Sunday, 12 February 2012

Groping in the Dark

Pursuing and attempting to document 1970s British pornography so many years after the fact is rather like being a blind man at an orgy, you can but only grope around in the dark, not knowing what you’re going to find but hoping what you eventually get hold of turns out to be …….something special.

Unlike the British sex feature films of the 1960s and 70s, which have been the recipient of their fair share of overdue attention in the last couple of years, the soft and hardcore 8mm shorts that co-existed alongside the likes of the ‘Confessions’ and ‘Adventures’ films in the 1970s, remain uncharted cinematic territory. No one was reviewing these films at the time, and with the exception of John Lindsay few of these film’s makers invited any publicity into what they were doing. After all what they were doing was far from socially acceptable, and in the case of blue filmmakers like Lindsay, a legal question mark. Likewise the performers in these films courted anonymity. In spite of this, a certain kind of star system clearly existed in this shadowy film world, with familiar faces popping up from film to film. The fact that these people never received onscreen credit means you often have to resort to the art of thinking up nicknames for the performers- based on physical characteristics and prior credits. I sincerely wish I had something more dignified to refer to a regular female performer in this stuff other than “her with the big ears who was also in Hot Flesh”. But given that she appears to have had a prolific career in 8mm porn without ever having had to use a real or stage name, it looks like “Miss Big Ears” she will have to remain. Not even porn actor Short Jack Gold- who co-starred with Big Ears in ‘Sex is My Business’ and briefly dated her for a while- could remember her actual name.

With no name performers, unknown directors, and zero prior written information to act as a guide map into this netherworld, it remains pot luck whether that 8mm film you have your beady eye on will turn out to be a forgotten erotic classic, a film with some redeemable unintentionally funny element to it, or just leave you totally unmoved. Recently my fellow smut archaeologist ‘Sgt. Rock’ took a gamble on having a few old 8mm sex films transferred to DVD, all of which have otherwise long been forgotten about by the world. The back of one of these film’s 8mm boxes contained listings for further films, ones with hard-to-believe-they-really-exist titles like ‘Pervert’s Mass Orgy’, ‘Nazi Brutality’ and ‘The Plumbers and the Schoolgirl’. Heavy duty themed, but wild and crazy sounding nonetheless.

Rather less outrageous is the output of Mountain films who commissioned a number of short softcore sex films in the early to mid-1970s, which were released under the banner of “Impact Double X Films”. One of these productions ‘Wild Lovers’-starring a pre-fame Mary Millington- was unearthed by Sgt. Rock back in May of last year, and now thanks to the Sarge we have two further Mountain efforts to put under the magnifying glass.

EMMANUELLE FROM BANGKOK, is –as its title suggests- Mountain’s imitation of the 1974 French bonkbuster Emmanuelle, and in its brief running time goes about recreating that film’s iconic imagery in the cheekiest, threadbare fashion possible. A brunette –the film’s Emmanuelle character- sits in a wicker chair flicking through a Thailand holiday brochure and masturbating, which in turn triggers numerous sex and Thailand themed flashbacks. Unlike the rest of the films in Sgt. Rock’s haul, Emmanuelle From Bangkok did actually survive on into the video era, when it and two other Mountain shorts ‘Hot Flesh’ and ‘The Handyman’ (both starring the enigmatic Miss Big Ears) were compiled into a video called Emmanuelle and Friends and linked by tagged on narration meant to be from the films’ lead characters. In a rare example of after the fact dubbing actually adding to a British sex film short the narration goes some way into clearing up Emmanuelle from Bangkok’s fragmented narrative, giving backstories to the various characters seen in the sex scenes (“Amanda bought some friends along, then things really hotted up”) and explaining the Thailand footage away as Emmanuelle’s memories of holidaying there, with the voiceover forever singing Thailand’s praises. Without the narration to contextualise it, this short must have caused a great amount of head scratching in its original b/w, silent 8mm incarnation. The structure of the film could be politely described as ‘dreamlike’ or if you’re feeling less charitable ‘incomprehensible’, with disconnected scenes of sex, Emmanuelle masturbating and touristy shots of Thailand edited together with little rhyme or reason. Sans narration, you’re never quite sure if what you are seeing is meant to be flashbacks or fantasy scenes. Likewise it is hard to see what the sex scenes- all of which take place in the same bedroom- and Thailand footage have to do with each other, whilst the Thai footage is utilised in the manner of location establishing shots, the sex scenes never move away from that one location. The Thailand footage itself-which is totally asexual- ranges from mondo movie type glimpses of kickboxing, stick fighting and views of temples filmed from a riverboat to nothing special street scenes and shots of boat people who never in a million years could imagine they’d one day be cut into a softcore British short. Mountain’s penchant for group sex means that Emmanuelle’s bed soon becomes a very crowded place to be, with further and further sexual partners appearing on it without explanation every time the film cuts back from yet another glimpse of Thailand. Just about every variation is played out from a lesbian twosome, to two guys and two girls, to one guy and three girls.

