Judge Bill Gibron tackles the age-old question.
No, but you'd better bring a change of underwear just the same…
Dr. Rodgers, leading specialist at the Bureau of Sexological Investigation, is heading up a full-scale research project on American sexuality and bedroom practices. He travels the streets asking provocative questions of the citizenry and even confronts "President Nixon" about his public policy "positions" regarding the ribald. We meet Dr. Manos (Buck Henry, The Graduate), an expert in natural breast enlargement; Vincent Domino (Marshall Efron) a notorious pornographic filmmaker who dreams of one day making a hardcore Tarzan film with just "the ape-man and a she-lion"; and Merkin, the first X-rated magician, famous for pulling scarves out of a woman's privates. Interviews are conducted with quasi-celebrities Holly Woodlawn (an Andy Warhol icon) and Robert Downey (Dad to Jr. and director of Putney Swope), each discussing their viewpoints on eroticism.
But the main focus is intercourse and the various ways people prepare for and perform this act. Rodgers seeks advice from noted dildographer Dr. Elevenike, a bunch of nature-loving nudists, and a panel of philosophical perverts discussing the dynamics of humping. After a strange séance, a standup comedy-like Q&A with Ruben Carson, and a visit to the Sex Bowl (where international competitors fornicate for fame and national pride), Dr. Rogers gets back in his Winnebago Sexmobile and returns to the clinic, never once finding out the answer to the question, Is There Sex After Death?
Is There Sex After Death? envisions itself as a far more randy and rowdy version of Woody Allen's episodic experiment in comedy of the carnal called Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask—which is odd, since it actually came out before the notorious nebbish's nude bomb (it does borrow from Allen's earlier Bananas, though). Trying to mix an exploitation exercise by masquerading it as a social satire on sexual mores, this hit-or-miss, mildly amusing mess can best be described as a Jokes for the John commode compendium come to life. Think of animated Penthouse Magazine cartoons, with really repulsive people taking the place of pen-and-ink pulchritude, and you've got some idea of what this madcap mediocrity is all about.
The film is basically divided into three sections, all intermingling among each other to form a kind of kinky free-for-all. The most successful sections are the uproarious "man in the street" interviews, where the elderly and the shy are asked some of the most outrageous questions ("What's the biggest vagina you've ever seen?" "Do you enjoy bestiality?") ever conceived. And many of their answers (and attitudes) are priceless. Less successful are the "staged" Q&As with either the famous (Downey) or the fake (Henry's Dr. Manos). Most of the time Dr. Rogers (writer/director Alan Abel) simply feeds them weak setups and lets them extemporize and improvise—and nothing very funny ever comes from it (most of the time, the individuals just look confused). Lastly, we are treated to low-rent skits and carnal comic blackouts that tend to either fall completely flat or really overstay their welcome.
Call it Lust, American Style or Lewd-In, but this brainchild of professional practical joker Abel (who once masterminded a hoax asking people to diaper their animals to prevent beast indecency) is much ado about nothing really naughty. Now, from a 1971 standpoint, this is all very envelope-pushing stuff, outright scandalous at times. But the silliness inherent in most of the skits offered is just a cover for the risqué inclusion of full frontal nudity, simulated copulation, and an overall prurient tone. Unlike other sex farces of the genre, like If You Don't Stop…You'll Go Blind and Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?, Is There Sex After Death? really wants to pander to the then-expanding hardcore audience, to get as close to penetration and ejaculation (the standard for XXX fare) as possible, without resorting to actual acts. So what you get here is a great deal of groping, fondling and fooling around.
Oddly, however, nothing is very erotic or exciting. The majority of the female cast look like rejects from Playboy's annual "Portly Co-ed" expose, and the men have members so miniscule that Howard Stern should feel incredibly well-hung. The sexual congress is mostly of the faux filibustering kind and usually resembles a couple of tired wrestlers desperate for their second wind. When a nudist colony dance party (to a naked cover band banging out "Good Golly Miss Molly") looks like outtakes from the musical version of Helter Skelter, it's time to run down to the local adult entertainment shop for a few CCs (or should that be DDs) of Jenna Jameson—stat! With its mostly unsuccessful satire and some fairly shabby skin, Is There Sex After Death? should be easily advised as an asinine attempt to be avoided, right?
Actually, no. Even though watching hillbilly headcheese porn would probably be more interesting and adventurous, this movie is recommended for what it represents. America is perhaps the most Puritanical society on the planet. Our hang-ups have repressed memories, and issues of sex and sexuality are usually greeted with children-considering horror. So the fact that something like Is There Sex After Death? decided to tackle such tawdry issues as penis size, fetishism, and adult-themed art makes it miles ahead of its time, comic atmosphere or not.
Besides which, Abel is actually out to construct a point with this occasionally retarded rot. The reason that wit based in the tit is so belly-busting for most people is that individuals tend to laugh at what they fail to understand. And when it comes to human affection and the physical representation of same, there should really be nothing remotely hilarious. Love and sex, according to Abel's approach, are virtuous and beautiful ideals made all mean, mad, and manic by a conservative belief in the filthiness of basic biology. So he purposefully confronts those who would ridicule real sex education and the frank discussion of fears and phobias, putting them on camera and giving them a chance to make asses of themselves. While the ancillary actor attractions can be merely distracting (like the topless string quartet or the lewd light operetta), the real people input in Is There Sex After Death? leaves a lasting time capsule to the sadly straitlaced aftermath of the sexual revolution. While not always funny, the film is loaded with interesting social commentary.
Image Entertainment releases this rarity in a frills-free format that should leave fans of Abel's media mischief fairly aggravated. In order to sell this item to an audience that will otherwise be, perhaps, turned off by the salacious subject matter, a little background on this huckster hoaxster would have helped. Some of the ersatz causes Abel championed are incredibly interesting (including a recent ruse revolving around selling vials of Jennie McCarthy's pee). It would have been nice to learn more about the fake Sex Olympics he promoted, how he convinced the news media that he was Omar the Beggar running a school for professional panhandlers, or any of his other notorious exploits. With the man very much alive (he even has his own website), an audio commentary or interview/documentary for this forgotten film would have been wonderful. As it stands, we get a somewhat faded 1.33:1 full screen transfer that fails to address some obvious print issues. The Dolby Digital mono track also enhances the movie's made-on-the-cheap production values. The sound is tinny, scattershot, and occasionally unintelligible.
Still, for a collect call from the end of the free love movement, Is There Sex After Death? is a nice, nostalgic walk through a particularly smutty side of life. While some of the content is still shocking by today's standards, this once-funny film is now a relic of a slightly schizophrenic time. We'd like to think that after 34 years, we are more enlightened and capable of dealing with our erotic hiccups. Sadly, it seems we've gone backward since the film's premiere. Is There Sex After Death? at least took some of its subject seriously. Today, sex is just a gag, a joke expressed in far more "juvenile" terms. Too bad we couldn't have learned something more serious. But perhaps comedy is what caused the problem. With all its snickering about sodomy and fooling on fellatio, is it any wonder we treat carnality as a crock? Is There Sex After Death? therefore once again makes its duplicitous point. It wants us to laugh at the lewd. But how can we understand its satire over all the giggling?
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