Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Adult Film Auteur - An Overview

Andrew Sarris' 1962 essay "Notes on Auteur Theory" introduced a new form of film analysis and appreciation to American film criticism. Borrowing ideas and the very term "auteur" from the French film critics of the 1960s, Sarris outlined the concept of auteur theory as one with three premises, or “circles”, helping to define a given director as an auteur. The first is technical competence (which most directors, he claims, pass rather easily), the second is the personality, or the style, of the director as seen in his films, and the third is “interior meaning”, or the connection between the director and his material. In all cases, the director is viewed as the sole author, or "auteur" of his films, the signatory on an artistic work. Directors are split into three categories defined by their placement in one of these circles: technicians, stylists, and auteurs, all worthy of note, some more than others.

Applying this theory to adult films may not seem like a natural approach to discussion of the genre, but pornographic filmmakers were not exactly a dime a dozen in the 1970s and 1980s, the era of porno chic. Much like the stars of the era, the directors working in the industries of the east and west coasts often made features identified and sometimes even advertised as the work of an auteur. "A Gerard Damiano Film", "Alex de Renzy's...", "A Film by Cecil Howard", "Carter Stevens'...". Taking a hint from the New Hollywood of the 1970s, when the director's authorship was used as a marketing tool for a more hip and informed audience, films began being branded not only by their female stars, but by their directors. Accordingly, each director's films are distinctive from another's, visually, stylistically, thematically, and artistically.

This is the driving thrust behind "Skin Deep: The Adult Film Auteur". Much has been written of the adult industry at large, the drugs, the crime, the tragedies and controversies, and of the people in front of the camera, the men and women who bravely revolutionized sexual cinema. But precious little attention has been given to the men behind the cameras, working to create something special, signature films defining their aesthetic and thematic views while also striving to be commercial enough to turn a profit. The comparison between adult film auteurs and those working within the box office-driven studio system of classic Hollywood is not to be curtly dismissed.

The man responsible for the two key films of east coast porno chic, Gerard Damiano, is perhaps the most important director in the genre. While Deep Throat (1972) has become a pop culture phenomenon, The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) is more indicative of the work this artist produced throughout the 1970s and 1980s. More than any other filmmaker, Damiano personified the auteur theory of director as author. He wrote, produced, edited, and directed all of his key films, involved with every aspect of production to bring to the screen works close to his creative heart. Much has been made of his Catholicism informing his films, and while there are elements of guilt threaded throughout his work, there is more of a sense of old-fashioned conservative values clashing with the new social mores in the wake of the sexual revolution. Directing his documentary Changes (1970), Damiano examines the various facets of the new sexuality, not merely for exploitation purposes, but out of a seeming genuine curiosity and interest in expanding his horizons. Damiano was also not afraid to experiment within the confines of the genre: a male-on-male blowjob in The Story of Joanna (1975), an all-puppet sex film with Let My Puppets Come (1977), a one-woman show in Portrait (1974). His most complex film, and my personal favorite, is Odyssey (1977), a examination in three parts of people's lives saved or destroyed by sexual desire, and he would return to this three-story structure for his last great film, Night Hunger (1983), with similar thematic juxtapositions of three members of a family suffering from satyriasis, an abnormal sexual craving of torturous extremes.

As gifted as he was a storyteller, Damiano was also a brilliant actor's director. Few of his contemporaries could provoke the kind of performances given in his films by performers not known for their thespian talents. Suzanne McBain in Odyssey, Loni Sanders and Mike Ranger in Never So Deep (1981), Lysa Thatcher in The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue (1980), these performers challenged themselves to give what are surely their career performances. There are few, if any, poorly acted Damiano films, and his ensemble casts were among the finest in the genre. Even elegant talents such as Georgina Spelvin (the original "Miss Jones"), Jody Maxwell (Portrait), Terri Hall (Joanna), and Sharon Kane (Night Hunger) give arguably the best performances of their careers under Damiano's careful direction. The man also cast himself in some of the most memorable non-explicit roles of the genre: the nut in the padded cell in Miss Jones, Samantha Fox's father in People (1978), the producer in Skin Flicks (1978). There truly is no one more deserving of the adult film auteur title than Damiano, the Orson Welles of the adult word.

