Judge Rafael Gamboa used to think "heavy petting" referred to the particular branch of husbandry dedicated to raising obese household pets.
"A tongue-in-ear comedy featuring groping observations by David Byrne, Sandra Bernhard, Spalding Gray, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Laurie Anderson, and more!"
That tagline makes me feel cluelessly young, as the only name I'm familiar with is Allen Ginsberg. I'm not sure what's more sneer worthy, my pop-culture ignorance regarding the decade in which I came into being or (for those who do recognize those names) your encroaching age and long-lost cool factor. Either way, let us take this moment to point at each other and laugh superciliously.
Right. Now that's settled, we may continue on this critical sojourn with the sedate composure that generally follows such personal belittlement. Incidentally, the shameful introversion you and I are now feeling is precisely the cowed effect the parental units of the American fifties generally attempted to imbue in their teenagers with regards to S-E-X. It was decade enamored with social repression, a decade that would have been aghast if it had been informed that its stifling behaviors would inadvertently open the door to the reckless sixties. This sexual repression in particular and the actual effects it had on teenagers of the era is the subject of this lighthearted documentary, which pretty much makes it a guaranteed interest-piquer on principle.
I dearly wanted to love this movie, as sexual repression is a topic I find personally arresting, and one generally ignored by society to this day, which in my hardly qualified opinion tends to focus on its symptoms and consequences without recognizing that repression is the root cause. I dearly wanted to find this movie hilarious, as the sexual mores of the fifties are amusing simply because they were so ridiculous, and when combined with personal anecdotes promise a winning combination of raucous entertainment. Also, I often suspect we laugh at our past stupidity to delude ourselves into thinking that we aren't the fools we were before, an uncomfortable aspect of our humanity that this documentary so easily could have touched upon by not allowing us to look into our past and feel superior. Perhaps that's too much of a personal taste; really, what I'm trying to say is that I wanted this film to do something other than the expected, to take the opportunity to be original and to do something more interesting than a gimmick. Sadly, this is not the case.
You may not believe me, but this movie actually drags. Not consistently, but often enough to be noticeable. It took me a long time to figure out why a movie with such rich subject matter could find itself limping along like a toddler with a sprained ankle. The answer? Heavy Petting has no direction. It never had a destination in mind, and it never knew where it was going. Consequently, it never goes anywhere, spinning unconcernedly in circles before deciding to stop and roll credits. Though only 75 minutes long, it feels much longer, which isn't something a documentary about sex should be doing. This doc just doesn't do much with its material. It does exactly what one would expect: tosses in a mix of slightly embarrassing confessions of celebrities' adolescent naïveté against a backdrop of after-school specials and rock ballads from the fifties. It transitions fairly smoothly from one topic to the other, and then ends rather abruptly with the promise of true love for some reason I don't quite comprehend.
The merits of the film are almost all due to its raw content and not to the way that content was shaped into a cohesive whole. Not enough time is given to the interviews, way too much time is taken up in the stock footage, and there are many occasions in which there is no connection between what the interviewees are saying and the footage being shown on the screen. What I found odd in a film so concerned with these educational films is that none of the interviewees ever said anything about their experiences and attitudes regarding them, and very little about their interactions with their parents. In other words, there is no commentary relevant to the images, and the images are often relegated to providing transitions or visual distractions. Perhaps the film was trying to focus the interviews solely on what the media of the time never mentioned, and attempting to allow the images to provide the parents' point of view. Perhaps the lack of a strong connection between the stock footage and the interviews was to emphasize the disconnect between the parents and the children. Whatever the reason, that separation makes the film difficult to follow, made more challenging because the film has no arc. It isn't setting up for something, it just lays everything out in a very flat and continuous manner, which is why it doesn't really have a beginning or an end, it just starts and stops. And finally, the film doesn't seem very interested in delving too deeply, being more content to provide a topical treatment of sex in the fifties that pretty much amounts to "adolescence is adolescence, no matter the decade, and that's why it's funny" when clearly there are tons of things about the fifties that set that particular generation apart.
To be fair, part of the reason this documentary is rather superficial is precisely because it's trying to be funny. Unfortunately, it isn't, because the interviewees are not trying to be. They're simply being ruefully honest, which occasionally leads to amusing anecdotes but mostly just makes these people and their experiences endearing. And the footage from the era isn't consistently laugh-out-loud funny, either; the quality of sex-ed films has never changed, and "lame" rather than "funny" is the word that has characterized the genre throughout its history. Most of the ones shown are merely pathetic, with a couple that are downright scary with their blatant ignorance.
However, the DVD set comes with 113 min. worth of extended interviews, and also provides the full-length sex-ed films (including a particularly graphic film made for the military), so in terms of sheer content the DVD special features almost make up for the lackluster documentary they come packaged with. Oh, and if you do pick this up, "Director's Comments" is not a commentary track, but rather a 4-min. little blurb by Obie Benz.
Bottom line, though, this documentary is not funny enough to justify its superficiality and not deep enough to justify its lack of laughs. If you are looking for a DVD set with a fair amount of raw material, this one's for you. But if you're looking for a great documentary, look elsewhere.
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