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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005
When revolution came to the big screen
Special to The Japan Times
1969 was a watershed year for American cinema, with two films in particular heralding significant changes to the movie-making industry. One was "Midnight Cowboy," the story of a hustler and a junkie on the streets of New York City, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman; this became the first X-rated film to win an Oscar, proving that an X was no barrier to mass acceptance.
The other was Dennis Hopper's hippie road-movie, "Easy Rider." Made for $375,000 and eventually earning in the region of $50 million, "Easy Rider" proved that hip, confrontational films aimed at a counterculture audience could sell, despite a lack of big stars.
Both of these developments would converge a few years down the road, resulting in some unlikely hits. 1971 saw "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the seminal blaxploitation flick by Melvin Van Peebles about a hustler who fought the law and won. The following year brought "Deep Throat," a comedic ode to oral sex by Gerard Damiano, which made its star Linda Lovelace a household name.
Both films were rated X, and yet both went on to rack up amazing box-office figures. "Sweet Sweetback," made for a meager $150,000 scraped out of Van Peebles' own pocket, earned over $10 million (in 1971 dollars) in its first six months alone, and $140 million total. "Deep Throat," for its part, has reportedly grossed over $600 million since its release. So the next time someone starts talking to you about "Titanic," you can point out that it's not just ships that make money by going down.
Beyond the financial measures of their success, however, both these films had a significant cultural impact, which is why they're being re-explored in two new films opening this month. "Baadasssss!," by Melvin's son Mario (director of "Panther," "New Jack City"), is a fascinating re-creation of the making of "Sweet Sweetback," with Mario playing his dad. "Baadasssss!" shows well the stubborn determination and risk-taking that went into the first film made by a black man for a black audience, in which a black hero has his revenge on some racist white cops and gets away with it. ("Shaft," "Superfly," etc., were all to come later, riding this film's success.)
"Inside Deep Throat," a documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ("Party Monster"), explores the runaway success of this porn flick and the reaction it provoked. The film is held up as marking the crest of the sexual revolution, as well as an early example of the right-vs.-left "culture wars" that roil America today (with the added irony that much of the feminist hard-left joined the religious right in attacking the film.)
Both Melvin Van Peebles -- accompanied by Mario -- and Gerard Damiano were in Tokyo recently, looking back on the '70s and the impact their films have had over the years. Van Peebles Sr., at age 73, still retains the intensity of his youth (and the cigar); Damiano, age 77, has retained the gold-chained look of an adult filmmaker, but with his two grown children by his side at the interview, telling how dad wouldn't let them see his movies, he's every bit a family man as well.
"Sweet Sweetback" remains an intriguing film even today -- sometimes rough, sometimes inspired, always confrontational. Despite the gritty image of blaxploitation films, this one is almost psychedelic, with surreal overlays of images and radical editing. Most impressive is the layered, complex soundtrack -- with music by the then undiscovered band Earth, Wind & Fire -- that often acted like a Greek chorus commenting on the action.
Melvin Van Peebles was ahead of his time on several levels. "I was wondering how I was gonna advertise the film," he says. "I couldn't pay for print ads or radio -- 15 seconds would cost more money than I had. So I said, I know, I'll write a hit tune, and when they play the tune, that will advertise the movie. Nowadays, everybody does it, but back then nobody used music as a selling tool for movies. But it's just common sense."
Gerard Damiano also inadvertently discovered a new way to hype a film: controversy. "Things were very puritanical back then," explains the director. "And the authorities were always trying to physically stop the viewing or making of [adult] films. But every time films were seized and brought to trial, it was proven that the First Amendment said you could do this, you could be that honest about a particular subject. Now, nobody gets arrested for making an X-rated film; whereas then, I was arrested several times. But every time I was arrested or the film was banned, the publicity that resulted helped to promote 'Deep Throat' rather than hinder it."
One thing that the documentary looks at is the effect of putting genial Harry Reems, the male lead of "Deep Throat," on trial on obscenity charges. "That was probably the worst thing the Nixon administration could have done," declares Damiano. "Because then, legal minds outside of the adult-film industry were outraged, and the so-called 'legitimate' people that came to his defense [Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Dick Cavett, etc.] were enough to stop them."
"Sweet Sweetback" also flirted with the obscenity laws. "That's one of the reasons 'Baadasssss!' is spelled that way," notes Van Peebles. "The papers wouldn't run a word like 'ass.' " An X rating, based on some fairly explicit scenes of Sweetback -- a gigolo -- having sex, was no deterrent. "Rated X by an all-white jury" became part of the ad campaign.
But getting an X was all part of Melvin's plan: "One of the reasons the film had to be salacious was because the only way I could find qualified crew who weren't in the unions was to use people from porno movies."
Van Peebles didn't have the cash for union rates, but beyond that, he wanted to have minorities on his crew; the unions were lily-white back then, and they didn't do porno.
