While politics and exploitation usually don't mix, Judge Bill Gibron feels at least one of these softcore artifacts from the 1970s gets its agenda and its arousal right.
Talk about your political sex machines!
Over at Protestor's Inc., a kind of counterculture remedy service helping the poor and the powerless, ideologue Wilbur Steele has just received his draft notice. Knowing that he's destined for a one-way ticket to Vietnam, he spends his last day of freedom helping a dispossessed old lady, commissioning a protest song, and screwing his girlfriend. On the way to his date with Da Nang, Wilbur is stopped by a pair of "doctors" who wonder if he would be interested in their two-year "program." It will keep him out of the army, while simultaneously offering the world an important scientific service. Perfectly playing into his altruistic nature, our laid-back radical accepts. Wilbur later learns that he's part of a birth-control experiment. He will act as a hired horndog with the goal of fathering 2,000 children. According to his caretakers, he's an ideal male specimen with a biological lineage of near-perfect health. Of course, what Wilbur doesn't know is the real purpose behind all this procreation. Apparently, a very rich man with genitalia that resembles a shriveled peanut wants to sterilize the world and, by using Wilbur and a carefully chosen collection of concubines, he hopes to produce nothing but barren offspring. Sick of sex without love, our hero decides to escape. He no longer wants to be part of Wilbur and the Baby Factory. He wants to be free.
Across town, the Symphonic Liberation Army (the SLA, get it?) practice the notion of ardor with and without arousal. They apply their interpersonal intimacy day and night, with anyone who's willing at the given time. In order to get the attention of the "insect government" that continues to oppress the people, grandiose group leader Cinque decides to kidnap the daughter of famed billionaire publisher Charles F. Kane (oh, brother …) and demand that the wealthy old coot do community service—like feed the poor. After the abduction, naïve Charlotte Kane believes that her release is imminent. All "Daddy" has to do is hand out box lunches to the impoverished and she'll be back with her boring boyfriend PDQ. Unfortunately, the SLA has other ideas. They are training—mentally, physically, and sexually—for the upcoming revolution, and they want Charlotte to become part of their company. At first, she resists. After some lesbianism and a couple of ideological hot-beef injections from the male members of the organization, Ms. Kane changes her tune. She becomes a literal newborn nymphomaniac, looking to screw any unoccupied SLA member whenever she can. This makes the group uncomfortable. They wanted some political power. What they ended up with is Tanya, tart for the revolution.
More serious than sexy, and as thought provoking as it is flesh flaunting, Wilbur and the Baby Factory represents a kind of anomaly in the world of exploitation. Like Year of the Yahoo, Herschell Gordon Lewis's brilliant Face in the Crowd-style political satire, writer/director Tom Wolfe (no, not the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test scribe; this artist's actual last name is McGowan) takes on the subjects of birth control, genetic engineering, and reproduction manipulation, and delivers a devastating, insightful cinematic screed. This is one angry filmmaker, flummoxed by the concept of violating nature for the sake of responsibility-free nookie. Using his hero, the well-meaning Wilbur (played by Glenn Ford's son Peter, under the pseudonym "Tom Shea"), as his voice and the rest of the cast as the corrupt system he intends to overthrow, Wolfe wastes no time in separating his motion picture from other softcore sex epics. Wilbur and the Baby Factory is overflowing with intimate scenes, but there is very little of the outright nudity we expect from the genre. Instead, Wolfe uses clever framing, interesting compositions, and an aura of respectability to keep his carnality neat and clean. He wants his words to resonate as deeply as the wantonness and, for the most part, he easily accomplishes his lofty goals.
While Ford is not quite as magnetic as his old man, he does provide Wilbur with a nice reflective facet. This makes everything he says and feels seem considered and well thought out. Our hero is indeed a concerned citizen of the planet, a man made to challenge the stale, shady elements of the status quo. As for the enemy, Wolfe knows that earnestness must be countered with something equally compelling. Therefore, combining comedy (Stuart Lancaster is on hand as the man with the micro-member whose bankrolling the experiments) with the craven, he sets up a very disturbing and unsettling environment. There are visuals and ideas here that are quite disconcerting. The sight of a pre-teen couple discussing their sex life—and the girl's delivery date (yep, she's preggers)—is so far removed from our post-millennial idea of acceptability that it almost destroys the movie before it begins. Thankfully, it's just a minor moment—no pun intended. Indeed, most of the time here is spent with Wilbur discussing the main theme of the film: physical love without an emotional link and in service of sinister scientific ends is just plain wrong. Passion between people is to be cherished, not chucked aside for some madman's personal missive. It makes for a very substantive point. Intriguing and very engaging, Wilbur and the Baby Factory might actually be second-rate exploitation, but it's a rather good '70s cinematic statement.
