THE GANG'S ALL HERE: A still from James Broughton's nudie film The Bed (1968), screening on Valentine's Day at International House.
As the sexual revolution gained force in the mid-1960s, filmmakers like Radley Metzger, who produced titillating low-budget movies, were suddenly propelled to the front lines. Not that they necessarily noticed at the time.
“I’d like to say I was the flagbearer for a movement, but if I did, I’d be making it up,” says Metzger, now 84, from his home in Manhattan. “I remember asking my mother as a little boy what it was like to live through the Roaring Twenties, and she didn’t know what I was talking about. When you live through something, I don’t know that you have the perspective to see it in that broader context.”
Metzger will be visiting Philly on Friday, Jan. 24, to screen and discuss his 1972 movie Score as part of International House’s film series “Free to Love: The Cinema of the Sexual Revolution.” Based on an off-Broadway play, the film is an early depiction of bisexuality that shows a swinging couple getting it on with a number of friends and acquaintances — including a telephone repairman originally played on stage (though, sadly, not on screen) by a young Sylvester Stallone.
“Free to Love,” which begins this week and runs through mid-February, includes more than 60 commercial and underground films produced between 1963 and 1987, effectively surveying the cinematic portrayal of the era’s new freedoms.
“For the past few years there’s seemed to be a resurgence of extreme radical conservatism focused on women’s issues, sex and sexuality,” says series curator Jesse Pires. “That got me thinking about this era that was a high watermark for liberalism and the counterculture. Enough history has gone by that it seemed like a good time to take a fresh look.”
Bookended by Vilgot Sjöman’s landmark diptych I Am Curious (Yellow) and I Am Curious (Blue), “Free to Love” features Ralph Bakshi’s animated Fritz the Cat, the groundbreaking porn classic Deep Throat and Paul Mazursky’s all-star comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, among others. Many of the programs will feature introductions and discussions by experts, like critic J. Hoberman and historians Eric Schaefer, Whitney Strub and Elena Gorfinkel.
The series captures a unique time in cinema and America in gen-eral, when the mainstream and the avant-garde ran on parallel, often intertwined tracks: Suburbanites hired babysitters and waited in lines to see hardcore pornography; Hollywood films broached sex without tawdry giggling or soft-focus romantic idealization; adults were depicted as adults and not overgrown children. Of course, that all came to an abrupt halt with the culture wars and AIDS crisis in the 1980s, but for a brief moment, all shades of desire seemed ripe for exploration.
“I can’t think of any other time in recent history when people were really interested in exploring and promoting healthy attitudes toward sex,” Pires says. “It was operating on a subterranean level — it bubbled forth, and then it seeped back into the nether regions.”
The pretense of legitimacy that marked early hardcore films has mostly fallen by the wayside, devolving into the innumerable context-free couch grope-fests that now litter the Internet. There was a darker side to that former era, too, as demonstrated by the less-than-enlightened backstories of films like Deep Throat that have come to light in ensuing years. But even the most base exploitation quickie at the time seemed to have something more than gratification on its mind.
“There’s work in this series that is really provocative, infusing radical politics with sex and sexuality,” Pires says. “Things are much different these days, so I think younger people espe-cially might be interested in see-ing explicit erotic material that was designed to be titillating, but also to provoke real thought and examination.”
For a filmmaker like Metzger, who shrugs off any such radical intentions, commercial and aesthetic interests simply aligned. “There were two kinds of movies at the time that were open to the independents,” he recalls. “One was eroticism and the other was horror. They didn’t require the independent filmmaker to spend inordinate amounts of money to reach an audience. That was what initially attracted me to eroticism, and then each film I made tended to create enough money to make another film. In order to survive, we had to go with the market.”
“Free to Love: The Cinema of the Sexual Revolution,” Jan. 10-Feb. 15, $9 per screening, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-387-5125, ihousephilly.org/freetolove.
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