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Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series 4

by Glenn Erickson Oct 06, 2018

Let the debate about the incompatibility of film art and screen eroticism commence: Joe Sarno is back!  His 1964 Sin in the Suburbs is still a slice of genuine Americana, considered total smut when first released but barely notable now except for the sordid believability of its subject matter. Is Sarno the Cassavetes of his own subgenre, the ’60s softcore sex soap opera? He certainly impresses as a man with a cinematic mission, following the beat of a different drummer.


Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series 4
Blu-ray
Sin in the Suburbs,
Confessions of a Young American Housewife,
+ Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures

Film Movement Classics
1964/1974/1964 / 1:78 widescreen / Sin B&W 90 min. Confessions Color 74 min. Warm B&W 70 min. / Street Date October 2, 2018 / 39.95
Written and Directed by
Joseph W. Sarno

 

Trying to distinguish between legitimately artistic ‘erotic’ films and the mountains of porn sludge out there is likely a waste of time, what with arguments based on outside values, not to mention the general ‘eye of the beholder’ rule. Production values don’t make the difference, and neither does anybody’s idea of good taste. I know respected critics that feel that the director showcased in this three-title collection is a genius.

 

In the 1960s there arrived Joseph Sarno, whose early exploitation films displayed a style and personal taste that committed the ultimate commercial sin — placing his personal ideas about sex ahead of making money. Yet his shows found their audience: they called him the ‘Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street.’ This filmmaker clearly followed a different drummer. I previously reviewed the first release in Film Movement’s Sarno project, which contained the eye-openers All the Sins of Sodom and Vibrations. I was intrigued by Sarno long before I ever saw one of his films, due to a chapter devoted to him in Incredibly Strange Films. That one book steered many a 1980s film fan off the mainstream fairway and into the rough, weird woods.

An eye-opening account of Sarno’s career can be found in the excellent documentary A Life in Dirty Movies. That show’s main message is that Sarno flourished until X-rated hardcore fare became the only game in town. This Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series 4 disc features the director’s most respected early film and a mid-career highlight, before he surrendered to the requirements of full-on porn.

 

Times  have changed. When watching one of the so-called comedic ‘Fockers’ movies, I remember thinking that crass porn needs to be re-defined. Joseph Sarno’s 1964 Sin in the Suburbs has less skin than the average R-rated comedy made today. I don’t think a single off-color word is spoken. The subject is a suburban wife-swapping club, presented without moralizing condemnation, nor even the guilty, bitter attitude toward sordid American domestic life found in the exposé book Peyton Place. The shocker is that Sarno’s film is so honest in its rawness. Drawing from the more adventurous fringe of New York acting talent, Joe Sarno found actors willing to engage with his serious soap opera. Frustrated housewives entertain lovers on the side; one even invites her landscaping contractor in for fun and games while her husband is away. A rather seamy couple passing themselves off as brother and sister see the rampant adultery as a moneymaking opportunity, and form a wife-swapping club complete with costume capes and masks. One sex-hungry housewife rushes headlong into the new sexual ‘adventure’ … not realizing that her own rebellious daughter is involved as well.

Sarno communicates an unexpectedly blunt and honest attitude about his subject matter — he views sexuality as a gnawing itch to be scratched, not suppressed. Nothing we see is unbelievable, even when a woman throws a sex & booze party in the afternoon, after teasing one of her own daughter’s school classmates. Restraints just aren’t what they used to be. When the instigators of the sex ring dress up in the capes and masks for the big night, the show communicates the excitement of transgression experienced by the participants, indulging in such scandalous behavior. It also takes on a surreal quality, a bit like a Franju movie or a Black Mass, and also reminding us of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Adventure is apparently where one finds it.

