'A Life in Dirty Movies' Is a Touching Documentary That Isn’t About What You Think

With a title like A Life in Dirty Movies you might not expect a love story, but that's what you get.

A Life in Dirty Movies

Director: Wiktor Ericsson
Cast: Joseph W. Sarno, Peggy Steffans, John Waters, Annie Sprinkle
Length: 80 minutes
Studio: Anagram Produktion
Year: 2014
Distributor: RAM Releasing
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2014-11-25

With a title like “A Life in Dirty Movies” one could be forgiven for making the assumption that this documentary film is all about pornography. Although the subject of this documentary, cult director and screenwriter Joseph W. Sarno, is the man responsible for such films as Sin in the Suburbs, Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures, All the Sins of Sodom, Deep Throat Part II, Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle, Inside Little Oral Annie, The Horneymooners II, 21 Hump Street, The Erotic Adventures of Bedman and Throbbin, Coming on America and Screw the Right Thing (just to name just a few), “porn” isn’t exactly what the man was known for creating. The line between soft core “sexploitation” and actual pornography itself may be a somewhat thin barrier, but Sarno himself claims to find the latter to be distasteful. He credits his refusal to cross said line as the reason for his drop in success during his later years.

The documentary A Life in Dirty Movies does primarily focus on those later years, particularly concentrating on Sarno’s relationship with his wife and longtime collaborator, actress Peggy Steffans. Swedish director Wiktor Ericsson does not limit his film to merely following up on the career of an old, mostly retired director you’ve probably never heard of. Instead, Ericsson allows the Sarnos to reminisce about their life, love, and careers from the vantage point of the present day.

With Joe Sarno pushing 90 when most of this documentary was shot in 2010, in addition to his professional career stretching back to the early '60s, there are most assuredly many years to cover. To this end, Ericsson uses Sarno’s recollections to trace a career in motion pictures from his earliest experiments to the final film he attempts to make during the time that A Life in Dirty Movies follows him.

This documentary’s title might mislead some viewers into thinking that this is some sort of “naughty picture”, and the genres Sarno works in give a certain cheap and tawdry impression. After all, the sexploitation subgenre of films isn’t exactly the kind of thing you would watch with your grandmother or expect to see accepting a gold statue at the Oscars. Thus, it is something of a surprise to note the critical acclaim that Sarno has earned over the years for a type of movie that would generally be watched for the actresses and situations much more than their potential cinematic artistry.

Sarno is presented as an artist first with his somewhat prurient genre being almost incidental. That’s not to say that Ericsson is prudish in his coverage of Sarno’s career -- far from it. In fact, there are copious clips from Sarno's film catalogue, many of which could make readers of Fifty Shades of Grey and viewers of Maison Close blush.

However, Ericcson puts much more of a focus on the “Life” than the “in Dirty Movies” of the title. To this end, the relationship between Sarno and his wife Peggy is explored in more detail than any other aspect of his life and career. While much of Sarno’s work does include Peggy Steffans, even their reminiscing about past collaborations focuses much more heavily on the couple as a couple than as business partners. In many ways, such a faithful and romantic relationship existing in a movie called A Life in Dirty Movies is as surprising as awards, critical acclaim, and recognition for those same dirty movies. Watching the couple revisit old stomping grounds and reliving old memories during their twilight years is a beautiful experience, regardless of what sort of movie we are watching or they are making.

Of course, Ericcson helps to prove what Sarno and his fans already know. There is an artistry to virtually any genre of film, provided that an artist brings said artistry to the genre. Additionally, both Sarno and Steffans are firm about their boundaries and what they were (and are) willing and unwilling to do, regardless of how much money they stood to make to compromise those principles. It may surprise many, considering the movie titles I quoted above, that much like a lot of people their age, this old married couple follows the old adage that “it’s so much sexier when you don’t see everything”.

Bonus features on the DVD include two featurettes, trailers for this film and others from the distributor, and actor interviews. The main attraction here, however, is A Life in Dirty Movies itself. While it may not be an Oscar contender or even a first choice subject (unless the title itself entices sexploitation fans), it is a surprising and touching documentary, as well as a love story set against the backdrop of a career packed with more talent and morality than Sarno’s genre demanded. It’s almost impossible not to care about this couple as they welcome you into their home, whether or not you’re hankering to view any one of their pun-titled adult films.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.