Friday, May 7, 2010
Joe Sarno & the Good Works of SOMETHING WEIRD
That bill, by the way, is owed, by every fan of the cinema to the folks at SWV, who have literally rescued from oblivion a chunk of cinematic history. It's a big chunk too. The less enlightened--a category to which, I trust, my readers don't belong--may conclude that oblivion was the only fate earned by many of the films making it up. SWV specializes in, broadly speaking, exploitation films. Horror pictures, action pictures, nudie cuties, stag loops, blaxsploitation, sexploitation, hicksploitation and name your any-other-sploitation. Or, depending on your perspective, your poison. Pictures with titles like BLOOD FEAST, ALLEY TRAMP, THE ACID EATERS, DRACULA THE DIRTY OLD MAN. Mostly, but not exclusively, American films. A lot of small flicks that, for decades, had small releases in various localities and that, in most cases, all but disappeared after their brief runs. A great many of them, in fact, did disappear. Went missing for decades and would have likely remained lost forever were it not for the efforts of the SWV gang to unearth them. With a very few notable exceptions, no market existed for most of these flicks until SWV came along and made one for them.
SWV provided my first exposure to the wonderfully cracked work of Doris Wishman (her INDECENT DESIRES was as good an introduction as I could have hoped) to Michael and Roberta Findlay's bizarre "Flesh" trilogy (an insane, visually inventive series of films about a misogynistic murderer that plays, at times, like an old fashioned serial adventure gone very wrong) to Dave Friedman's larger body of work (he really is "the Mighty Monarch of Exploitation" but before SWV I'd seen only his legendary gore-filled collaborations with Herschell Gordon Lewis, which SWV also handles) and to Joe Sarno's sizzling sexual melodramas of the '60s, among so many others.
I became quite fond of Joe Sarno's movies. Actually I became quite fond of a great many of the filmmakers SWV first allowed me to see but Sarno's movies were my most recent infatuation among them before I landed out of work and too broke to significantly pursue cinematic love affairs. Joe Sarno died last week. It didn't seem right to me that I hadn't really written about him yet but it seemed positively criminal that, on the occasion of his death, so few others seem to have done so.
Alongside politicians, ugly buildings and whores, it seems we can add makers of dirty movies to the list of things that sometimes become respectable if they last long enough. Or maybe not. Sarno spent nearly his entire career making low-budget sex films of one breed or another, over 100 of them, and he did sort of achieve some little degree of "mainstream" respectability. This is loudly touted by many of his admirers but as the overwhelming silence that has greeted his death helps attest, this didn't really extend much further than the loud praise of critic Andrew Sarris many years ago. I've never had much use for "mainstream" respectability anyway and if Joe did, he never cashed his in on the career in larger "mainstream" pictures he could have easily had. Sarno's work speaks for itself and doesn't need the praise of slumming Establishment types.
The match-made-in-heaven (or elsewhere) mating of Sarno and skin-flicks happened in the early '60s. As the decade came to a close, Sarno, by then an accomplished hand at the art, packed up his ruck and left his native U.S., bopping around Europe and making most of the movies for which he became best known (if you aren't old enough to remember or well-read enough to have learned of it, look up a little film called INGA--it was quite the sensation in '68). SWV's Sarno releases, however, deal with his earlier films, that 1960s series of steamy, soapy sexploiters wherein Sarno first worked out the psychological approach to erotica that would become one of his trademarks.
These early films were incredible little dramas about regular people lost in the modern world. Bored, lonely, alienated, they begin to look, often desperately, for an escape from the emptiness of their very Normal Lives and, usually at the urging of some status-quo-disrupting element, find it in sexual exploration. Sarno tells his stories from the point of view of the women involved and he's always sympathetic to their plight, even though the way they deal with their problems doesn't, in his telling, always pan out for the better.
