Sex and the Witty
Published on June 27th, 2011 | by Michael Stabile0
“At that time,” says “Score” director Radley Metzger about his first foray into hardcore sex, “people didn’t care about the quality of the movie. All they wanted to see was something really hot.”
But for the man behind high-end 60s erotic classics like “Camille 2000″ and “The Lickerish Quartet” this fact wasn’t to his advantage. Despite strong reviews and success as a Broadway play, the tense, witty “Score” fizzled in its original incarnation.
“The film didn’t have enough explicit sex to play in hardcore theaters … [We] spent six, seven weeks trying to do a comedy and everyone was going across the street to see some movie made in a basement over a weekend.” Instead, he says, the film was forced to play the art-house circuit in a highly edited version. A far cry from the wide release of his earlier films.
Forty years later, Metzger’s films are undergoing a revival of sorts, sex finally intact, and playing enthusiastic if surprisingly upscale audiences. In May, a high-definition transfer of “Camille 2000″ screened at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and on June 17th, UCLA concluded a three-week retrospective by the director with a screening of “Score.”
Over the past four decades, Metzger’s reputation among cinephiles hasn’t wavered, even as his films faded out of the the broader cultural lexicon. Not only are films historians and cultural centers starting to take the films seriously, but distributor Cult Epics will re-release some of his best work, including “Score” and “Camille 2000″ with new HD transfers as a box set of “Erotic Psychedelia” later this month.
Metzger cut his teeth editing Bergman and Truffaut for Janus Films in the late 50s and early 60s. This experience — learning to interpret modernist andnouvelle vague cinema for an American market — influenced him as much as did the films themselves. An enterprising proto-Weinstein, Metzger soon began purchasing distribution rights and repackaging them for American audiences. And by the mid-60s, what sold was sex.
“We had a little French film and it was very daring at the time because you have to understand the period. It had — in a non-erotic context — bare breasts, which was enough to get theaters locked up around the country.”
But for an enterprising editor with knowledge of markets and obscenity law, it could also pack theatres. In his second acquisition, “Les Collegiennes,” Metzger inserted shots of nude women, matched them to the original and released it as “The Twilight Girls.” When the New York State Motion Picture Commission objected to “perversion,” Metzger took his case to court and won.
With the money from the success of films like “Mademoiselle Striptease” and “The Twilight Girls,” Metzger ventured back into production. (An early attempt, “Dark Odyssey,” had done miserably at the box office and left him in debt to film labs.)
“I took a foreign film and it wasn’t too commercial. So we shot a framework for it and used the film that we got as a flashback … We couldn’t afford a feature so we made two short stories linked together by the subject matter, which was ladies of the evening. And we made one of them in Paris and the other in Munich. I don’t know if it was a bright idea but I called it ‘The Dirty Girls.’”
The Los Angeles Times praised the films “elaborate, stylish games of seduction,” and the film played extremely well in the then-struggling commercial theaters eager to attract an audience. But the title was also the beginning of a curse, that no matter how developed and mature his work became, Metzger would constantly be grouped with sexploitation filmmakers and pornographers.
But Metzger’s work is subtler than the moral-heavy camp of Russ Meyer, or the relentless gynecology of “Deep Throat.” While Metzger would eventually try his hand at actual porno (albeit under a pseudonym) with “The Opening of Misty Beethoven” in 1976, sex courses through the films but never dominates them. “Camille 2000,” his 1969 retelling of “La Traviata,” is a visually delicious reflection on the challenges of the sexual revolution. “Lickerish Quartet,” a surreal fantasy about an aristocratic family obsessed with a girl they see in a stag film, is more about power of desire than sex for the sake of salaciousness. (“Camille 2000″ is gorgeously restored in a new high definition transfer released today by Cult Epics.)
Though both are visually stunning, today it’s the sexual frankness of the films that is singular. They stand as artifacts of revolution still in its adolescence: simultaneously obsessed with removing taboos but acutely aware of the emotional turbulence it causes. What’s also striking is the degree to which the bold films were able to attract a national audience.
“Camille” and “Lickerish” played in wide release: commercial theaters and drive-ins as well as art-houses, each pushing the envelope further. In 1973, the box office of ”Deep Throat” and “The Devil in Miss Jones” bested all but a handful of Hollywood films. It seemed natural that Metzger whose high-end erotic productions had been praised by no less than the New York Times Vincent Canby, would venture into hardcore.
“Score” is in many ways Metzger’s most emblematic work, an hour-long seduction of a young innocent couple (played by Lynn Lowry and Casey Donovan) by a more sexually liberated one (the predatory Claire Wilbur and Gerald Grant). It’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for swingers, but the actual sex — excluding a few early flourishes, — doesn’t get started until the late in the movie.
The schedule of deliverables an adult audience expected out of a dirty movie – set up, sex scene, set up, sex scene – had already been established but “Score” had more traditionally cinematic pacing. The climax — emotional, narrative and sexual — is saved for the end of the second act.
The unconventional nature of “Score” is both its brilliance and its tragedy. It’s insistence on keeping sex in the service of the story, rather than the other way around, kept it from finding a commercial audience; its unapologetic bisexuality kept it in the college circuit revivals and helped keep filmmakers like Meyer in the spotlight. It’s an artifact of a rebellion put down not only by AIDS and Ronald Reagan, but also a studio system openly hostile toward independent film distribution.
“I think the rating system was formed – my opinion,” Metzger pauses, as if thinking before angering the distribution gods. “To squeeze out the independent and it’s been very successful. I think it’s a conspiracy between the movie theater and the newspaper [which] will not advertise a movie that has been explicitly made for adult, which an X-rated movie is.”
Metzger is hoping that his partnership with Cult Epics can finally bridge those markets – the commercial and the sexual. Even today, producers with a fondness for quadrants and reviewers with a fondness for genres have a hard time categorizing him. As he starts production on “Solarium” – his first feature in over twenty-five years — it’s his audience he has faith in.
“I think that they want something that’s well constructed and that touches their experience. If you do that you’ll find your audience. I don’t know that its changed.”
Four decades after he first tried to introduce sex as a subject for cinematic discussion, let’s hope his audience has finally caught up with him.