Sunday, 13 October 2013

Review: Aphrodisia (1970, George Harrison Marks)

The early 1970s saw George Harrison Marks down but not quite out. The previous decade had ended on a succession of bum notes for the glamour photographer and filmmaker, bankruptcy loomed, he’d temporarily separated from his partner Toni Burnett and soon after would lose control of his last feature film The Nine Ages of Nakedness. Undefeated, Marks turned his attention solely to the 8mm home viewing market, shooting short sex films that were released by his own Maximus company. A move announced with the fanfare of a series of ads placed in the back pages of Continental Film Review magazine. “Harrison Marks- world famous nude photographer and director of The 9 Ages of Nakedness- now playing at the Cameo Moulin, GT Windmill St, London, W1, is producing a series of 8mm films especially for the new Maximus film club” proclaimed one of them, proving that the bankruptcy had failed to deflate Marks’ high opinion of himself. 

The step-down from helming a feature film like 9 Ages to making 8mm shorts could be viewed by some as the actions of a filmmaker who was slumming it, indeed in the past his entire 8mm film work from this period has been quickly dismissed as thoughtlessly turned out, unimaginative pornography. All a rather rash and unfair judgement, as the rediscovery of his early 1970s Maximus output in recent years shows that while his personal life and finances might have taken a turn for the worse, this was a creativity fruitful time for Marks. Key titles like ‘First You See It’, ‘Unaccustomed As I Am’, ‘The Girl Upstairs’ and ‘Dolly Mixture’ appeased both their maker and his audience, offering enough nudity and sex to satisfy the man in the mac, whilst providing Marks with an outlet for his personality and sense of humour. His 1970s 8mm films also bring new aspects of the man himself to the table, painting Marks as a far more adventurous and sexually open minded filmmaker than the dusty, music hall relic version of him that you meet in Come Play With Me might suggest.

In his short film ‘Touch Tongue’ a doomed relationship between a lonely lesbian and the female prostitute she picks up in a park results in the expected display of lesbian lovemaking served up as a turn on for a male audience, but ends with a poignant denouement that demonstrates genuine compassion for alienated gay female characters, comparing favourably to the often hostility shown towards them in British sex flicks like Virgin Witch and Clinic Xclusive. ‘Colour My World’ saw Marks tackle another social taboo- that of interracial sex- a subject usually given the silent treatment by British sex cinema. Essentially a sex-ed up remake of his very first 8mm glamour film ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, Colour My World depicts an affair between a female artist and her black male model, ripping up the rule book of the Marks’ oeuvre by making the man’s body the focus of attention. Marks offers no reservations about turning his famous camera on the torso of a man –posed in the manner of Rodin’s The Thinker- in the same way he had a hundred or so female nude bodies beforehand. Whereas Marks’ films usually lovingly linger over female breasts and buttocks, in Colour My World all roads lead to black cock. Even further out of Marks’ own box sexually was the hardcore loop ‘Wotzi-Wotzi’ which at first glance seems like just another lesbian short, only for the timid, shy ‘girl’ being given the come-on by her girlfriend to be revealed as a man in drag, whom Marks had attired in a dress he’d borrowed from Toni Burnett’s wardrobe.

One of the earliest titles out of the Maximus starting blocks, Aphrodisia is undoubtedly one of Marks most ambitious 8mm productions, one that left him with more footage in the can than usual, resulting in him having to split the film in two and put it out over two separate 8mm releases. Aphrodisia is Marks’ spin on the James Bond franchise, with a tone that initially suggests a send-up but also incorporates a great deal of played straight outbursts of sex and sadism that go further than the Saltzman-Broccoli films could or would do within the confines of their ‘A’ Certificates.

