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Heavy Petting

Docurama // R // May 29, 2007
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Phil Bacharach | posted May 22, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Heavy Petting, a tongue-in-cheek (among other places) documentary from 1989, ridicules the quaint sexual mores of the Fifties and early Sixties that warned teenagers how even a single instance of premarital sex would lead to insanity, leprosy and possibly nuclear annihilation.

Skewering such ridiculousness is a bit like the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel. Nevertheless, directors Obie Benz and Josh Waletzky certainly have fun, as they interview celebrities about their teen sexcapades and interweave their remembrances with visual kitsch ranging from old movies to Army training films and educational shorts.

The so-called "witness" interviews are not particularly edifying unless you've recently crash-landed to this planet. Kids used to play ... spin the bottle and make out! They ... masturbated! They looked at ... dirty magazines! Despite the dearth of revelation, this two-disc edition of Heavy Petting does assemble a nifty mix of celebrities, including Allen Ginsberg, David Byrne, Abbie Hoffman, William S. Burroughs, comedian Sandra Bernhard, writer/actor Spalding Gray, avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson, John Oates (that's right, the other guy from Hall & Oates) and actress/singer Ann Magnuson. Ginsberg recollects how he was slapped by a girl after he complimented her on her big breasts. The poet, who is gay, jokingly theorizes that the incident soured him on women.

The vintage clips are much more fun. Over a soundtrack of Fifties rock 'n' roll, Heavy Petting traipses through a memory lane that equated raging hormones with the devil's handiwork. In one howlingly funny sex-ed film, a narrator sternly warns that the "stark nudity on slick paper" of girlie magazines is corrupting untold numbers of American boys "until his utter depravity is complete." Other clips depict the spread of venereal disease through the prism of Communist menace.

But Heavy Petting is unfocused and meandering. It dutifully hits upon a panoply of topics -- from wet dreams to teen pregnancy, dating to menstruation -- but there is little structure and even less insight, save the unremarkable conclusion that there sure was a lot of sexual repression in the Eisenhower era.

Even then, it is difficult to understand exactly what the filmmakers are out to prove. Many of Heavy Petting's witnesses were teenagers in the early Sixties, while the bulk of accompanying film clips is from the Forties and Fifties. Oh, well. Maybe it's just prudish to look for a point.


The Video:

The picture quality is spotty, at best. Many of the interview segments are soft. Various vintage clips are laden with scratches, flashes, grain and smeared color, but that's all part of the kitschy charm. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1.

The Audio:

You can choose between mono and Dolby Digital 2.0. Both are somewhat flat, but it's (mostly) clear and consistent.


Director Obie Benz chats about the endless footage he perused in the six-minute, 35-second Making of Heavy Petting.

That's followed by huge chunks of extended interviews that begin with a four-minute, 10-second introduction by Benz. Viewers can select specific interviewees, while more hearty souls can go with the "play all" option. The interviews include Abbie Hoffman (17 minutes), William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (21 minutes), Sandra Bernhard (12 minutes), Spalding Gray (22 minutes), David Byrne (8 minutes), Laurie Anderson (6 minutes), businessman Barney Bartkowski (14 minutes) and Zoe Tamerlaine (9 minutes). Diehard fans of certain celebrities might find this fascinating, but only Gray really excels at telling a story. Burroughs looks bored out of his mind.

The heart of Heavy Petting's supplemental material arrives on Disc Two: 10 educational/propaganda films created in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s. And they are a hoot and a half.

In As Boys Grow ...(16:14), a 1957 black-and-white sex-ed flick, a kindly track coach fields questions from the kids. When will they have to start shaving? How are babies made? What are nocturnal emissions? It's a good thing coach has those big diagrams handy.

Molly Grows Up (14:34) follows the titular character's introduction to menstruation. We meet Molly, her loving parents and worldly older sister. We also get to learn the "do's" and "don'ts" of menstruation. For instance, Molly learns that it's a bad idea to skate or square dance when she's on her period. Shot in black and white, it was made in 1953.

Especially hilarious is the syphilitic horror of Dance, Little Children (25:08), a cautionary tale in which a few horny teenagers unwittingly spark a VD outbreak in a fictitious small town. Shot in color in 1961, the flick reaches its climax when a county health department investigator combs a ballpark in hopes of finding a "tall, aggressive blonde" who has corrupted a clean teen.

The filmmakers behind Dance, Little Children are also responsible for 1959's The Innocent Party. The 17-minute, 26-second potboiler considers the sad plight of a boy who must fess up to his best girl that he has exposed her to syphilis. Shot in color.

In Defense of the Nation (10:44) is a black-and-white military training film that appears to be from the 1940s. It warns soldiers against succumbing to prostitutes who "spread disease and disorder," instead encouraging GIs to focus on "clean sports and good food."

Much more shrill -- and graphic -- is another Army anti-VD flick presumably from the Forties, Easy to Get. Clocking in at nearly 22 minutes, this black-and-white film presents an African American-centric view of soldiers infected by "dirty women" while on leave back home. Brace yourself, fight fans; the film provides a dizzying array of close-ups of syphilitic penises.

The 1941 Army training film Know for Sure (12:01) includes more disturbing black-and-white close-ups of infected penises. Here's the kicker: The director is an uncredited Lewis Milestone (of All Quiet on the Western Front and Of Mice and Men fame). Ward Bond and Tim Holt make cameo appearances in this black-and-white ode to rubbers.

The 31-minute Perversion for Profit features an interminable screed by "outstanding reporter" George Putnam, who stands in front of a classroom and rails against smut peddlers. "A flood tide of filth is engulfing our country in the form of newsstand obscenity," he intones, "and it's threatening to pervert an entire generation of American children!" Be afraid. Be very afraid. Produced in 1965.

Printed Poison (25:46), presumably shot in the mid-Sixties, is a hyper-stylized indictment of porn. The chain-smoking narrator reads aloud from a dirty book: "Diane awakens in a cheap hotel room dreaming of a fierce hunger for a real-life man, but her boyfriend is in prison for having sexual intercourse with her best girlfriend in a public theater." He shakes his head wearily, tossing the smut aside.

Fun fact: Perversion for Profit and Printed Poison, both of which are in color, were produced by the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Decent Literature. The CDL was an anti-porn organization founded by Charles Keating, who went on to achieve notoriety at the center of the savings-and-loan scandal in the 1980s.

Finally, Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence (24:45) is a comprehensive, and surprisingly sophisticated, sex-ed film that follows the sexual development of fictitious newlyweds Bob and Mary. Judging by the fashions and writing, I'm guessing this black-and-white short was produced in the early Fifties.

Rounding out the supplemental material is a theatrical trailer, filmmaker bio and bit about Docurama Films.

Final Thoughts:

Heavy Petting is a moderately amusing stroll through the yesteryear of American teen sexuality, but don't show up expecting to actually learn anything. Still, this two-disc collection is worth having for the bonus material alone, particularly its 10 shorts boasting inadvertently hilarious warnings about venereal disease and pornography.

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