Friday, December 09, 2005

Day 70: Inside Deep Throat

An aggressive, quickly paced documentary about the history of the groundbreaking, government-defying, and, by all accounts, awful pornographic film, Deep Throat, Inside Deep Throat is well shot, edited, and cast.  The movie mixes the intimacy of an Errol Morris film with the half-baked socio-political advocacy of a Michael Moore picture to a great degree of success.  It's a quick and fun ride, the meat of which is made up of interviews with people involved, either directly or indirectly, in the Deep Throat story and other artists and writers whose work has some degree of sexual significance in the culture.  Its only significant fault is in the narrowness of the scope of the story being told here; there are so many offhanded anecdotes in the film that cry out for documentaries of their own, which is saying nothing about the topics the movie explores with some degree of depth that would also demand their own stories be told.

When Deep Throat was released in 1972, the Nixon government, we're told, made many attempts to shut the film down with obscenity charges.  While the movie's clearly on the side of the filmmakers who, I'd agree, are simply exercising their First Amendment Rights, one of the movie's greatest assets lies in how it treats those with opposing viewpoints.  Never does the film engage in tricky editing setups to make these people look ridiculous, nor does it demean them as human beings.  The film engages with their point-of-view and succeeds at fairly representing it before moving on to the next topic.  If the people seem ridiculous or sanctimonious (one prosecutor inspired my rage by referring to the stars of Deep Throat as prostitutes and whoremongers on the silver screen, not, I later realized, because of the fact that he's passed judgment on the people, but because this judgment was such a dismissal of living, breathing human beings I'd already gotten to know through the documentary [thanks, Tara]), it's only through their own words.

Though most of the people who were involved in the pornography business that are interviewed here have seemingly had the life sucked out of them from a lifetime of disappointments, the male lead in Deep Throat, Harry Reems, is bracingly alive, honest, and eloquent in his interviews.  His story is fascinating to me; he was arrested for acting in the film, sentenced to five years, had his sentence overturned, began abusing alcohol and drugs while continuing to appear in adult films, bottomed out, moved to Park City, Utah, sobered up, converted to Christianity, and got married.  What's most telling is that he, of all the people in the film, looks and acts the happiest and is clearly unashamed of his past.  It's wonderful that the movie is able to capture this and one can see the seeds of the future Harry Reems in an archival video featured in the film, in which he stridently and effectively defends himself and his work on the grounds of giving artists freedom to explore topics that society deems unacceptable, badly as they might explore it (for my money Reems, while an over actor to the extreme, has a large degree of natural charisma one doesn't often see in films of this nature).  

Another topic the film illuminates is the problem of modern pornography.  Deep Throat is, again by all accounts (I haven't seen it), truly dreadful as a film, but the documentary demonstrates that it can at least be engaged with and analyzed in the same way that one would analyze any other "mainstream film."  The filmmakers felt, and I'm inclined to believe them, that they were making a movie that depicted a woman exploring a means of sexual expression for herself, while others interviewed in the documentary explore the chauvinistic nature of the film's conceit: that the main female character can only achieve an orgasm by performing oral sex on a man.  From what I know about the film, and what I've seen in this documentary, both interpretations have validity and, as such, Deep Throat is not wholly dismissible as a valid artistic enterprise (this is especially true of the same director's The Devil in Miss Jones, the only pornographic film I've seen that is, in actuality, a real film that happens to be explicitly about the nature of sexual arousal and, therefore, is wise to show the sexuality of its character in order to demonstrate the main character's state of mind [it also has one of the most convincing suicides I can remember seeing in any movie, ever]).  

By contrast, the film accurately paints pornography of today as wholly commercial in nature, oriented only towards generating money by selling sex.  The director of Deep Throat laments the state of the industry, calls it a factory, and, tellingly, the movie shows that a scattered number of porn starlets have not seen, and seemingly have little interest in, the movie that enabled them to have a career.  What young actor would dismiss Death of a Salesman in such a way?

One of the topics that I wished the film would have explored more is the nature of the feminist backlash against pornographic films.  It's presented haphazardly here, with seemingly little interest in the topic other than to show Gloria Steinem side with the embattled Linda Lovelace and another woman educate Hugh Hefner as to why women don't necessarily like to be referred to as "girls."  It's unfortunate that there was not a clearer representation of this point of view, as the casual way it's presented in light of other, more in-depth examinations as to why and how the governmental forces of "decency" aimed to shut the industry down rings as a dismissal of the message these people were trying to convey, something the movie otherwise avoids.

Inside Deep Throat is a nice companion to Boogie Nights, tracing the history of pornographic cinema through the story of a little movie that gained notoriety mainly through the government's effort to suppress it.  The soundtrack is appropriately groovy and, though the filmmakers dip into Errol Morris's bag of tricks a few too many times, the presentation is top-notch.  It places the story of Deep Throat into our time and place effectively as well, with a prosecutor noting that, were it not for the terrorists taking up all of the Department of Justice's time, the stage is set for another governmental crackdown on obscenity.