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The Sultan of Sophisticated Smut: Joe Sarno (1921 - 2010)

Sarno vividly explored the phobias and fetishes that polite company only whispered about and did so in a way that combined sexuality with seriousness.

When Joe Sarno was good, he was golden. No one peeled back the slick sophisticate layer off the otherwise wife-swapping underbelly of suburbia better than the man who made the '60s gated community a bastion of plausible perversion. On the other hand, when he was coasting, or better yet, when he traded innuendo and style for smut and hardcore, his mid '70s to later output suffered. For many, the name will mean nothing, just another in a long line of exploitation giants who few understand and even less loved outright. But for those who know his work, and even better, appreciate his take on the social climate over the last three decades, his death on 26 April at age 89 truly was a loss.

Sarno stands amongst grindhouse giants - names like Friedman, Lewis, Cresse, Mahon, Novak, and Babb. He was the bellwether of the sexual revolution's earliest days and its harshest critic. While other filmmakers were focusing on gore, or pseudo-sadism, Sarno stood fast in his belief that the secret scandals behind closed doors - and the nudity which usually accompanied same - would more than satisfy the raincoat crowd. When Deep Throat made pornography mainstream, the director jumped on the bawdy bandwagon. From 1977 onward, his name was associated with such seminal works as Inside Seka, Seven Minutes in Heaven, and The Erotic Adventures of Bedman and Throbbin.

He didn't start out to make movies. Born in 1921, he was raised by very liberal parents on the outskirts of Manhattan. He attended New York University, but dropped out when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After the war, he worked in advertising, and wrote ripping yarn stories for men's magazines. When the Navy came calling asking him to create some training films (they mistakenly believed he was a cameraman while in combat), Sarno said "Yes". He picked up a book on cinematography and started shooting. In 1961, wrote the script for an "erotic" effort called Nude in Charcoal. With some uncredited time behind the lens as part of the production, Sarno was officially a flesh peddler. While his next two films remained unreleased, 1964's Sin in the Suburbs became a critical smash.

The film focused on bored housewives who find time to frolic once the prying eyes of husbands, children, and nosy-body neighbors are out of view. Centering on the then outrageous concept of wife-swapping, swinger's clubs, and house key parties, Sarno distilled the numerous rumors floating around the fringes into brilliantly structured vignettes of vile wantonness. As a result, Sin in the Suburbs remains one of his best films, a bold experiment in style and subject matter that would still be branded as borderline scum, even in today's so-called tolerant environment. It's a perfectly plotted masterwork of story and shot selection is more like a post-millennial walk through the seedy side of society than a standard early exploitation film.

From then on, there was no stopping Sarno. Sin begat Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures, Pandora and the Magic Box, the fascinating Flesh and Lace, and The Love Merchant. By 1966, when he once again revisited the other kind of trading spouses, he delivered another masterwork. The Swap and How They Make It takes another of his sensational scripts (Sarno almost always wrote his own screenplays) and married it to an untried vision of a carnal comedy of manners. Employing a new kind of camerawork, mostly medium and close-up shots that render the backdrops and settings insignificant, one gets the feeling of being lost. It lends a very dramatic air to the proceedings. Whenever actors interact, they come toward the camera and play out their scenes as if the lens was another witness, an innocent party to the prurient planning.

By 1968, the far more permissive foreign film market was offering explicit takes on erotica (at least in terms of what the US producers were showing) and so Sarno headed to Sweden - home of the notorious I Am Curious (Yellow) - and took up the clapboard. His first film in the country, The Seduction of Inga, was an international smash, combining the standard coming of age narrative with an adult approach to subject matter and spirit. The experience was so favorable for Sarno that he vowed to return - and for the rest of his life, he shuttled between America and Europe, using his newfound commercial cache to explore aspects of the subgenre that were deeper, darker, and sometimes more disturbing. Along with his third wife, Peggy, he became a leading champion for all things carnal and corporeal.

As the '70s started, Sarno and his ilk were slowly losing favor with the mainstream. Thanks to the taboo-busting and envelope-pushing pattern of exploitation, the rest of the industry had begun to slowly incorporate their conceits into everyday movies. When Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, many knew their time was up. Sarno, on the other hand, embraced the skyrocketing interest in hardcore, tweaking his tasteful scripts on adultery and sin into wild and wanton explorations of lust and desire. While his first few films of the decade - Confessions of a Young American Housewife, Misty, and a cash grab "sequel" to Throat - were decidedly soft, by 1977 he was churning out choice filth under various pseudonyms.

Like many coming from his past position, Sarno was mostly forgotten by the time home video rolled around. While the sex industry made a mint off the VCR/VHS market, few saw a call for exploitation's earlier efforts. Luckily, certified fans like filmmaker Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and collector Mike Vraney kept the spirit of sleaze alive, using their own interest to form companies like Something Weird. By the time DVD hit the format, their cult had grown. Thanks to constant reappraisal via the Internet and the Geek Nation's desire to embrace the obvious invention of the phase of filmmaking, forgotten souls like Sarno soon became big again. Along with noted members of the club including Herschel Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, and Harry Novak, he went from rejected to revered (so much so that, in 2004, at age 83, Sarno returned to his roots with the delicious Suburban Secrets).

In the lexicon of great filmmakers, Joe Sarno's name probably doesn't have an entry - but it should. He vividly explored the phobias and fetishes that polite company only whispered about and did so in a way that combined sexuality with seriousness. While his work today can be criticized as campy or crude, it has a frankness and an honesty that few in the peek-a-boo trade could top. Whether it was in stark black and white or full blown color, with content either implied or explicit, Sarno's cinematic statements were a definite reflection of our cultural concerns. Few in exploitation can claim such a place. In fact, the same can be said for many in the mainstream as well. That's how important Joe Sarno was…and is.


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