‘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.

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.

RATING 6 / 10