Film Movement continues its commitment to issuing restored Blu-rays of the films of Joseph Sarno, who has often been called the Ingmar Bergman of exploitation films. That’s not a joke, because the Swedish-American Sarno admired Bergman and even made films in Sweden, and his scripts emphasize intense emotional motivations while his camera boxes his characters into claustrophobic compositions. He made films in close collaboration with wife Peggy Sarno, often credited as Peggy Steffans while handling sets, costumes and make-up and serving as associate producer, and who sometimes acted as Cleo Nova.
Film Movement’s first Sarno double-feature was reviewed by PopMatters here. This new release, All the Sins of Sodom and Vibrations, makes a sensible double-feature because these films were shot back-to-back, or virtually on top of each other, in the winter of 1968 along with a third title, The Wall of Flesh, shortly after the Sarnos returned from filming Inga in Sweden. All three films starred Maria Lease, who bears a strange resemblance to Liza Minnelli in her “Sterile Cuckoo” phase, all snub nose and bangs.
I’m sorry to report that All the Sins of Sodom doesn’t really have all of them. The story focuses on a nudie photographer — a common theme in films of this stripe but rarely in any credible way. This one is clearly influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), at least for the shots of a photographer at work posing his models against bland backgrounds while he writhes on the floor. In liner notes, Tim Lucas points out that the photographer is called Henning seemingly in reference to David Hemmings, the star of Antonioni’s film.
This hirsute shutterbug, played by an uncredited actor, photographs a bunch of women, has sex with them, and has his professional and personal life ruined by a vindictive minx for no good reason. Lease plays the model he might be most in love with. The effectively underplaying Sue Akers enacts the minx, an enigmatic figure common to Sarno’s films: a sexually liberated (or amoral) trickster who intrudes into a situation marked by everyone’s conventional desperation and proceeds to upset every precarious apple-cart.
It’s common for this figure to go on her merry way, either leaving ruin in her wake or catalyzing previously repressed characters to throw off their chains. This example is similarly ambiguous, although she proves more destructive than is typical for Sarno, who usually valorizes the liberated characters against the uptight ones.
In pristine shape from the camera negative, this is typical Sarno: minimalist, intense close-ups, brutal editing, occasional percussive music when things heat up, and beautiful, high-contrast, low-key black and white photography with lots of what Sarno calls “limbo shots”, or faces surrounded by darkness or whiteness. Except for a few outdoor bumper scenes, it was shot entirely in a real photographer’s studio.
Vibrations, like All the Sins of Sodom, uses a literal plot device: a weird giant plug-in vibrator that looks like a giant light meter or a robot’s head. The story finds two sisters in the city. Little sis Barbara (Lease) is a closed thorny flower, while her horny liberated big sis Julia (Marianne Prevost) visits “from the Midwest” — midwest New Jersey, it sounds like, as she’s introduced crossing the street to an organ solo.
It seems they were closer than sisters once upon a time, and Julia is ready to renew that relationship while Barbara feels disgusted and repressed. “Oh, you’re so uptight! You’re just jealous! That’s what you are, jealous!” taunts Julia when Barbara finds her boffing the nice downstairs writer. Meanwhile, Julia finds out that the broom closet next door is some kind of 24-hour wonderland of kinksters and she goes down the keyhole and takes little sister for a visit. “I specialize in pleasure,” declares the mysterious topless mistress of this closet, “pleasure so intense it’s akin to torment — exquisite torment.” This all culminates in one of Sarno’s typical poetic ironies about liberation and repression.
The Persona-like switch of sisters includes segments where each of them is away and the other tells the same lies to the nosy landlady played by Peggy Sarno, who’d played the models’ agent in the previous film. I began to wonder if this was a Fight Club scenario where there was really only one sister. And it might be so if we choose to perceive that Barbara, who wants to be a writer, summons her outgoing sister to help her explore the shenanigans next door and actualize her inner horny-tude.
In Sarno style, it’s filmed almost entirely in poised close-up groupings, the constricted framing relying on depth as characters pop into the foreground or retreat to the background. The often brilliant black and white photography here is courtesy of Steve Silverman, Peggy’s brother, while Peggy serves as the focus puller.
In general, Sarno’s characters are talky, restless, desperate and sex-starved middle-class Americans. He prefers to film entire scenes in single shots, with the camera stable or moving a little restlessly, and actors moving from background to foreground and back. Some scenes do employ editing, but he seems to prefer the “simple” set-up with complex blocking of actors amid careful compositions. This generates tension and boxes his people in with their own desires and dissatisfactions.
Meanwhile, the sex, supposedly the selling point of such softcore items, is always shot curiously: when all other exploitation compatriots were showing as much as possible, Sarno barely granted a glimpse of breast. Vibrations goes much further than All the Sins Sodom in this respect, despite being filmed together. Yet while other directors are content to have actors fake stuff they can’t show, Sarno expects them to go as far as possible and doesn’t show it. The result is an atmosphere sleazy and heated while showing little or nothing.
Another curious quality that separates Sarno from his brethren is that these types of movies commonly paraded “socially redeeming value” by exploiting what the audience wanted to see and then punishing the characters for showing it to us. Typically, the only characters who wind up happy are those safely married and faithful. In other words, such films are essentially conservative and hypocritical.
By contrast, Sarno’s films have the reverse effect. The pre-sex context is presented as intolerable, the sex is usually liberating, and even though some characters suffer or escape from what they get into, this is only because they carry the psychological baggage with them from the pre-lib days — and most importantly, the most perverse characters don’t get punished! Thus, Sarno deprives us of some of what we want to see, and he subverts middle-class values by showing us that sexually conventional people are unhappy. It’s no wonder that his films still have a following.
All the Sins of Sodom preserves a previous DVD’s commentary with Peggy and a bonus interview with Joe, while Vibrations offers an intelligent new commentary by Tim Lucas, who’s writing a book on the Sarnos. He finds Sarno’s stories dealing with “a level of human experience that Hollywood wouldn’t then and still daren’t delve into completely, stories which aren’t always pretty or flattering, just very real. He was interested in the ways honest, raw sexuality impacts people’s lives. He didn’t always see sexuality as a basis for ongoing relationships either but as a therapeutic connection that allowed people to sort out things in their heads to make it possible for them to form more lasting relationships.”
Both prints are in terrific shape, which is so important in making it clear that cheaply made films needn’t look and sound artless. Sarno’s films looks and sound like art, and they are.