"Inside Deep Throat"

This documentary about the ludicrously bad ur-porno film will test your gag reflex.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published February 11, 2005 11:39PM (EST)

In case you arrived too late for the 1970s -- or the '80s or, OK, the '90s -- here's a recap: Sex. It was invented or discovered at some point in those years, although those of us who were oh so sophisticated and had read snooty elitist books like "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and the Bible liked to claim that we knew about it all along. The discovery of sex in all its horrifying varieties has divided America into two bitterly warring camps: Those who believe we are bitterly divided over sex and those who don't.

No, I'm sorry, that's not right. Rather, the two camps are: 1) those who believe that all forms of sexuality, up to and including having your e-mail in box porked full of invitations to watch "barely legal BBW farm nnastyy f0kcng," are liberating to the human spirit and 2) those who believe that sex must be confined to the sanctity of the Christian marriage bed, with the shades drawn, the lights out, and the wife in chains (lingerie and stiletto heels for the husband optional).

If I'm being facetious, the degree of exaggeration is not high. And if a movie can be fascinating and tedious at the same time, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's "Inside Deep Throat" -- which more or less depicts the America I have just described -- is that movie. With its parade of semi-relevant celebrity talking heads, its freak-show interviews with the bitterly non-famous in their funny-looking clothes, and its assemblage of grainy, out-of-focus TV footage, "Inside Deep Throat" illuminates the cultural climate of the '70s while making it seem impossibly remote.

Like Bailey and Barbato's other films, which include "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and both the fictional and documentary versions of "Party Monster" (along with made-for-cable movies about Monica Lewinsky, Anna Nicole Smith and Adolf Hitler), this one tries to straddle the uncomfortable gap between cultural history and kitsch hog-wallow, with mixed success.

Is the story of the 1972 porn flick "Deep Throat," which Bailey and Barbato describe as "the most profitable film of all time" (a debatable point, at best), worth telling? Yeah, probably. But the significance of "Deep Throat" is not exactly inherent or obvious, as anyone who has seen that lamentable film will attest. (Even the few frames of male star Harry Reems' attempt at comic acting included herein made me screw my eyes tightly closed and start singing tunelessly to myself.) As the directors of "Inside Deep Throat" seem intermittently aware, Gerard Damiano's $25,000 fellatio flick was important only because of what it represented and what it unleashed. If "Deep Throat" hadn't sparked the porn revolution -- and the porn backlash -- some other movie would have.

"Deep Throat" didn't bring sex into pop culture, and it didn't ignite the sexual revolution. It did something cruder and simpler -- it brought pornography, if not quite into the mainstream, then right next door, whence it has never moved out. As various people in the film note, porn lost its innocence, and they're not kidding. Before "Deep Throat," pornography was a small-potatoes business closely linked to organized crime. People made porn for the transgressive thrill, or out of quaint notions of sexual liberation, or -- more often than not -- because they were low-end hustlers with few qualifications who were trying to get into the movie business. (Wes Craven says in the film that directing porn served as an informal apprenticeship for careers in Hollywood.)

Three decades later, the "adult video industry" has become the 800-pound gorilla of the entertainment business; as Bailey and Barbato point out, in 2002 Hollywood studios produced roughly 500 feature films, while the porn biz cranked out 11,000-plus new videos. The blow job technique that made "Deep Throat" star Linda Lovelace famous -- and that astonished porn-industry veterans like Damiano when they saw it in 1972 -- is now familiar, and probably boring, to any 12-year-old with a DSL connection. (Yes, gentle reader, you see Lovelace do her stuff in "Inside Deep Throat," albeit briefly; this film comes with an NC-17 rating.)

As Camille Paglia puts it in the movie, "Deep Throat," with its ludicrous male-fantasy story about a woman who can reach orgasm only by sucking cock, provided a kind of false climax (ha ha) to the sexual revolution. For reasons Bailey and Barbato can only partly explain, it became the porn movie that Johnny Carson and Bob Hope joked about on network TV, and the centerpiece of an article on "porn chic" by New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal. Manhattan socialites and Beverly Hills movie stars lined up to see it alongside ordinary citizens, and as John Waters jokes, this changed the codes of porn-watching behavior: You weren't as likely to pleasure yourself under your raincoat if Angela Lansbury was sitting next to you.

More than that, the sudden hipness of "Deep Throat" opened a new front in the culture war, a war that had broken out almost a decade earlier over drugs and sex and haircuts and Vietnam and rock 'n' roll and that continues virtually unabated to this day. President Richard Nixon ordered a crackdown on smut, and police in New York and other cities closed theaters showing "Deep Throat." (Needless to say, box office demand surged everywhere it was still playing.) But Nixon's own appointed commission could find no evidence that porn was harmful, and while Reems was convicted of criminal obscenity charges in Memphis, so becoming American history's most unlikely martyr to the cause of artistic expression, a higher court soon overturned the verdict.

If "Deep Throat" didn't change American society, it's a noteworthy milestone on the freeway leading from then to now, and Bailey and Barbato's interviewees -- from Erica Jong, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to veteran porn star Georgina Spelvin, feminist scold Susan Brownmiller and Christian crusader cum S&L swindler Charles Keating -- air their largely predictable views about it. On the other hand, there's the saga of how "Deep Throat" got made in the first place, which is entertaining on a tawdry, sub-reality-show level, as well as almost entirely pointless.

Gerard Damiano is now a leathery Florida retiree in a toupee and Sansabelt polyester slacks, half-convinced that he made a profound contribution to history. (As seen in mid-'70s TV footage, his hairpiece is just as bad but his grasp on reality is clearer. Asked whether he thinks "Deep Throat" is a good movie, he reflects for a second or two and says, "No.") His former location scout remains convinced that the movie, like Damiano himself, was "a piece of shit," while the nearly mummified Ron Wertheim, "Deep Throat's" production designer and himself a porn director of some repute, insists that he approached his films as if he were "Luc Godard or one of those guys." All this is amusing, sure, but Bailey and Barbato can't resist exaggerating the grotesque, shooting these sad sacks against their sub-bourgeois surroundings with deliberately cockeyed camera angles.

To me, at least, "Inside Deep Throat" felt drearily long (it's only about 90 minutes), and anyone who survived the anti-porn crusades of the '80s or the "sex positive" porn of the '90s will find the arguments on all sides depressingly familiar. But this movie does distill some vital cultural history in a form younger audiences are likely to imbibe, and Bailey and Barbato are reasonably fair in handling the most ambiguous and disturbing elements of the "Deep Throat" legacy.

Harry Reems, recipient of the second-most-famous blow job in history (after the 42nd president of the United States), is now clean and sober, a Christian convert and a real estate broker in the mountain resort of Park City, Utah. Linda Lovelace, who provided that blow job, became a highly visible anti-porn activist and was killed in a 2002 car accident. She died almost dead broke. Her reputation made it almost impossible for her to hold a normal job and she actually went back to porn, posing at age 51 for a softcore pictorial in Leg Show magazine. All the obscenity laws used to close down "Deep Throat" theaters and convict Reems remain on the books, awaiting the next phase of America's war between puritans and libertines. Neither of whom, by the way, have God on their side.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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