Sarno's imagery is often mercilessly subversive. In SIN IN THE SUBURBS (1964), he takes a typical-for-its-time idealized representation of a normal suburb, filled with commuting husbands, overly wholesome teens and dutiful housewives and begins gleefully ripping it to shreds. In an early scene I've always found particularly amusing, a frumpily-dressed housewife, after chiding her departing husband for the long hours he works, finds her teenage daughter's boyfriend at her door, playing hooky from school. She invites him into the den, puts on some music and as they're more-or-less innocently doing the twist, it becomes quite apparent that they're both allowing their minds to wander into thoughts of doing a rather different kind of twist. It's very well done, a great scene.
Sarno was a master of generating and maintaining sexual tension. His interest was in the psychological component of sex and he managed to dig it out in all its particulars time and time again. But for all the heat his early flicks generate, the sex happens off camera. Often just off camera, admittedly. Surprisingly, there isn't even much nudity in these early films. Even when Sarno began to make generous use of naked flesh in his later softcore pictures, he remained a minimalist when it came to displays of rampant rutting. In pursuit of verisimilitude, he encouraged his players to unsimulation when it came to stimulation but he photographed their fevered undulations sans any shots of penetrations. Until he went into hardcore films, anyway. Hardcore destroyed the market for the soft stuff so near and dear to Sarno's heart (and other organs). Like many of the old softies, Sarno held out for a long time but the hard stuff meant the writing was on the wall and he eventually bowed to the inevitable, though often behind the guise of a pseudonym.
Sarno and his wife and longtime collaborator Peggy (known on screen as Cleo Nova) contributed two commentaries to SWV's releases and that the gang at SWV arranged for this sort of thing is another part of what makes their work so special. Some years ago, SWV went into partnership with Image Entertainment to release a huge number of films on DVD, usually in double- and triple-feature discs, and the SWV gang treats each disc as a mini-lesson on the history of exploitation cinema, packing them with trailers, shorts and artwork related, in some way, to the featured attractions, and tracking down those involved in making the movies to get them to do commentaries. SWV founder Mike Vraney brags that they pack each disc to capacity.
Vraney says he doesn't care so much for doing the commentaries, probably because he's done so many, but a lot of them are just priceless; rare opportunities to hear from a relatively obscure and interesting group of filmmakers. Sometimes, the commentary is far better than the film itself. That's certainly the case with David Friedman's commentary on GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BARES. It's a "nudie cutie," and, as a mere film, dull and forgettable (as "nudie cuties" tend to be). Turning on the commentary improves it immeasurably. Friedman is quite a character, an endless encyclopedia of exploiteer lore who loves to talk and is always entertaining (he's done perhaps dozens of commentaries for SWV).
The SWV deal with Image ended not long ago but Image keeps the discs in print. You can buy them and many other films in the SWV collection at the official Something Weird site, where the films are also available for digital download.
SWV is a big treasure chest. Collectively, it amounts to the most extensive history of underground American cinema ever assembled. And how's this for some praise? SWV belongs alongside the Criterion Collection and Mondo Macabro as the most important DVD labels we have. The films with which SWV deals were made in a world so different, they can often seem as if they're from another planet entirely. They're one-stop shopping for those of adventurous spirit who may be burned out on the same-ol' same old and are looking for something unusual, something different... something weird.
 Mike Vraney, SWV founder, admits to a fetish for film negatives and he's acquired quite a pile of them over the years but some of the movies with which SWV deals are known to exist today only in battered, scratched, spliced prints. Watchable, but not the best choice for those who prioritize showing off the capabilities of their fancy entertainment system over love of cinema.
 If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Joe has been flattered by some of the best. Stanley Kubrick lifted significant portions of EYES WIDE SHUT from Sarno's SIN IN THE SUBURBS; Hollywood did the same with the premise of Sarno's THE LOVE MERCHANT, turning it into INDECENT PROPOSAL.
 Seduction Cinema's Retro- label did a series of releases from Sarno's Euro-period, including INGA.
 On the commentary for SIN IN THE SUBURBS, Vraney says the movie has sold very well over the years, and has become one of the favorites among SWV's fans. It's certainly a favorite of one SWV fan.
 PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS features an interesting cinematographical experiment, as Sarno and his crew make some unique uses of light and shadow to obscure parts of the many-bodies-in-much-motion.
 Some of the ad campaigns for the movies, documented in these extras, are as entertaining as the films themselves.