Confessions of a Porn Enthusiast: Before Deep Throat, There Was …

Unable to obtain a video screener of the documentary Inside Deep Throat, and unwilling to return to my old soft-core and hard-core haunts around Times Square, I resolved a few weeks back not to report on the film at all, though I finally caught it at the Sunshine Theater downtown. Thirty-three years after the fact, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s curiously grandiloquent feature-length documentary was now commemorating Gerard Damiano’s 1972 classic Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems. So what?

But then I became intrigued-first by the film’s quick exit from its two local cinemas, and then by two provocative essays in the Feb. 28 issue of The New Yorker, one by Anthony Lane, who offered an elegantly withering demolition job on the Deep Throat phenomenon, the other by Francine du Plessix Gray, an equally elegant but slightly more confessional disquisition on “the rise and fall of American striptease”-that is, more confessional than her colleague’s piece, at least in her first paragraph:

“On a weekend afternoon in the bland, uptight nineteen-fifties, shortly after I’d finished college, my parents persuaded my boyfriend, who was always eager to please them, to take us to New Jersey to attend a burlesque and striptease show.”

Ms. du Plessix Gray is thus revisiting a world that Philip Roth once celebrated in Portnoy’s Complaint, though his was from a more solitary, voyeuristic male point of view. By contrast, Ms. du Plessix Gray concludes her first paragraph with a distinctively feminist flourish: “So we piled into the car, mother, stepfather, boyfriend, and I, and went to Union City’s Hudson Theatre, where the pie-throwing episodes and lewd dialogue of classical burlesque alternated with a succession of gorgeously clad women, who, to the strains of such numbers as ‘Blues in the Night,’ very slowly and majestically disrobed.”

This took me back. I had visited the Hudson in Union City and the glitzier Adams Theatre in Newark many times in the late 40’s and early 50’s, and I shared with Mr. Roth a profound appreciation for a coquettish stripper billed as Rose La Rose. Her modus operandi included the teasing of young men in the audience by asking them innocently why they were afraid to stand up. She answered her own question in sweetly maternal disbelief-“Because you can’t?”-to rollicking laughter.

I once went, in a collective burst of bravado, with some ex-high-school buddies and our dates, but I remember that the girls were very uncomfortable with both the comedians and the strippers-and above all with the massively male lust in which they were engulfed and trivialized. Come to think of it, I must say that I can’t remember seeing many-if indeed any-women in the audience in my many journeys for solitary stimulation, either on the burlesque stages or on the soft-core and hard-core screens.

Consequently, I cannot write on the subject with the non-incriminating ease and detachment of Ms. du Plessix Gray and Mr. Lane; I once belonged to that despised tribe of boys and men in raincoats designed to conceal their guilty secrets from each other, and from the more self-controlled and sophisticated literati lurking in their midst.

This is not to say that Deep Throat is an underappreciated work of art, or that all hard-core pornography is artistically worthy. But to dismiss it all as a childish waste of time, as does Mr. Lane, is to miss a point about the inescapable subjectivity of sexual arousal. I prefer to think of my co-religionists in raincoats as searching for an erotic holy grail-we know we’ll never find it, just as we also know that we cannot give up the quest.

I recall that sometime in the early 60’s, I noticed (along with some cineaste friends) that a few theaters on 42nd Street had unobtrusively started screening hard-core pornographic films without any picture displays out front or come-on messages on their marquees. Some of these works hit the jackpot on Al Goldstein’s peter meter with their climactic-literally and figuratively-“money shots.” Long before Deep Throat came along, male exhibitionism ruled the pornographic roost at the expense of eroticism, at least from my point of view.

My own auteurist interests in this area were limited to the soft-core approximations of Joseph Sarno, Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger. But there was another steady source of erotic stimulation for the more discriminating voyeur: a steady stream of European films with their overtly sexual subjects, flashes of bare breasts and graphic simulations of the sex act. Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) was released at the Little Carnegie Theater on 57th Street just down the street from Carnegie Hall under the more exploitative title of The Naked Night, with a big poster of a bosomy Harriet Andersson on the sidewalk. Speaking of “naked,” the sudden 50’s flood of health-preaching nudist films-often featuring volleyball-playing nude women-helped to break the screen taboos against total nudity.

