Friday, February 1, 2013

Radley Metzger and the Golden Age of Porn


"Seduction is universal."
-Radley Metzger

Over the next month or so, I will be examining the work of erotica director Radley Metzger. Born January 21, 1929 in New York City, Metzger is one of the most important figures in the Golden Age of Porn, both as a director and as a film distributor. He began working in film as an editor, mostly making trailers for European art films. Here he came to be influenced by auteur directors like Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, and Michael Powell. 

In the early ‘60s, Metzger and partner Ava Leighton created Audubon Films, a distribution company specializing in international films, particularly exploitation and erotica. Audubon brought some of the most important and infamous early exploitation films to the U.S., including I Spit on Your Grave, I, A Woman, and many more, with Metzger often re-editing the films himself for American audiences. Audubon gave Metzger distribution opportunities unavailable to other directors of the period and most of his films were released through this company. 

Metzger’s work brought erotica and hardcore porn to a new level and it would only be right to call him an auteur of the genre. His sumptuous visual style, high production values, European location, reliance on literary sources for his scripts, and open-minded, sex-positive portrayal of both hard and softcore sex make his films exemplary of ‘60s and ‘70s porn culture. He directed conventional dramas and softcore erotica under his own name and hardcore porn under the pseudonym Henry Paris. Several of these porn productions were also released in softcore or edited versions to make them more accessible for wider audiences. The beauty of much of Metzger’s classy works is that it appeals to a diverse audience male, female, gay, straight, and everything in between, with large dollops of whimsy, humor, and lightheartedness. 

Dark Odyssey (1961) was Metzger’s noirish directorial debut with co-director William Kyriakis about the troubles of a Greek immigrant in New York and his quest to hunt down his sister’s rapist. When Metzger contacted Janus Films (now a sister company to Criterion) to release the film, he met Ava Leighton, his Audubon partner. Dictionary of Sex (1964) is a compilation of erotica that seems to be currently unavailable on DVD and I wasn’t able to find it online. These sort of compilations were typical of the period, probably for porn enthusiasts that didn’t feel the need to sit through an entire movie. 

The Dirty Girls (1965) is Metzger’s first erotic film and entails the lives of two prostitutes, one in Paris and one in Germany. Though not one of his best films, this shows Metzger’s future promise and is an interesting, episodic look at ‘60s erotica. The Alley Cats (1966) is another step towards Metzger’s more successful mid-period masterpieces and follows two married couples having affairs, experimenting with lesbianism, and some general Eurosleeze behaviors, but lovelier than most other films from this period. 

Carmen, Baby (1967) is Metzger’s first film with a literary, artsy inspiration: Prosper Mérimée’s novel Carmen, which was the source for Bizet’s more famous opera. This is a sort of rock ’n roll porn remake of Mérimée’s classic romantic tragedy about a beautiful, passionate gypsy woman and her love affair with a doomed robber. His next feature, Therese and Isabelle (1968) is one of the first films to positively portray a lesbian relationship, which occurs between the titular, teenaged characters. This emotional, lyrically erotic, yet subdued film is one of his first masterpieces and is based on one of writer Violette Leduc’s novels. 

Metzger returned to literature with Camille 2000 (1969), based on Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias, also the source for the more famous Greta Garbo film Camille. It entails the rise of a courtesan from her lowly origins up through high society and towards her tragic death. Even bolder, The Lickerish Quartet (1970) is an erotic adaptation of Luigi Pirandello's famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author. This is also his last non-explicit film. He followed it up a few years later with Little Mother (1973), somewhat based on the life of Eva Peron and loosely similar to Camille 2000 in the sense that it  explores a woman’s rise to power. 

The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) is Metzger’s first hardcore film and his first work under the name Henry Paris. A rich man hires a private investigator to trail his highly sexed wife who gets into a number of illicit adventures due to her rampant nymphomania. Score (1974), a sort of transition piece between soft and hardcore, is still transgressive today and shares almost equal time between heterosexual and homosexual sex. A number of European vacationers engage in constant, graphic sexual activity on a resort. Oddly, this was filmed in the former Yugoslavia on the remains of the Fiddler on the Roof set. 

