Saturday, May 2, 2009

Behind the Green Door (Artie & Jim Mitchell, 1972)

It has been said that this is the movie in which pornography entered the mainstream market, and others have said it’s the first porn movie made as a serious film. Probably neither statement is really very accurate. Though there is no doubt that the film created a buzz in places that would never have discussed such things—highbrow magazines, film criticism, pop culture—Behind the Green Door was never taken seriously, except by those who marked its ambition as a piece of explicit erotica made as if it had been taken seriously by its directors. Perhaps that’s true enough, for there are signs that the Mitchell brothers were aiming for some of the effects associated with seriousness. There’s a narrative framework which sets out to place the erotic fairy tale inside the walls of anecdote. Three men—a middle-aged coffee-drinker and a middle-aged cook and a young truck-driver—meet in a diner, and the cook asks to hear the story they’ve been promising him. Then there’s a fade to some sort of resort and a long episode of meaningless babble as the coffee-drinker tells a tedious story to the young truck-driver at an outdoor table. A young woman is seated at a distant table. She watches.

A bit later the story begins: the young woman is abducted and taken forcibly in a limousine to a secret club, where she is subjected to a series of sexual activities for the viewing pleasure of a select membership. The woman is played by Marilyn Chambers, a model who around the same time had a contract with Ivory Soap, for whom she portrayed a wholesome, sweet-faced home-maker. This is the quality she brings to the film, too.
Gloria has no dialogue, no character—she only responds. The plot, such as it is, allows Gloria the (imaginary) luxury of complete passive enjoyment. Because she has no choice, she cannot be morally responsible, and so she is ostensibly in the ideal situation, well removed from the repressive mores of society, the enemy of enjoyment and fulfullment. In the seedy short-story this movie was based on, passed around in mimeograph copies half a century ago, Gloria was not only captured but drugged, given some sort of aphrodisiacal elixir to boosted her sexual appetite to epic proportions. But here Gloria is peaceful, neither sex-crazed nor hopped up in any way. On her arrival backstage, the “matron” soothes her with the rituals of pre-meditation relaxation. There follow three acts: in Act 1 half a dozen hooded women remove Gloria’s clothes as she stands on a carpeted stage, surrounded by a small, poorly-lit night-club audience, all masked. The women caress her and perform oral sex, and she responds by closing her eyes and moving sinuously. Act 2 begins with the arrival of the “African Stud” (Johnny Keys), a very fit black porn star sporting face-paint, a tooth or claw necklace, and white tights cut out at the groin, highlighting his erection. The women move away and there is a scene of intercourse during which Gloria becomes increasingly excited and ostensibly attains orgasm. The stud withdraws. Act 3 is the house specialty. A special trapeze set-up is lowered into place, with seats for three men, all wearing the same sort of white tights as the A.S., and they are adjusted to the right height so Gloria has an organ in her mouth and one in each hand, as well as sitting on another. This goes on for some time, during which the members of the audience move from admiration to leisurely masturbation to full orgy mode. Paradoxically, they are no longer able to watch the performance on stage. Act 3 ends with a series of ejaculations filmed artfully, first in high-definition and slow motion, then in increasingly abstract versions done in bright colours and with cinematic effects like prismatic lenses and so forth. Then the show is over and somebody carries the sated Gloria off stage. There is a long coda, in which the young truck-driver heads down the highway at night as the roadlights give way to a scene in which he and Gloria are alone, having glad mutually pleasing, voluntary sex—but it’s clearly a fantasy, since the ongoing shot of the highway continues under the bedroom scene. And then with the truck-driver's orgasm the dream is over.

So what’s it all about? Several related and yet contradictory things. One element of the “serious” purpose of making a “good” erotic movie--the novelist Terry Southern wrote the satire Blue Movie about people supposedly so motivated--is the unspoken assumption that society’s repression of human carnal appetite produces great malaise and psychic disturbance. Thus free expression of sexuality is somehow liberating, even revolutionary. Dollar-store D.H. Lawrence, perhaps, but there it is, one of the great cliches of the 1960s. Wrap this up with a notion of esoteric rituals and it takes on a kind of haltingly, ponderous significance. Here, too, the Mitchells emulate “serious” film, attempting a Fellini-esque ambience by populating the night-club with solid citizens, pretty women, and grotesques, including a hugely obese woman and several people wearing what look like Venetian carnival masks or make-up. And a mime, no less. Old and young, handsome and unlovely. Another contradiction is easily discernible in the implicit violence of the kidnapping and the supposedly liberating ritual of excess—this is, after all, only a plot structure founded on the objectification of the female. But what makes this different from pornography unsurrounded with artistic notions or pretensions? Though it isn’t entirely successful, the film does try to do more than serving up a series of bare encounters. Part of what it tries to do is to splice together the sources of enjoyment common to “cinema” and to “porn.” Commercially-made North-American erotica generally caters to a male audience who want to see a woman involved with uninhibited sexual activity, at least pretending to enjoy it, and at least pretending to enjoy the pleasure of the other participant(s). The mechanism of the watcher, the voyeur, depends on a fantasy crossing of borders: the woman who is the object (recipient, receptacle) of sexual activity is enacting what in “normal” life is only imaginary. The key to the watcher's enjoyment is the illusion of her imaginary willingness, figured in both expression, her simulated orgasms, and most of all—that she is doing it. That is a real vagina, that is a real penis, that is real semen. Is there willing suspension of disbelief in watching? Perhaps, but in Behind the Green Door willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t come from narrative structure or character, as in novels or more well-thought-out movies. It comes only from physical evidence. Act 2 is unusual because it concludes with female orgasm—albeit such things are never verifiable—rather than the trite fountains of male ejaculation that are adduced as if to certify that the package contains real sex (as well as to maximize the masculine monopoly on enjoyment). That is, the A.S. leaves the stage after her orgasm, not his, which evidently doesn't happen. The multiple, artsily-photographed fountaining at the end of Act III goes far to make up for this momentary aberration, but the Mitchell Brothers were on to something here. In the midst of the sexual multiplication, the trapeze-mounted orgasms and the writhing, groping, smiling, moaning audience-participants, Gloria disappears. Remember, the audience becomes too occupied with their own gropings and wheezings. At first Gloria is a map of orgasmic possibility, then an accessory, then a backdrop, then a misty ideal of complete feminine satiation by means of plenty. Sated and completely relaxed in the arms of the stagehand who takes her back behind the green door, Gloria is completed, and completely gone. That she reappears in the truck-driver’s dream only proves her phantom existence.

It might not have worked this way with another actress. The presence of Chambers at the center of the story is strangely tranquil, even when she is in the throes of supposedly transformational delight. Of course, it doesn't really work at all, not by the standards of "real" movies, and yet when the movie came out in 1972, there was a real buzz among people who previously would never have discussed a porn film in public, articles in mainstream magazines and so forth. Did it change the history of erotic film? Perhaps so--its wide distribition probably made $25 million, and the extras (vestigial plot, dialogue, artsy camerawork) may have influenced others to make erotica with a story component. Marilyn Chambers wanted to be an actor, but it seems she wasn't as successful in that endeavour, so she became a kind of impresaria of porn, the Masterpiece-Theatre persona of pornography. She died in her 50s in April, 2009.

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