 

Sarno’s anguished characters pursue their forbidden thrills as if striking back against some kind of greater unhappiness. With no context except blank suburban walls and the sounds of the neighbors arguing, they seem to live in a bland American Limbo, without TV or radio or anything else to steer them away from their desires. The film follows no trend — it’s pure self-expression and nobody was making anything quite like it. Ang Lee’s 1997 The Ice Storm now seems a highly politicized remake of Sin in the Suburbs, adding Watergate malaise and heavy symbolism to the mix; one would think America was paralyzed by sexual hysteria. Taking a more realistic tack, The Ice Storm places its wife-swapping as just one more wrinkle in a swamp of bad marriages and social breakdown, where the kids are as screwed up as the parents. By comparison, Sarno only tangentially touches on the existential fear that drives his unhappy suburbanites.

Although the acting is variable, all on screen are committed to their roles. As an experimenter in ‘new American cinema,’ Sarno is every bit as sincere and ambitious a filmmaker as the much more celebrated John Cassavetes. Although some of the actors are just adequate, several of Sarno’s performers are definitely Good Enough for Prime Time. Audrey Campbell is known for the unpleasant Olga films, but here communicates a subtle inner conflict to go with her lustful intelligence. Dyanne Thorne is here as well, acting under the name Lahna Monroe. Also very good, and somewhat unnerving, is W.B. Parker as the ‘brother’ who sets up the swap syndicate. All the others may simply be committed actors with a personal wild streak, but this guy looks like the real deal.


 

A look at Joe Sarno’s filmography shows his titles slipping into X-rated smut territory as soon as the industry went hardcore. But I definitely remember that early cable TV (around 1980) showed Sarno’s 1975 Abigail Lesley is Back in Town, a softcore soap like Sin in the Suburbs embellished with color cinematography and much more nudity. According to Tim Lucas, a highlight of Sarno’s color era is 1974’s Confessions of a Young American Housewife, the second offering on this disc.

Everything has changed in ten years. Sarno continues to concentrate on the somewhat claustrophobic sex adventures taking place in nondescript apartments, by people for whom sex is a first, second and third consideration. A pair of couples have found a balance in an every-way-but-loose foursome, staging full-on orgies night after night. One of the husbands, Eddie (David Hausman) is caught bringing home a casual pickup, and the most his wife Carol (Mary Mendum/Rebecca Brooke) gives him is a slightly disapproving look. A visit by Carol’s mother Jennifer (Jennifer Welles) threatens trouble, but the 40ish widow soon overcomes her misgivings, welcomes a seduction by her own son-in-law, and joins in the no-limits revelry, including an all-girl trip to a female sex guru at an establishment called Chan Dara. She even picks up a younger man of her own, a pleasant grocery delivery boy.

 

Sarno delivers his notion of an idyllic sex fantasy — four attractive, sexually insatiable people carry on a polyamorous existence without any of the problems of human relationships — no jealousies, inadequacies, feelings of being used, abused or betrayed; no alcohol or substance trouble, no antisocial behavior in any other direction. It is true that Sarno’s ‘vision’ sidesteps the male-centric dominance and exploitation that permeates porn, soft and hard. For him sexuality appears to be a female phenomenon, aided by mail consorts.

We also need a reminder, I suppose, that this filmmaking all took place before the AIDS epidemic, that suddenly made a more discriminatory choice of sex partners a much more pressing concern. It goes without saying that everything on this disc is a conservative’s vision of Hell.

 

Tim Lucas informs us that Confessions is basically a hard-core film, shot as soft. Although not shown in X-rated graphic detail, the deeds depicted are more often than not really happening. Sarno didn’t like hardcore, with its emphasis on mechanical functions, and resisted the changeover. He really was more interested in interpersonal relationships.

Confessions is a’70s item, updated with quality color cinematography, and a lot of dirty talk. Some of the clothing on view is dated in a way that the ’60s outfits aren’t — in the last scene the delivery boy enters in a pair of pants with a plaid pattern that even struck ME as distractingly awful. Confessions is also more of a movie about sex acts first and foremost. The male characters have jobs, but the social context of Sin in the Suburbs is mostly missing. The acting isn’t as consistent, although Welles and leading lady Mary Mendum are on the nose, and Chris Jordan is effective as Anna, the gal-pal next door who loves to eat yet never gains weight.