Naked Came the Stranger (1975) is based on a well-known erotic novel that was revealed to be a hoax cooked up by a bunch of journalists. Metzger directs this with his characteristic humor, entailing the sexual pursuits of a married couple and their frequent infidelities. The Image (1975) is one of Metzger’s finest films and, like Score, is still delightfully transgressive. In this S&M themed film, a young woman learns all about the extremes of sexual punishment. 

The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) is undoubtedly Metzger’s erotic masterpiece and is one of the most famous films of the Golden Age of Porn. It won the very first award of the Adult Film Association of America and, if you only watch one film in Metzger’s catalogue, it should be this one. This adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion marks the transformation of a lowly prostitute into a sexual master. This is truly a European production and spans five cities and three countries. It is an absolutely beautiful film. 

The irreverent Barbara Broadcast (1977) is one of my favorite of Metzger’s films and though it is flawed, wonderfully details the fantastic sexual adventures that take place at a New York restaurant, where a famous star is being interviewed by a journalist. The least of his hardcore films, Maraschino Cherry (1978) explores the relationship between a madame and a younger prostitute who wants to learn the ropes from her elder. The Cat and the Canary (1978) is one of Metzger’s few mainstream, non-erotic films. This enjoyable suspense/horror outing is the sixth film version of The Cat and the Canary, beginning with Paul Leni’s 1927 release based on John Willard’s play of the same name. An estranged family gathers together in a creepy old mansion to hear their long dead (and very rich) uncle’s will finally read. Unfortunately for them, a maniacal killer known as the Cat has escaped the madhouse and is on the loose. Murder and mayhem ensue. 

The World of Henry Paris (1981) is another compilation of erotica. There are some clips available on this online here and here. This is a delightful glimpse of adults only television history. Metzger returned to erotica with The Tale of Tiffany Lust (1981), which was co-directed by French pornographer Gérard Kikoïne. A housewife named Tiffany relieves her daily boredom by hiring a call girl to learn a few tricks (pun intended) and setting out on a journey of sexual self-discovery. Metzger’s final, somewhat disappointing film, The Princess and the Call Girl (1984), is about exactly what it sounds like. In a humorous, erotic riff on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, a princess and a prostitute temporarily trade places.

Recently Metzger’s films have been rescued and reintroduced to a new generation of viewers in remastered Blu-ray and DVD editions full of special features and even a few commentary tracks from Metzger himself. Companies like porn distributor DistribPix, Cult Epics - who released a Blu-ray box set of the director’s work - and arthouse label Image Entertainment, among others. The latter company has begun a series of releases of his films and I'm hoping they work through the whole catalogue. 

Metzger is an undeniable influence on the Golden Age of Porn, which I am also going to touch on over the next few weeks. This period, from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s, marked a popularity and acceptance of porn and resulted in some of the greatest titles of the genre. Things like Deep Throat (1972), Behind the Green Door (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) and many other classic titles were viewed by mainstream audiences at drive ins and (non-porn) movie theaters and discussed openly as part of the cultural sexual revolution. 

Many of these movies represent freedom - political, personal, sexual - and acknowledge an acceptance or at least recognition of feminism and women’s sexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. In addition to the already mentioned films, I’m also going to review titles like Story of O (1975)Debbie Does Dallas (1978), Alice in Wonderland (1976)Through the Looking Glass (1976), and the sci-fi tinged Café Flesh (1982). I'm also going to take a look at a few erotic documentaries, such as Inside Deep Throat (2005), Arakimentari (2004), Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism (2009), and Graphic Sexual Horror (2009), and a few recent studies on porn. I'm also going to review a few semi-recent erotic films I particularly like, namely The Ages of Lulu (1990), The Dreamers (2004), and Shortbus (2006), as well as share some news about Lars von Trier's most recent erotic masterwork, Nymphomaniac (2013), due out this winter. 

Viva porno chic!

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