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Normally the fates of pornographers don't raise a lot of interest at Savant headquarters. I wasn't moved in the slightest by the raw deals given some of the characters in the movie Boogie Nights, for instance. 1 From what I'd always heard Joseph W. Sarno was an exception to the rule in that sad end of the industry. Until beaten down by the advent of hardcore films in the 1970s, Sarno made unique little movies that were not strictly about sex, but about people as sexual beings.
A psychology major and a WWII veteran, Sarno gravitated toward sexploitation pictures because he found a niche that suited him. In the early sixties 'dirty pictures' might attract a criminal arrest, but the back street movie houses are where he carved out his reputation. Joe had one adult sub-genre almost to himself. He'd take a topic like wife swapping, and turn it into a little psychodrama about the feelings of the participants especially the women. The impressive Sin in the Suburbs addresses then-taboo subjects and has nudity, but the real emphasis is not on porn -- the camera is concerned with the human, interpersonal dimension of sex, not body parts in motion. In that movie, a suburban 'key club' sex game ring seems like victimless adult 'fun' -- until a woman discovers that her own daughter is another participant. Sin in the Suburbs is classified as a dirty movie, yet it's infinitely more tasteful than the average modern raunchy comedy.
Sarno's movies were definitely different than the crude comedies and rough sex pictures showing in the back alley theaters of the 1960s. He picked up a reputation as "The Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street". Andrew Sarris praised Sin in the Suburbs in legit print. Sarno has said that one of the actors was Neil Bogart, later owner of Casablanca Pictures.
A Life in Dirty Movies is an up-close study of Joe Sarno, that reveals him as artistically motivated as any filmmaker. Filmmaker Wiktor Ericsson followed the 88 year-old Sarno and his wife/assistant Peggy Steffans around New York and Sweden for the better part of a year, as Sarno takes meetings with old friends, trying to put a movie together.
About half of the show is a description of Sarno's career in the context of the evolution of adult movies into hardcore porn, a 'genre' that he deplored but eventually worked in to stay afloat. Unlike other directors in his league, he was not a producer and didn't own his films; by the early 1980s he didn't even know how to locate many of them. Adult filmmakers Russ Meyer and even Doris Wishman maintained ownership, which provided them with income when film tastes changed (and hardcore porn took over). We see samples of Sarno's early pictures, which look like overheated, slightly gloomy soap operas. The acting is not bad. Ericsson interviews a couple of actresses that worked with him. One got involved because she thought Sarno's scripts were more intelligent than the legit parts she auditioned for but rarely won.
After being compared to Swedish filmmakers, Sarno eventually started making his films in Sweden, where his work was considered sexually liberated, not pornographic. The shows he made there were more explicit and artistic, with less angst than the randy housewife sagas he was making back in the States. The bizarre Young Playthings had a cast of nude women in clown makeup playing fantasy toys and engaging in fairly explicit sex scenarios. Its star Christina Lindberg was already a big name in Swedish sex pictures. The bubble burst for Sarno when movies like Deep Throat made hardcore semi-respectable for a few years. 2
There's nothing exploitative about A Life in Dirty Movies. It's not packed with nude clips although it has its share, and there's no X-rated content even when the timeline drifts into the 1970s. On the contrary, the other half of the movie is about a very endearing (if unique) couple. Joe and Peggy met on one of his films. She was from a wealthy background but bailed out of her planned future to become his wife and assistant. Sarno tended to focus blindly on his work, and Peggy's pragmatic qualities balanced his tendency to be impractical: "I protected him so well he doesn't have a sense of reality any more".
We see them in 2009 or so, when Joe is in the midst of health problems. Peggy helps him get through the day, and is perhaps humoring him a bit in his big plans to get another film going. The film 'meeting' we see in a cafe is essentially a discussion, with the old pal explaining that there is no longer a financial model for low-budget sex films of any kind... it's all on the web. Nobody has the slightest interest in Joe's kind of movies (the friend says this in a much kinder way). Back at home Joe taps away writing scripts on his typewriter. Peggy hovers nearby, tending to him and talking to the camera. Most everything the articulate and personable Peggy says is amusing, even when she's explaining that she's shielding Joe from their deplorable finances. He really has no idea of practical money management. Peggy says that she keeps him in a bubble, and we agree that she's got the right idea. Their interactions are a hoot. They talk about his projects as if he were a gardener discussing plants, except the vocabulary is graphic and direct. She serves him tea and remarks on the little pornographic drawings he scribbles in the margins of his script. It's their life and they're as cute a couple as can be.