While the use of exotic locations and adventurous sex does occasionally evoke not only the original Emmanuelle, but Peter Shillingford’s Naughty Girls (1975), unlike those films which managed to fly their casts out to those locations, here however it is clear that the budget could only stretch to buying up stock footage and applying it to home-grown sex scenes. A more honest title for the film would have been “Emmanuelle doesn’t go to Bangkok”. Overall Emmanuelle from Bangkok plays like the kind of travelogue you’d expect to see used by a 1980s game show to illustrate a foreign holiday prize into which some joker has mischievously inserted lots of soft porn footage. The silent 8mm version does at least avoid the contradiction raised by the later, added on narration- that if Emmanuelle loves the sights, sounds and people of Thailand so much why does she seemingly spend all of her holiday in her hotel room shagging people she already knows from back home? After all aren’t holidays all about seeing the sights and meeting new people??

Set in more familiar Mountain film territory of British suburbia, HOT PASSION stars Peter Vernon, that hardworking superstud of 1970s soft and hard 8mm porn. When this blog last touched on Peter Vernon he was shamelessly camping it up under a leather mask and getting to grips with Clyda Rosen in “Unaccustomed As I Am”, but here for a change of pace he is cast as a normal 9-5 suburban hubby. A paean to early morning lust, Hot Passion sees a couple’s attempts to get ready for work in the morning hampered by their inability to keep their hands off each other. Well photographed and raunchy scenes of Peter Vernon having his missus from behind and the pair of them sharing an amorous bath are amusingly intercut with comedy scenes of him panicking about how late it is getting and rushing round to get dressed, until he once again catches sight of her naked and they both get the urge to start fucking once more.

While lacking any real narrative eccentricities, Hot Passion strikes up an agreeably sweet, mellow tone, the leads have a genuine chemistry together and effort is made by both the performers and the filmmakers to convincingly portray their characters as a loving, happy and very horny couple. The eye catching interiors- including a collection of old western guns and cavalry swords hung on the walls- reveal this to be shot in the same house used in ‘Hot Flesh’ and ‘The Handyman’, a location that also popped up in photo-shoots published in David Sullivan magazines of the time- pointing to the unknown auteur behind these films having been a jobbing glamour photographer who used his own abode for such things. The presence of an experienced glamour photographer behind the camera also seems evident in the wife’s nude bathing scene which feels like a sexed up for the 1970s version of an old 8mm striptease film. Hot Passion ends on a characteristically romantic- and distinctly British- note, as Vernon finally makes it to the front door just as The Sunday Times comes through the letterbox, and at the risk of being even later for work he pops back upstairs to give his wife something to read in bed, what a gent!!

For an altogether rawer experience we sail into the land of blue, with the anonymously made and hardcore short ORGY TRIP, which depicts a rave up between four 1970s porn archetypes, a longhaired hippie guy, a black chick and a comparatively straight-laced looking white couple. The actor playing the straight-laced guy is David Grey and seemingly the only cast member with connections to other films. Physically lanky in appearance-as if possibly anorexic in real life- and facially a lookalike of British horror film director Norman J Warren, Grey is familiar as the male lead in Harrison Marks’ The Casting Couch and Demonstration Model. As with Peter Vernon, Grey also had slight connections to mainstream British sex comedies having played Victorian erotic photographer Henry Hayler in the Stanley Long film Naughty, and briefly appearing in Derek Ford’s Commuter Husbands in 1972. Grey’s blue movie form here means it is highly likely he participated in the hardcore scenes shot for the export version of that particular Ford film.

