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Friday, Nov. 11, 2005
Tackling a tough subject
These days, given the convenience of the Internet, it's hard to imagine anyone going to the movies for a porno fix. And even if you did desire to do so -- believing that there's something confrontational and liberating about openly embracing sexual expression as opposed to consuming it furtively on a computer screen -- sex on the big screen is hard to find these days, unless you count Colin Farrell and Rosario Dawson baying like animals in "Alexander." (Shudder.)
Sure, the art-house filmmakers, especially those in France and South Korea, seem to be busting as many taboos as they can find, but the idea that a film about sex could be a blockbuster, a mainstream hit, seems almost unbelievable. (Unless you count Paris Hilton's home video.)
Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Borbato take us back to June 1972, to explore a moment in cultural history when porn went mainstream with the release -- and phenomenal success -- of that paean to oral sex, "Deep Throat." Their fascinating documentary, "Inside Deep Throat," tackles the film's surprising rise to mass popularity and the political and legal assaults it provoked, while also tracking the (often tragic) personal histories of those involved in the film. They convincingly build a case that "Deep Throat," coming at the height of the sexual revolution, marked permanent changes on the American cultural landscape.
Mixing period footage with recent interviews from the cast and crew of "Deep Throat" and an assortment of talking heads (that range from Dr. Ruth to John Waters), "Inside Deep Throat" does a good job of setting the cultural context of the times. Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy, still in his silk pajamas, points out the 1950s mind-set that still lingered outside of the counterculture: "We grew up in a time where sex was largely taboo -- people didn't even know where babies came from!"
The gold-chain-clad director of "Deep Throat," Gerard Damiano -- a beautician and swinger turned adult filmmaker -- notes how when he started, the only legal way to produce porn was to disguise it as a "sex education" flick, complete with serious, professorial voice-over: (The example included in the doc is rather silly.)
Examples of the sexual ignorance of the time abound. Fellatio is described as "an abominable crime against humanity," something that writer Camille Paglia recalls "most of my friends hadn't even heard of." Damiano notes that "people didn't understand that a woman could feel as much pleasure as a man could." The biggest howler comes when a government lawyer prosecuting "Deep Throat" on obscenity charges claims, in all sincerity, that the film was "dangerous to women." Why? "Because it emphasized clitoral orgasm."
"Deep Throat" was a silly sex-comedy based around the concept of a sexually dissatisfied woman, played by Linda Lovelace, whose clitoris is located in her throat. The obvious solution is posed by her doctor, played by the affable Harry Reems. For those who haven't seen the original, the brief clip included in the documentary has been digitally obscured by the Japanese censors, but the depth of Ms. Lovelace's talent, however, remains apparent.
The playful nature of the film made it approachable, not just "dirty," and once celebrities were glimpsed walking out of screenings, it became the hip thing to do. Hard to believe now, but this is more understandable in the context of a society that was questioning old taboos overall, be it men's hair length, gender roles or mandatory military service.
Not everyone was pleased, however, and while feminists picketed, the Nixon administration and local authorities took the film to court time and time again, and it was eventually banned in 23 states. Bailey and Barbato suggest that, in many ways, this was a harbinger of the "culture wars" that continue to roil America today.
The Christian right, in particular moral busybody Charles Keating, cheered on the legal assault. (He would later rise to fame as a white-collar criminal of epic proportions in the Savings and Loan scandals of the '80s). When the government put actor Reems on trial, however, the Hollywood left, led by Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, came to his defense.
One lapse in the extensive coverage of Bailey and Barbato's documentary comes here. When Reems is hung out to dry and faces a possibly lengthy jail term, the film mentions offhandedly that Damiano and co-star Lovelace had immunity. This sounds like a sell-out, but a recent interview with Damiano suggested it was not. Immunity was forced upon him during a congressional inquiry, said Damiano, to force him to testify. So he never abandoned Reems, who ended up like Dirk Diggler in Act 3 of "Boogie Nights," but the film could have been clearer on this point.
The directors do allow room for a variety of opinions to be heard, including Erica Jong's criticism of the film, and Lovelace's later claims that she had been physically coerced into doing the film, something Damiano flatly denies. At the end of the day, though, Bailey and Barbato stand for freedom of sexual expression in art, and clearly against those moralists who would seek to limit it. This is not neutral filmmaking. Making their point, however, never gets in the way of following the many fascinating strands of this story.
Did "Deep Throat" change the United States? Well, ever since this $25,000 low-budget romp went on to become one of the highest-grossing films ever (one estimate has it right up there with "Titanic" at $600 million), the market for porn has exploded, although -- much to Damiano's apparent frustration -- with no regard for quality. The battles between sexual liberalism and censorship, meanwhile, continue to be fought. But in terms of sexual freedom, we certainly live in a post-"Deep Throat" era. The most recent statistics by the National Center for Health Services in the United States reveal that more than half of teenagers aged 15 to 19 have engaged in oral sex -- including nearly a quarter who have never engaged in intercourse.