On the west coast, Anthony Spinelli was producing equally provocative and compelling films as Damiano was on the east. In fact, the two directors complement each other thematically and visually, tackling the subjects of human sexuality and relationships in similar ways. Like Damiano, Spinelli's best films were dramas dealing with anguished characters (the title character in 1974's The Seduction of Lynn Carter, the tortured obscene phone caller in 1975's Night Caller) and social hypocrisies surrounding sexuality and repression (a small town of sexual deviants in 1981's Vista Valley PTA). Spinelli also injected a welcome sense of romanticism into his narratives, making perhaps the most sensitive adult film, Nothing to Hide (1981), the official sequel to his marvelous Talk Dirty to Me (1980) that brings the original's adolescent obsession with promiscuous sexuality to its natural conclusion in the form of a sweet adult romance leading to marriage. It is the best two-film series of the genre. Spinelli's fascination with the sexual mind reached its apex when he made Reel People (1983), a documentary-porno hybrid featuring real people recruited to live out their greatest fantasies in front of the camera.

With his background in Hollywood production, Spinelli's films were always professionally made, with heavy emphasis on cinematography, lighting, and performance. The latter element is what sets Spinelli's films apart from other films produced in California during the first decades of the genre. His well-drawn characters are brought to life by winning performers aware of who their characters are and what Spinelli is doing with them. Richard Pacheco and John Leslie became Spinelli's leading men par excellence, and he also found a winning leading actress in Jessie St. James, an athletic blonde with an intoxicating sexual allure and tremendous acting talent used to great advantage in a series of brilliant starring roles. He gave future disco singer Andrea True her finest role as the title character in Lynn Carter, and did the same for Sharon Thorpe in Sex World (1977). To continually compare Spinelli with Damiano would considerably diminish the individual talents of each director, but the two surely share the title of the best adult film auteurs of the classic era.

The most prolific female adult filmmaker was Roberta Findlay, who was also unique in that she not only directed, edited, lighted, and photographed her own work, but was also a regularly employed cinematographer for many of her New York contemporaries. A self-taught technician and artist, Findlay's career unofficially began after her forced wedding to director Michael Findlay, working on (and sometimes starring in) his exploitation films in the 1960s and early 1970s. Following their separation, while he clumsily stumbled through the adult film world, Findlay found her footing collaborating with producers like Allan Shackleton, David Darby, and her eventual long-time business partner Walter Sear. Her love for lighting and inventive camera work would establish the Findlay look, one seen even in her R-rated ventures of the 1980s. It's too easy to approach Findlay's films expecting a feminist approach to porno conventions, and one would be sorely disappointed if that's all they were looking for in films like Angel on Fire (1974), Mystique (1979), and The Tiffany Minx (1981). More than anything, her work reveals a deep love for classic Hollywood films, seen most vividly in her scripts and characters, as well as her bold lighting schemes.

Of the San Francisco filmmakers, Alex de Renzy was a name synonymous with the permissiveness so widely embraced in the Bay area. From his earliest films (1972's Little Sisters features the drag troupe the Cockettes among the cast members), de Renzy was a bold and fearless director who would try anything once, and often frequently if he liked it. A brief attempt at respectability with the well-researched documentary Weed (1972) did not stop de Renzy from changing the face of San Francisco pornography. His films had a voyeuristic thrill to them, especially when they included sexual fancies (autofellatio, interracial pairings, slings, enemas, shaving) that felt intrusive when photographed so crisply, up close and personal. They were also fiercely funny: a statutory rapist runs for his life from the girl's mother and ends up as the star stud in a brothel (Baby Face, 1977); a busty dim bulb develops amnesia after a car crash and goes on a wild journey to regain her identity (Pretty Peaches, 1978). De Renzy even produced a murder mystery, the unjustly neglected Cheryl Hansson: Cover Girl (1981). Before he made the slow transition to video, de Renzy continued shooting on film even when it was wildly unpopular to do so, resulting in a lengthier collection of celluloid classics than most of his peers. In true auteur fashion, he began branding his films with* "Alex de Renzy's...", establishing himself as San Francisco's resident master erotic filmmaker.

