Sexploitation Cinema's Greatest - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Sexploitation Cinema's Greatest

Sexploitation Cinema's Greatest

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because it’s not all about guys in boxers and dress socks.

By Eugene S. Robinson

In San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, at the tiled entry of the Roxie Theater, New York native Joe Sarno held forth. In Swedish. To a woman who came up and greeted him. In Swedish.

“Sorry,” he said, New York accent playing around the edges. “I forget where I am.” Easy enough since — while he was New York-born, raised, lived and just died, RIP — Sarno and the reasons we’re loving Sarno have everything to do with Sweden. You see, the films he made, prime arthouse soft-core curiosities that were noteworthy enough that Sarno got glossed as the Ingmar Bergman of porn, had to make it back into the States as imports from Sweden before anyone took him seriously.

Which sort of makes sense when you consider that he got his start making industrial films when he was in the Navy during World War II — a different kind of film school for different kinds of films. Films that mostly made their hay by trying to capture the full range of human experience. By which he meant our sexual lives as well. These were revolutionary for the early 1960s, when he started, but not so shocking in the milieu he had found himself in the city he called home. Sarno and his wife, Peggy, were hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, rubbing elbows with Warhol and that crew, and they believed in this idea that sex could be filmed in a way that’s everything that modern porn is not. [Spoiler alert: Modern porn won.]

He took a routine premise … and turned it into a pretty sly, smart piece of smut.

Porn reviewer Judge Roy Bean

“I think, and it was not just my idea, that female sexuality was not just a side effect of male sexuality,” Sarno said, people sweeping past him to get their seats to watch his 1972 flick Young Playthings, a part of a showing that was predated by Sarno’s inclusion in Re/Search Publications’ Incredibly Strange Films release. Both of which prepared anyone listening for vintage Sarno. 

A woman named Gunilla is going off to stay with a friend, Nora. There’s some talk, since they are without their boyfriends, of having a threesome with a neighbor with a decidedly marked penchant for strange toys and stranger games. Games that involve historical reenactments done nude. Yup. 

“Sarno’s strangeness wasn’t just about getting to the nude parts,” says London-based video director Chris Purdie. “That was just boilerplate for him. It was these wild stories of his. I mean, these movies would have been strange without the sex is what I’m saying.” And two hours later, everyone in the theater was probably saying it, too. 

“The script is incredibly stupid,” said Film Bizarro. But for every one of those there was an Andrew Sarris, famous film critic, who sang his praises. And endless bows at film festivals. In 2010, in the midst of a documentary on Sarno, Sarno died. He was 89 and, according to his wife, never managed to make his soft-core art flicks pay, hence his directing hard-core porn under fake names. But even those were touched by genius.

“In Inside Jennifer Welles, he took a routine premise, a ‘famous’ actress going out on a ‘sextravaganza,’ and turned it into a pretty sly, smart piece of smut,” says porn reviewer Judge Roy Bean. “For the cheap seats? Porn. But for me, who had to watch hours of that stuff? A welcome relief.”

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