Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It would be silly to offer extravagant praise for the career of filmmaker Gerard Damiano, who died this past weekend at the age of 80. But there was a time, in the early seventies, when he briefly became one of the best-known directors in America.

That came with the release of Deep Throat, the nearly unwatchable porno movie Damiano turned out under unwholesome conditions for a consortium of mobsters. There had been other hardcore features to achieve some success in mainstream theaters, and far better ones, such as Bill Osco's Mona, The Virgin Nymph, but for some reason, it was Deep Throat that kicked off the era of porno chic.

It's hard to imagine how different society was in the late sixties and early seventies. Enormous changes happened seemingly overnight as yesterday's taboos became the new normal. The New Morality swept in and, for a second, it seemed as though anything was possible. Free love, open love, a world of sensuality unburdened by thought or emotion, pure pleasure for its own sake.

And yet, and yet, the steps were tentative. How free were we, really? What could we show? How could we show it? What was sexy, what was raunchy, and was there a difference? And what about our popular art? How far could it go?

Audiences--and, surprisingly enough, many critics--seemed to find the answer in Deep Throat: As far as they wanted. Somehow, it became the movie of the moment, the thing everybody had to see and discuss. That it was aesthetically appalling and depressing to endure seemed not to matter. It represented a new approach, a new way of doing things. If this could be shown without the republic crumbling, there were no boundaries. Truly adult films could be made, not necessarily solely focused on sexuality but free to portray it in all its complexity.

Damiano's follow-up, The Devil In Miss Jones, was unaccountably heralded in many quarters as a work of near-genius, a porno movie that tried to be about something, that dared to be anti-erotic. It was no such thing, of course: It wasn't about anything more than a lame premise, and its lack of eroticism was clearly not intentional. It is a remarkably soul-draining experience, but not in a deliberate way.

Still, give Damaino credit. Though he never climbed out of the porno ghetto, he did try to make a few of his films (particularly Memories In Miss Aggie with a score by Rupert Holmes!) about something more than the money shots, at least in the initial rush of post-Throat fame. But before long he became just another guy cranking out set-ups for Seka and Ron Jeremy to do their thing, his brief moment in the sun a distant memory.

As for porno chic, it faded pretty quickly, too. Thanks to the Interweb, hardcore material of all kinds is easier than ever to see, but the notion of an adult approach to sexuality never quite penetrated the mainstream. The New Hollywood directors of the seventies, the guys who could have seized the moment and changed the rules, seemingly had no interest. Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich--their movies seemed almost like they were made by neuters. (Ironically, the only filmmaker of that generation to even address the subject of sexuality was George Lucas with THX-1138, and as we know, Lucas ultimately couldn't keep it up.)

Once the moment passed, it was gone for good. The genie could never quite go back in the bottle, but once the Reagan era began, American society began its New Puritan phase, and despite its transparent hypocrisy, we still live under it, and our art still reflects it.