Marks’ version of Bond centres around the exploits of four wackily-monikered characters: the Bond xerox ‘Captain X’ (Emmett Hennessey) a suave British secret agent tirelessly working to foil the world domination schemes of evil megalomaniac The Baron Von Vanderhorn (James Hamilton). Providing female eye candy are Captain X’s love interest Cherry Doubleday, and Vanderhorn’s lover and second-in-command Marta Apollo (Nicole Yearne). Confusingly a large portion of the narrative has already been played out before Aphrodisia Part 1 has begun, leaving a series of silent movie type intertitles to offer exclamations of ‘episode 1729: final instalment’, ‘the story or far’, ‘meanwhile…’, ‘as everyone knows...’ and allow us to play narrative catch-up. Intertitles inform us that Vanderhorn’s plans to overpopulate the world, bring his political party to power, and trigger world war three have all been thwarted by Captain X. Now seen sulking around a cornflake factory, Vanderhorn’s next plan –explained in further intertitles- is to flood Britain with aphrodisiacs, smuggled into the country through the cornflake factory…and only Captain X can save us. Enemies though they are, both Captain X and Vanderhorn epitomise young, 1960s London cool, Captain X with his neat ‘tache and roll neck jumper, Vanderhorn with his huge, pimptastic, fur coat. Unsurprisingly both are depicted as quite the ladies’ men. In fact only moments into the film we find Captain X romping by the fireplace with Cherry Doubleday, kicking off the Aphrodisia plot properly by using an ink stamp to mark Cherry’s inner thigh with an insignia that holds the secret to the location where Captain X has hidden a fertility capsule that Vanderhorn needs in order to execute his dastardly plan…. Got that?

Captain X: Licensed to Love and Kill

Somehow Vanderhorn learns that Captain X has left his mark on a woman but not the lucky lady’s identity, leaving him the strenuous task of going around London seducing dolly birds in the hope of finding that darn insignia on one of his conquests. A very of the period, hypnotising wheel visual effect breaks up our glimpses into Vanderhorn’s sex spree, a quest that brings The Horn satisfaction, but not satisfactory results. Enter Marta Apollo, who Vanderhorn dispatches to seduce and destroy Captain X. Masquerading as a ‘sex research worker conducting an opinion poll’ a PVC cat suit clad Marta lures Captain X back to her place, where she is soon stripping down to her stockings and suspenders, and proving herself to be a hands on kind of sex researcher.

 In the background to all of this is ‘The Stranger’ a dishevelled, elderly vagrant seen wandering around the less picturesque areas of London. Seemingly irrelevant to the story, that assumption is challenged by the Aphrodisia intertitles which hypes The Stranger as “the key to the intrigue”. A second, closer look at The Stranger increases curiosity in this character revealing The Stranger to be a person hidden under impressive but obvious make-up meant to make them appear older than they really are. An appearance that, along with Marks’ choice of name for this character immediately puts you in mind of ‘The Stranger Left No Card’ Wendy Toye’s short film from 1952. Implicating Marks as being one of many to have been impressed by Toye’s short (later remade by Toye herself as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected) in which an eccentrically dressed, heavily made up magician (Alan Badel) brings merriment and mirth to a small village before discreetly slipping out of his make-up and outlandish disguise in order to commit a murder then return to anonymity since “never in a million years would they guess that the little man who left town that day was their bearded, village halfwit… never in a million years.”

Aphrodisia isn’t actually the first evidence of The Stranger Left No Card having had an unlikely influence on Marks. Rewind the Marks story to almost a decade earlier and the 8mm glamour film era gave us 1962’s “I, Spy” in which a bearded, fedora hat wearing tramp loiters about a factory before taking off his clothes and beard and revealing himself to be Paula Page, a Marks’ model whose oversized chest would earn her the nickname ‘Two Guns’ Page. Attributes that no doubt made her a trickier subject to pass off as an old man than Wendy Toye had with Alan Badel.

