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.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Mata Hari's Filing Her Report..."

Anyone who knows and loves Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA will readily smile at the way those words sounded as they were spoken in the film by the catty, young ballet student Olga, played by Barbara Magnolfi... but in fact they weren't spoken by Magnolfi at all. This, and Olga's other great line ("Names that begin with S are the names of... SNAKES!"), were actually dubbed by the American actress Carolynn de Fonseca, whose eternally breathy, warm, girlish and schmoozy voice was a hallmark of Italian film dubbing for close to five decades.

It's my sad duty to report -- from her husband Ted Rusoff (the nephew of Samuel Z. Arkoff and a dubbing actor/director/legend in his own right) via VW associate editor John Charles -- that Carolynn de Fonseca passed away about six months ago. According to Rusoff, they worked together on "approximately 1200 dubbing projects over the course of 45 years."

For those of us who adore the Italian cinema and were raised on its dubbed imports, who mentally drew lines of continuity in accordance with the invisible family of voices they shared, this news is tantamount to learning that Vincent Price's wife in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1963), Nevenka in THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963), Cleo in TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (1965), Aura in THE WITCH IN LOVE (1966), the eponymous narrator of THE WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD (1968), Edwige Fenech's ditzy best friend in BLADE OF THE RIPPER (1971), the nymphomaniac in SLAUGHTER HOTEL (1971), Maciara in DON'T TORTURE THE DUCKLING (1972), Gianna Brezzi in DEEP RED (1975), Anita Ekberg's KILLER NUN (1978), the Roman landlady in INFERNO (1980), the woman in love with the refrigerated severed head in MACABRO (1980), the mother with the breast-fixated zombie son in BURIAL GROUND (1981) and the tragic Frau Bruckner in PHENOMENA (1985, "These are the things that can happen in the life of a woman!") have all left us in one fell swoop.

A remarkable compilation of some of her dubbing credits can be found on her Wikipedia page here, and on her IMDb page here. She also made various onscreen appearances which are noted in these filmographies.

We send our sincere sympathies to Mr. Rusoff and our eternal gratitude to Carolynn de Fonseca for a lifetime of mostly invisible, yet highly distinctive, service.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Her Mind Was the Most Erotic and Dangerous Part of Her Body."

Mimsy Farmer seduces Robert Walker, Jr., posing as her long lost brother, in ROAD TO SALINA.

... so read the US posters for Georges Lautner's largely forgotten ROAD TO SALINA (1970), which lingers, if at all, in the popular memory as an embarrassment made by an aging Rita Hayworth shortly before her retirement from the screen. I watched it tonight, for the first time uncut, and can't figure out why it has acquired such a low reputation.

It still awaits its DVD debut, so you can only see it via an old Charter Entertainment VHS or DVD-R, where it's badly cropped and less than smoothly dubbed, so that works against it... and yes, at 52, Rita Hayworth is no longer GILDA, but that's not the movie we're watching. Rita's actually fine, playing a delusional woman in middle age, sick with loneliness, who mistakes a young drifter for her son, missing for the past four years; Robert Walker Jr. (the son of one of Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, fresh from his near catatonic appearance in the commune sequence of EASY RIDER) is very watchable as the boyish, spaced-out protagonist with Clint Eastwood's DIRTY HARRY haircut, who decides to take a break from his bad luck and be mothered for awhile... but he soon gets sistered too. Mimsy Farmer is electrifying as the sexy, teeth-baring, peroxide pixie whose free and faux-incestuous ways tempt Walker to stick around for awhile in a "hot box" in the middle of nowhere.

I would argue that ROAD TO SALINA is exactly what a Seventies film noir properly was and should have been: the depiction of a steamy Venus Fly Trap that you or I might easily wander into, and not be too quick to extract ourselves from -- not another second-hand gumshoe story set in a Hollywood B-movie version of the 1940s.