Smutty, sleazy, and scandalous—and those are just its good points. Judge Bill Gibron loves this look at Al Goldstein's seminal cable access program and some of the stars that frequented it.
Screw you? Not this terrific DVD time capsule.
Al Goldstein is an angry little man. He's also an admitted pornographer and one horny old bastard. For decades, he was the guiding light behind Screw magazine, the only notorious skin rag never to make the leap to mainstream acceptance. Even Hustler found its way into more American homes than Al's newsprint novelty. The basic explanation for the lack of worldwide success can be attributed to the fact that Screw was available mostly in New York. When he tried to take it national, Goldstein found himself battling the same censors that were giving Larry Flynt fits. Perhaps the main reason why Screw wasn't more popular was because many saw it as nothing more than Al's personal propaganda machine. It featured his rants on all manner of subjects, self-serving reviews of Screw-sponsored products, and an overall approach that reflected Goldstein's editorial philosophy—which was basically, "Love everything I do, or go to Hell."
In 1974, Al took his mind for the media visual and started up a cable access show. Originally utilizing the Screw moniker, the title was later changed to Midnight Blue and the rest, as they say, was New York television history. More or less a weekly video version of his magazine, it featured off-the-wall interviews, exciting sexposés, reviews of current X-rated fare, and those time-tested middle fingers to figures both public and personal. Sometimes, it was Goldstein leading the way. Other times, his producer and show co-creator, Alex Bennett, stood in for a segment or two. While it was never a certified classic of the outsider talk show genre, it was a clear cult phenomenon, and paved the way for public access to go more puerile and perverted. Now, thanks to Blue Underground, we get a chance to witness the wackiness, the weirdness, and the wantonness of Goldstein and his TV tenacity. With two previous volumes under its belt (the first on Deep Throat, the second on porn stars), the Big Blue U gives us installment number three—and it's the best of the bunch.
The focus this time is on celebrities—and not just the noxious Q&As conducted by Al. Indeed, what is most fascinating about this all-star edition of The Midnight Blue Collection are those urban legends and legitimate scandals surrounding the famous and the infamous. The best bits here deal with a supposed Barbra Streisand sex tape (it's bogus), a second Rob Lowe video (it's legit), a look at a bunch of drunken Go-Gos as part of a legendary underground camcorder creation, and an overview of the career of Russ Meyer (the "rural Fellini," as he refers to himself). Intermixed are ads for artifacts like Plato's Retreat (a notorious New York swingers club), an elegant men's mag known as Puritan (huh?), and a lot of phone sex/escort commercials. When you toss in the list of stars speaking out—O.J. Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, R. Crumb, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn & Teller, Debbie Harry, and Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis—it's a must own trip down a very mangled and misguided memory lane. Those who remember the show will be delighted to own these highlights (they are not full episodes—call it a clip collection). Others will have their eyes opened by the frank, funny, and occasionally freakish quality of this carnal cavalcade.
There are a couple of caveats. First, Goldstein does not do the standard sit-down. He is interested in one thing and one thing only—and it's not the latest Tinsel Town gossip. Nope, ole Al wants to know about sex…unlawful carnal knowledge…boot knocking…male/female mattress maneuvers. Oh, yeah, and some questions about oral preferences and penis size. Sometimes, the insights are fascinating. R. Crumb seems more comfortable talking to Goldstein about masturbating than he did in all of that award-winning documentary about his life. The Governator is frank and open about self-love and the orgasmic aspects of pumping iron, while O.J. Simpson can't believe the bevy of beauties that attend the annual Hookers Ball. Occasionally, he hits on a hard subject (Debbie Harry is mostly on the defensive with Al) and, sometimes, his subjects get away from him (Penn & Teller are stellar, while Gilbert Gottfried is a one-man riffing machine, keeping his hefty host in stitches). The best bits revolve around the truly original (the aforementioned Meyer's overview) and outrageous (Tiny Tim was just VISITING this planet, right?).
And, of course, Al's anti-human race rants. Goldstein is by no means a gifted speaker, but he does have a way of getting his point across. He is open and honest, seething with contempt at the mere mention of the people he is pissed at (Donald Trump and Howard Stern, just to name two) and he usually ends each kiss-off with an extended middle finger and appropriate verbal salute. Bennett also brings his arch "A" game whenever he is on screen. He handles the Meyer material brilliantly, deals the Streisand scam calmly and convincingly, and always brings a little sanity to some otherwise out-of-control situations. The production levels are primitive, the language raw and uncensored. If you're hoping for some hardcore material, think again. The closest you get to XXX content is a silhouette shot of Lowe and his "little Rob" standing at full attention (and it's not so small). In combination with a Pop-Up Video-style bonus feature (more on this in a moment), The Midnight Blue Collection: Celebrities Edition, is like an encyclopedia of the sex industry from the mid-1970s to the advent of Internet porn. Individuals interested in the smut trade or those who just like nutty nostalgia will be thrilled with this title. It is two hours of non-stop entertainment.
Since the presentation begins with a crawl lamenting the quality of the original video elements, Blue Underground gets a pass for presenting less-than-stellar transfers. Most of the 1.33:1 images are old-fashioned analog atrocities with bad flaring, occasional solarizing, some wicked interference waves, and an overall washed-out and worked-over quality (remember how a tape would get when you recorded over it dozens of times—this is the level of defect we are dealing with). Still, the show is watchable and, once in a while, looks pretty darn good. From the sound side, don't be surprised when drop out, spatial echo, and overall modulation madness take over. The Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 is flat and lifeless, but we hear most of the interviews and the conversation is usually discernible. Technically, that's all we want from a talk show in the first place.
As for the aforementioned extra, The Big Blue U offers something called "Shocking Truths." When chosen from the set-up menu, you get a little innocuous graphic (usually along the bottom of the screen) that fleshes out the scene you are seeing. This information-packed presentation is wonderful (and can be quite cheeky at times, especially when dealing with figures like O.J. or Arnold) and gives additional insight into the already fascinating feature being watched. There is also something called "Al's Adventures on Demerol" by Scream Queen Linnea Quigley, which is just an excuse to see the publisher hopped up on painkillers after visiting the dentist.
It's too bad that more shows like this aren't available from the early days of cable television. A presentation like Midnight Blue pushed the envelope of acceptability, challenged the effectiveness of the First Amendment, and tried its damnedest to enlighten and entertain. Though in recent years Goldstein has fallen on incredibly hard times (he is bankrupt, and until just a few months ago, homeless), Al still has something to be proud of. Screw may not be the household word it almost once was, but Midnight Blue may live again, thanks to the new digital medium. From the Celebrities Edition standpoint, it deserves a chance. It's wonderfully wicked.
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