Smoothly transitioning from softcore to hard with Score and The Image (1973), sophisticated sexploiteer Radley Metzger's X-rated oeuvre is a small one, but without doubt the most influential and long-lasting on the industry. Where Damiano broke open the gates for pornography with intelligence and purpose, Metzger's films, credited to the legendary "Harry Paris", are the best adult film comedies ever made. As a filmmaker who seemed to go into hardcore out of necessity rather than interest, Metzger transforms sex into a source of mirth and merriment. Unfortunately, he is also the most promising auteur who basically threw in the towel far too early. Having seemingly shot his creative wad with his signature feature, The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), he followed the super hit with two films, the half-successful Barbara Broadcast (1977) and the slapped-together Maraschino Cherry (1978), before doing uncredited assistant director duties on The Tale of Tiffany Lust (1981) and leaving the X-rated world behind. Perhaps the most cultured director of the genre, with plentiful literary and artistic references sprinkled throughout his work, Metzger is to many the epitome of pornography with class. It's difficult not to agree.

Italian-born Lasse Braun is the one true success story of a European pornographer making his way across the Atlantic to bring a continental sensibility to American adult films. Others tried (including Gerard Kikoine and gay porn auteur Wallace Potts), but none had the lasting impression on the genre, with such distinctively kinky panache, as Braun. His first major hit, Sensations (1975), was technically an American-produced film, financed by porn mogul Ruben Steurman, and his first film on U.S. soil, American Desire (1981), was his last shot on celluloid; subsequent projects shot in America were shot on video. Braun's roots were in lavish, deliciously sordid loops, contributing to a segmented vignette feel to his features. His trademark was adventurous exoticism, with the titillating prospect of European corruption of American ideals, as Braun did to American leading lady of choice Brigitte Maier.

The most successful gay director working in the straight adult film world, Chuck Vincent wore the fact that he wanted to make "real movies" on his sleeve. True to form, all of his work is character- and story-driven, to the extent that many consider his films overly glossy and un-erotic. To dismiss Vincent as a pornographer in denial, however, is to ignore one of the genre's greatest artists at work. His comedies are raucous affairs, and his dramas emotional powerhouses, but flowing throughout them all is an uncertain distrust of love and relationships. Most noteworthy about Vincent's work is his casting of a series of actresses who would become his muses: Samantha Fox, Veronica Hart, Kelly Nichols, Merle Michaels, Gloria Leonard, Candida Royalle, Leslie Bovee. Frequent director-star partnerships were not uncommon in the adult film world, but with Vincent, these women informed his work to such a strong degree that he could very well be the George Cukor of adult films.

Despite auteur theorists attributing a film's authorship solely to the director, it would be ignorant to dismiss the important collaborations of these directors with writers, cinematographers, producers, and even actors. In the realm of photography, Damiano worked with Joao Fernandes, Spinelli with Jack Remy, and Vincent with Larry Revene. Revene worked with every major New York City adult filmmaker, but his union with Vincent produced the director's finest films, with a visual polish his earlier work is missing, and Revene would eventually strike out on his own as a director, making films that some viewers confuse for Vincent films primarily because of their stylist similarities. This is the work of Revene, as important a factor in Vincent's auteurism as his muses and frequent screenwriters (Bill Slobodian, Rick Marx).

