Judge William Lee now understands that shag carpet really was something that covered the floor.
She was more sexually disturbed than the famous Sybil. She had more faces than the three faces of Eve. This is Sylvia. A saint, a woman, a devil.
An infamous movie from the 1970s New York independent film scene (a.k.a. the adult film industry) resurfaces on DVD under the After Hours Cinema's Grindhouse Director Series banner. Not your usual porno flick, Sylvia was an ambitious project from indie icon Peter Savage (1921-1981). For better or worse, Joanna Bell puts in a fiercely weird performance in the title role. The unconventional Bell (in her only credited role) is a key factor of this skin flick—her performance is both unique and awful. The case isn't helped any by the poor video and audio quality of the movie as it is presented on this disc.
Facts of the Case
Savage's movie (made under the pseudonym "Armand Peters") was inspired by Flora Schreiber's 1973 book Sybil, which recounted a famous case of a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder). Using that mental illness as the central premise, the thin story of Sylvia takes the heroine through a series of hardcore sex scenes wherein Bell assumes a different identity in each.
The opening scene comes straight from the pages of the big, throbbing book of porn clichés. A door-to-door vacuum salesman visits Sylvia to demonstrate the sucking power of his equipment. Something sets off the repressed and religiously devout woman, turning her into a nymphomaniac. Sylvia's cousin Toby walks in on the action but can't believe her eyes. Later that night, Sylvia's male persona "Tony" gets it on with Toby's college buddy Sheila. When Toby hears about their lesbian tryst, she asks the local monsignor for help. He tells her about Sylvia's seduction of a parish counselor, and we see it in flashback. Next, Toby enlists the aid of Dr. Balaban (played by Peter Savage) who is determined to cure Sylvia. But Sylvia's more aggressive alter egos have different ideas.
We may as well start with the defining element of this movie. Whether it's regarded as a cult classic, forgotten gem or piece of crap, any discussion about Sylvia starts and ends with Joanna Bell's off-kilter portrayal of a woman with multiple personalities. She is a truly odd choice to play the lead in a porn movie because…well, she's not attractive. Not by the Hollywood feature standard of attractiveness. Not even by the low-budget, amateur porn standard. That's not to say she's ugly, just that her physical presence in the movie does not exhibit any conventional feminine sex appeal. Her hair, makeup and wardrobe seem more like challenges to the viewer rather than enticements. Some camera angles even make Bell appear more like a drag queen.
As for Bell's acting ability, watching her not-so-subtle manner of seduction is like a cold shower using steel wool for a sponge. As Sylvia, the repressed wallflower, she is utterly unconvincing, uninteresting and unappealing. As some of her seductress personas, she is shrill and scary. "Make ready to fuck me, lay brother," she shrieks at the parish counselor while threatening him with an oversize crucifix. The shades of Bell's performance are: retarded little girl, frumpy dork, and cackling witch. None of them well acted, none of them attractive.
The sex scenes, under Savage's uninspired direction, go through the usual motions and angles. They are largely dull and indistinguishable from any other by-the-numbers hardcore scene. The one sequence that breaks from the norm is the unpleasant moment when Toby is raped at an orgy.
The script doesn't attempt to do anything creative with Sylvia's mental condition. Her multiple personalities do not create any problems for the characters nor do they generate any drama that requires attention. Instead, the different personas are just reasons to stage another sex scene with Bell under a new wig and altered attitude.
The ridiculously over-written dialogue is mildly amusing but gets tiresome after we have heard too much of it. Doctor Balaban awkwardly offers this explanation for his patient's condition: "The constant trauma of Sylvia's mother's ambivalent, often sadistically cruel behavior set the psychic stage for Sylvia's splintered multiple selves to manifest and live out the roles that were so severely repressed in her by her mother."
If you're not sold on the movie's psychoanalytical grounding, perhaps this gem from Sylvia will appeal to your literary sensibilities: "Doctor I must tell you, George Bernard Shaw could not have done as much for his Pygmalion as you have done for me."
Watching Savage in the role of the doctor is somewhat interesting. It's not a good performance but his portrayal of a tough psychiatrist who can talk a girl out of her mental illness and beat the crap out of her junky friends isn't entirely unwatchable. Perhaps Savage is better remembered for his brief appearance in Taxi Driver and as an associate producer of Raging Bull.
The DVD cover says that this is a "remastered" presentation and that's entirely possible. If the source print were found in pieces stored in a rusty can covered in a layer of sludge, then I would say that the presentation on this DVD is an improvement. Seriously though, there is no reason anyone would have tried to preserve this movie so it is an achievement that the patched together elements do maintain a sense of narrative continuity. But it still looks awful. The picture is soft at best and blurry quite a few times. Often within the same scene, the colors do not match across cuts. There are visible scratches and other signs of damage all through the movie.
Overall, the mono soundtrack is quite poor. The actors' lines can be clearly understood most of the time but a background hissing sound can also be heard. Additional dialogue recorded in the studio does not match the tone of the location recording, and sometime it doesn't even sync with the actors' mouths. The repetitive and dated music is the kind that is parodied today in references to bad porn movies. Even the use of a light jazz song fails to shake off that cheap and dirty feeling.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For those who appreciate 1970s sleaze, Sylvia may hold some historical significance. Dressing up their exhumation of this filthy flick, After Hours Cinema has included two nice supplements. Film historian Michael Bowen supplies an interesting and informative mini-essay as liner notes in the eight-page booklet that comes with the disc. Even better is the audio commentary by Bowen and William Lustig (Maniac Cop) who, at the age of 17, was the movie's assistant director and production manager. Not only is the audio commentary more enjoyable than the actual movie, it is one of the most entertaining commentaries I have ever heard. Lustig is a fountain of experience and he happily shares anecdotes from this production and from his life and career. And he holds nothing back: he thinks this film is "lousy" and remembers Bell as a "lunatic" who was unsuitable to star in a movie. Lustig also talks with great respect and affection for Peter Savage who he credits for helping make him a filmmaker.
Peter Savage was the Bronx neighborhood wiseguy who wanted to make movies. From the way Lustig talks about him, Savage sounds like a good guy and I'd like to see a movie about him someday. There must be a better testament to his audacity and determination than Sylvia. This movie is a piece of crap that's been dug up for the sake of 1970s sleaze nostalgia. The fine audio commentary makes this DVD worth renting, but aside from that there's little reason to see this movie.
It's not sexy, not interesting, not fun, but definitely guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: After Hours Cinema
• Audio Commentary
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