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Star-Telegram Doesn’t Like Throat Docu

WWW- I usually don’t develop a lurching stomachache midway through movie screenings. But, then again, most moviegoing experiences aren’t as miserably stomach-churning as the premiere of Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s Inside Deep Throat, www.xxxdeepthroat.com at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The festival had instituted a “No One Under 18” policy for this documentary about the cultural and social impact of the famed 1972 porn movie. But that didn’t stop the crowd from behaving like a gaggle of junior high schoolers on substitute-teacher day.

They giggled and hooted at every sexual reference (and this movie has plenty); they booed at images of anti-porn crusaders such as Anita Bryant and Charles Keating. And when a brief clip of the original film’s infamous “deep throat” scene flashed on the screen, a cheer went up through the auditorium — so loud that you would have thought the Utah Jazz had just won the NBA championship.

It’s unfair to judge a movie based on the reactions of those watching it; a filmmaker, after all, can hardly be blamed if most viewers are determined to close themselves off to the complexities at hand. Except in this altogether unfortunate case: Inside Deep Throat is a movie that might as well have been made by a group of junior high schoolers, for all the insight it provides into the knotty issue of pornography in America.

Following a year of increasing cultural conservatism, and at a time when many feel that the Federal Communication Commission’s crackdowns on risque programming are drifting dangerously close to Big Brother-ism, some of us had high hopes for Inside Deep Throat. But instead of a work that is progressive-minded and measured — a movie that acknowledges the historical significance and cultural value of pornography without soft-pedaling the troubling moral issues that it inevitably raises — we get a facile, whitewashed celebration of the Porn Golden Era that repeatedly and repetitively congratulates its audience for being “hip.”

The movie, co-produced by Brian Grazer, the Oscar-winning producer of A Beautiful Mind, is a tired song played exclusively for a blue-state choir, literally — Inside Deep Throat is currently running in fewer than 20 American cities, mostly left-leaning ones like New York and San Francisco, and college towns such as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Madison, Wis.; and Austin. (Universal, the film’s distributor, currently has no plans to open it theatrically in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.) And it’s as vastly squandered an opportunity as you will likely see all year.

Part of what makes the Deep Throat phenomenon so fascinating isn’t just that it pushed pornography into the American mainstream (which culminated with a 1973 New York Times Magazine cover story called “Porno Chic”) or that it helped give birth to what is now a multibillion dollar industry.

It’s also that Deep Throat anticipated the very culture wars still being fought in 2005. Inside Deep Throat includes a very funny clip of a fiftysomething woman exiting the theater and excitedly singing the praises of the film to a news camera. This woman looks and talks like your typical suburban housewife, and here she is unabashedly telling the world that, every once in a while, she likes to see a “dirty picture.” It’s a reminder that Deep Throat was pretty much the Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ of its day — a movie that tapped into an underserved market, incited volcanic ire and, most important, showed us that the line between “subculture” and “mainstream” is a lot fuzzier than we think.

But Barbato and Bailey are too lazy and unimaginative to explore this connection — they prefer, instead, to hold up Deep Throat as a piece of hipster art, an important sociological treatise that only the truly “enlightened” could appreciate. And they fail, at every turn, to ask the questions that might really matter.

For instance, was Deep Throat’s extraordinary popularity (the movie was made for $40,000, and grossed, according to the documentary, $600 million) a case of too much, too soon? Which is to say: Might our current attitudes toward pornography be much more open-minded if Deep Throat had never completely crossed into the mainstream but just hovered around the margins? Or might the backlash have been eased if the film reached a mass audience a bit more slowly?

Asking such questions, of course, might lead to a few unpleasant answers, and one of the conceits of Inside Deep Throat — with its MTV editing and eternally sunshine-y tone — is that you can’t say anything too negative about porn. Fenton and Barbato don’t seem to grasp that one of the ways you build a foolproof case is by acknowledging the flaws in your argument. Inside Deep Throat doesn’t just give short shrift to pornography’s enemies, it treats them as loonies, prigs or castrating shrews.

And it doesn’t just rush through the serious charges leveled by the film’s star, Linda Lovelace — who claims that she may have been drugged and forced to perform on-camera. (Adding insult to injury, the filmmakers blithely uphold Lovelace’s co-star, Harry Reems, as a happy-go-lucky uber-stud.) The film dismisses her as a has-been who couldn’t deal with her marginalization and subsequently lost her marbles.

As for those few times when Barbato and Bailey do manage to stumble upon inflammatory material — like Alan Dershowitz’s claim that feminists in the 1970s were the most dominant force for censorship in this country — the movie shies away from intelligent debate. In Dershowitz’s case, the filmmakers, inexcusably, allow his yahoo statement to stand as fact.

Not unlike Boogie Nights, Inside Deep Throat ends by taking an oddly moralistic stance against contemporary, shot-on-video pornography — for its shoddy production values and use-’em-and-toss-’em treatment of porn stars. It’s an especially tidy way of eliding the real issues. In effect, Inside Deep Throat implies that the makers of Deep Throat were the “pure” pornographers — and that the form was only corrupted by those who came along in Deep Throat’s wake, eager to make a quick, soulless buck.

Inside Deep Throat, finally, is as simple-minded and pedantic as those who would seek to summarily dismiss pornography. It’s yet another instance of cultural encampment, where the filmmakers take the liberal high ground and then turn up their noses at those who might look upon things differently. Hoping for intelligent dialogue that seeks to bridge our cultural divides? Well, better luck next time. (Inside Behind the Green Door, anyone?)

One intriguing postscript to all this: Seizing upon the publicity generated by the documentary, Arrow Productions, which owns the copyright to Deep Throat, is currently striking new prints of the film. The intention is to re-release it theatrically, most likely in art houses.

Of course, you probably didn’t need a degree in rocket science to see that one coming. And it’s certainly an issue Bailey and Barbato might have had some fun wrestling with in Inside Deep Throat. Would seeing Deep Throat in theaters today be something beneficial or detrimental to the culture at large? Are we poised — especially following the Year of the Wardrobe Malfunction — for another burst of sexual liberation in our theaters?

More trenchant, tough questions that for now remain frustratingly unaddressed.

 

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