Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre movie/fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Caryn Coleman is used to making people squirm. You could even say that's a big part of her job. As a programmer at Nitehawk Cinema, in Brooklyn, she specializes in horror and its like-minded, in-your-face film genres. The Florida native has been a full-time programmer at the Williamsburg, BK, theater since August 2012, and during her 18 months on the job, she's been responsible for grossing out and pulverizing audiences with some of the nastiest and craziest old-school exploitation movies ever made. Anyone who's seen Cannibal Holocaust at a midnight Nitehawk showing and left feeling queasy has Coleman to thank.
Considering that, you'd think Coleman would have impenetrably thick skin, impervious to getting nervous about a crowd's reaction. After all, it takes a certain kind of person to happily subject moviegoers to films like the 1976 gore-fest Bloodsucking Freaks and the 2007 French home invasion shocker Inside. But earlier this month, one particular midnight screening had Coleman's stomach bunched in knots. The film in question: The Opening of Misty Beethoven, an X-rated comedy/porno flick based on the classic Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion and centering on a sexologist determined to turn a hooker into a bedroom lover extraordinaire—a smutty Pretty Woman, if you will.
Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, Misty Beethoven doesn't feature any guts being devoured or poles jammed through women's you-know-whats. It's light and vibrant. Still, Coleman was stressed. Because, well, the old in-out, in-out. "To be honest, I'm always nervous before a screening, but before Misty Beethoven, it was more than ever," she says. "It dawned on me that I was about to show a porno film to a full audience."
And not just any porno film. When people nowadays think of "adult films," what pops into their head probably looks a little something like this: a naked dude and a naked, busty woman humping around in various positions. The production values are minimal, the acting is atrocious, and the director's only job seems to be "keep the camera pointing at their private parts at all times, with the occasional pan upward to get her moaning face." The Opening of Misty Beethoven, however, is nothing like that. Directed by renown adult film auteur Radley Metzger, the 1976 release looks and feels like a legitimate, Hollywood-backed movie. There's serious acting, skillful editing, designed sets, and a substantial narrative.
The Opening of Misty Beethoven comes from a different era, a 1970s time period when skin flicks were, first and foremost, respectable cinema, and Caryn Coleman wants more people to recognize and appreciate that vintage, quality-first approach to on-screen pornography.
Through the Nitehawk Naughties series, Coleman has teamed up with the digital and 35mm restoration company Vinegar Syndrome to present six obscure but top-of-the-line 1970s adult films at Nitehawk this year, with The Opening of Misty Beethoven's recent screenings having kicked the lineup off. On April 4 and 5, at midnight, of course, they'll show the sexploitation/slasher film Evil Come, Evil Go (1972); the "Summer of the Naughties" gets underway on June 6 and 7, with screenings for the black-and-white, audaciously avant-garde X-rated spoof comedy The Telephone Book (1971), leading into The Sexualist (1973), a "mind-bending satire of the sex film industry," on July 4 and 5 and the Ingmar Bergman-inspired, super-bleak drama Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974) on August 1 and 2; and, lastly, but certainly not least, the December 5 and 6 screenings of Wakefield Poole's Bible! (1974), which presents three biblical tales (Adam & Eve, Bath Sheba, and Samson & Delilah) as porno vignettes.
"When my generation thinks of porn, they think of cheesy '80s porn, with the pizza guy and that sort of stuff," says Coleman. "And then the next generation thinks of porn as something very quick, very immediate, and something you have control over to watch, because it's all online. They don't see it as a cinematic experience where you'd go, pay money, and sit down around other people and watch something. People will be surprised that these are actually legitimate cult films. It's not like Caligula, where Hustler threw some porn into a movie. These were made as legitimate porn movies but also legitimate movies at the same time."
It's easy to understand why Coleman was nervous about the 2014 Naughties series' reception. For one, folks who attended any of last year's Nitehawk Naughties screenings weren't exactly conditioned to upgrade to films like The Sexualist. "Last year, we played a little bit cheekier films," says Coleman, "like Showgirls and Basic Instinct. We've been working towards showing actual porn here since we started the Naughties, but it took awhile to get it happening. There was a concern about the audience."
As in, would there even be one? And if any people actually showed up to watch 1970s actors have sex on the Nitehawk's big screen, while sipping on the drinks and eating the food Nitehawk serves, would they respect the experience? "You worry about who that audience might be, especially since we have servers who walk through the audience serving food and drinks," says Coleman. "You don't want them walking in and seeing anything inappropriate while they have sodas in their hands."