Anyone au fait with I, Spy will already be clued up to where Marks was going with his Stranger character in Aphrodisia, but the unresolved identity of his character along with the generous amounts of softcore sex seen elsewhere are the cinematic hooks meant to encourage the punters to shell out an extra seven quid for the follow-up: Aphrodisia Part 2. Our second dose of Aphrodisia opens with The Stranger infiltrating the cornflake factory, in the process arousing the attention of Marta Apollo who leaves Captain X in a state of coital-doze, and traps the Stranger in the factory’s cellar. A flick of a lever triggers an explosion that renders The Stranger unconscious, allowing Marta the opportunity to investigate the mysterious intruder further.

Unbuttoning The Stranger’s shirt brings about the shock discovery of a pair of female breasts being hidden under there. The image of the exposed Stranger- young, protruding breasts obviously belonging to a female- bearded, pock-marked face apparently belonging to an old man- is a moment of pure, sideshow voyeurism designed to fuck with the rubes’ heads, a female twist on Wotzi-Wotzi’s full frontal surprise from its transvestite male lead. Only when Marta peels away The Stranger’s face make-up and beard do things become clearer, and the big revelation that The Stranger has really been Cherry Doubleday in disguise all along.

Whereas Aphrodisia Part 1’s bag was straightforward, heterosexual humping, Aphrodisia Part 2 gets down and does its funky thing to a kinkier beat, with all the characters’ S&M inclinations coming to the fore. Now at the mercy of Marta, Cherry wakes up to find herself naked, bound to a pole with ropes and subject to Marta’s lesbian advances. Things go from bad to worse for Cherry when Marta spots that insignia on Cherry’s thigh, then takes to whipping Cherry with a cat o’nine tails in an attempt to extract the location of Captain X’s fertility capsule from her.

At the time he made Aphrodisia Marks had entered into a little-known association with veteran NYC fetish publisher Leonard Burtman and Burtman’s femdom magazine ‘Bizarre Life’. Burtman would go on to marry one of Marks’ models and Bizarre Life’s Anglocentric content had seen Burtman commission several British based photoshoots featuring the likes of Rena Brown and Esme ‘Groupie Girl’ Johns outfitted in kinky boots and leather dresses, shoots heavily influenced by that Emma Peel/The Avengers look that had wetted America’s appetite for the London leather scene in the first place. Marks provided the tenth issue of Bizarre Life with its cover image of Monique Deveraux (sporting the same red PVC catsuit that Nicole Yearne wears in Aphrodisia) and the magazine received the Marks seal of approval when it was used as a prop in his 8mm short ‘Macabre’ one of several shorts from the Maximus period -including The Garden of Love and Aphrodisia itself – that went out of its way to court the fetish crowd.

By all accounts S&M wasn’t to Marks’ own taste, but here he couldn’t be accused of not giving it his best shot. Marta’s lengthy flogging of Cherry is Aphrodisia Part 2’s centrepiece, with full nudity from both actresses and a memorably squalid, damp looking cellar location. One which is believably isolated and far away from the eyes and ears of any good Samaritan who might hear all this racket and come to poor Cherry Doubleday’s aid.

Marks also uses the scene to emphasize the contrasting physicality and personalities of his two female leads- the small breasted, masochistic blonde playing Cherry pitted against Nicole Yearne’s busty, sexually aggressive brunette- there is something and someone to suit all tastes in this scene. Nicole Yearne was one of those actresses who like Maria Frost, Heather Deeley and Jane Cardew- blew into British sexploitation briefly, cast a spell over an audience on account of a large amount of work done in a short amount of time, then disappeared from the scene- but not people’s imaginations. Her career tells a familiar story…a few 8mm films….nude photo shoots for Escort and Parade (with a surname change to the more pun-friendly ‘Yerner’)….the film industry came a calling with nothing special bit parts in Permissive and the Tigon loser The Magnificent 7 Deadly Sins. It’s the Marks film then that provides Yearne with her one true, attention grabbing role from her fleeting time in the spotlight. In Aphrodisia, Yearne embraces and runs with the femdom vamp image it lends her, in the process gleefully demolishing the ‘girl next door’ persona built up for her in the pages of Parade and Escort.

