Screens > Couch Trip
Midnight Blue Collection Vol. 1-5
Ah, the early days of cable TV. Some of us were kids back in the '70s, waiting impatiently for cable to hit our neighborhood. When it arrived, we got what the basic networks couldn't give us — a promise delivered — "unedited" adult programming. Hey, Cinemax wasn't dubbed "Skin-a-max" for nothin'. But, even 'max was downright wholesome next to what Manhattan Cable was serving up on its public access channel. One such was Midnight Blue, the "talk show" cable program headed (and hosted) by Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein. Sure, Goldstein was a corpulent, foul-mouthed, egomaniacal windbag. And the lovable chub's interviewer skills amounted to asking such vulgar questions as, "What does a guy have to do to make your cunt wet?" But love him or hate him, the guy's continuous battles against obscenity charges made him a kind of free-speech poster child for '70s porn and beyond. He was, at the very least, an early purveyor of widely distributed smut; and Midnight Blue was years ahead of its time, riding the wave of porn's golden era. Goldstein's show shook the airwaves — and the FCC — from 1975-2002.
Now, many of Midnight's gloriously sleazy moments have been assembled into this wonderful five-volume collection from Blue Underground.
Vol. 1: Deep Throat Special Edition focuses on the actors and others involved in creating what is, you'll recall, the most notorious porno of all time. Included are interviews with porn legend Harry Reems, the film's writer/director Gerard Damiano and Linda Lovelace's ex-husband and manager Chuck Traynor. The most interesting is the raunchy 1975 interview with actress Carol Connor, who's billed as the forgotten star of Deep Throat (her nurse character never had a name.) Connor answers Goldstein's salacious questions with a sort of drugged-out detachment. (Porn trivia: Connor's daughter is American Beauty actress Thora Birch). Connor does, however, perk up a bit when she admits to jerking off her German shepherd. We learn that Manhattan Cable censored that segment; Goldstein and his co-producer Alex Bennett argue the censorship by showing similar pieces from previous shows that the cable company didn't object to. Neat! Vol 2: Porn Stars of the '70s highlights porn's swingin' golden era and its stars. Interviews include Ivory Snow-girl-turned-porn-star Marilyn Chambers; Georgina Spelvin, "the only real actress in pornography"; missing person Bambi Woods from Debbie Does Dallas; and platinum-haired porn goddess Seka, whose name old Goldstein mispronounces ("Seek-er") throughout their entire conversation. We see the always fun (and Midnight Blue regular) Annie Sprinkle praise the joys of masturbation-friendly household items and warn against those that aren't so friendly (um, soldering irons and X-Acto knives among them). The appropriately monikered porner Veri Knotty's the scene-stealer here. She proves the old adage that if you've got lemons you might as well make lemonade — and drop your jaw as she ties her bountiful labia into a knot.
As the cult status of Midnight grew, an increasing number of real — as in mainstream — celebrities were interviewed, or in some cases exposed, on Goldstein's show. Boob-eyed director Russ Meyer, anatomically focused artist R. Crumb, creepy Pumping Iron star Arnold Schwarzenegger and the even creepier O.J. Simpson are but a few celebs captured in Vol. 3: Celebrity Edition. But Tiny Tim's the best. He discusses his strict religious beliefs and attendant struggles to not jack off. The interview gets weirder when Goldstein asks him if he remembers "what a pussy tastes like." Tiny's response segues into frank dialogue about his sex life — he talks of a ukulele serenade and refusing to be touched!