Orgy Trip is notable for a kaleidoscopic, ‘fly’s eye view’ type visual effect used extensively in its early scenes, that sees each cast members’ face projected multiple times on screen and then revolving round in a circular fashion. The implication of this trippy visual appears to be that what the characters are smoking isn’t legal. Drinking and pot smoking begets heavy petting, which begets a foursome that- like the entire film- takes place on a couch. Once the sex gets going the film becomes visually conventional, only fleetingly returning to the kaleidoscope effect during an oral sex scene, long enough to give you the idea of what a blowjob must look like through the eyes of a fly. The men in the film look to be much more into it than the women, the black girl’s mind seems like, a hundred other places during this film and she gives the hippie a blowjob that is comical in its lifelessness. Indifferently putting his erect penis in her mouth then doing little else, suggesting someone unfamiliar with the mechanics of oral sex in real life, she stares into the camera a lot during this scene, doing little to mask the fact that she is obviously taking direction. (Incidentally, while no one is likely to accuse moi of political correctness, I should like to point that I’m only referring to the two women in the film in terms of skin colour as an easy way of distinguishing between the two performers).

Perhaps due to this non-professional turn Orgy Trip is a film that constantly reminds you that you’re watching people who are strangers to each other thrown together to have sex for money, an aspect that films like Hot Passion are politely able to cover up thanks to decent acting and keeping the sex simulated. Whilst the white girl is more accommodating, giving David Grey a blowjob as the hippie takes her from behind in one of the film’s scant erotic moments, incredibly in a show of terrible taste a snapshot from the black girl’s unerotic blowjob scene- complete with the woman’s ‘deer caught in the highlights’ expression- was chosen to illustrate Orgy Trip’s 8mm box.

Unfortunately the shadow of bad sex seems destined to hang over the cast members as the film progresses. The hippie uses a lot of force during his sex scene with the black girl, considerably greater than he does on the white girl, possibly to compensate for her lifelessness. In the poor woman’s mind she probably thought she was conveying sexual exhaustion at the end of this scene, instead it simply looks like she has fallen asleep through boredom. David Grey also has his problems, magnified by having the film stubbornly stay with a close-up of him thrusting between the girl’s legs, at one point he pulls his cock out of her, tries to produce the money shot by jerking off, then when that fails inserts himself back into her. When he does finally manage to come he appears genuinely relieved, and embraces his female co-star while smiling… leaving Orgy Trip to expire on what might be seen as an upbeat note.

The next two films represent the real find in Sgt. Rock’s haul, and offer reassurance to the film historian that for all the inroads made into researching the British sex film there are still long forgotten filmmakers out there whose oeuvre has just that right amount of quirks, distinct hallmarks and intended and unintended effects to charm their way into the memory bank. Such is the case with the output of “Anglo Continental Films”, a moniker that I keep mistaking with “Anglo Titanic Films” the fictional porn studio, located behind a Kocher butcher shop that Brendan Price’s character gets mixed up with in Secrets of a Door to Door Salesman. Given that Door to Door Salesman’s producer David Hamilton Grant had an obsessive interest in pornography, you almost wonder if Grant didn’t encounter a few Anglo Continental productions on his travels, was knocked out by them, and decided to have some fun by giving the porn studio in his film a sound-a-like name in their honour. What really fascinates about Anglo Continental though is that the films showcase a degree of talent that is destined to forever butt heads with an equal amount of filmmaking ineptitude. Anglo Continental might well be in the gutter, but they are forever looking up at the stars.

The opening shot of Anglo Continental’s LADY JANE could well define their entire output. A night time exterior shot of a hotel established by a close up of a neon sign. Nervously the camera pans away from the ‘HOTEL’ sign then quickly hurries back to it as if the cameraman had moved away from the sign too early. The camera then pans away again half-capturing the shot it has been aiming to get, that of a car pulling in to the hotel’s car park. Still it is a wonderfully atmospheric opening, albeit slightly fucked up in the execution, establishing that it is very late at night, somewhere in 1970s Britain and people are on their way to doing rude things at the sort of place that the film West End Jungle referred to as “grimy backstreet hotels where no questions are asked”. A classy looking couple, the man seemingly dressed for a night at the opera, smooch in a hotel room as the staff go about putting the finishing touches to the room, the concierge bringing their bags to the room and a maid making sure the room is stocked up on drink. After the staff have finished bothering them the couple really get down to business, lots of heavy petting, the chap masturbating the woman, presumably the ‘Lady Jane’ of the title. Lady Jane strips off everything bar her leather boots, the guy loses his shirt and trousers in order to receive a blowjob from her, although long shots reveals that in the time honoured stag film tradition he has left his socks on. The French farce favour of Anglo Continental’s films kicks in when the maid returns unexpectedly, catches an eyeful, drops her tray of drinks and flees the room. Seeking solace, she relates what she has seen to the concierge, played by an actor who I’ve elected to nickname “The Moustache”, on account of his extravagant tache, the sort popularized by Salvador Dali, and Kenneth Cope in Carry On At Your Convenience.

