A Life in Dirty Movies (Film Movement, DVD) – The work of Joe Sarno is little known outside of cinephile and cult cinema circles, and not widely seen even among cineastes. That’s because he, with the support and collaboration of his wife Peggy, made his low-budget explorations of adult sexuality within the confines of the sexploitation industry, where they played in grindhouse theaters under such titles as Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and The Love Merchant (1966). His films, however, were handsomely made, carefully composed and lit, and focused on the odysseys of women exploring their sexuality and their desires in a society stumbling through the sexual revolution. In a cinematic culture that focused on men getting their rocks off and women taking their clothes off, Sarno made women the active protagonists of his films. And while he satisfied the requirements of nudity and sexual spectacle (within the conventions and limits of the pre-X-rated era), his idea of a money shot was a close-up of a woman’s face as she reached climax. That sensitivity to women’s experiences and his lovely black and white photography earned him the nickname “The Bergman of 42nd Street.” In fact, he found more respect in Europe and even made films in Sweden, such as Inga (1968) and Young Playthings (1972), which played in the U.S. as foreign imports and earned Sarno a kind of critical respect his American films never received.
A Life in Dirty Movies gives viewers an overview of his career and its decline, when X-rated films displaced the softcore culture and Sarno was no longer able to make his kind of movies, but director Wiktor Ericsson is more interested in the couple themselves, together and still in love after more than 40 years, and on Joe’s doomed attempt at a comeback at the age of 88. Peggy actively encourages him and provides constructive criticism but confesses to the camera that Joe is hopelessly out of step with the times. His health was clearly declining while this documentary was being shot (he died in 2010, soon after production wrapped), and Ericsson finds his story in Peggy’s protectiveness and support of Joe in his decline, still defending her husband to her disapproving parents. Ericsson includes illuminating film clips but only a general overview of his career and he completely ignores 15 years when Sarno made X-rated films under a number of pseudonyms. The most interesting story is their long partnership, Sarno’s drive to keep making films, and Peggy’s determination to support his dreams even though she knows he’ll never make another film. Features bonus interview clips and two cut scenes.
What Is Cinema? (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a lesson in film history and aesthetics as a survey of the breadth of cinematic possibilities. Filmmaker Chuck Workman (most famous for his short films and clip montages at the Oscars) throws a wide net and gives documentary, avant-garde, and experimental filmmaking an equal footing with Hollywood classics, independent film, and foreign cinema. Among his commentators are David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Costas-Gavras, Kelly Reichardt, and Jonas Mekas, all sharing their cinema loves (Leigh basically talks about his own method), and the gamut of featured filmmakers run from Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson and Robert Altman to Abbas Kairostami and Chantel Akerman and Bill Viola. It’s not so much about defining cinema as exploring the possible, a celebration more than a history illustrated with clips from 100 films. Workman is a wizard with clips and you can lose yourself in the montage of images and the enthusiasm of filmmakers talking about the films that inspire them. But it does feel more like you’re wandering through a film museum than getting a guided tour with a point of view.
Features 10 bonus experimental shorts glimpsed in the documentary, including three films commissioned by Workman.