They were also a dangerous bunch to cross; one scene in "Baadasssss!" re-creates a moment where Melvin and his cast were watching the first day's rushes and a couple of burly men visit the projection room to check up on the proceedings. "I shot the part with Sweetback screwing the girl as the first scene, so the unions wouldn't think I was making a normal film," explains Van Peebles. If they thought that, they'd have stopped it right then. Or in the lab, the film would 'accidentally' get scratched."
Between the unions and the dodgy mob-related types Van Peebles was borrowing cash from, paranoia on the shoot was rife. "One of the reasons I shot in the desert was so the guys who were trying to kill me couldn't find me," admits the director. "We carried real guns. This was not cinema -- this was war!"
In the case of "Deep Throat," Damiano's financial backers were the Parino brothers, who were mob-backed and who strong-armed Damiano out of his share of the profits after the film took off. But, as Damiano points out, "I made a lot of films for other legitimate businessmen, and guess what: I never saw any of that money either. Look at 'Easy Rider.' That was a tremendous success, but neither Hopper nor Fonda saw any of the money that film made. Hollywood grabbed it all."
Damiano is equally critical of unions: "The only way you could make a low-budget adult movie was to be outside the unions. And because of that, it gave us complete freedom. So I, as a director, could also be a set designer, or pick up the camera and shoot a scene myself. Whereas if there was anybody connected with any of the Hollywood unions, you could never cross those lines.
"I remember a story my cameraman told me, about working later on some union stuff. He wanted to frame his shot better by moving a particular plant, but he was not allowed to touch it! He had to get a 'union greenskeeper.' Nobody else was allowed to move it! But when, as a filmmaker, you're allowed to do anything, you learn everything!"
The revolution's wake
Looking back on both "Sweet Sweetback" and "Deep Throat," it's interesting to examine what the directors set out to do, what they wanted to change, and how successful they were in that mission.
Damiano says that the most important thing for him was to make sex "look like fun." Furthermore, he intended the quest of the frustrated Lovelace for sexual satisfaction to be empowering: "The important thing was women became able to say 'I'm not enjoying it.' And they now knew they were supposed to enjoy it, not just do it."
While feminists called the film degrading to women, Damiano says it wasn't his intention to degrade women: "I wanted to free women, I really did. And all my successful films were basedaround a woman gratifying her desires, not a male dominating a female."
But what about his star Linda Lovelace, who, under the guidance of prominent feminists, eventually testified before the U.S. Congress in 1986 on the evils of pornography and claimed that she made the film under duress.
"Yes, she did change her attitude," says Damiano. "But that's the way Linda was. Her viewpoint depended on who she was connected with at a particular time. At the time, she just totally enjoyed making the film."
Whether or not "Deep Throat" made sex "more fun" is debatable; however, the movie definitely took oral sex out of the closet. More importantly, thanks to the obscenity trials of "Deep Throat," a certain crucial part of the female anatomy came into the limelight. When recalling the the prosecution's attack on the film for promoting "the myth of clitoral orgasm," Damiano has a good laugh. "I think it made the public aware that there was such a thing as a clitoris, and women could be pleased by stimulating it."
Melvin Van Peebles' goals were best summarized by his son, Mario: "What the Black Panthers said about 'Sweetback' was that it was about a brother from the streets, a flawed hustler who goes from having a 'me' mentality to a 'we' mentality. It made being a revolutionary and going up against the Man -- i.e., the System -- politically hip.
"But when the studios took over the formula, they made being a cop and working for the Man hip, or even being a drug dealer hip. They drained the political content from it. Rap started out the same way, with stuff like The Last Poets. Once big money gets involved, they pull the political content, and now we're just dancing to music about 'bitches and ho's.' "
On the plus side, "Sweetback" certainly did open the door for a new type of black male to be depicted on the screen. Asked whether he viewed something like Samuel L. Jackson's role in "Pulp Fiction" as progress, Van Peebles Sr. replied, somewhat sourly, "Yes. Before, the only role he'd have been playing was 'yassuh, here's yo' tea, sir.' It's a progression, but not, by any means, utopia."
Both directors seem quite pleased about the younger generation's take on their work. Damiano admits to having been "a little dubious" when he heard about "Inside Deep Throat," but after porn star Annie Sprinkle put in a good word for the documentary's filmmakers, he came on board. "I felt, after seeing the documentary, that they were truthful to it. They showed it as it was rather than trying to shade it white or black."
Regarding "Baadasssss!," Van Peebles says his brief to his son was short and to the point: "Don't make me too nice." Asked of his son's performance, he quips: "He played me." But when it comes to some of the film's more unbelievable moments Melvin insists "the movie 'Baadasssss!" is all true, it really happened that way. I thought it was terrific, but for me it's difficult to judge, because I'm not very reflective about myself. But people who know me said, "Jesus, that's you. That's how you are.' "
"Baadasssss!" and a revival of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" are currently playing. "Inside Deep Throat" opens in early November. The original "Deep Throat" will be released on DVD Nov. 25.