Feigning outrage The Moustache hurries over to the room, apparently to vent his spleen, of course once he arrives and the maid is out of sight, he changes his tune and is encouraged to drop his trousers for her ladyship. The narrative then completely disintegrates when in the midst of this threesome; a further bloke enters into the proceedings. Who he? No one seems to know or care, one minute he isn’t in the scene then suddenly, as if by magic, he is seen in between Lady Jane’s legs. This brings us on to another distinct aspect to Anglo Continental’s films- that of having two or three guys fucking in the same scene none of whom seem remotely intimidated by having to be in such close proximity to each other. Nor are these guys going the usual porn actor route of mentally blocking out each other’s presence, on the contrary all three show quite the interest in what the others are doing. At one point the older guy who plays Lady Jane’s lover thoughtfully moves her legs about so that she is in a better position for The Moustache to eat her pussy. Then during a later sex scene that sees Lady Jane straddle the mystery man, her older lover and The Moustache even act as helpers, using their hands to guide Lady Jane up and down on the guy, a task that conventional pornography would always relegate to females.

With this amount of going against the sexual norm moments, the film could have carelessly become homoerotic, but the filmmakers prove themselves focussed enough to remember to keep Lady Jane and her erotic responses centre stage, preventing her from getting lost amidst a sea of thrusting male bodies. A wise decision too, since the actress heroically throws herself into the role with enough sexual abandonment to convince as a well-moneyed libertine who doesn’t mind taking on any interested third parties during her dirty weekend. The actors are decided 2nd or 3rd division in the looks department, but register in a character actor sense and are well suited to their roles, the actor playing Lady Jane’s older lover looks every bit the middle aged rouĂ© you can imagine ordering champagne and cavorting with strippers at the Raymond Revue bar. In that respect he occupies the same British sex film turf as, say, Derek Aylward and Neil Hallett.

Lady Jane is in by far the worse shape of all these films. The film survives, but only just and it looks like we got to this one just as it was still salvageable. At several points during the film the image deteriorates into nothing but crumbs of film flying about an ethereally white screen, before the film comes back to life and returns from 8mm porn heaven. The irony is that such is 21st century filmmakers’ obsession with recreating the effects of damaged or scratched film, it has the knock on effect of making genuine film damage like the examples on display in Lady Jane now look instead like a stylistic decision by its filmmakers, adding a further –albeit unintentional- layer to Anglo Continental’s mystique.

All that is memorable about Lady Jane is replicated verbatim in another Anglo Continental film PRIVATE PRACTICE. ‘Doctors and Nurses’ themed it sees the return of The Moustache, this time cast as a sickly patent being attended to by a busty blonde nurse. The Tache taking pills, and her taking down notes, leads on to The Moustache having a ridiculous dick examination that involves the nurse measuring his prick with a tape measure. The settings once again look to be the room of a sleazebag hotel, likely the same hotel used in Lady Jane, hinting that the setting of that film was born out of necessity rather than by choice. Sparse attempts to dress the place up to appear to be something other than a hotel room mainly consist of hanging erotic art on the walls, including a painting of a giant dick emerging from under a beach, as well as another painting that also doubled as the film’s misspelt title card, with the misspelt title ‘Private Pratice’ (sic) still visible on its 2nd appearance in the film.

