“… For me, a sex film should stimulate the audience sexually, just as a film about horror should stimulate feelings of horror …”
*From the September 4, 1972 issue of New York magazine. In partnership with HBO’s The Deuce, we dug through our archives to surface some of our favorite features on the 1970s hustle. Catch the premiere of The Deuce on September 10 at 9 p.m.
The other night I went to the World Theater on 49th Street, just off the teeming nightside bazaar of times Square, to see a skin flick called Deep Throat. Until then, I had given the new film pornography a pass; there always seemed to be too many other things to do first: campaigns to cover, great films to see, places to go where I had not been, stories and plays and movies to write. I had read some print pornography, found it alternatively amusing, stupid, erotic, repetitious or cruel; had seen some “stag” films (the name of the genre itself places the time) which featured flaccid-looking women and guys who wore their socks to bed; and had wandered through the “hot books” of my time, from “two-by-fours” to the adventures of Crazy Shack in The Amboy Dukes. But when the breakthroughs in film porn happened a couple of years ago, I didn’t bother going. It wasn’t that I pretended to a sophistication that I did not possess; I certainly had not done, seen or read about every sexual variation in the history of the earth. And it was true that I carried as heavy a cargo of sexual repression out of the fifties and the Catholic Church as anyone else from my background, and might have used these movies as a kind of therapy. But I suppose it was more a social thing, one I shared with many other people: the theaters themselves. They all looked like the sort of place where you bought a ticket, a box of popcorn and a raincoat. Suppose you walked out of one of those places and bumped into Mario Procaccino? Or your maiden aunt? Carajo!
But this was an evening when everyone we knew was out of town, and the city seemed an empty silent place. It was an evening for tasting something new: a rose petal on the tongue, the tapdancers at the Music Hall, or, hey, how about a skin flick? A blurb from Screw on the marquee of the World proclaimed that Deep Throat was the best skin flick ever made, and that was as good a recommendation as any, so we paid the $5 each to the wan girl in the box office, passed through a narrow entrance guarded by a soda machine, and went into the theater. It was about a quarter full, mostly men scattered alone through the theater, with occasional couples (by the end of the show about ten women were in the theater). Most of the men were middle-aged; I saw no bald heads and no raincoats.
The film itself was as good technically as most second-grade movies you will see these days. The color was good, the camerawork competent, the editing professional (because of the restrictive rules of the movie unions most young movie kids are breaking in by making skin flicks). There were exteriors shot along Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, and at a variety of Miami private homes and motel swimming pools; the score was smooth (and an interesting parody on the ludicrous current practice of sticking a moody young rock ballad on top of the titles of films, in hopes of an extra payoff from record sales). In short, the skin flick had traveled a long way technically form the out-of-focus Candy Barr two-reeler.
The story itself was a cartoon, and that was one of its problems. It concerned two women, one older, the other younger (Linda Lovelace, the credits said, playing herself). The older woman looked like one of those Ida Lupino-style hookers who used to hang around the bars of the strip joints in New Orleans: a good whiskey voice, a body younger than her face, a hard mannered mask of a woman. The young woman drives through Miami to the small house she shares with the older woman, and walks in on the older woman sitting on the kitchen table while a visiting delivery boy does what delivery boys always do in pornographic stories. “Hi,” the young girl says. They engage in a short banal conservation while the delivery boy keeps going. The young girl leaves, and the older woman says to the delivery boy: “Do you mind if I smoke while you eat?”
The audience in the theater laughed, and yet what followed seemed deprived of its eroticism by that cigarette; it was as if the distraction of the cigarette deprived the scene of its intensity, and therefore its ability to stimulate. Later there is a cut to a swimming pool where the older woman asks the younger one why she is so moody and depressed. Answer: she gets no real satisfaction from sex. “I want to hear bells ring, explosions go off,” the younger girl says. The older one can’t believe this. Quick cut to the house again, where the older woman has lined up a dozen studs who are charged with helping the younger girl out of her dilemma. Some heavy grinding sex follows. The bodies are all handsome, including that of the star, but when it’s over, she still hasn’t heard bells ring, or explosions go off. So she goes to a psychiatrist.
The cartoon continues. The psychiatrist is a cartoon of a psychiatrist, with a big-breasted nurse who reminded me of the cartoons of Bill Wenzel in the fifties, in which all the nurses had 42-inch bosoms and all the doctors were panting idiots. The psychiatrist asks the girl a couple of questions, and then decides that her problems might be physical and she should get undressed. She does (the star, along with several other women in other portions of the show, had shaved her pubic hair).
Amid a lot of zoom-lens close-ups and patter, the moustached psychiatrist makes a startling discovery. The young girl’s problem is that her clitoris isn’t where it should be: it is, in fact, in her throat. Big laughs again from the audience, and then everyone settled down to what follows. The young girl is able to do something that I would have thought physically impossible, and which those who are interested will have to see to believe. The rest of the film is almost entirely about her finally getting sexual satisfaction. The psychiatrist remains a cartoon (giving diagnoses over the phone while the nurse kneels naked before him) and there are cuts to bells ringing, fireworks exploding, etc., when the star finally finds sexual fulfillment, as she calls it. There is no cruelty, no sado-masochism.
And that was the movie. After watching a couple of “loops,” which were sado-masochistic, and coming attractions for a film called The Debauchees, featuring knives and gore, we walked out again into the evening. Three black prostitutes waited beside the theater. While we were there, nobody employed them. Times Square never seemed so full of lone men, drifting from the papaya stands to the peep shows: most of them middle-aged, none of them fitting the stereotype of the sex-crazed pervert so dear to the hearts of reformers, religious and otherwise. For them, the World was the neighborhood movie house. If you don’t think the central problem of New York is loneliness, hang around Times Square some evening and try to understand how those people get through the night.
Later, we picked up The Times to read that Deep Throat was in trouble with the law. A print of the film had been seen by Criminal Court Judge Ernst Rosenberger, at the request of the police public morals squad, as part of this year’s annual “Clean Up Times Square” drive. The good judge ordered the film seized after the last performance on August 18. The owner of the theater fought in court on grounds that the judge had failed “to give the owner an adversary hearing first on whether the film was obscene.” The judges agreed and allowed the showing to go on, with another hearing scheduled for September 8. The whole issue is now before the United States Supreme Court, which must decide whether a judge alone can see a film and decide it is obscene without giving the theater owner a hearing.
All of which is absurd, wasteful and somehow bizarre. To begin with, it is absurd that the police should be involved in this sort of thing; in the case of Deep Throat the film was brought to the attention of a judge by Patrolman Michael Sullivan. To ask a cop to make the initial judgment over whether something is obscene is to distort his function: looking at “dirty” movies when people are being shot down n the Neapolitan Noodle is a waste of his energy.
For me a sex film should stimulate the audience sexually, just as a film about love should stimulate feelings of love, a film about horror stimulate horror. Deep Throat, because you don’t really care much about the characters, because its humor seems to mock itself (a satire of a horror film is about the form itself, not horror) is not consistently stimulating, at least for me. I can’t say what it did for the other people in the audience, but that is their business, not mine, and certainly not the state’s. In that theater, the audience settled into its seats, and each person became the recipient of his or her own fantasies, erotic or otherwise, based on specific, personal history. They were not hurting anybody. None of them that day had bombed a peasant village, created a Brownsville or a South Bronx, or poisoned a river. They were there alone, trying to find a way to get through the night, and to waste time, energy or money on depriving them of one of their needs is a brutal enterprise indeed.