook the lapses in presentation quality and appreciate them for what they are: occasionally dated, occasionally naïve, but wholly necessary correctives to the historical record. You don’t have to be anti-porn to dislike porn’s overwhelmingly poor production. It was pretty much inevitable, given economic and social factors, that the genre would follow the path of least resistance on its way toward better serving the desires of the lowest common denominator.

Perhaps this is so intrinsic an attribute of porn as to be definitional: porn exists to arouse, and anything that gets in the way of that will be discarded by the Darwinian compulsions of the free market. The “art” films that broke taboos against erotic content also paved the way for porn to propagate across semi-mainstream distribution venues. Until a systematic revolution in the way we perceive sex (not likely!), the rigid industry distinctions that separate art and sex will probably remain exactly as they are.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/the-implacable-progress-of-porn/