Now, there are certain things you see on film that you instantly know you’re never going to forget, no matter how you try. Such is the case with the next few moments of Private Practice which introduce another character, a man whose appearance is a tremendous shocker the first time you set eyes on him, such does the casting of him go against what is considered conventionally attractive. I call him ‘Muscles’. Muscular and sporting tattoos, suggesting a Navy background but with a beer gut indicating those days are far behind him, he has an awful comp over that is losing the battle to mask his growing baldness. Facial hair similar to The Moustache, but less impressive, making him look like an unsuccessful attempt at cloning The Moustache. Andy Milligan would have loved to have cast this guy in one of his films, preferably as a sympathetic hunchback.

Muscles appears to be playing another patient of the nurse and is encouraged by her to strip off down to a pair of unbecoming Y-fronts, these too soon come off revealing his tiny dick. Muscles unceremoniously plonks himself down on the bed next to The Moustache and the two men start to jerk off- again that Anglo Continental trait of having guys in close proximity to each other, in this case shoulder to shoulder, jerking off in bed together. Muscles has lots of trouble getting it up, even when peeking in on the nurse fucking The Moustache in bed next to him. Fed up with Muscles tugging on himself, the Nurse pulls on what is obviously a bedroom light switch but in the parallel world of Anglo Continental must also act as a way of calling for room service, since a French Maid is instantly on hand to tend to Muscles’ needs. Its’ easy to turn Muscles into a figure of fun, yeah I know, I’m guilty of this a bit myself, but at some point during Private Practice a certain male sympathy kicks in, one that causes you to optimistically root for this noble savage to rise to the occasion, and not embarrass himself too much on film.

The casting of someone so sexually inadequate might lead you to the idea that the filmmakers had a sadistic streak to them, personally I’d like to think otherwise as there is a playful attitude that bounces around in Anglo Continental Films. Everyone appears to be there to have fun, and there exists a selfless quality to the performers who seem to be equally concerned with getting others off as they do getting off themselves. Both women at various points in the film volunteer to give Muscles a blowjob, and politely ignore the fact that this has little effect on his limpness. Both men take time out from pursuing their own erections to use sex aid devices on the women, of the buzzing, plugged into the wall socket variety, causing wires to be dangerously stretched all over the bed, wires that clumsy ol’ Muscles nearly gets himself tangled up in at one point (I bet no one will ever make a public information film highlighting this type of electrical hazard!!). Refreshingly Private Practice isn’t just fixated by run of the mill hardcore action, and has lots of fun with its nurse and French maid characters who are constantly seen dressing up and down in their outfits as well as bending over to give Muscles and The Moustache a flash of their knickers, imagery that links Private Practice to the more mainstream British sauciness of the Carry On… series or The Benny Hill Show.

There is a degree of imagination and sexy creativity at work here, thought obviously has been given to the films scenarios, use of male turn on figures (like nurses and French maids) and uniform fetishism, positives that often are at risk of being thwarted by the negatives of cramped hotel room settings and filmmaking that isn’t up to the John Lindsay standard of professionalism. From the looks of it every second of footage shot for Private Practice found its way into the finished film, making you suspect that someone found editing beyond them or a chore. A decision that leaves in moments a regular pornographer would have surely cut out, including shots of actors taking direction and matter of fact details like The Moustache wiping his dick in between sex acts and the nurse similarly wiping her privates after she has finished getting herself off with a vibrator. Anglo Continental’s juggling act of greatness and wretchedness continues right up until the final moments of Private Practice, which sees Muscles supposedly delivering a money shot that doesn’t remotely convince, and consists of the nurse drooling a white substance, possibly milk, over Muscles’ limp, not at all erect dick. Someone’s surreal idea of a blowjob. It should feel like a cheat ending, but instead is perfectly in keeping with the unreality of everything you have just witnessed.

In truth all of the 8mm films in this piece have something to offer, each having their own different way of looking at and perceiving sex, yet the Anglo Continental films go beyond even this level, idiosyncratic qualities are strong in these films, making them feel like they truly belong in their own little universe. A sexual Twilight Zone of a place where nothing looks the same as it should do in the real world, where the same actors and characters pop up from film to film constantly intruding on each other, as if forever doomed to haunt that crappy hotel and keep walking in on each other having sex in the same old rooms- all this can be experienced when you check in, and go groping in the dark, at the Anglo Continental Hotel.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

“Me Vanderhorn, You Jane ”

Harrison Marks’ regular Howard Nelson doing his bit for ‘Men’s Lib’ on the cover of Forum in 1978