Register Sunday | June 24 | 2018

Revisionist Pornography

Does Inside Deep Throat go deep enough?

I saw Deep Throat just after I turned seventeen. I was spending the night at my friend John's house. His parents were out of town, and the old man who was keeping an eye on John and his little brother went to sleep at ten that night. If John's mother knew why I was spending the night, her head would have popped off. This was a woman who thought her seventeen-year-old son needed a babysitter when she and her husband went away for the weekend. In her over-protective tunnel vision, it hadn't occurred to her that, even with the babysitter, John would teach me how to get drunk and show me his father's copy of the most famous dirty movie of all time. I had asked for drinking lessons; John had suggested the porn as a chaser. Come to think of it, I guess he needed a better babysitter.

I had had two rum-and-cokes and two Screwdrivers by the time John popped the movie into the VCR in his basement. The video was grainy; it seemed to have been dubbed from a dub of a dub. The sound was screechy and warbled, but even an original print wouldn't have saved Deep Throat from plotlessness or looking like it had been spliced together by Scotch Tape and cum. It was only funny in a so-unfunny-it's-funny way (the liquor helped in that regard). Nevertheless, I was seventeen and it was hot. I'm gay, and though I hadn't told anyone yet, I could only appreciate Linda Lovelace's beauty in an aesthetic sense. I did my best to identify with her, imagining that I was having sex with Harry Reems-a fantasy that continued long after seeing that movie.

Over the years, as I became interested in censorship and the sexual revolution and the politics of porn, I picked up bits and pieces of the story of Deep Throat-not the silly plot of a woman who couldn't orgasm until she discovered that her clitoris was at the bottom of her throat, but rather the sordid tale of the ban on the film, the mafia's involvement in the movie's distribution and the tortured lives of the stars. And I would always say, "All that for such a bad movie."

However, Inside Deep Throat, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's new documentary about the movie and its cultural impact, is a good film. Unlike their subject-which cost around $25,000 to shoot and was directed by a former hairdresser with the cinematic skills of a former hairdresser-Inside Deep Throat is shiny and smart, ironic and quirky, and bankrolled by one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Brian Grazer, who produced Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and 8 Mile. The documentary is rated NC-17 for obvious reasons, but it's being shown in fancy art-house theatres. The crowds are smaller than in 1972, but, probably, hopefully, better behaved.

In many ways, Inside Deep Throat is a typical documentary about a historical event. Almost everyone involved in this event who is alive is interviewed, some experts give their take, and "archival footage" is skillfully mixed in with period-specific songs. The filmmakers were pretty lucky, though, because those who made the movie, distributed it and prosecuted it are, to say the least, colourful. Gerard Damiano, the director, is getting on in years and wears his pants up to his chest, as he dotters about his Florida garden and talks about the old days like a war veteran reminiscing about trips to local brothels. Ron Wertheim, the production manager on the movie, looks and sounds like a cross between Sid Caesar and Disco Stu. Harry Reems, now a realtor, is the most articulate person in the porn industry, then and now. And there is the old couple in Miami Beach who fight, on screen, about whether or not to talk about their dealings with the mafia back in the seventies. The prosecuting attorney on the federal conspiracy case against everyone who might have touched the film comes off like the worst (and funniest) stereotype of a Bible-thumping morals crusader. The experts include Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Hugh Hefner, Alan Dershowitz, Larry Flynt, John Waters, Dr. Ruth and Camille Paglia, among others.

Before Deep Throat, the only "hard-core" movies shown in theatres were educational films, marital aids that showed what men and women do in bed. Starkly lit and narrated by the same guy who told sixteen-year-olds to avoid dying in bloody car crashes, those movies were titillating only to the truly desperate.

The most glaring omission is a new interview with Linda Lovelace, who died in a car accident in 2002. Her role in Deep Throat gave her a role in the sexual revolution, one that she relished at first and then rejected. Eventually, she claimed that she was forced to perform in the film by her insane, abusive husband. She testified before Congress, "Every time someone watches that film, they are watching me being raped." She started hanging out with Gloria Steinem, and they appeared together on Tom Snyder's Today show to bash pornography. Then, in the nineties, she did a racy photo shoot for a minor porn magazine, because she wanted to feel sexy and she desperately needed the money. The strangest part of the Deep Throat story lies in Linda Lovelace's transformations. The documentary skims over it-was Steinem too busy to talk?-just as it skims over the twisted politics of indecency that Americans are currently suffering.

Much has been made about Barbato and Bailey's use of hard-core footage; Linda Lovelace deep-throating Harry Reems is the centerpiece of the movie. Seeing the footage in a documentary context is not a sexy experience (even though it is Harry Reems). It's clinical and explanatory, and that's, sadly, the only reason vice squads aren't trying to shut down Inside Deep Throat. Before Deep Throat, the only "hard-core" movies shown in theatres were educational films, marital aids that showed what men and women do in bed. Starkly lit and narrated by the same guy who told sixteen-year-olds to avoid dying in bloody car crashes, those movies were titillating only to the truly desperate. Such films wouldn't even be allowed now. Teenagers still have to steal them from their parents. Look how far we've come.

Ted Gideonse has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Bring Me the Axe appears every other Friday.