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Inside Deep Throat

A column article, Convenient Truths by: Daniel Elkin, Jason Sacks

 

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2005's Inside Deep Throat directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.

Elkin: OK, Sacks, how's this for a tagline for a movie: “It was filmed in 6 days for 25 thousand dollars. The government didn't want you to see it. It was banned in 23 states. It has grossed over 600 million dollars. And it is the most profitable film in motion picture history”? Wow. Would you believe that the film being reference here is a flick about a woman whose clitoris is found deep in the back of her throat and the only way she can achieve orgasm is by engaging in cunnilingus? Only in America.

Inside Deep Throat is an amazing documentary that covers the story of one of the best-known sex films in the world, Deep Throat. It provides everything you could want in a documentary about this subject: interviews with the stars and creators, a historical perspective, behind the scenes footage, an examination of the critical and societal reaction it caused, an exploration of myths and legends surrounding the film, and an update as to what has happened to the principle players since it was released. It's a complete package, one you can really wrap your lips around to get every ounce of information.

As much as this is a story about the film Deep Throat, it is also an examination of American culture, specifically the American culture of the 1970's, the one still reeling from Watergate and the dissolution of the hippie flower power dreams. It is a tale of a culture clash, one that still rages today, as much as it is a perlustration of what constitutes art as opposed to pornography.

Sacks: Yeah, Inside Deep Throat sucked deeply about its subject and gave me a small orgasm of glee when I was done watching it. Umm, is that too much information?

There were so many things I enjoyed about this documentary: the wonderful archival footage of our society 40 years ago, the fascinating ways that it shows the battle about censoring this movie, the idea that a movie about a woman with a clitoris in her throat of all things ended up becoming a surprising smash hit. But more than anything else, I was fascinated by the people in this movie.

The best movies start with a fascinating cast, and Inside Deep Throat is filled with fascinating people. Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano is prominently featured and is a joy to watch. This seemingly kindly man moved from a happy life as a hairdresser into a surprising life as a filmmaker, making insane profits making smut films. (Deep Throat was making so much money in its time that cash would be collected in trash bags and sit uncounted because there was too much to count). Damiano presents a wonderful image in this movie: an old retired man with pants hitched well above his waist, he seems like a nice old man until he opens his mouth to discuss his career – at which point we can imagine just how much of a player this man was at one time.

In this film we also meet Harry Reems, who seems to be a man who just loved life and sex and had a great time when he was pulled out of a job as a production assistant to appear as the very silly leading man in the film. Jeremy has a classic Hollywood rise and fall as the film went through its run – at first he became rich, but then became a target of prosecution, stumbled into alcoholism and finally received redemption later in his life.

But the real star of this film is its biggest enigma. Linda Lovelace was the star of Deep Throat and was incredibly talented sexually. Lovelace became a huge star because of this movie, but a mainstream star. She's not some Jenna Jameson floating around the edges of fame. No, she was a real star, mobbed by fans and appearing on the covers of mainstream magazines.

But Lovelace is an enigma. There's tremendous controversy about her involvement in porn. Lovelace's sister Barbara and best friend Patsy were heartbroken when they found that she was working in porn; the film shows the two women speaking frankly about the sadness they feel about the direction that Lovelace's life took. More than that, we see scenes from various periods of Lovelace's life that show her shifting moods on her life: we see her appear before Congress stating that "every time people watch me have sex in Deep Throat, they're watching me be raped" and then later in the film do a porn spread ten years later. Viewers are left with much to ponder with Lovelace's story; should we celebrate the freedom that Deep Throat represented for Lovelace or feel pain at the tragedy that this film wreaked in her life and lead to her dying penniless?

And there are so many other vivid characters in this movie: Lenny Camp, the foulmouthed location manager who is hilariously direct with his opinions, Sepy Dobronyi, "the Swinger Count", whose attitudes infused the film and who is still mad that he never got paid for allowing his house to be used as a setting and so many more – the prosecutors, the cops, the experts and the friends.

But I'm only talking about one aspect of this film, Elkin. What were some of your favorite takeaways from this movie, Elkin?

Elkin: One of my favorite takeaways from this documentary was its exploration of the censorship that Deep Throat engendered. Specifically, how it showed the changing tide in this regard.