 

Listed as an extra, 1964’s Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures is a recent rediscovery, found among the possessions of the late Radley Metzger. The one print recovered has less damage than one might find on the average older Something Weird DVD release. The B&W show was Sarno’s immediate follow-up to Sin in the Suburbs but is less ambitious in all respects. Three college girls (?) come to New York to become actresses and take a room in a hotel run by a woman connected with ‘art photography.’ The trio are soon engulfed by the temptations of various exploiters. One dances in a club (run by future Rockford Files star Joe Santos) and competes for the attention of a man who claims to be a producer. Another gets suckered into posing nude, which unaccountably wins her friends that get her into a show. A third falls for the promises of another liar, who tries to get her to sleep with yet another ‘producer.’ The acting is mostly okay, but the show hasn’t Sin’s bite of social truth. The actors can’t overcome characters that seem far too intelligent to be such patsies. They don’t even have terrible personal backgrounds, or substance habits to support.

Sarno’s actors appear to be collaborators, not bodies hired for exploitation. When he says ‘action,’ we never get the feeling that his stars don’t want to be there. The appeal of Sarno’s films is that they’re always creative endeavors first and foremost. Joe Sarno in no way makes films that I would call necessary viewing, but I would have to admit that he’s no phony. He’s a self-styled legit artist, in a field unlikely to be embraced by anybody’s mainstream.


 

Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of the Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series 4 is another fine presentation of work from this creative auteur of vintage ’60s adult films. Confessions features a nearly flawless encoding, with brilliant color. Sin has only a couple of superficial flaws early on, and is a quantum improvement over the old 2004 Something Weird DVD. The ‘extra’ show Warm Nights looks okay, even with numerous scratches and digs. Because its source was the one rediscovered print, it does have some muffled dialogue. The audio on the two main shows is excellent.

The shows come with a pair of new commentaries from Tim Lucas, who reports that he corresponded with Joe Sarno frequently in the last ten years of the director’s life. As is expected from a Lucas commentary, we’re given a great deal of fascinating background and career info on actors, fully answering the question, ‘who were these people?’ We find out that the moneyman behind Sin in the Suburbs and two other Sarno pictures was a bank vice president, who subsequently tried to embezzle his firm’s funds and skip the country with a girlfriend. Sin in the Suburbs was designed and planned to hew close enough to MPPA guidelines so as to not immediately bring out the censor pitchforks — all the sex occurs off-screen.

 

An older commentary for Sin is hosted by filmmaker Frank Henenlotter with Something Weird’s late Mike Vraney, with Joe Sarno and his wife Peggy. Careful listening is required as some speakers are not fully on-microphone. Sarno requires a lot of prompting to remember details, but once they get him going he has a lot to say. The hosts keep things focused; not only is Sin properly placed in its historical niche but Sarno comes out with plenty of comments about competing names like Barry Mahon, and tales of legal battles against local censors. Henenlotter sums it up – most exploitation pictures were trashy excuses to parade naked females, whereas Sarno was a real filmmaker.

Mike Vraney becomes somewhat defensive about the condition of the print, but the copy we are watching fourteen years later is almost perfect. The 1960s films were apparently distributed in travelling carnival fashion; we’re told that the negative is missing and only eighteen prints were ever struck. Sarno talks with great affection for his actors, and reacts to the screening as if watching old home movies. He says that he learned about wife-swapping through interviews he conducted in the early 1950s, for magazine articles.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series 4
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Sin Very Good; Confessions Good; Warm Good -minus
Video: Sin Very Good; Confessions Excellent Warm Good -minus
Sound: Sin & Confessions Very Good; Warm Good -minus
Supplements: Commentaries on both main features by Tim Lucas; full commentary on Sin with Joe and Peggy Sarno with Michael Vraney and Frank Henenlotter; Short commentary by Joe Sarno on Confessions. Deleted scenes for Confessions.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 2, 2018
(5832sarn)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.