Long before fake TV porn hams like Pam Anderson and Paris Hilton, Midnight Blue aired celebrity sex tapes. It's true. Here we get a grainy look at a well-endowed Rob Lowe in a three-way. You get drunk or stoned Go-Go's girls coercing an equally drunk or stoned roadie to beat his meat; but those looking to see Belinda and bandmates butt-naked will be disappointed — the clothes stay on. The strangest celebrity spin is a black-and-white stag film that purports to show Barbra Streisand the way she was. It's hard to tell if it's really Babs, given that the footage sports the same low quality as those claiming Big Foot.Vol. 4: Freaks and Geeks features Midnight's more wince-inducing moments. (Remember when having your cock tattooed was fashionable?) We're treated to a demonstration of some of the 365 positions described in Lee Hymen's The 1976 Sophisticated Sex Maniac's Diary. Annie Sprinkle's sexy but blood-drenched bathtub homage to Jaws is something to behold. In "Cathouse for Dogs" we learn of a place where you could get your male pooch laid by the bitch of his choice. (Turns out the scenario, which duly outraged folks in 1976, was a hoax concocted by media satirist Joey Skaggs.) Fittingly, Porn King rounds out the collection. The raw doc by James Guardino shows king of smut Al Goldstein in his waning days. By 2001, the man's empire was going limp; mismanagement, the rise of Internet porn and numerous divorce settlements saw his businesses bankrupt. He was also on trial for verbally assaulting a secretary on her answering machine because she quit without notice. (Goldstein claimed that she embezzled money from his company, though such claims are never substantiated.) The seemingly benign harassment charge hardened into media frenzy; Goldstein mounts a smear campaign against the plaintiff, district attorney and judge. He famously and hilariously published their phone numbers in Screw and superimposed their heads on bodies of people fucking. But beneath the ranting, name-calling and free speech declarations, it's clear that Goldstein was simply struggling for relevance in a porn world that was finding him obsolete — the one he helped pioneer. Two years later we see Goldstein homeless; and he's a much humbler version of the Screw and Midnight Blue man we've come to know. Each of the first four DVDs is full of riotous ads that actually ran on Midnight Blue. Aside from the obvious strip clubs, escort services and swingers clubs, we get arcane ads for Synth Coke (an apparent cocaine substitute), the Orgasmatron and Sexpo '82. A great feature is the pop-up-video style factoids that you can enable. They're cheeky, informative and actually extend the content. Like, who knew that Seka was Irish and Native American, not Scandinavia
Midnight Blue's production cues were decidedly low-rent — after all, this was a public access cable show. But the transfer from original 3/4-inch master tapes retains a nice dirty and grainy quality — its time-and-place ambience enhances the cavalcade of smut. The Midnight Blue Collection is a fascinating and oddly nostalgic look into triple-X frolic.
What's the difference between film and porn? Or for that matter, how can you tell if something's even pornographic? In the new documentary Indie Sex, Brit critic Jason Solomons humorously explains, "The difference between art and pornography is lighting. It's as simple as that ... lighting and soundtrack and production values really.' The remark belies a hidden truth — there's a fine line filmmakers must walk when exploring sex.
Since the dawn of film there has been the desire for sex on screen, so it's no surprise that the pairing of sex and cinema has sparked endless discussions about morality, censorship and artistic merit. These themes and others are furthered in IFC's winning Indie Sex. This three part doc — four if you count the "Taboo' segment on the bonus disc — dissects how sex in cinema has evolved:
"Censorship" examines how the film industry, special interest groups and a shifting social and economic climate have restricted both what work filmmakers create and just who gets to view it. "Teens' delves into the history of teenage sex and sexuality on screen from Frankie and Annette's innocuous beach films to prophetic flicks like Kids and Thirteen. "Extremes' covers raw and controversial sex scenes, those that deal in S&M and fetish themes and what the doc calls "The Final Frontier' — that is, legitimate actors having real sex on screen.
The often deep and amusing rhetoric in Indie Sex rises from a diverse group of entertainers, media critics and filmmakers. Where else can you find French director Catherine Breillat expounding on her frank depiction of sex juxtaposed with Tatum O'Neal's priceless response to Chloë Sevigny's authentic blow job on Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny? (O'Neal's dumbfounded that such an act would've killed her own career 20 years ago but caused zero permanent backlash for the gutsy Sevigny.) It's this kind of personal commentary that adds spark; sure, this doc shows the graphic scenes it's exploring, but the rousing discussions are just as titillating.
As interesting as topics are in Indie Sex, you'd think it'd approach them with a bit more style. The interviewees are shot against a black backdrop, thus reducing them to, um, talking heads. It's confining, particularly for IFC's own correspondent- critic Matt Singer, whose enthusiastic body language needs some space. It's also restrictive to come at this material chronologically — sure, the contextual timeframe helps, but it also becomes repetitive.
Indie Sex excels in its expansive breadth of information and covers a lot of ground succinctly, without feeling rushed. Some touchstones are overlooked; where are the Russ Meyer films and those of certain Euro directors? Ultimately, Indie Sex shines libidinous and insightful light on topics that filmmakers continue to push, which makes the very idea of sex in film as relevant as ever.
Paul Knoll is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.