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Case Number 07638

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Inside Deep Throat

Universal // 2005 // 90 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 26th, 2005

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky would make a dirty joke here, but he is sure you have already thought of one far worse than he could ever tell.

The Charge

"It's a feast of carrion and squalor. A nadir of decadence. A Sodom and Gomorrah gone wild before the fire."—Hon. Joel J. Tyler, Criminal Court of New York, reading his verdict against Deep Throat

Opening Statement

The word itself suggests scandal, a whiff of alterity: pornography. From the Greek, meaning "the writing of prostitutes." Is it about them or by them? It does not matter. Such writing is unknowable. Prostitutes are of the body; they are not permitted access to polite language. They are not creatures of speech, but pure body, pure being. Even in a society that claims to be governed by standards of "free speech," by their very definition, these bodies are incapable of speech.

So let's talk about pornography anyway. What follows is a story about pornography. It is also a story about America.

Facts of the Case

Jerry Damiano had a dream: He wanted to make a lot of money. Oh, and score a lot of girls. Once a hairdresser who heard all about his customers' sexual frustrations, Jerry picked up a camera and embraced the world of filmmaking with the enthusiasm of the Little Rascals putting on a show to save the orphanage. Not just any filmmaking would do, though. Jerry's dream was to make porn.

So he loaded up the camera and headed for Miami. These were the dog days after the Summer of Love, after Nixon nabbed the White House and Vietnam slid from bad to worse to catastrophic. In Miami, Jerry met up with a pretty, freckled lass named Linda Boreman. Her husband was a bad, bad man, but he did teach Linda a festive party trick. This party trick would be the centerpiece of Jerry's cinematic epic. At the time, the trick did not really have a name.

Jerry called it "deep throat." The rest, as they say, is history.

The Evidence

Some may argue that pornography is the ultimate expression of capitalism: the body rendered as pure commodity. Some, performance artist Annie Sprinkle for example, have considered this an invitation to exploit themselves as an act of resistance against the powers that be. Others have merely considered porn a stepping-stone to "legitimate" performance. In any case, it is all around us, an underground economy whose existence has brought about the dissemination of nearly every technological advance in the entertainment field. The Victorian penny press expanded literacy among the masses, in part thanks to a thriving market for periodical porn (what is with those Victorians and spanking?). Video recorders dropped in price radically when the adult film industry switched from theaters to home video. Camcorders. The internet.

For much of its history, pornography has been associated with the world of the criminal. No surprise here: its very name conjures illegality. By the early 1970s, the American porn business was pretty much in the hands of the mob. They financed the product, controlled the theaters, and skimmed money straight from the cash box. While some artists graduated from porn to Hollywood (director Wes Craven candidly admits to it, but most will not), most found themselves held back by the mob's stranglehold on commercial sexual exploitation. Not that any of this mattered to most Americans. Sex was something you never talked about, that you kept in the bedrooms, and that, for heaven's sake, you never, never went to a movie theater to see.

Then came Deep Throat. Again, it may seem an artifact of late capitalism. Financed and owned by the mob (who rule their markets at the point of a gun, successful if blunt survivors at the capitalistic game), the film became a cultural touchstone. Not because it was a good movie. Oh no, Deep Throat is pretty much crap, even by the standards of cheap '70s porn. I first saw it in college, and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Hell, Gerard Damiano's follow-up, The Devil in Miss Jones, is a much better movie by a long shot: a weirdly existential (if not actually arousing) art film of sorts. But Deep Throat was there first.

Maybe it was the timing. This was the age of Woodstock, the Paris students storming the barricades, Prague Spring—the young resisting the tyranny of old men and their prudish ways. This was also the time of the crackdown: Nixon turning the tools of government (no wonder they called his dirty tricks squad "plumbers") against his fellow Americans. Indeed, it is perhaps the ultimate mark of resistance that the secret voice (whom we now know to be Mark Felt) that betrayed the Nixon White House to Woodward and Bernstein became known as Deep Throat.

It is still hard, though, to accept Jerry Damiano as a spokesman for social resistance. Damiano is a creaky old man now, with his pants hiked up over his waist. His story forms the rough center of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's bouncy documentary Inside Deep Throat.

Bailey and Barbato are clearly working against the clock here. Boogie Nights has covered this territory already to some extent, and as if to conjure memories of that film, the directors include two songs from P.T. Anderson's odyssey ("Spill the Wine" and "Brand New Key," in case you are keeping score), intercut with their interviews with a ton of popular critics of American sexual politics: Camille Paglia, Dr. Ruth, Hugh Hefner, John Waters, and so forth. These commentators treat Deep Throat as an accidental masterpiece whose legal hassles are almost akin to the censorship battles over Ulysses or Howl. But even the film's director admits it is a bad movie.

Narrated by a gruff Dennis Hopper (who probably does not remember the '70s all that well himself), the documentary chronicles the long, strange trip of Deep Throat, from its creation in a swinger pad in South Florida, to its rising celebrity thanks to overzealous government officials, to the big crash: the 1976 federal case that destroyed the career of affable star Harry Reems. (You can read Harry's side of the story in an interview I conducted with him linked in the "Accomplices.") From there, the film seems to have ascended into myth: little seen, much discussed. At least, judging from the reactions of Bailey and Barbato's interview subjects.