The films of Armand Weston appear to be split into two types: the dark sinister psychodramas and the considerably lighter Hollywood homages. He is also one of the genre's auteurs with the smallest output, culminating in a single R-rated horror film before his untimely death in 1988. Weston's background in illustration and design brings an artist's sensibility to the composition and structure of his work. It is difficult to discuss Weston's oeuvre as a whole, as at face value all of his films seem so very different from one another, with only Defiance (1974) and The Taking of Christina (1976) seeming like sister films due to their being produced by performer-turned-filmmaker Jason Russell. A deeper probing into the brief filmography of Weston reveals a recurring theme of peeking behind a public facade to find the less than savory underbelly of society.

Another adult filmmaker with a brief career was Joanna Williams, another woman who began her career in softcore sexploitation (in front of the camera) before graduating behind the camera. Her output is small, but goes further to challenging the feminist critique that a woman director's work automatically qualifies as championing women. Female objectification in the Little Girls Blue films (1977, 1983) and graphic rape in Expensive Tastes (1978) provoke questions about the woman behind the camera and her artistic drive to create potentially troubling films for the image of women in adult films.

The genre's tortured artist, Roger Watkins, chose pornography because there was little else in the film business for him, and his films betray the angry nihilism that plagued this genius until his untimely death in 2002. The bleak existences of the protagonists in Her Name was Lisa (1979), Midnight Heat (1982), and Corruption (1983) are certainly autobiographical, and his final 35mm feature, American Babylon (1985), is perhaps his finest and most personal work. Working closely with cinematographer Revene, each film feels like his closing artistic statement, until he discovers more to say about human cruelty and misery through his characters. Even his comedy The Pink Ladies (1980), dismissed by Watkins as "fluff", is a knowing smack in the face of American suburbia, a theme more fully fleshed out and explored in Babylon. Watkins' films, more than any other filmmaker's, are not simply viewed, they are felt and endured.

Working under the delightful moniker of "Henri Pachard", Ron Sullivan first made his mark with Babylon Pink (1979) and proceeded to build on the popularity of his debut film with successively smart and funny films throughout the 1980s, with a few marvelous dramatic works scattered in-between his more uproarious projects. Known industry-wide for his bathroom scenes, there is more depth to a Sullivan film that can be found in simply noting the location of a sex scene. His best films are "day in the life" stories, following a group of people within the course of a single day: Outlaw Ladies (1981), Nasty Girls (1983), G-Strings (1984), She's So Fine (1985). By focusing on a multitude of characters connected through simple means, Sullivan briefly stands as the Robert Altman of adult film, a champion of superficially simple storytelling made complex by his love of characters. Most vivid in his films is Sullivan's love for women, giving women all of the strength in his stories and empowering them throughout his narratives. Witness Mascara (1982), an oft-neglected Sullivan film starring Lisa de Leeuw and Lee Carroll as two women from different walks of life who learn from each other through the course of exploring and solving de Leeuw's sexual repression. The men in the film are mere vehicles for the women as they grow in strength and maturity, and this is a recurring theme in Sullivan's work. More than any female filmmaker's work, Sullivan's films provide more interesting arguments for a feminist approach to pornography in the 1980s.

Darker than Watkins was Phil Prince, regarded today as the most perverse and twisted of New York's directors, taking depravity to levels even de Renzy would consider morally questionable. But what lies behind this drive to deliver the most horrific and disturbing views of sexuality that the adult genre of this era had to offer? While scholars like Bill Landis make the argument that Prince had a sadistic streak, it becomes obvious in interviews with Prince that he was fulfilling a market demand for more violent and edgy content, taking pornography to the heaviest extremes before the Meese Commission reared its head in the mid-1980s. A commercial drive to create is often dismissed as not conducive to producing genuine art, but looking at Prince's films, there is an undeniable artistry at work in capturing the unnerving scenarios of de Sade reincarnated in Kneel Before Me (1983), or the criminal assault and rape of a house of women in The Story of Prunella (1982), or the darkly comic faux psychiatric evaluations of a succession of degenerates in Dr. Bizarro (1983). A Phil Prince film is unmistakable, even when his name isn't attached, as with Angel in Distress (1982) and The Stimulators (1983), and this is the sign of a true auteur.