We are all well aware of the holier-than-though evangelicals who stand on their pulpit castigating the decline in American morality (while engaged in their own hypocritical back-door shenanigans alas). We expect these smug and self-righteous pricks to tell us how we should live our lives and to what we should have access in the name of entertainment. Hell, it was no surprise that Nixon buried the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography's findings that there was "no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behavior among youths or adults." That shit's off message, so therefore has no credence. Science and morality aren't fuck-buddys, after all. As you know, these people have a point, damnit, and they are going to make sure you hear what they have to say! Inside Deep Throat does a great job of putting these folks on parade, especially Charles Keating and allows them free reign to wag their fingers and shake their heads. 

Of course it was this very censorship, as it is wont to do that was responsible for so much of the success of Deep Throat. The government and the church make a great PR department. If people like Nixon and Billy Graham thinks it's smut, well then, by golly, I gotta see it!

Six hundred million dollars later....

Then, as this documentary points out, American society shifted again and a new voice in the censorship argument was unleashed. What had heretofore been held up as a “badge of the new freedom” and a liberation of sexuality, an artistic achievement reflecting a true change in our social structure and the climax of the sexual revolution, Deep Throat was now re-examined under a new lens. As Inside Deep Throat points out, the feminists became the new censors. They saw this film and pornography in general, as a stylized continuation of the subjugation of women. Certainly their argument as to why this film should be banned was of a different color than the evangelicals, but the intent was the same and their voices just as vociferous. And this juxtaposition was fascinating to watch. Because in Inside Deep Throat we got to watch Harry Reems debate Roy Cohn as to the merits of the film, now here's Gloria Steinem and Linda Lovelace sitting side by side on the Tom Snyder show explaining and explaining and explaining. Different worlds, different words, same intent.

But there is so much more stuff that this documentary excavates. The role of the mob in the growth of pornography, how the federal government enacted tougher “smut laws” by giving states local control, the introduction of the clitoral orgasm and oral sex into the national discussion, the rise of the VHS signaling the death of the communal experience of pornography, and how art and commerce collided in the porn industry and how commerce won out.

There's just so much to sink our teeth into, Sacks.

Sacks: You're not doing it right if you use your teeth too much, Elkin. TWSS.

I loved that insight that the movie gave, the very smart insight that exposing this allegedly aberrant movie just made people more interested in watching it. Even little old ladies like sex and enjoy watching attractive people having sex so all the oppression accomplished was to get more people to want to watch the film. And by the time Steinem and the feminists started marching against the film, video recorders were booming, helped in great part by viewers' insatiable demand for films about fucking.

The censors come off as finger wagging morality police, never mind every other way that the censors have fucked the country. It's kind of hilarious that Charles Keating was thought of as an authority on pornography but nobody paid attention to his completely reprehensible financial actions during the same period. Keating was a master at the same sorts of redirection that magicians used – he was crusading against porn – even battling against the inclusion of sexually honest material in libraries – at the same time that his fraudulent financial practices cost taxpayers and investors millions. While Keating was working to prevent the display of Deep Throat, he was also cutting tens of thousands of jobs and stealing millions of dollars.

But it would be wrong to classify all anti-porn crusaders as evil people. There are plenty of since men and women who believed that pornography kills souls and can destroy lives – after all, no-one had their life destroyed worse than Linda Lovelace herself, whose 1980 book Ordeal discusses in great frankness the ways that she was manipulated by a pretty evil sounding asshole into a life that her sister and friend believe that Linda never wanted.

That's the crux of the crusade against porn by the feminists: a sense that Lovelace was exploited by a man who was stronger than her, or manipulative of her, or simply pushed her to do things that she would not have considered if she was running her own life. Lovelace wasn't the only woman exploited by porn, by the sense that professional fucking can fuck up your life. And that crusade is one that I'm sympathetic to, at least in the abstract, though I'm not sure if it's relevant to my feelings about Deep Throat.

I disagree with you, Elkin. I see this as different worlds, different words, different intent, but same results. Much as I believe deeply in free speech, I also have trouble with speech that displays a level of coercion that truly hurts others. Of course, Lovelace's story is hers specifically and it's impossible to extrapolate from it to other things, and of course that's where the feminists' argument breaks down for me, anyway.

But exploitation is a real theme that shows up throughout this story, isn't it? The mob's involvement in porn had as much to do with the government's anti-porn crusades as any other factor.

Elkin: OK, Sacks – you are NOT going to draw me into a debate on whether or not porn is exploitative. I hope by now you understand that I believe in an individual's power to control the choices they make in life. I am no way disputing the fact that there are manipulative people out there and that not everyone is armed with the ability to make truly informed decisions and that often times the social constructs force people to choose between some rather sordid and degrading options, but still, if all those philosophy classes I took in college taught me anything, it is this: Cogito Ergo Sum.

