Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Joe Sarno's THE WALL OF FLESH reviewed

1968, Something Weird Video
88 minutes
$10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

The last of three features filmed back-to-back in the New York City loft apartment of Morris Kaplan (the others were ALL THE SINS OF SODOM and VIBRATIONS - now available in a 2K Blu-ray DVD set from Film Movement),  THE WALL OF FLESH is still more of a minimalist production, one that harkens back to earlier Sarno films such as SIN IN THE SUBURBS (1964, VW 24:23) and RED ROSES OF PASSION (1966, VW 85:15) in that it concerns repressed individuals who join cults, giving themselves over to a collective mentality, as a means of unblocking themselves sexually. 

The film begins almost mid-sentence as married couple Art (Dan Machuen) and Vera Coleman (Maria Lease) are enjoying a post-meal conversation with Vera's office co-worker Nancy Horner (Nina Forster, uncredited) and her sister Lauri (Lita Coleman), an "aspiring" anthropologist recently returned from South America, where she studied the living and mating habits of a primitive native tribe. When she mentions that some of the natives' sexual problems could only be cured by group rituals, Art responds with interest while Vera seems repelled - a response that makes more sense after the guests' departure, when Vera is shown responding coldly and without pleasure to her husband's attempts at lovemaking. Her problem is somehow rooted in her resentment of Art's decision to stay at home to pursue a writing career (for which she secretly doesn't believe he has any talent), while she has been forced into the workaday world to support him.

Maria Lease and Dan Machuen.
In a flurry of appropriately claustrophobic scenes that alternate between only three small, cramped rooms - and which could well be fewer with minor redressing (Art and Vera's living room and bedroom, and the bedroom of the single-room apartment shared by the two sisters) - Vera quickly reaches the point where she can no longer bear Art's touch, even when she guiltily invites it; Nancy - a recovering nymphomaniac who's had to change her ways after a rough illegal abortion - becomes obsessed with Art; and the bisexual Lauri betrays her sister's interest by making a play for Art herself, which he more readily accepts. Lauri also becomes a confidante of Vera, whom she directs to the private therapy sessions of her former lover Jennifer Taggart (Cherie Winters), which turn out to be group sex sessions that addict those participating, not only to group intimacy but also to Jennifer's own dominant persona. Lauri's introductory presence at Vera's early sessions prevents her from making her own intended departure from the city, a knowing gesture of self-sacrifice that sucks her back into a lifestyle and romance she had deliberately fled as far as the jungles of South America.

This film was assembled with conspicuously lesser means than its predecessors. As mentioned, the sets are severely limited, so much so that Lauri has to be shown working on her anthropology thesis in windy public places; when she goes to enter Vera in Jennifer's classes, there is no waiting room set, so she is shown leaning against a wall and reading a magazine in tight close-up, a composition into which Jennifer somehow enters. It frankly doesn't sound like it would work, but the characters and the drama of their situations holds the viewer and the story flows without disruption. Sarno's script, though hampered by the scenic limitations imposed, is innovative for the ways it surprises the familiar viewer's expectations. The outsider here (Lauri) is atypical of such figures in his other work; though she does interfere in a marriage, the sensitive Art's strength of character (a particularly well-played facet of Machuen's performance) doesn't permit her to seduce him until Vera is, to some degree, already lost to him. Lauri doesn't cause the usual divisiveness and destruction common to Sarno's intruder characters but rather sacrifices herself, in order to guide other people, about whom she cares, to a place where they find themselves more fulfilled.

Dan Machuen and Marianne Prevost.
Also remarkable about THE WALL OF FLESH is that Sarno opts not to take any editorial position on the interpersonal dynamics taking place, a problem he subverts by introducing the Colemans' marriage as troubled from the beginning, and by having Art - an unusual Sarno male, in that he's more sensitive than most of the women - repeatedly voice his feeling that he would rather lose Vera than have her live out her life with him unhappily. Sarno typically avoids passing any kind of judgement on his characters as their story is in progress, leaving the viewer as involved in their process as the characters themselves, and reserves any glimpse of judgment for those points where his stories end. This often leads to more conservative conclusions than the bold subject matter or the intensity with which it's pursued might lead us to expect; in this case, however, the film concludes as suddenly and abruptly as it begins, leaving the characters' respective quests for happiness not only ongoing, but, for the viewer, an open question. This seems to me a breakthrough in American erotic cinema, asserting the film's stake in matters of philosophy as well as the sexual, its execution favoring both over the merely erotic.

It should be mentioned in this context that THE WALL OF FLESH was possibly the first of Sarno's American films to break through certain earlier boundaries; there is more oral-erotic contact (not oral-genital) between the actors, pubic hair is shown, and two of the female characters are shown pleasuring themselves (as in the Swedish-made INGA), though not explicitly. The introduction of masturbation as a topic, and the dramatization of women taking responsibility for their own pleasure and fulfillment, would continue in Sarno's imminent series of "vibrator" films, which began with VIBRATIONS but would become more focused in his Florida-made films ODD TRIANGLE and THE LAYOUT [reviewed VW 91:10].

Something Weird's DVD-R presents the film in full frame 1.33:1 with a bold mono track. (The slight widening of the image seen in my video grabs are an aberration of VLC and do not reflect the actual look of the disc.) The feature is accompanied by a theatrical trailer that includes a glimpse of an uncharacteristically joyous sexual encounter between the Colemans that, curiously, does not appear in SWV's print but is mentioned by Art to Lauri as a positive initial result of Vera's therapy. Whether it was cut prior to release or simply missing from this rare surviving print is not presently known.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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