Deep Throat and America's Gag Reflex
By Fernando F. Croce

Inside Deep Throat, the documentary on the reverberations of the legendary '70s porn film, finally earns its NC-17 rating after some coy panting over star Linda Lovelace's allegedly awe-inspiring oral skills, and the effect is really startling. Not so much for the aplomb of Lovelace's sword-swallowing party trick -- though that still remains scarcely less than breathtaking -- but for the mere fact that I was seeing a blowjob in a billboard-sized theater screen. Though I had already caught Deep Throat on video, seeing it on a Panavision widescreen, in the dark with an audience, made the clip whip up some hitherto elusive power, the same kind, I assume, that fueled the H-bomb effect of the flick when it first hit theaters in 1972. All porno movies, whether or not dressed up in the tatters of "plot," ultimately remain documentaries on the sexual act, and, as such, reminders that affront anybody who wants to keep sex chained down in the realm of the "dirty" and the "unnatural." I'm not trying to play libertine here, but the truth is that Americans have always been far touchier when it comes to sex (a life impulse, after all) than to violence. Deep Throat, then, was... what? Art? Revolution?

That's the concept Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the tag-team filmmakers behind Inside Deep Throat, scramble to sell, of the movie as the culmination of the fermenting sexual revolution of the late '60s, with ramifications that extend to this day both within the XXX industry and in such mainstream come-ons as Britney Spears' latest music video. That's a terrifically appealing idea, especially for people who were born long after the debates, and Bailey-Barbato, working on a jazzy E! True Hollywood Story style, fashion the story as a joshing free-speech gladiatorial contest, with hip liberators and slow-talking prudes ducking it out in the arena of smut dives. (Dennis Hopper narrates, which kinda tips the scales a bit.) Deep Throat, shot in less than a week for something like $22,000, went on to become a record-shattering hit ($600 million!) with mainstream viewers, and the main target of Nixon's crusade against obscenity. Suddenly, back alley parlance for oral sex entered the language, and the film turned Johnny Carson punchline, subject for essays, and all-around, hot-button roundtable topic. Porn chic. "A badge of new freedom," according to John Waters. Rebellion, before it went sour, baby.

The structure is the same groovy-'70s-shading-into-soulless-'80s-and-beyond epic arc of Boogie Nights (from which the filmmakers pilfer some background tunes), a notion the surviving crew members, mainly old guys in loud Florida shirts, are more than happy to uphold, especially hairdresser-turned-flesh-auteur Gerard Damiano. Now an affably bemused retiree in his seventies, Damiano (who also directed The Devil in Miss Jones) yearns for the good ol' days of taboo-bursting, when money mattered less than artistry, yada yada yada. Bailey and Barbato's eulogy to the early outlawism of porn locates its satyr-martyr in Harry Reems, the good-humored, mustached cocksman who got sucked off by Lovelace up on the screen, singled out by Andrew Sarris and supported by Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Reems, the only one connected with Deep Throat to get persecuted for indecency, got tied to the stake of First Amendment before making his way through a haze of drugs and booze. By contrast, Lovelace, who died in a car accident in 2002, remains a ghostly presence here, her trajectory (pimped-out wife, hardcore princess, born-again feminist) the most interesting. Even when giving tonsil massages, she projects the kind of vacant, pliable vulnerability that could be exploited equally by her scumbag hubby and Gloria Steinem.

Deep Throat is above all an indelible cultural document, its most important social contribution the way its success basically took porn (and, accordingly, the subject of sex) away from the trenchcoat brigade and made it a subject of serious discussion. Getting people to talk is the first step toward liberation. Inside Deep Throat, however, is derisive, smirky and irresponsibly tidy in its view of the decade's sexual politics. So many missed chances -- why should Bailey and Barbato develop Erica Jong's take on the reactionary subtext of the film's central gimmick (the clitoris perniciously shifted to the woman's throat, all the better to serve the phallus) when they can just trot out nostalgia from Hugh Hefner or Dick Cavett? Still, I'm with Norman Mailer when he forges porn as the missing link between crime and art. So little has been done with the possibilities of sex on film that, for all of today's gazillion-dollar hardcore industry, I feel pornography is an art still stunted in infancy. When an order is threatened by so much as an exposed breast, cocksuckers can be revolutionaries; what we lack are not artists who could purge sexuality on the screen of its stigmas, but a society that progresses rather than regresses when it comes to fucking. As Bertolucci once said, orgasms are still far more dangerous than bombs here.

*

Along with porn, the horror film formed the most transgressive American genre of the '70s, as potent in its subversive politics as Linda Lovelace's acrobatics. Incidentally, one of the commentators in Inside Deep Throat is Wes Craven, whose early work (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) marked him as a shake-up critic along the lines of fellow mavens George Romero and Larry Cohen. Though those two have trouble getting projects set up nowadays, Craven has continued working steadily in the industry, and the cost has been a continuous deterioration of his art, culminating (if that's the word) now with the new, hapless Cursed. Working again with Kevin Williamson, his noxiously hip Scream screenwriter, Craven bottoms out with a numbskull Gen-Y werewolf dud that strips the genre of any political or emotional resonance. Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg and Joshua Jackson are among the youngsters sprouting fur and fangs and biting each other, but Ginger Snaps already linked lycanthropy with the hormonal-menstrual anxieties of puberty. By comparison, Cursed (cynically trimmed down to get a theater-filling PG-13 rating) just provides further evidence of how thoroughly housebroken the once-dissident genre has become. To quote Andrea True, the documentary's pornstar-turned-disco-queen-turned-bitter-interviewee, "it means nothing."


Reviewed March 3, 2005.

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