Sweet dream, toxic truth

A long way from transcending genre limits

Published: Aug 04 2014, 01:01:am

Sunday, Februrary 15, 1981.
BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS. Written, produced, directed and edited by Gerard Damiano. Running time: 83 minutes. Rated X (U.S.).
X-film industry executives estimate that porn comprises anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent of the total motion picture revenue in the United States . . . Like rock 'n' roll, porn is here to stay. Whether or not it will ever transcend the limitations of the genre is questionable, but its share of the marketplace is assured.
Boxoffice, February, 1981

LIKE NEW YORK, LOS ANGELES, San Francisco and Seattle, Vancouver supports a number of theatres that specialize in the presentation of hardcore film fare. Our local porn houses are located, not in the inner city, but in the Washington State border communities of Blaine and Point Roberts.
    (For reasons too complex to discuss here, Canadians [in 1981] are not allowed to publicly view pornography in their own country. Politicians, who are so silent when police break the law, rise in righteous wrath to protect us from the ultimate evil — the sex act on a movie screen.)
    Porn has been part of the American movie mix for more than a decade now. Film industry professionals have come to accept it as a genre with its own stars, its own audience and its own established conventions.
    One of the industry's conventions is to play down the word "pornography." Although porn, per se, is not illegal — both U.S. and Canadian laws prohibit "obscenity," not pornography — terms like "adult films" and "triple-X features" are used to describe the product available in certain movie houses.
    No matter what it's called, though, porn can be recognized by its content. In much the same way that Westerns are about the American frontier, porn films are about sex.
    What distinguishes porn, and makes it a distinct genre, is the fact that the sex in pom films is real and explicit. In porn films, the performers are seen to perform sex acts, a fact that tends to bias the genre towards the mechanical, rather than the emotional, in its depiction of sex in human relations.
    In a recent survey of the X-market (called Are Porn Films Recession Proof?), Boxoffice magazine reporter Dan Bottstein wondered "whether or not (porn) will ever transcend the limitations of the genre." The question is both legitimate and pertinent.
    Over the years, filmgoers have seen virtually every other movie genre — Westerns, science fiction, gangster pictures, horror movies — undergo artistic transformations. Talented film-makers have found ways to "transcend the  limitations" of them all to produce a number of genuine movie masterpieces.
    Alone among the recognized genres, porn still waits for its genius. At one time, observers thought that, as the industry matured, writer-director Gerard Damiano would mature along with it.
    Damiano's place in the genre's history is already assured. His 1972 feature, the comedy Deep Throat, created the trend known as "porno chic." The name of its star, Linda Lovelace, became a household word, and its title was the code name for a key figure in the Washington Post's Watergate investigation.
    It established Damiano as a filmmaker able to built entire films on single-sentence plot outlines. A fellatio farce, Deep Throat was the story of a young woman with an anatomical peculiarity that made it possible for her to achieve sexual satisfaction only through oral intercourse.
    The next year, his stark drama, The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), was based on a theological concept. Here the plot hinged on the Catholic belief that suicide is a mortal sin, and will be punished by eternal damnation in hell.
    Miss Jones (Georgina Spelvin), a lonely, despondent spinster, kills herself. Satan, in what appears to be an act of kindness, allows her time to sample a selection of the sins that she missed during her life. Thus she goes to her punishment with full knowledge of what she is missing.
    Damiano's latest film, Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, is an attempt at metaphysical fantasy in the Bergman manner. It opens with Andrew Cunningham (Jon Martin), a guest at the country home of former actress Sharon Morgan (Juliet Anderson) experiencing a moment of deja vu.
    Sharon, it turns out, is a Dreamer in the mythological sense. Her fantasies are so powerful that they suspend the reality of the people around her, creating a dream zone within which time and the aging process are frozen.
    Within Sharon's dream is the promise of eternal youth, but to enter it one must submit to her control. Andrew, who has been part of it for some time, begins to resist and is about to discover a horrible truth about his dependence on her.
    As a director, Damiano's attention is divided. On one hand, he knows how to shape an idea in visual terms. The first explicit scene in the film establishes Sharon's total self-absorption, a feat the director performs by having his leading lady relate, not to her sexual partner, but to a mirror image of herself.
    On the other hand, Damiano also knows what his paying customers expect. He has to deliver a film that will generate quotes like "the hottest film Damiano has ever made — Al Goldstein."
    To that end, he has assembled a cast of six men and 11 women, who go through the expected motions with appropriate dreamlike ennui. Prominent display is given to Nordic types, presumably to underline the director's inspirational debt to Bergman.
    Currently on view at the Point Roberts Adult Theatre, Beyond Your Wildest Dreams is technically proficient. Its mise en scene, however, makes it particularly joyless. We're still a long way away from an example of transcendent porn.  

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1981. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Sex in the cinema was a serious issue for critics from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s. In 1981, for example, police in Edmonton, Alberta, seized director Giovanni Tinto Brass's Caligula, bringing charges against the local exhibitor, Towne Cinemas, for showing an obscene film. As the film had already played Vancouver, I was called upon to offer "expert witness" testimony for the defence. (The defence prevailed, and Albertans were able to see what remained of the picture after its pre-release visit to the Alberta censor's editing room.) During my first decade as a daily newspaper film critic, I made four court appearances where my "expertise" on contemporary community standards was cited by the defence and questioned by the prosecutor. In each case, the fundamental issue seemed to be who should control what the public could see or hear in an entertainment venue. Each court victory diminished the power of government censors, and added to the choices available to the individual (among which was the choice to say "no thank you"). Throughout, it was my job to keep up on the issue both in my immediate neighbourhood and the entertainment business as a whole. And, I have to admit, I was one of those "observers" mentioned in the above review who expected a talented film-maker to emerge within the porno genre, transcend its limitations, and produce a genuine movie masterpiece. For various social, economic and technological reasons, that has yet to happen. The history is complex, with many possible explanations. Among the best is the one offered by Oregon State University professor Joe Lewis in his book Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry (New York University Press; 2000).

See also: Pornography is considered both as a genre and and an issue in my reviews of Insatiable (1980) and Up 'n' Coming (1983), as well as in my two interviews with actress Marilyn Chambers in 1980 and 1983. Earlier consideration of the issue can be found in my reviews of the 1976 Alice in Wonderland and The First Nudie Musical (1976). A documentarist's view is examined in Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981). The issue of sex in the cinema in the mid-1950s was the subject of The Notorious Bettie Page (2005).