For feminist critics in the 1980s (fueled by somewhat dubious claims that Linda Lovelace had been raped on set—although no one disputes that her husband at the time was an abusive monster), Deep Throat became Exhibit A in their case against sexual exploitation and the male gaze. After all, as Erica Jong deftly notes, the entire premise of the movie (Linda's character has her clitoris in her throat?!) is an expression of male fantasy, played as farce. Moralists like Charles Keating (who headed Nixon's commission on pornography and later proved his own aptitude at capitalism by wrecking America's banking system) still speak out against the film's turpitude.

In 1972, however, Deep Throat was, in the words of the New York Times, "porn chic." Screw publisher Al Goldstein, always looking for an angle, gave it a 100 on his Peter-Meter, and New Yorkers flocked to see it, almost as an act of defiance. Celebrities were seen partying with Harry Reems (is that Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty?), and even your grandmother lined up for a ticket. Prosecutors argued that the movie was a source of corruption, because it encouraged women to believe that clitoral orgasms were a good thing. We certainly wouldn't want that spread around, would we?

Soon banned in New York (thanks to good old Judge Tyler, quoted above), the film spread like a virus across the country. Twenty-three states followed with their own bans. The FBI brought Damiano and the other crew members in as part of a mob sting operation. Damiano still claims ignorance about the Columbo family's role in the making of the film. Call it disingenuous or self-preservation. But the government strategy was to prosecute Harry Reems as the central figure in the crime in order to discourage anyone else from making porn movies. Their shaky logic may have failed in court (at least on appeal), but it did destroy Reems's life, sending him into a tailspin of alcohol abuse and financial and personal despair.

Bailey and Barbato, skilled at dissecting America's sexual underground in documentaries like Party Monster, construct a slick overview of the cultural impact of Deep Throat. But there is something a little impersonal about the whole affair. The fascinating but tragic tales of Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems are glossed over here, at least compared to the filmmakers' focus on the sociological. It seems as if the actual people involved only came into existence the first time they appeared in Damiano's movie. Reems's story in particular could have helped this film be more personally accessible to the audience.

Still, the film raises plenty of questions, and it never backs away from risky content. Indeed, Universal has released the film in both an R-rated cut (which I have not seen) and an NC-17 one. The NC-17 version does contain, yes, the titular act, in a clip straight from Damiano's film. After all, how could we skip the money shot?

Universal also adds plenty of extras for a single-disc release of a documentary that fell relatively flat at the box office. Nearly an hour of deleted scenes (most narrated by Fenton Bailey in what was likely the film's rough cut before Dennis Hopper was brought in) cover several trials and protests surrounding Deep Throat, a "how-to" discussion (no visuals, sorry) by Marilyn Chambers, who keeps cracking up, tributes to Linda Lovelace, and even some fire dancing by Jerry Damiano's daughter.

Tucked away at the end of the bonus menu sit two commentary tracks. One contains leftover interview fragments, each introduced by Fenton Bailey, arranged thematically. This is a nice way to use the tons of material that any documentary gathers, and we can hear everyone talk about their first trip to see Deep Throat, their analysis of the film, their views on the controversies covered in the documentary, and so on. The second track focuses on Bailey and Barbato exclusively. Candidly addressing their own perspective as gay filmmakers creating a documentary on straight porn, they discuss their effort to explore the "sexual schizophrenia" of modern American society. Their analysis is cogent, covering everything from the sexual revolution to the indie spirit of the early porn industry (an interesting point, which Peter Bart also makes in the documentary). They do admit to downplaying the complex tale of Linda Lovelace—from porn star to anti-porn activist to desperate woman trying to recapture her glory days as a sex symbol—because they felt it overshadowed everyone else's stories. I'm not sure I agree, but I do recognize that Linda's story is probably worthy of a film all to itself.

Closing Statement

In the end, the government's public crusade against Deep Throat sent porn into a new technological mutation: video. This is what always happens. Now the porn industry is a lot like Vegas. Built by the mob, it is now all neon and camp, touting its status as "couple oriented" and about "healthy release," like Vegas claims to be family friendly.

In this sense, Inside Deep Throat is a chronicle of a bygone age, a paean to a sexual revolution whose flag seems to have been cut up into loincloths to wear at an AVN Expo booth, where the starlets have probably never even heard of Linda Lovelace. It is an interesting documentary, and it covers a lot of ground worthy of examination. But the documentary has an uphill battle in portraying Deep Throat as more than a quaint anomaly, a film whose status as classic rests more on a lucky cultural accident than its own qualities (or lack thereof). Inside Deep Throat is less about Deep Throat than it is about an America struggling with its own sexual identity.

Why talk about this now? Just listen to the prosecutor who nailed Reems back in 1976 speak now: He seems hopeful that once we get those pesky terrorists out of the way, the Justice Department can get back to the proper business of crushing the smut peddlers. Good luck, boys. History has shown that you may win some battles, but the war goes on.

The Verdict

To take a cue from a justice (the Hon. Potter Stewart), I shall not today attempt further to define the critical aspects of a bad movie. But I know it when I see it, and Inside Deep Throat is not that. Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 89
Acting: 85
Story: 88
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
Genres:
• Documentary
• Erotic

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary by Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
• Interview Commentary Track
• Deleted Scenes
• Theatrical Trailer








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