Even in Hollywood movies, the 50’s were not as sensually arid as Ms. du Plessix Gray suggests, what with the flashy modified striptease of Julie London in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958) and of Patricia Owens in Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity (1960), and the smoldering suggestiveness of Patricia Neal and Lee Remick in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). Not a feast, exactly, but not entirely a famine, either. Indeed, if you throw the leg fetishists into the mix, Hollywood musicals were a treasure trove of forbidden pleasures. I know it’s sacrilegious to say this, but from early childhood, I was gleefully turned on by Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes at the annual Christmas Spectacular.

Enlivening the supposedly moribund 50’s from abroad were Ulla Jacobsson in Arne Mattson’s One Summer of Happiness (1951), Francoise Arnoul in Roger Vadim’s No Sun in Venice (1957) and, fittingly enough, Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956).

The point is that for the deeply depraved, the 1972 release of Deep Throat was no big deal. Linda Lovelace-she of the cavernous mouth and fictionally displaced clitoris- couldn’t act, of course, but neither did she reach the pulchritudinous hard-core heights of Candy Barr from the primitive stag-film days. What made Deep Throat such a media conversation piece was all the publicity that accrued to it for being suppressed by the Richard Nixon Justice Department and the Memphis U.S. Attorney. Eventually it figured in the seesawing feminist attitudes toward pornography-liberating women, according to the likes of Camille Paglia, or enslaving them, according to Ellen Willis and company.

Adding to the ferment was the almost simultaneous furor around Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), in which Marlon Brando simulated forcing a buttery substance down the anus of the writhing and nude Maria Schneider. I remember sitting in Alice Tully Hall a few rows behind Pauline Kael, and I could hear her gasping-in shock or ecstasy, I couldn’t tell. Later she raved about the film in The New Yorker, comparing its impact to that of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacré du Printemps. I and a few other critics disagreed, but I must say that she single-handedly rescued the film from any dismissive puritanical condemnation. Alongside that, Norman Mailer delivered a strange critique of Brando’s comparative modesty vis-à-vis the fearlessly unveiled Ms. Schneider, but later in the same piece, as I recall, he noted that if actors were to appear habitually in the nude, it would be at the expense of the characters they played; the audience, he argued, would become overly conscious of the naked bodies and, hence, real identities of the actors.

I felt at the time that people were so exclusively focused on Brando’s boldness in Last Tango that they tended to overlook the large section of the film with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Mr. Bertolucci’s homage to the nouvelle vague. I even appeared on a television panel with similarly anti-Kael-inclined colleagues to pooh-pooh the comparison between Last Tango and Le Sacré du Printemps.

For the celebrities who flocked to the alleged porno chic of Deep Throat, I had nothing but a porn connoisseur’s contempt. I wrote nothing on the subject at the time, because I didn’t want to incriminate myself with a recital of my expertise. No fear of that now.

But the film wasn’t without merit. Deep Throat certainly didn’t invent oral sex, but it may well have been the first porno film to exploit it. I haven’t followed the current porno scene adequately enough to discover whether fellatio and cunnilingus have become mainstays of the genre. Curiously, the practice has appeared in non-porno films with greater frequency. It is possible that in the simple mind-set of porn producers, oral sex might be considered a step back in licentiousness, inasmuch it can be performed with both sexes almost completely clothed-thus diminishing the striptease quotient from the overall erotic spectacle.

But my most vivid memory of the Deep Throat period is of a huge celebrity-saturated cocktail party I attended in a large West Side restaurant. Mr. Mailer and Mr. Reems were both there, but I don’t recall speaking to either of them. Indeed, what I do remember is standing in a circle of people and holding forth on how ridiculous it was for Mr. Mailer to make such a fuss over the lack of full-frontal male nudity in Brando’s Last Tango performance when, only a few years before, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed had bared all in the male-bonding wrestling match in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), adapted from D.H. Lawrence’s novel (a woman friend once described the film as the Moby-Dick of sex).

On and on I went about Bates and Reed and Brando, when suddenly I looked up and there was Alan Bates looking at me, well within earshot. I was horribly embarrassed and just stood there, when Bates did something I shall never forget. He simply winked at me with a friendly, conspiratorial expression. All the tension immediately drained out of me. Like so many British actors, he exuded real class. Still, it was a humbling experience, and I resolved then and there to be more restrained in all my future public utterances.