The second part of Aphrodisia sees Marta Apollo step up to not only being the film’s centre of erotic attention but also its chief villain, easily eclipsing Vanderhorn who for the all the intertitle billing of him as ‘the depraved Vanderhorn’ isn’t given the chance to show off his depravity till right the very end of the film. Marta on the other hand gets carte blanche to run amok, not only flogging Cherry but going on to attempt to stab Captain X with a knife. Their subsequent semi-nude wrestle about on the floor is heavily erotised by Marks, with Marta hell-bent on staying on top and pinning a shirtless Captain X to the floor, and the Captain fighting back by digging his fingers into her buttocks and grabbing her breasts to keep her at bay. In the world of Aphrodisia the line between attempted murder and rough sex seems a very blurred one indeed. Just as Marta and Captain X wrestle about onscreen, the scene also finds Marks’ wrestling with playing to the femdom mentality and his own wandering eye which is clearly drawn to Yearne’s bottom, huge close-ups of which visually dominate the scene.


The majority of the Maximus shorts that followed were perfectly compact affairs that delivered the goods and say all they want to in their brief running times. Aphrodisia though is a slightly different kettle of fish, perhaps because it is an earlier Maximus release and Marks was yet to ease into the silent, short sex film format. The excessive use of intertitles come across as a sign of filmmaker who was missing live dialogue, and in Aphrodisia Part 1 the constant references to characters’ backstories and previous confrontations often ridiculously complicates what –sans intertitles- would play as a series of vaguely related simulated sex scenes.

It’s as if Marks had bigger plans for Aphrodisia brewing in the back of his mind and viewed a return to feature filmmaking as being just around the corner, not having banked on this being the start of a long excursion into the pornographic wilderness (it would be six years before he’d get the opportunity to make another feature film). Without a doubt, a fleshed out version of Aphrodisia’s storyline could fill a feature film with ease. In fact anyone blindly approaching the two 8mm releases of Aphrodisia could be forgiven for thinking they’d gotten hold of a 8mm abridged version of what had originally been a feature film. One from which an editor had kept in all the sex and kinko scenes but dispensed of large chunks of the plot.

The idea of Aphrodisia as a home movie try out for what could have been a feature film is inadvertently given extra weight by the fact that Marks did actually shoot the film on his own premises. A large part of it was filmed at ‘The Hall’ an apartment complex in St. John’s Wood where Marks lived in one of the ground floor flats (as porn actor Short Jack Gold has pointed out, if you run this address through Google Earth you can still see the bus stop that Sue Bond waits outside of in ‘First You See It’.) Although Marks resided at the flat with Toni Burnett and their daughter, the views we see of it in Aphrodisia still stubbornly retain the appearance of a quintessential 1960s bachelor pad. Copies of Playboy are the coffee table reading of choice, erotic art adorns the walls and where you’d expect to see framed photos of family members, Marks has framed photos of a nude June Palmer, taken by himself. In a cheeky move these mementos of Marks’ career and libido are incorporated into the Aphrodisia plot as props that Marta Apollo has dressed up her apartment with in order to pass herself off to Captain X as a sex researcher. Marks was the biggest sex researcher of them all.

The other main location in the film is Faulkners Alley in Crosscow St, Farringdon where Marks had a studio and ran the mail order side of the Maximus business from. A noticeably unglamorous location compared to Marks’ chic St Johns Wood flat, this alleyway of stone walls, faded door entrances and soot filled windows had somehow escaped the wrecking ball of the 1960s redevelopment of London (as chronicled in Norman Cohen’s 1967 film The London Nobody Knows) to survive as a throwback to the impoverished side of London’s Victorian past. As Aphrodisia actor Emmett Hennessey has remarked it looks like something out of the Jack the Ripper era.

