Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Joseph W. Sarno 1921-2010

Joe Sarno and his wife/assistant Peggy Steffans Sarno, photographed in 2002.

Michael Raso of RetroSeduction Cinema has contacted me with the sad news that writer-director Joseph W. Sarno passed away this evening at his home in Manhattan after a short illness. He was 89.

Sarno toiled in the sexploitation industry, but I dislike referring to him as a sexploitation or even an exploitation director, though his films were certainly sold this way. In films like SIN YOU SINNERS (1963), SIN IN THE SUBURBS (1964), RED ROSES OF PASSION (1966), CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1974) and ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (1975), he introduced to American "dirty movies" new and serious dimensions of human psychology and a profound sensitivity to female sexuality in particular. He may well have been the erotic cinema's first proponent of sexual experimentation, which he explored not salaciously but as an exposé of human relationships, yearnings and frailties. His films deal with infidelity, group sex, paganism, sexual accessories, encounter group therapy and, most recurrently, "mind-fuck" situations -- the kind that come about when a free spirit visits a conservative village and liberates its pent-up energies. (I once asked Joe if Pasolini's TEOREMA had been an influence, and he not only hadn't seen it, he'd never heard of it.) Above all, his films are about how people change other people.

Most of his work was shot in the state of New York, with the exception of a trilogy of Florida works made in 1968-69, though he sent his biggest shock waves through the genre with the 1968 release INGA, which introduced Marie Liljedahl and commenced a whole series of films shot in Sweden, where he and his assistant wife Peggy (who, as Peggy Steffans, had starred in the 1963 Adolphus Mekas film HALLELUJAH THE HILLS) "vacationed" every summer.

INGA was historic for filming what may well be the first authentic female orgasm ever shot, and Sarno's insistence on authenticity was one of the secrets of his success. He once told me that, in several of his softcore films, the actors had actual sex below frame to authenticate the passion in their lovemaking scenes -- and it can be felt. (As I think back over his work, for me, the most erotic moment may be a pointed glance between two lesbians who haven't yet connected in THE YOUNG EROTIC FANNY HILL, a moment that makes an otherwise subpar offering rewarding viewing.) Among his Swedish films are THE INDELICATE BALANCE (1969), DADDY, DARLING (1970), THE SEDUCTION OF INGA (1971), YOUNG PLAYTHINGS (1972, with Christina Lindberg), LAURA'S TOYS (1975) and BUTTERFLIES (1975, with Maria Forsa), all of which offer production values wholly on par with the work Ingmar Bergman was producing at the same time.

Aspects of fantasy and horror entered Sarno's work with VEIL OF BLOOD (1973), the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS-like A TOUCH OF GENIE (1974), the Jekyll/Hyde spoof THE SWITCH, OR HOW TO ALTER YOUR EGO (1974) and SACRILEGE (1988). Beginning in the early 1970s, Sarno also very quietly began directing hardcore sex films under a series of aliases, but they all contained telltale thematic ties to the work of which he was most proud. Notable titles in this grouping include THE TROUBLE WITH YOUNG STUFF (1977) and the INSIDE films devoted to sex-stars Gloria Leonard, Jennifer Welles, Annie Sprinkle and Seka.

I first discovered Sarno's work at the drive-in during the 1970s, and I knew it was different and important then. Andrew Sarris recognized Sarno's value nearly a decade earlier, praising it in the pages of THE VILLAGE VOICE. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to champion his work to a new generation of fans in the VHS and DVD era, and even more grateful that I had the pleasure of speaking with him occasionally by telephone. This is a great loss for real adult cinema and, for me, a personal loss.


  1. A favorite was his CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE. Wonderful visual control of the drama and actors without tipping its integrity as "drama" off the table towards "erotic cinema". We Macistes agree: his death is a tremendous, aching loss.

  2. Great piece Tim.
    Saddly nothing was said about Sarno passing in the press at all here in Sweden, and still hasn't four days later. Which is a shame, because his 1978 film Fäbodjäntan - Yes, a very graphic adult one - is a popular culture reference here in Sweden as it contains a scene that has become such an "iconic" moment. A moment that almost everyone without seeing it or not candidly jokes about. One does not have to like his movies, but he and that piece hold a cultural value to say the least.