The absorption of Deep Throat into the political melodrama that was Watergate seems to have led to some grandiose statements in Messrs. Bailey and Barbato’s documentary-that of the film’s significance in the ongoing struggle for freedom of expression. I never felt this to be an issue at the time, and I don’t now. The effort to make Nixon the villain of the piece in the documentary struck me as even more questionable, considering the current Constitutional crises that are afflicting us without any discernible decrease in pleasure-seeking for the deeply depraved. Despite all the ranting and raving over an accidentally exposed female breast at last year’s Super Bowl, technology has extended pornography to every hotel room in the country. Whether or not women are empowered or victimized in the process is simply part of a larger question involving the empowerment or victimization of both men and women in the world’s economic and social systems. In the sad experience of Mr. Reems and the late Linda Lovelace, these two porn pioneers were at different times both empowered and victimized.

As the designated “Deep Throat” in the Watergate story wisely advised Woodward and Bernstein: “Just follow the money.”

Young Dreamer

Savi Gabizon’s Nina’s Tragedies, from his own screenplay, takes an outrageously comic roundabout way to reconcile an Israeli-born teenager with the spirit of his father, from whom he had long been emotionally estranged after the divorce of his parents. Nadav (Aviv Elkabets), a nerdy 14-year-old, becomes infatuated with his emotionally overwrought Aunt Nina (Ayelet July Zurer), whose husband Haimon (Yotram Hatav) is killed in a terrorist attack. From the few occasions we see Haimon in action, he seems a bad-tempered bully who made Nina cry-but she loves him madly just the sam, and seems permanently inconsolable when he dies. Despite a succession of funerals, the tone of the film is ironically buoyant.

The picture actually begins with a meeting between Nadav’s concerned teacher and his very religious father, Amnon (Shmil Ben-Ari). The teacher hands Amnon his son’s confiscated diary, which, she fears, may not be entirely a work of fiction. Among Nadav’s supposed experiences are nightly peeping-Tom excursions to neighborhood bedroom windows with his grown-up best friend, Menahem (Dov Navon). Menahem eventually abandons Nadav for a peculiar romance with a voluptuous Russian immigrant named Galina (Jenya Dodina), whose on-again-off-again boyfriend has a strange habit of walking around naked in the streets among the unexcited pedestrians, who presumably have seen everything before.

Nadav’s emotions have a comically short fuse, and when Nina begins an affair with a handsome but superficial photographer named Avinoam (Alon Aboutboul), Nadav renounces Nina with as much intensity as he once renounced his father. Nadav eventually realizes that the grown-ups around him are no less immature than he is, and that he must forgive them and somehow adjust to their needs as well as his own.

Eastern Promise

Fatih Akin’s Head-On, from his own screenplay, has come and gone, but it should be remembered at year’s end and should be caught if it ever returns in theaters, VHS or DVD. Still, I must warn my readers that this is one of the grungiest, most despairing and most self-hating stories I have ever encountered on the screen. Mr. Akin is a Turkish director living in Germany, and he’s framed his film around a group of Turkish musicians and a woman soloist playing what sounds to my Greek-American ears like Greek bazouki songs, each more mournful than the last. The musical group is seen against a large body of water and what I assume are the minarets of Istanbul.

Our two lovers, Cahit (Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), meet in a treatment center after both have separately attempted suicide. Sibel impulsively asks Cahit to marry her-not out of love at first sight, but as a means of getting out of her family’s home. Since Cahit is, like Sibel, a Turkish immigrant to Germany, he would be acceptable to her parents if he could pretend to have a responsible job. The marriage goes through as intended, but it is not consummated, as Sibel goes off with other men and Cahit resumes an old affair with a beautician named Maren (Catrin Striebeck).

The atmosphere is even more sordid than this thumbnail synopsis suggests, but somehow love awakens amid all the escalating violence-including an accidental murder leading to a short prison sentence and another violent episode in Istanbul-there’s a bittersweet reunion in Istanbul, with the musicians again playing their fatalistic coda. Still, unlikely as it may seem, there are more than a few moments of riveting passion and sweet rapport. This is a film experience that stays in the mind.