"It's not everyday that you have the chance to watch a dirty movie in a theater with other people," adds Coleman. "The Misty Beethoven screening was one of the most discussed screenings I've ever seen on our Nitehawk Twitter feed. A lot of people were tweeting things like, 'I wish I had enough courage to go tonight.' For some, the idea of seeing porn anywhere outside of their homes is uncomfortable."
It wasn't always that way. Back in the '70s, X-rated movies like Misty Beethoven were made for theatrical viewing, playing in grungy, seedy venues, famously located in Manhattan's 42nd Street area, way before Toys 'R' Us and the M&M Store opened for business. Picture Travis Bickle driving down the NYC blocks in Taxi Driver, parking his cab in order to check out a porno movie by himself in a small, sweaty, sticky theater in which couples were having sex behind him and creepy dudes were pleasuring themselves a few rows over. That's the image that comes to mind when people today think of the porno experience of the '70s.
Since those theaters don't exist anymore, there's nothing to change the perception. "Most people under 40 have never gone to see an X-rated film in a theater, simply because they weren't alive when it was prominent," says Joe Rubin, co-founder of Vinegar Syndrome. "Younger people have this idea that porn films can't be real films, that they're just all sex and nothing else. The idea of seeing an X-rated film in a theater is inherently uncomfortable for them. But films shot on film are meant to be seen in theaters."
Rubin's company, Vinegar Syndrome, has specialized in tracking down and restoring old X-rated movies since 2012. It's one of only two companies (the other: Distribix) in the entire that's paying any attention to long-forgotten films like The Telephone Book and Evil Come, Evil Go. "I personally have always really loved and really wanted to preserve X-rated films," says Rubin. "They represent a very significant part of American history and film culture. I describe them as the quintessential outsider cinema of the 1960s through the early 1980s. By that, I mean they're made by people who were typically working outside of any mainstream or studio affiliation, and as a result, they were given a lot of creative freedoms they would have never received working within the confines of a studio. Therefore, they could make films that were subversive or structured in a way that wasn't 'popular' in a mainstream sense. It gave them the ability to be creative in a way that other types of films wouldn't have allowed them to be."
In today's porno industry, unfortunately, that creativity has been usurped by a "quantity over quality" mentality. Gone are the well-intentioned and artistically minded directors like Radley Metzger, along with actors who seem like they spent more than a semester in drama classes and original plots with admirable screenplays. "The people making X-rated movies today aren't filmmakers, for the most part," says Rubin. "They're commercial videographers or, and I don't say this in a derogatory sense, they're just horny guys who want to make movies. They're not looking at it from the standpoint of artistry—they're looking at it from the standpoint of making money or fucking women. In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, there were also commercial people who were just trying to make money or horny guys trying to look at naked people fucking, but that's also not the type of stuff that Vinegar Syndrome and Nitehawk is focusing on."
The Telephone Book, for instance, about a nymphomaniac who becomes sexually obsessed with a man who's been prank-calling her, was produced by Merv Bloch, a go-to advertising guy who handled the marketing campaigns for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Saturday Night Live, and several directed by Roman Polanski; its director, Nelson Lyon, was a writer for Saturday Night Live from 1981 through 1982. They weren't a couple of hacks who made a porn for the sexual perks. Using hardcore sex as a hook, Bloch and Lyon surrounded the film's carnal appeal with intelligent comedy and big, forward-thinking ideas. "The Telephone Book wonderfully parodies all of the faux-intellectualism that was going on in the '70s art scene, and also the silliness that was going on during the '70s sexual revolution," says Rubin. "It's a smart, self-aware, and self-indulgent comedy about self-indulgence."
Yet, because it's an X-rated film with copious amounts of intercourse, it's also considered taboo. With the Nitehawk Naughties program, though, Coleman and Rubin hope to work past the current no-way attitude cast upon showing pornography on anything other than computer and bedroom TV screens. "There's a social stigma associated with depictions of explicit sex in film, or in art, in general," says Rubin. "Most people watch X-rated movies or look at X-rated magazines or look at porn on the Internet, but it's not really a conversation-starter. It's not something they discuss or intellectualize or even take seriously themselves. There's this unfair assumption that if something's sexually explicit, then it can't be good, or it can't be worthy of attention of restoration or even appreciation as art. That's why so many of these films have been ignored, left to rot, or thrown away."
Continues Rubin, "It's our job to show today's audiences that these are worthwhile films made by people who respected the art form. They just so happened to be shooting tons of hardcore sex, too. The more people get exposed to that, the more they'll start to appreciate these really important movies, these films that come from a time when porn could be great art, not just ways for people to watch hot people have sex."
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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