There were many other filmmakers of distinction:

-Shaun Costello, whose films ranged from weekend wonders to considerably more extravagant projects, all of them benefiting from a fevered sexuality; his frequent cinematographer Art Ben is also an auteur of note when he struck out on his own
 -Jon Fontana, the co-director and cinematographer of the films of the Mitchell Brothers, and perhaps the true auteur of the brothers' oeuvre
-Joseph Sarno, regarded as one of the best actor's directors of the era
-Carter Stevens, actor-director whose films revealed a filmmaker who had more fun in the New York industry than perhaps any other
-Howard Ziehm, whose historically valuable early L.A. films preceded a series of "loop carrier" films establishing him as the first bi-coastal director
-Cecil Howard, the consummate producer/distributor whose work as a director is typified by sexual hunger connecting characters in desperate need of fulfillment 
 -Edwin and Summer Brown and Svetlana and David J. Frazer, two California couples producing both emotional couples-oriented films and tongue-wagging eye candy features for raincoaters
-Peter Balakoff, who co-starred in almost all of his California films with redhead exclusive Gena Lee, and sensitive New Yorker Kemal Horulu, both of whom focused on delivering turgid soap operas that are, despite their flaws, indicative of auteur mentalities
-Fred Lincoln, an early actor-turned director with a whimsical approach to sexuality that gave the impression his sets were one great big party
-John & Lem Amero, who were far more prolific in the gay industry but who brought their queer sensibilities to a handful of films that abandoned eroticism in favor of campy charms aimed clear over the heads of the general adult film audience; yet another gay director, John Christopher, betrayed none of his personal sexual preferences in films that brazenly showcased an emotionally stunted heterosexuality
-Stephen Sayadian and Gregory Dark, the New Wave mind magicians of the 1980s adult industry, producing wildly different projects with similar forward-thinking visual styles
-Early San Francisco pioneers Curt McDowell and Lowell Pickett; McDowell's films are in a class by themselves, both intensely personal and freely sexual, and while they're difficult to evaluate because so many are currently missing, the surviving Pickett features are among the earliest west coast attempts to produce professional pornography and succeed
-Zebedy Colt, known more today for his on-screen performances, directed a collection of bizarre and unclassifiable films that pushed the boundaries of good taste while also embracing the art of performance, made all the more interesting by his bisexuality
-Early pioneer Richard Robinson, a swinger whose free-love philosophy bled into his work, and his photographer Sven Conrad, producer of some of the most professional-looking adult films of the era
-Michael Zen, another bisexual auteur, whose stellar work in the gay industry tends to overshadow his worthwhile contributions to straight films; both deserve close examination
-Kirdy Stevens, who together with his wife Helene Terrie, graduated from softcore films to hardcore, taking their fascination with controversial subject matter (swinging, incest, underage fantasies) with them
-West coast auteurs Alan B. Colberg and Jeffrey Fairbanks, whose stars briefly shined bright in the adult film world, but long enough to create signature films with lasting impression
-Godfrey Daniels, whose gritty early work gives no indication of the drastic turn into professionally polished star vehicles he is known for today

And let's not forget Bob Chinn or Gary Graver, two of the most prolific filmmakers on the west coast, responsible for intriguing dramas and raucous comedies with visual style and care for dialogue and character, tackling every subgenre imaginable with consistently interesting results. Like Billy Wilder and Robert Wise before them, it may be easy to dismiss these directors when discussing adult film auteurs, as they floated through different genres over the course of two decades. Make no mistake, however, their generous bodies of work reveal auteurs at work.

These men and women, and more, warrant in-depth discussion in examination of the adult film auteur of the "golden age", and I can only hope that I do all of them justice. They are all worth your attention, for what they brought to the cinematic landscape, the ways they challenged their chosen genre, and for creating art within a crudely commercial industry.

(C) Casey Scott, 2012

1 comment:

  1. A good read. You have brought back memories as well as taught me.