What a difference six years and the arrival of full-blown hardcore pornography makes. Everything present in Wilbur and the Baby Factory—ideas, dialogue, subtlety, and composure—is tossed out the window in Nate Rodgers's overdone Patty Hearst spoof. Obviously hoping to attract attention via this fictionalized erotic exposé on what life in the SLA must have been like for the infamous heiress, there is more ersatz erotica in the first ten minutes of this movie than in the entire running time of Wilbur's baby ballyhoo. In fact, the vast majority of this film's 78-minute narrative is nothing but naughtiness. At first, it's the SLA members who get it on in various racial and lifestyle permutations, but once Charlotte turns Tanya, and horny, it's nonstop nookie for everyone. Tanya uses sex to keep the group together, to get what she wants—even to pass the time of day. There is so much fake forking going on here that it's almost impossible to see a point beyond the porking. Yet Charles Townsend's script does try for a little Airplane!-style irreverence. A smarmy TV anchorman cracks jokes at the movie's expense while we experience another sequence of slap and tickle. There is even a surreal scene involving Cinque, some Raid, and the oppressors that "bug" him.
In essence, a film like Tanya signals the decided death knell for exploitation. Pushing the boundaries of softcore to the very limits and occasionally stomping right over them, movies like these want to compete directly with their pure penetration counterparts. Unfortunately, without the XXX factor, they come off as ludicrous and lame. Besides, unlike Wilbur and the Baby Factory, Tanya has no real central theme. Sure, it makes fun of those ridiculous '70s revolutionaries that used violence and extortion as a means of getting their often obscure philosophies across, but because the Hearst case was still active when the movie was being made (she was on trial at the time), there was very little hindsight or insight available to make the comedy cutting. So instead, the jokes are obvious, the slapstick silly, and the denouements downright bizarre. It has none of the drive and just a meager amount of the political acumen of its co-feature. Instead, this clothesline collection of hedonistic humping is a frequently tedious trifle. Had it really been focused on forcing the issue of Patty Hearst's transformation into unwitting urban terrorist, Tanya may have manufactured some moxie. As it stands, it's a flesh feast for those who don't mind their proto-porn on the limp trick side.
Perhaps the leading preservationist still actively involved in the exploitation game, distributor Harry Novak provides Something Weird Video with some wonderful prints of these off title obscurities. Both Wilbur and Tanya have nice, clean, 1.33:1 images, with some minor dirt and scratches along the way. Of the two, Wilbur looks the best, since Tanya seems enveloped in a muddy, foggy filming style. On the sound side, there is very little one can do with Dolby Digital Mono, so the frequent overmodulation and poor dialogue recording just has to be overlooked. As for extras, Novak opens up his considerable vaults to deliver a collection of outrageous trailers, including classic ads for The Godson, The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, and Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman. In addition, we are treated to an update of a featurette offered originally on a previous SWV release. It's a tour of Harry Novak's Box Office International offices and it's a scream. Novak is still an old huckster and with fellow filmic flim-flam man Mike Vraney along for the ride, we get a wonderful look behind the scenes at SWV. Vraney, Something Weird's head honcho, waxes poetic about fallen members of the grindhouse game, while Novak begrudgingly acknowledges how DVD resurrected his left-for-dead business.
When taken together, Wilbur and the Baby Factory and Tanya are a lot like the current political climate clogging up the dysfunctional Federal Government. As examples of sex gone civics, only Wilbur is purposefully poli-sci. Tanya tries, but can't drag its bearings out of the boudoir. After viewing this eclectic double feature, it's not hard to see why exploitation and agendas stayed far away from each other. After all, they say politics makes for strange bedfellows and the last thing most grindhouse gratuity needed was more madcap mattress mania. Wilbur and the Baby Factory/Tanya is the proof in such proverbial pontificating.
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Studio: Something Weird Video
• "Harry Novak 2006" featurette
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