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Tepid Camp

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Tepid Camp: The Hazy '60s Skin Flicks of Radley Metzger

by Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman




Two people seem to be screwing. At least we think they’re screwing, although it’s
hard to tell since we’re viewing the couple’s reflection in a phantasmagoria of raindrops beaded on

the window near the couple’s bed. Welcome to the “art porn” world of Radley Metzger, the director
and producer of a dozen pioneering soft-core features in the mid 1960s to early ’70s that are now
being released on video by First Run Features. With its swinging Euro lounge-culture settings and
experimental photography, this goofy art porn is perfect entertainment for the irony set, those not
sick to death of recycled camp.


    

When the prospect of reviewing porn movies together first arose, we had a good communal blush. Sure
we’d been together for over a decade, and sure we’d watched porn — some of it arty (Behind the
Green Door, Emmanuelle
), some of it not (Debbie Does Dallas, Deep Throat) and nameless
skin flicks at Triple X theaters both of us had snuck into in high school. Still, we weren’t
familiar with Metzger and didn’t know what to expect. What if after all these years of flipping
hurriedly past cable TV sex shows and yawning at goofy erotic performance art pieces, we were about
to discover a brand of porn that really clicked for us, that located a lurking desire to fuck

livestock, or be turned inside out by a gang of sailors? Would the films of rowdy Radley Metzger
prove to be the beginning of an over-healthy spiral into the world of porn appreciation?


    

Any anxiety evaporated a minute into The
Alley Cats,
Metzger’s 1965 Felliniesque romp set in Munich. The title has no bearing whatsoever
on the film, and the trailer, which promises “a daring adventure into the world of erotic
stimulation,” is similarly inexplicable. The swanky sophisticates in their pearls and tuxedos spend
night and day swilling martinis and champagne while trying to bed each other over a super-suave
soundtrack that mysteriously switches from the syncopated honking of saxophones to an urgent
Charlie’s Angels-style theme music whenever someone is close to scoring. Which isn’t very
often. The plot (if you can’t have gratuitous nudity, a plot is handy) centers on a hapless Justine
and her philandering Ken-doll fiancé. While playboy Ken is busy boning his mistress (ever so

modestly), Justine struggles against the siren song of a horny platinum-haired socialite. This has
promise. Elissa’s interest is piqued and she scoots closer to Rob, who nervously reaches for his
wine.


    

Suffice to say our hopes (and fears) are dashed. We are, after all, trapped — along with Justine,
the horny socialite and the rest of ’em — in 1965, before Triple X, before you could even show a
penis, much less an erect penis. So what we get are a lot of stand-ins: dribbling bottles, gushing
fountains, and lots and lots of knuckle-biting orgasm shots that unintentionally make the heroine
look like she is having a piece of glass removed from her foot. Okay, the women all get head, which
is almost cause for Elissa to forgive Metzger his tackiness, but we both agree that if the movie is
only mildly entertaining, the climax where Ken confronts Justine in front of yet another gushing
fountain and beats the crap out of her for her lesbian fling, is dispiriting and decidedly unsexy.
In the final scene a tearful Justine moans, “I don’t know who I am.” Ken replies, “You are my girl.”
Justine murmurs plaintively, “That’ll do.” After Elissa hurls a shoe at the screen, she yells,
“That will not do,” and turns to Rob accusatorially: “Did that turn you on?” Rob feels
punished, and not in an erotic way.


    

Elissa is very
hopeful about Therese and Isabelle, a 1967 take on the Catholic High School Lesbian Love
Affair. Rob is enthralled by the sexy trailer, which promises to deliver a “subject never before

treated on screen with such perception and honesty.” On either ends of the couch after The Alley
Cats,
we scoot closer when there is an enticing hint of some sexy shenanigans with a busty
disciplinarian headmistress. Rob especially is holding out hope for this one, but after forty
minutes with nary a naked forearm, and after the promising headmistress’ repetoire proves to
consist of some stern head shaking and not much else, he leaves the room to flip through some old
Evergreen Reviews. Elissa relaxes and enjoys the semi-action, then calls Rob back into the
room for a hetero scene, but it turns into a passionless date rape, with clothes on. By now we’re
both, well, frustrated. When Therese and Isabelle make love on the floor of the forest — all
in cheeky silhouette — Elissa pronounces that their treacly “perfect girl love” is doomed. Sure

enough, after this night of passion (as it were), Isabelle suddenly vanishes: the end. Rob is still
searching for the elusive disciplinarian headmistress.


    

Wearily we pop in Score, a post-censor flick from 1972 that offers actual nudity. What
a relief. And there’s a subtext: Fuck the bourgeoisie — literally and metaphorically.
Filmed in Yugoslavia as a stand-in for the French Riviera (and ironically shot by the leftover crew
that had just completed Fiddler on the Roof,) Score tracks swingers Elvira and Jack as
they try to lure an innocent young couple, Betsy and Eddie, into a web of bi-sexual debasement. The
Bunuelian story line is occasionally short-circuited by oddball proclamations like, “I’d climb
aboard a porcupine if it struck my fancy.” But when the couples shuffle into same-sex unions
and retire to their quarters, the evening escalates into bondage, amyl nitrate popping, and fun with
an enormous vibrator that looks like a car waxer (which Elvira applies to Betsy as if she were a
dirty little Chevy). We’re both enjoying the show; it’s not your standard get-you-hot stuff, but it
is entertaining, and mildly arousing. Rob is entranced by the soundtrack, which ranges from frenetic
bongoey acid jazz to serene Tampax commercial noodling. This is periodically interrupted by the
honk of a saxophone to indicate orgasm and the echolations of what sound like post-orgasmic dolphins.


    

Score comes the closest to being sexy, although it
doesn’t push us over into the uncomfortable zone we had feared and desired. Nor does it titillate us
into hitting the pause button.

Even the semi-raunchy sex is campy enough to keep us laughing and
free from worry that either one of us is being replaced as the other’s aphrodisiac. After it’s all
over, besides feeling unsexy and somewhat relieved, we’re left wondering why these films were
considered “transgressive” or even “artistic.” The production values are higher than most porn
movies, and there’s a semblance of plots, but other than camp there’s not much to recommend Metzger.
Antonioni and Fellini mapped the same social scene with much more wit, precision, and more skin.
Bunuel and Passolini savaged the same social set with much more aggression, and with more skin.
Russ Meyer had a lot more fun, and with a lot more skin.


    

Nonetheless, the Austin Powers-like kitsch value of Metzger’s movies make them perfect for
group viewing. They are the kind of disjointed, dated disasters that can inspire hilarious free
association free-for-alls. Mystery Science Porn Theater 2000. Just check your libido at the door.





©1998
Elissa Schappell,