    Bizarre, but true.

    Keep up the great work.

  3. Tim,I found out about Joe's passing yesterday from two friends of mine by emails I got; one of them who's from Sweden and the other is Jeremy Richley who has a blog similar in context to mine called THE MOON IN THE GUTTER on Blogspot. I really lament Joe's passing but he lived a really full life with the love and help of his adoring wife Peggy. I had always said that the relationship between Joe and Peggy Sarno was similar to the one between Alfred Hitchcock and his wife,screenwriter Alma Reville and to your own relationship with your wife,Donna.In both cases of these two great filmmakers,their respective wives were their artistic muses. At least,Joe in his final years was rediscovered and celebrated by a new generation of filmfans who finally saw his films restored on VHS & DVD thanks to the efforts of SOMETHING WEIRD VIDEO and RETRO-SEDUCTION CINEMA. I was very honored to meet Joe and Peggy in person in 2007 at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater screening of A TOUCH OF GENIE in NYC and then in the Summer of 2009,when Joe appeared with Michael Raso & Michael J.Bowen at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan,NYC for a retrospective of experimental exploitation films and he received a lot of love and admiration from his fans there in both occasions. May he rest in peace and I sincerely hope that Micheal J. Bowen finally finishes Joe Sarno's biography to put it into print and that Michael Raso of Seduction Cinema finally releases on DVD ,the remaining Joe Sarno films such as MISTY and YOUNG PLAYTHINGS.

  4. Anonymous2:24 AM

    Tim, Thanks for the news about Joe Sarno, whose passing deserves to be mentioned on the evening news. Like a lot of people, I first heard of him thanks to the book "Incredibly Strange Films" and then finally got to see some items on the Something Weird DVDs in the last decade.

    Favorites were THE SWAP and the Seduction release of INDELICATE BALANCE, clearly a lost classic. I love the way his early films box everyone into the frame, which forces him to compose in depth, and the way they're so minimal and repetitive. In an exploitation era of such conflicted lesbian fantasies, I was amazed by the mature depiction in SIN IN THE SUBURBS, which seems as groundbreaking as THERESE AND ISABELLE.

    A curious quality that separates his films from his exploi-brethren (besides hardly showing anything) is that these types of movies commonly paraded "socially redeeming value" by exploiting what the audience wanted to see and then punishing the characters for showing it to us. In other words, they're essentially conservative and hypocritical. But Sarno's films have the reverse effect. The pre-sex context is presented as intolerable, the sex is liberating, and even though some characters suffer or escape from what they get into, this is because they carry psychological baggage/damage from the pre-lib days.

    In 2004 I watched a few obscure '70s porn films from Alpha Blue Archives. Rather painful, but something without any credits called YOUTHFUL LUST was damn interesting and I was sure it must have been Sarno. Can you confirm or deny?

    The plot: A college boy lives with his girlfriend. After sex, they have a surprisingly serious conversation in which he tries to describe the physical sensations for a guy during sex. His uptight father drops by, catches them in fellatio and freaks out. Son is guilt-stricken (but he has a four-way with another couple anyway). Then he really guilts out and tells his father he's breaking up with his girlfriend and tells her what they did was wrong, etc. Then the 2nd girl seduces the father in an amazing scene in which she interrogates him about his lack of sex life. The son walks in and catches them exactly as he was caught himself, and freaks out. In conversation among characters, it's explained that the father instantly divorced his wife and gave up his business to his son, and moved into his son's apt and started taking classes. The girlfriend moves in with him. The story about the generation gap has turned into a story about the liberation of the older generation and the conservatism of the younger. And there's a big US flag hanging on the wall. If this wasn't Sarno, I'd eat my hat if I had a hat.

    signed, Michael Barrett

  5. Anonymous8:08 PM

    I was fortunate to meet Joe while working on Sacrilege. He remained a close and most important friend...as he was to so many people. He will be sorely missed.

    John Rosselli


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