Blown Opportunity 

Doc examines the rise and ultimate failure of porno chic

Doc examines the rise and ultimate failure of porno chic

Inside Deep Throat

Now showing at Green Hills 16

The documentary Inside Deep Throat is the latest example of a weird phenomenon: quotation-marked porn. You couldn't get 50 people to show up at a Nashville theater these days for a real porn movie—the kind made today, on video, for no other edifying purpose than to be sold at 21 Up and consumed one-handed. But when the Belcourt hosted a Vanderbilt-approved appearance by porn star Annie Sprinkle last month—a presentation that included grainy hardcore sucks 'n' fucks from her XXX career—the theater sold out.

In olden days, people craved the cloak (or more accurately, the raincoat) of legitimacy. Because explicit sex footage was permitted only in an educational context, the history of American sex movies is filled with "hygiene films"—stuff like the 1945 passion-pit extravaganza Mom and Dad, which actually came with phony "hygiene commentators" peddling thinly disguised strokebooks as "manuals." The ruse gave everybody a public cover—perhaps even a private cover, if the deeply ashamed needed to delude themselves.

Now I wonder if it's really the legitimacy that people crave—and with it the complacency, the satisfaction of holding Pandora's safely closed box. There's a world of difference between watching Deep Throat, the 1972 hardcore film that introduced the concept of "porno chic," and watching Inside Deep Throat, which treats it as a musty artifact of the sexual revolution. It's the difference between jacking off to some quaint Victorian etching and watching an appraiser hold it up on Antiques Roadshow, even though the content is the same. The denial of prurient interest is no longer denial.

"Hygiene," in current parlance, translates as "cultural impact." Over the past decade, film festivals have seen a glut of porn documentaries: some profiles of a featured performer (the Ron Jeremy bio Porn Star), some exposes of the industry (the little-seen Rated X: A Journey Through Porn), all couched in vaguely exploratory terms. In this regard, Deep Throat is a juicy subject. At a time when befuddled Hollywood was still sussing out the sexual revolution, the $25,000 stag film about a sexually frustrated woman who has a clitoris for a uvula improbably broke through to audiences of middle-class couples and middle-aged women.

As a movie, Deep Throat is part freak show and part train wreck, the goofy epitome of '70s porn all the way down to its flabby performers, wack hairstyles and tacky furnishings. It's an unlikely agent of social change, and yet Inside Deep Throat charts its steamroller path into the American mainstream: sitcom jokes, straight magazine covers, even the ultimate badge of water-cooler ubiquity—fodder for Bob Hope and Johnny Carson monologues.

The filmmakers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, are well suited to the subject. Their specialty is celebrity docs for people who think they're above celebrity docs: their profiles of 15-minute wonders such as Tammy Faye Bakker and party monster Michael Alig have a glitzy, superficial style that can almost pass for a critique of glitzy superficiality. To testify to Deep Throat's cultural cred, they interview a barrage of usual suspects, from Norman Mailer and Camille Paglia to a briefly glimpsed Gore Vidal. Better, they've done an admirably thorough job of tracking down anyone connected to the film, however tangentially—even the mob functionary nicknamed "The Candyman," who inadvertently triggered the obscenity charges that capsized the movie in Memphis. (He got involved with the film's shady distributors during a trip to Nashville, where he'd gone to bulk-buy Goo-Goos.)

These sound bites are stirred into a frothy milkshake of pop sociology, a mixture of zingily edited archival footage, news clips and snarky cutting-room punch lines that make Michael Moore look like Frederick Wiseman. A Memphis prosecutor who went after the movie on obscenity grounds protests that he's a "red-blooded American male." Cue stock footage of a rocket blast-off, tee hee. And of course, there's the attraction everyone came for, whether they're watching Deep Throat or Inside Deep Throat: the moment when a blank-faced starlet named Linda Lovelace, ready for her close-up, opens her yawning mouth to accommodate a NASA-sized payload of cock.

Deep Throat was almost called The Sword Swallower, and in some ways that's more accurate—not because of the specialty, but because even the biggest, most glamorous '70s porn stars, no matter how often they were seen with Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson, never transcended a certain level of carny-geek stigma. Even today, explicit films such as Baise-Moi and The Brown Bunny are kept far from the megaplex. Instead of ushering in a new era of sexual freedom and honesty in movies, the smirky Deep Throat consigned hardcore to the gutter. Instead of showing people engaged in complex sexual relationships, with their tangled emotions and taboos exposed, all Deep Throat had to offer was what director Gerard Damiano calls "the gimmick."

And now Inside Deep Throat repackages the same material for mass consumption, no pun intended, as a sociological curio rather than smut. And that's the step backward that quotation-marked porn makes possible. At least as smut, Deep Throat got audiences to feel something without mediation, whether it was arousal or disgust. With its winking humor and studious detachment, Inside Deep Throat flatters contemporary viewers into feeling somehow more enlightened than the upper-crust matrons who trundled out to theaters in 1972. But those curious souls knew exactly why they were going, as one chirps on camera: "to see a dirty picture." Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard's longtime production partner, and made for HBO Films, Inside Deep Throat comes with the legitimacy conferred by a major-studio release—even as it uses footage so disreputable that it once drew prison sentences. The irony can't be lost on the filmmakers.

The movie's strongest, and funniest, at skewering the self-righteous hypocrisy of the public-decency tubthumpers who made Deep Throat their bête noire. In this surreal Lewis Carroll burlesque of outraged virtue, the loathsome vampire Roy Cohn lectures DT star Harry Reems on his moral turpitude, while future savings-and-loan criminal Charles Keating is seen inveighing against the evils of smut, long before he got his chance to finger-bang the American taxpayer. For cosmic punch lines, you can't beat President Richard Nixon driving the anti-smut bandwagon, only to have his own shady deeds exposed by an informant called—and here the cultural legacy comes full circle—"Deep Throat."

This is the one area where the movie forcefully argues Deep Throat's lasting relevance. Yesterday's Charles Keating is today's bible-thumping Tom DeLay apparatchik, even if public outrage can always be successfully deflected onto some public-indecency straw man. And yet it's harmless old consensual fellatio (or sodomy) that's obscene. As Inside Deep Throat suggests, there are some things we never get tired of swallowing.

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