Monday, 9 December 2013

The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974)

The first question raised by a review of The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann is the obvious one. Is it worth actually trying to review a hardcore porn movie? The second question is, if you are going to review such a movie can you review it the way you’d review any other movie, judging it in terms of the quality of the acting, the intelligence of the screenplay, the richness of the cinematography, the skill of the director?

The answer to the first question is that this is a movie by Radley Metzger, and Metzger’s work from the 1960s and 1970s is now very highly regarded. He is considered to be perhaps the most stylish maker of erotic movies of his era, or any other era. And he is the man who made what is almost universally judged to be the best hardcore sex movie ever made, The Opening of Misty Beethoven (a movie that lives up to its high reputation). Anything made by Radley Metzger is worth consideration, and if you’ve ever seen any of his earlier films you would have to agree that his movies can only be judged by the criteria that would be applied to any other movie.

By 1974 Metzger was in the same situation as everyone else in the business of making erotic movies. The arrival of Deep Throat in 1972 had changed all the rules. The traditional markets for softcore erotica pretty much dried up. Distributors wanted hardcore films. Metzger had just made a superb, sophisticated, witty sex comedy called Score, a movie that should have cleaned up at the box office. But Score arrived a couple of years too late and it flopped. This was a particular problem for Metzger. His company, Audubon Films, had complete control of the production and distribution of its movies, so a box office flop was a serious financial disaster. To compound the problem, Score had been made the way Metzger had made all his previous movies - with high production values, imaginative sets and a great deal of care. All of which cost money. Metzger had always worked with at least moderately generous budgets. Score’s commercial failure cost Audubon Films real money.

Apart from leaving the industry altogether there was only one possible course of action left open. Metzger would have to go down the hardcore road. Not only that, he would have to make his next movie on a much more modest scale. That was difficult enough, but being a man who took film-making seriously he also intended his next movie to be, despite an unavoidably low budget, an intelligent and stylish movie. That was the only way he knew how to make movies. The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann reflects the extreme difficulty of carrying off such a venture successfully. That it does not entirely succeed is not surprising. That it succeeds at all is much more surprising.

In those innocent days of the mid-70s even hardcore porn movies were expected to have actual plots and actual characters, and actors who could act. The demands of exhibitors for as much graphic sex as possible were always going to make it difficult to combine plotting and character with the required quantity of sex, a difficulty that would ultimately sound the death knell for porn movies made as actual movies.

Metzger had always been attracted by the idea of combining stylish erotica with sophisticated comedy and this was the formula he used for the five hardcore movies he made under the name Henry Paris in the mid to late-70s. Frank (Eric Edwards) is a private eye employed by the husband of Pamela Mann (Barbara Bourbon) to find out what she was getting up to during her afternoons while he was at the office. He suspects she may be fooling around, and Frank’s job is to find out whether this suspicion is correct. The bulk of the movie comprises Frank’s investigations, and the film he secretly takes of her afternoon activities. This might sound like the kind of threadbare plot that is merely an excuse for lots of explicit sex but Metzger’s screenplay is rather more complex than it seems. The situation is not at all what it appears to be on the surface and Frank is getting involved in events that he seriously fails to understand. Metzger had already used the idea of a film-within-a-film in his superb 1970 erotic psychological thriller The Lickerish Quartet and the motif of reality being not as it appears to be had also appeared in that film. This time these ideas are used for comic purposes but the faintly disturbing edge remains.

Budgetary constraints had persuaded Metzger to shoot in Super 16mm rather than 35mm for the first time. In theory Super 16mm (unlike regular 16mm film) can be blown up to 35mm without any significant loss of quality. Unfortunately however in this case Metzger had to use more basic lighting setups than he was accustomed to and this combined with the use of Super 16mm results in images that lack the kind of atmosphere and visual extravagance you expect in a Radley Metzger movie. Overall the production values are noticeably lower than in his previous movies, and for a movie-maker whose genius was essentially visual this is a serious problem.

A bigger problem is the nature of hardcore porn itself. Hardcore is always essentially mechanical. It is sex reduced to a matter of body parts. Softcore porn cannot rely on explicitness to achieve erotic intensity. It has to rely on emotional intensity and imagination. As a result softcore, if done reasonably proficiently, will always be far more erotic than even very well-made hardcore. Once the focus shifts to body parts it’s almost impossible to keep the focus on sex as something that happens between people rather than between body parts. It’s also exceptionally difficult to combine hardcore sex with comedy. Hardcore sex is by its very nature impersonal and humourless.

The biggest problem of all is that in a hardcore film the story essentially stops whenever the sex starts. Erotic movies are rather like musicals. For a musical to work really successfully the musical numbers have to be seamlessly integrated with the story. The classic RKO Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals work so well because the dance routines don’t interrupt the story - they actually tell us more about the story and about the characters than the non-dancing parts of these movies. The excellent softcore porn movies made by people like Joe Sarno in the 70s work the same way. When characters have sex we know why they’re having sex and the sex scenes tell us how they really feel about each other. Doing that in a hardcore movie is almost impossible.

To his credit, by the time he made The Opening of Misty Beethoven in 1976 he had solved these problems. The sex scenes in that movie are integrated into the story, and most importantly by that time Metzger had figured out how to do the impossible - how to make hardcore sex scenes enhance the comedy rather than interrupt it.

These were the days when pornstars were expected to be able to act, and Eric Edwards was a more than competent actor. He plays Frank with the right kind of likeable wide-eyed innocence. When people start playing sexual games there are likely to be winners and losers, and in this situation Frank is set up as the patsy. Barbara Bourbon is adequate as Pamela Mann. It’s unfortunate that Jamie Gillis doesn’t get the chance to demonstrate his considerable gifts as a comic actor although it has to be admitted that cast here in a surprisingly dark role he’s quite effective. Georgina Spelvin as the whore who is a little too wrapped up in her work successfully avoids the obvious trap of trying to make her character the archetypal whore with a heart of gold.

The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann doesn’t quite achieve what it set out to achieve but having said that it must be added that it’s light years ahead of what passes for erotica these days. It has a genuinely clever screenplay and in typical Metzger style the humour has an edge to it. It’s played as comedy but we are never allowed to forget that sexual games can have consequences. Despite the low budget this is a movie that does display some genuine visual flair. The movie was a bold attempt to make a stylish and classy hardcore erotic movie. It’s ultimately defeated by the limitations of the hardcore genre itself but it is at least an interesting failure, and it comes closer to succeeding than could reasonably be expected.

Video X Pix have given this movie the Criterion treatment. We get a good if not flawless anamorphic transfer plus a host of extras. These extras include a commentary track featuring Radley Metzger himself that is in itself sufficient reason to buy the DVD. There’s also a lengthy interview with Eric Edwards plus a 44-page booklet of liner notes!

If you’re not put off by the idea of hardcore sex The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann is worth a look as a glimpse into a bygone age when erotic movies were made with style and care.

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