In the film its cast as the site of the disused Cornflake factory, but in reality this was the place Marks called a place of work at the time, and the uninviting alleyway that the sexiest discoveries of the Maximus era- Sue Bond, Clyda Rosen, Angela Duncan- would all have had to walk down on their date with sex film immortality. There really should be a blue plaque in Faulkners Alley to commemorate this.

Unbeknownst to the Aphrodisia cast, the many, many still photographs Marks had taken during filming would enjoy a life outside the film, turning up in a short lived magazine called ‘Impact 70’ which Marks put together for the Roydock Books company. Consisting of stills taken from Maximus productions like First You See It, The Amorous Masseur and Halfway Inn, Impact 70 wedded Marks’ photographs to newly penned erotic stories that bore little relation to the film’s original storylines. Aphrodisia stills turn up to illustrate the story ‘Man of Many Parts’ which recasts Captain X as the soon to be wed ‘George’ a man embarking of one last fling with his wife-to-be’s sister (formally Marta Apollo) as his wedding to Susan (formally Cherry Doubleday) approaches. Its only involving as evidence of Marks’ private life having spilled out onto the pages of Impact 70; Marks’ story likely mirroring his own fears and anxieties about marrying and settling down with Toni after many years as a single raver playing the field.

The ‘Man of Many Parts’ story opens with: “George didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. In one month’s time he would be married…soon his gay single life would be over. No more nights in the West End, no more stripshows followed by a pleasant sojourn in some dolly’s flat. He was now Susan’s. The hundred and twenty pounds engagement ring on her finger proved that”.


Autobiographical insights like that aside, Marks’ work in Impact 70 feels compromised to suit a straight-laced, Men’s magazine readership. Gone are the S&M and Bondian elements of Aphrodisia, ditto the supernatural overtones of First You See It. The tired erotic lit and ideas that haunt Impact 70…some bloke has an affair with his missus’ sister…some other bloke visits an elocution teacher and gets laid… Marks in 9 Ages of Nakedness’ romantic poet mode attempting to convey sexual ecstasy through words (“all that existed now was her love for this man who was taking her on a journey through love. They reached journey’s end together”) has the numbing effect of rendering Marks’ naked world a dull and ordinary place to be, something the films those Impact 70 stills come from could never be accused of doing.

 ‘Man of Many Parts’ struggles to hold your attention, but Aphrodisia leaves you wanting more. Drawing as it does on a diverse number of influences- James Bond, the London leather scene, The Stranger Left No Card, yet with Marks’ own directorial hand being visible throughout. For surely only he could conceive of character names like Marta Apollo or The Baron Von Vanderhorn, or a plot to use a cornflake factory to flood the country with aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisia frustrates only in the sense that an all singing, all dancing feature film version of it never existed outside of Marks’ head and the 22 minutes of it that we have are all that he could make a reality in the reduced circumstances that the beginning of the 1970s found him.

In retrospect Impact 70 serves as an eerie premonition of the way Marks’ character would end up tamed and broken down by the demands of porn producers for ever more conventional product. Check out his final porno shorts from 1979, ‘Big N’Busty’, ‘Busty Baller’, ‘Cockpit Cunts’ –all financed by the Color Climax company- and you’ll find a Marks resigned to having to leave his own personality at the door and only there to film people fucking. Busty Baller with its ‘man knocks on the door, woman opens it, they fuck, film ends’ premise, and the casting of the gargoyle faced Gordon Hickman, attempting to hide his beer gut with a T-Shirt pathetically emblazoned with ‘I’m the Champ’ really is a blokish Impact 70 story made flesh. Those films could have been made by anyone, but the early Maximus films –like Marks himself- will always be something a little special, and ‘the Madness of King George’ truly flows fast and free in Aphrodisia.

Thanks to Emmett Hennessey, Sgt Rock, Beutelwolf…and to Bygoneguy for providing us with both parts of this GHM rarity.



Tea Bag said...

Is 'Cherry Doubleday' the actress's name or the character's name? Or maybe both? :)

gavcrimson said...

the character's name. she is the only cast member i dont have a name for.