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The Night I Watched Porn Like Your Grandparents Did

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On Friday night, at around 11:15 pm, I dragged myself out of my apartment and sleepily put myself on the subway. Normally, only the promise of a few select things can get me to leave the house so late: extremely good food, Britpop dance nights, and sex. This time, the latter won out. I was going to watch porn the only way your grandparents could — in a theater full of curious strangers.

Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is the type of theater you daydream up when you’re a kid. The seating is intimate, you’re allowed to drink booze, and throughout the show, you can order an assortment of fried foods and have them hand-delivered to you by servers who seem to have mastered stooping under the movie screen. I had been invited to enjoy Nitehawk’s “Naughties” features — an ongoing series of vintage dirty flicks playing at midnights through December. Tonight’s feature film was The Telephone Book: the greatest sexy cult film you definitely haven’t heard of.

There were maybe 60 seats in the theater, but most of them were left empty. It was, after all, past midnight on a Friday.  The bar next door was clamoring with the sounds of glasses, giddy conversation, and thumpy bass as a Brooklyn bar on Friday night should. All that was left were the weirdos who had decided Nelson Lyon’s 1971 black-and-white sexploitation film was an exciting way to spend the evening. I was a weirdo.

I got tater tots with chives on top. Trailers for rote porn classics I’d never actually seen, like Debbie Does Dallas and Oral Generation, played big on the screen. At one point, “The Pastoral Symphony,” that really seductive centaur segment of Disney’s Fantasia, played on a loop to some rap music. “Fuck, Fantasia was really sexy,” I said to myself. It helped bring credence to the situation at hand. I was seeing adult films like they were meant to be shown.

In the pre-DVD, pre-tubesite era of the 1960s, 35mm adult movies could only be found in larger public spaces like this. By 1970, 750 porn theaters existed throughout the United States. Films varied from hardcore to subtle nudity, each theater had its own protocol. Sometimes masturbation was encouraged, other times (and of course the Naughties series is included in this), part of the experience was just watching something raunchy beside someone, hands in your lap. By 1989, the number of adult theaters greatly diminished. People didn’t want to go out and pay for what they could get high-speed at home.

Caryn Coleman, the Senior Film Programmer at Nitehawk Cinema, who curated the series, told me that, “with the immediate accessibility of porn on the internet and the pervasiveness of sexual imagery in our culture, the ‘need’ to watch it in a theater just isn’t there. But that’s what opens up the ideal opportunity to revisit these movies. What I’ve noticed is that the crowd who attends our screenings are between the ages of 25-45, mainly couples, who are cinephiles and exploitation fans.”

While watching the film, I couldn’t decide what kind of -philes we all were. The Telephone Book opened up with a cacophonous and throaty slurping sound that was sort of disgusting. Then came a close-up of a man’s lips. His stentorian voice growled into a phone: “Hello there, I’d like to talk to you very seriously for a moment about your beautiful tits.” A faint laughter trickled over us.

I stuffed another tot in my mouth and looked around, because I am nosy. Among the crowd watching with me was a cuddling gay couple, two straight couples, several giggling groups of twentysomethings, and in the far back row, an older group, a member of which sincerely resembled James Franco. Or, maybe, if I trust my current prescription, it could have very well been the kink-loving Renaissance man himself — the man who brought leather bars to Sundance. I mean, there were only 20 of us in there.

“This might actually be the most James Franco thing James Franco could ever do,” I thought to myself.

The film itself was deftly bizarre. Largely forgotten, the trippy flick was like a high brow smutty art installation. The plot followed a comely, baby-voiced blonde named Alice, a young hippie chile, who falls in love with the world’s most talented dirty caller — only he won’t reveal his identity. The next 80 minutes are about the pleasures and frustrations of trying to find him. Collaged with surrealist sequences, gratuitous nudity, fourth wall asides, and animated scenes, The Telephone Book wasn’t so much a porn as the most obscene thing I’ve ever seen. Cut between sequences of orgies and a woman pleasuring herself, were talking head interviews with dirty-callers. “Before I made a call, I put my hand in a bowl of split pea soup,” one anonymous man says to the camera. At this point, we all burst out laughing. “My mother used to never let me smell her pants,” another man casually confesses. “Jesus,” maybe-James Franco audibly yelled at the screen.

That “Jesus” was a big part of the viewing experience. Part of watching Alice’s filthy exploits was the visceral reactions each scene would elicit from the audience. If we were alone, maybe some of us would have tried self-stimulation during some of the lustier scenes. But this was a situation with fried potatoes and possible Apatow muses — not masturbation.

“In terms of watching porn, I think it should be approached like one would view a horror film,” Coleman tells me. “Meaning, you need to experience it without overthinking what you’re seeing or try to justify that experience. They are designed to be enjoyed and processed afterwards.” Which was actually the same experience I had watching shrewd Alice wander all over 1970s New York City in search of her fast-talking seductor. Alice, in her own counter-culture, priapic wonderland, was allowing us a view of the grittier, more absurd aspects of human sexuality like stag films, flashers, and dialing perverts. It was sex laced with LSD and Jung. If porn is always a fantasy, this dream was handcrafted, but not personalized like today’s niche sites.

Partly why I liked watching the porn was because it wasn’t made for me. There were tits, but there was plot. There were goofy gags (probably-Franco was a fan of the term “dick-a-lick”), but also an earnest urgency. It was like if Dalí, Godard, and David Wain had a deviant cinematic baby — which, at least for me, was a worthy lovechild.

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This was the type of porn your grandparents watched — raw, stylized, and built for a big crowd. “Unavoidably there is a nostalgic element in watching 1970s porn films in the theater but, much like any other movie you see at the cinema, there’s something very special about the communal experience,” Coleman tells me. “First, there’s the quality of projection that you can’t get at home and then there’s the surprising comfortability seeing dirty movies with other people provides. The cinematic space…gives people permission to enjoy what they’re watching.” If the sighs, giggles, and Franco-nian exclamations were a measure, the smut was working. It was making us comfortable.

Sitting alone in my seat (the tots had been quickly cleared, ninja-like), I began to feel a little stimulated, at least mentally. The Telephone Book was a tease and a build up that never really gave in. It was an ode to female pleasure without the need for money shots. Storyline was paramount. Even lacking contemporary headliners like Sasha Grey or Kimberly Kane, women were undoubtedly the big draw. “Were you turned on?” my best friend asked me the next morning on the phone. “It kind of sounds like you were turned on.” “Well,” I sighed, “it had a brain.”

At almost 2 am, I left Alice and her mysterious caller alone in their phone booths. The credits rolled. I stood up from my seat. The small crowd filtered out, a little tired, but quietly chattering. I turned my head back at the last row, and made eye contact with him, the maybe-Franco. I smiled. He smiled back at me, a Daniel Desario smoking by the bleachers grin. I wasn’t going to approach him. We were both in the haze, the bubble that a trip on such a dirty time machine leaves you in. He fell back into conversation with his row of friends and I left Nitehawk, not yet ready to go home alone. So I didn’t.

“It’s about preservation,” Coleman tells me when I ask her why she put together these retro classics.

For me, it wasn’t about holding time as much as entering it. It was about that inexplicable “Jesus,” moment the had-to-be James Franco so aptly pegged. Watching vintage porn was certainly about the bodies, the vices, the dirty jokes, but it was also about remembering the calm palm of gentle seduction. It was about honoring a time when there were just more winks than thrusts.