Joe is a staunch liberal but not a libertine -- he's fascinated by sex relations and the social-psychological context for sex. Viewers watching to be titillated will come away with more. He and Peggy come off just like any other husband-wife team. She not only helped produce the pictures, but in many was the inventor of costumes and makeup, as with the bizarre Young Playthings. Ms. Steffans hasn't the slightest doubts about the worth of their work or the values it represents.
Peggy and Joe visit with old filmmaking friends during their summers in Sweden, where they keep a second little apartment and a Volkswagen used only a couple of months a year. The friend digs up a print of one of their old films for a screening. Peggy finds a storage locker with an elaborate pornographic prop, now falling apart. All of this business will of course be unthinkably immoral to some, but it seems logical for the couple to gravitate to a country where sex is (was?) accepted without undue guilt or shame.
During passages in New York, Peggy visits with her mother. Long ago she did everything she could to break up Peggy's marriage but eventually accepted it. Sarno was seventeen years older than Peggy, but in photos and film clips they look like a very happy, well-matched couple. Her wealthy father bankrolled Sarno's mid-seventies comeback attempt, an updated, color version of his '60s psychodramas, Abigail Leslie is Back. It evidently was a flop, but showed up quite a bit on early '80s cable TV.
Even these later films (the non-hardcore ones) concentrate on the female experience. Sarno seems fascinated with filming female orgasms. It's frankly hilarious when Peggy describes the basic issue with normal porn - "It's all about the male climax with the 'money shot'". The female orgasm was once a taboo, un-discussed subject; as late as the 1960s there was no consensus that it was even a real physical event. Comeplete with her mild profanities, Peggy Steffans's conversation is some of the healthiest chat I've heard on the subject of sex.
Sarno eventually passes away but not before he has the pleasure of attending a festival of his work in London, with Peggy at his side helping him feel even better about his newfound acceptance. Director Wiktor Ericcson's compassionate camera makes us like these people quite a bit -- theirs is a real romance and a definite adventure. His movie has a lively pace. It uses stills and clips from several of Sarno's pictures, but we get the idea that much of his work, especially a decade's worth of hard porn done under pseudonyms, is not available.
Film Movement (or RAM Releasing's?) DVD of A Life in Dirty Movies is an excellent enhanced transfer of this quality. The camerawork in New York and Sweden is handsome; and director Ericsson puts us on intimate terms with his subjects right from the start. We may not want to have much to do with the kinds of films Sarno worked on, but after seeing clips and bearing witness to his serious artistic drive, he comes off as a legit artist who carved out a domain on the margins of exploitation film.
The extras include two featurettes on the filming of the Sarno pictures Fabodjantan and Young Playthings. Also present are interview outtakes with some interesting personalities, like porn actress-activist Annie Sprinkle and porn star Jamie Gillis. The cutest interview is with a Swedish script supervisor who worked on Ingmar Bergman movies, and picked up extra jobs when Sarno was filming. The subject matter is no big deal for her; she talks as if she did the grocery run, checked with the babysitter and then ran over to work on the set of a sexually explicit movie. I am impressed with A Life in Dirty Movies. Sarno does not appear to have been commercially motivated, which makes his work seem all the more, well, nostalgic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Life in Dirty Movies DVD
1. I knock on wood that I was never tempted to work in the porn industry here in Los Angeles in the '70s and '80s. Since they used some of the same labs and other services, they bumped elbows with commercial and trailer makers every day. I knew an Iranian editor who cut porn movies to feed his family, and when he wanted out nobody else would give him a job. The porn makers were sufficiently legit (and cash flush) to get preferential service. One day the production manager at the Cannon trailer department asked me to pick up some work from the negative cutters, because Cannon hadn't paid its bill and he didn't want to face them personally. The proprietor gave me grief and delayed handing over the finished work. Instead she introduced me to the 'good' client she was going to serve first, a fat older guy in a Hawaiian shirt, wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigar indoors. He had brought in a dozen 16mm episodes of "Swedish Sex", or something to that effect. The porn guy always paid cash. HE was the good client. I was the deadbeat.
2. I have to say I was surprised in 1973 to see the 11 O'Clock news interviewing people as they came out of showings of Deep Throat. The journalistic aim was pretty low: "Do you think movies like this are here to stay?" "Do you think major stars will play in them?" Of course, the doped-up swinger dudes and their equally zonked chicks in leather answered in the affirmative: "Yes, everybody should have sex like that!"
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.