As for Lovelace, I say that by pointing fingers at others for our own mistakes we, perhaps, lose an opportunity for growth or closure or understanding. Just look at Harry Reems. Which of the two of the stars of Deep Throat died penniless and embittered?

I do wonder, though, how you see evangelicals wanting to shut down Deep Throat and feminists wanting to shut down Deep Throat as having a different intent? Censorship is censorship no matter what moral code or intellectual conceit you wrap it in. I cry foul when one group stands up and declares that THIS IS BAD AND EVERYONE SHOULD AGREE THAT THIS IS BAD and, by nature of that declaration, demand that whatever it is that group deems “bad” be taken out of circulation or burned in a pile or beaten like a dog or erased from our collective consciousness. I guess I have more faith in folks to make judgments for themselves. Perhaps I am na├»ve in that manner.

Anyway ...

I'd like to bring the discussion back to Inside Deep Throat, though, and one of the things that the film allowed Deep Throat's director, Gerry Damiano, to talk about. Gerry made the point (and Wes Craven backed him up to an extent) that there, in the burgeoning porn film industry, was the creation of the Independent Film Maker and what Gerry had hoped would eventually happen was that Hollywood would embrace the porn industry and a new art form would be able to flourish.

Now I freely call bullshit on that last bit, but the premise is at least noble. What Gerry is pointing at (now, of course, in hindsight) was a revolution – the pushing of boundaries and the emergence of a more tolerant culture. But of course, it didn't happen. Fucking and fellatio, cunnilingus and cum-shots are certainly a greater part of our entertainment offerings nowadays then they were back in 1972, but not, I gather, to the extent that Gerry was dreaming of. The documentary does a nice job of pointing out the failure of this synthesis and ideal. It labels it a perversion of perversion and blames the commodification of the industry – it's now a 13 billion dollar juggernaut (which some have said is greater than the revenues of the top tech industries combined) – as it is so cheap and easy to produce and the audience for it becomes wider and wider every day. This huge demand and gross profiteering, of course, leads to the question, WHY? 

Then again, that may be a question best left stroked by a gentler hand.

Sacks: Why is porn popular? Well, duh. People like sex and they like to watch people have sex and thank God we're in a rather more tolerant era so that a whole lot of material to match pretty much any taste or fantasy is out there waiting for most everyone. And I'm not claiming that everybody involved in the porn industry in any way is screwed up by his or her careers.

Hell, there's abundant evidence that just the opposite is true: people live happy, productive lives and are in the porn industry or consume porn. Many completely normal couples occasionally enjoy recording video of themselves and their beloved spouse fucking up a storm some Sunday afternoon when the kids are at their grandparents' house and then uploading that video to some random site for people to enjoy. Sex is a positive part of life, and it's pretty goddamn great that the potential anti-porn crusaders have chosen to focus their attention to fighting terrorism rather than fighting the boundless human need for the always welcome pleasure of orgasm. Sex is good. Fucking is healthy. Terrorism is bad. The thought of terrorism puts me with a flaccid feeling of fear.

But we're flying a bit far afield of this documentary, and while it would be fun to enter into a conversation about the strange ways that pornography has become indie in 2012, it's more fun to return back to 40 years ago and think about the legacy of Deep Throat, if fact the movie has a legacy at all.

It's weird; for a moment in time it looked like this film would change the world. It had the potential to alter the way that Americans look at sex and allow us to bring that topic into the light. But something about Nixon's crusade or the mob's involvement or the growth of the evangelical movement or simply the shifting of the times caused this once notorious movie to be almost completely forgotten. Within just a few years, porn receded back outside of the mainstream and back into its little ghetto. We still see small signs of porn's influence today, with the sexualization of a million ads and the way that we're all used to seeing half-naked models in the window of your local mall's Victoria's Secret. But how much of that can be laid at the … umm … feet of this film?

This terrific documentary tells a great story about a moment lost to time, but does it make the argument for you that this movie has had a legacy that's lasted to our time?

Elkin: I think Inside Deep Throat answers that question when it interviews the porn stars of today, none of whom seemed to know anything about Deep Throat.

Still, Inside Deep Throat does make the case that regardless of anyone remembering the film itself, Deep Throat did signal a number of shifts in American culture – some good, some bad – and for that, its legacy is ensured.

As a documentary, there was a part of me that wished this film failed on a lot of levels if only I could make “It sucked” jokes.

But it didn't. I hope we can both agree that Inside Deep Throat is a surprisingly damn-near perfect documentary.

 

 

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