By Andrew Kemp
When is the last time you talked to your mother about porn?
Yeah, OK. That’s a weird question. Let’s back up for a little context.
This Friday, the Plaza begins a run of one of the weirdest relics of the 1970s, softcore porn spoof FLESH GORDON. If you’ve ever doubted the commitment and film credentials of the new Plaza ownership, it may be time to suspend your disbelief, because I honestly don’t know another theatre in the city brave enough to put a softcore title on the screen just because they can. And GORDON is more than just a silly porno. It’s a genuine oddity, a movie with a unique role in film history and a gateway into that bizarro time in the 20th century when it was cool to watch porn.
When film projectors were invented over 100 years ago, the first bulb wasn’t cool before people found a way to use it for porn. Many of the earliest films we know about were skin flicks and erotica, because, then-as-now, that’s where the money was. But porn was always an outsider in the entertainment business, buried and segregated by strict, sometimes-draconian interpretations of obscenity laws. Porn was the film industry’s dirty secret, the seedy cousin nobody wants to talk about.
An unusual and powerful combination of events radically reshaped the porn industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Sexual Revolution of the 60s became a point of cultural pride for the many young people living through civil unrest, a way to fully distinguish themselves from the conservative generation of their parents. For some, freer sex equated to progress, and that notion led to some strange experiments in the name of moving forward. This shift in the culture caused a general relaxing of local and federal obscenity laws, which in turn opened the door for wider distribution of porno publications and, eventually, the opening of theaters exclusively and proudly devoted to pornographic films. All of those screens needed content, and a batch of eager filmmakers rushed into the new market, filmmakers with big ideas inspired by a larger trend of European art films which happened to be arriving on American shores at about the same time, sexy films like BLOW-UP (1966), PERSONA (1966) and the arthouse thrillers of Roman Polanski. Those films had blurred the line between smut and art in a way that seemed to point to a number of possibilities: if films with sex could be art, well, then sex films could be art, too!
This resulted in an extremely brief, but intensely weird trend dubbed by some as “porno-chic.” The trend began in 1970 with Michael Benveniste’s MONA THE VIRGIN NYMPH, the first major narrative hardcore porno film, and the first porn movie to receive widespread release in America. The success of MONA brought more attention to porn, and within two years, the genre had its first real “masterpieces” and mainstream box office smashes with BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR (1972) and the phenomenon DEEP THROAT (1972). As if the world hadn’t gone topsy turvy enough, porn films became the talk of mainstream film critics and big-city intellectuals, and many felt as if they couldn’t keep up with the water cooler conversation unless they were up to date on the latest stag flicks. Some porn stars—most famously Marilyn Chambers—threatened to break out of porn and into Hollywood.
It was into this environment that FLESH GORDON arrived. FLESH was an attempt at a big, mainstream porn comedy, co-directed by the father of porno-chic himself, MONA director Benveniste, but by the time FLESH was released, the trend was already slinking back into the shadows. FLESH takes as its target the original FLASH GORDON serials of the 1930s (not the more-famous FLASH GORDON film, which came six years after its porno progenitor) and places its hero on the planet Porno Mongo, ruled by the evil Wang the Perverted. Flesh’s mission: to stop a sex ray that could turn all of Earth into sex fiends. (A similar story, it turns out, to 1968′s BARBARELLA.) To give you a window into the film’s sense of humor, when Flesh and his crew arrive on Porno Mongo, they are attacked by a large, throbbing monster. It’s called, of course, a Penisaurus.
So it’s not high art, but FLESH GORDON is more of a pleasure for film fans than a pain. While we may look at porn parodies today as hopelessly cheap and shlocky, nobody told the FLESH GORDON crew that they weren’t making a real film. The movie has a goofy sense of humor that gets it through the creaky plot, and it features incredibly-cool and inventive special effects, including a series of stop-motion critters designed and executed by future industry legends like Mike Minor (STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE ) and one of the all-time great movie monster makers, Rick Baker. FLESH GORDON exists at that one narrow crossroads in film history where porno ambitions met mainstream talent, and it provides a glimpse into a different direction that American movies might have gone. Despite the tendency of porn to exploit its stars, there’s nothing mean-spirited in FLESH GORDON’s softcore spirit. The film is packed with nudity from end to end, but often feels more like admiration than exploitation, more Russ Meyer than Chuck Traynor.
There’s some confusion as to the different versions of FLESH GORDON available to the public. For many years, the only version of the film available was a heavily-edited 72 minutes long, and rumors persisted of a longer hardcore cut. But when the restored, uncut version appeared years later, it remained softcore. (This uncut version is the one playing at the Plaza) Co-director Howard Ziehm has stated that there were hardcore scenes filmed, but that they were nabbed by police in an obscenity-law sting and have been permanently lost. This is probably for the best. Part of the fun of FLESH GORDON is the way that, despite its rampant nudity and bawdy sexuality, the film somehow retains its gee-whiz innocence. Penetration tends to ruin that illusion.
The moment of the mainstream porn film was basically gone by the time FLESH GORDON arrived, but the film’s legacy is still felt today. GORDON was the first porn spoof, and its success in, frankly, getting away with it blazed a trail for decades of porno spoofs that have become the most famous version of the form. If you’ve ever sat around wondering what the “porn name” of your favorite mainstream film would be, you owe a debt, however small, to FLESH GORDON. Sadly, today’s pornos have give up on the clever titles and funny rebranding in favor of just putting “parody” right in the name. I know it’s porn we’re talking about here, but come on. “Batman: The Porn Parody?” Where’s the fun in that?
So how did I wind up talking with my mother about porn? Well, I realized that Mom would have been in her 20s at the peak of porno-chic. Surely she knew about it. Was she aware it was going on? Did she *gasp* see DEEP THROAT? I approached the subject with some caution and, after some explaining, she agreed to answer my question. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Son, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Thank you, Mom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.