The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Life in Dirty Movies

Joe Sarno was known as “the Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street.” He was also a real-life version of Jack Horner, the pornographer with lofty artistic aspirations portrayed by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. During his heyday in the 1960s, Sarno made a ton of artsy softcore pictures. In a time when major cities had rows of theaters devoted to showing less-than-reputable motion pictures, he was a prolific supplier of product. It's easy to dismiss someone like this, but let's be honest: Sarno made a lot of films and he made them according to his distinct personal vision. That counts for something, right? The documentary A Life in Dirty Movies persuasively makes that argument.

Director Wiktor Ericsson follows Sarno as he attempts, at age 88, to launch a new production in the vein of his '60s efforts. Intercut with this is a history of his career, complete with commentary from film scholars and fellow director/admirer John Waters. What made Sarno's work unusual was that, as one interview subject puts it, “sex in Joe's movies had consequences.” He wasn't content to simply show casual fornication. Instead, he used sex to get at larger themes about relationships and human nature. If that made the audience uncomfortable, so be it. Sarno tells us that the goal was “to be as hot as possible without actually showing anything.” In other words, to arouse without getting too real. That changed in the 1970s, when the surprise mainstream success of Deep Throat made hardcore porn all the rage. Sarno resisted until he could resist no more.

A Life in Dirty Movies is an amusingly quirky look at an eccentric artist. Among the details we learn is that Sarno had a longtime habit of drawing diagrams for sexual positions right into his scripts. We also get to hear him philosophize on what it was like to spend so many years engaged in the exploitation business, a line of work that can be as cutthroat as it is titillating. You hang on every word because his career was so unusual, and his passion for it is so clear.

The documentary is also a portrait of a marriage. Sarno's longtime wife Peggy is visibly his biggest supporter. While she confesses not always understanding his work, she appreciates it and sees him as a true artist. The glimpses into their marriage are fascinating. Peggy, for example, stood by him despite the disapproval of her parents. In one especially compelling scene, her mother speaks candidly about Peggy marrying a maker of smut, and possibly ends up saying more than she intended to – all while Peggy listens silently and with visible frustration. (Her father later bankrolled some of Joe's work simply so his daughter wouldn't live in poverty.) Peggy is, for lack of a better term, the “breakout character” here. Sarno is very interesting, but she's absolutely captivating as she discusses her deep, abiding commitment this man who chose a controversial, disreputable, often low-paying field. We sense he could not have carried on without her.

A Life in Dirty Movies proves enlightening about the grindhouse scene: the kinds of pictures that played in those theaters, the way product changed over the years, the manner in which home video and the internet killed the theatrical exploitation biz. The only downside is simply that it wants you leaving more. You want to know more about where Sarno drew his inspiration from, how he justified his art, what fueled his passions, and so on. The film provides information on all those counts, yet it's so engaging that plenty just isn't enough. That's a good problem to have. A Life in Dirty Movies convincingly argues for the artistry of people like Joe Sarno, who used the promise of titillation to get at something deeper and more resonant. Can someone who films people having sex be a real artist? The answer is yes, and here's a great introduction to one of them.

( out of four)

Note: A Life in Dirty Movies is in theaters and also available on demand. Check your favorite VOD outlet for details.

A Life in Dirty Movies is unrated, but contains adult language and heavy sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

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