Radley Metzger & the Artistry of Golden Age Porn

I truly cannot emphasize enough how much Femina Ridens has influenced me over the past year. That one perfectly bizarre film, which I only discovered by complete chance, has expanded my horizons into several different avenues of cinema I never would have otherwise explored. The most engrossing tangent thus far has been my ongoing hunt for Uccidere in Silenzio. But at the same time, I’ve also been delving into the world of ’60s-’70s art-house erotic films. I debated whether or not I would share these thoughts on my blog, and ultimately decided it was important to recognize the aesthetic beauty of these little-known movies. Just because a story deals with sexuality, or god forbid has a little nudity doesn’t mean it has no artistic merit, and somebody has to take a stand and give them a fair review. (According to the uptight types, we were created in God’s image after all, and unashamed of our bodies when we were closest to him.)

I discovered Radley Metzger while searching the internet for posters and the novelization of Femina Ridens. I came across a website selling vintage posters from Audubon films. (This is the US company which had distributed Ridens to America.) One poster in particular caught my attention for its sleek, beautiful design: Therese and Isabelle. I googled it for more information, saw the whole thing on YouTube, and found out it was directed by Radley Metzger. Until then, I’d thought he was just the head of a distribution network, not an actual director in his own right. Not only did Metzger direct, he was a prolific one too–dozens of films over a 20 year career. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, I read that most of his work had met with acclaim from Roger Ebert to Andy Warhol to other reputable outlets.

Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven in particular has been widely hailed as “the crown jewel of golden age porn films.” Another project of his, The Lickerish Quartet has been called a “kinky masterpiece” and cited as an inspiration by Warhol. (In fact, that’s the two of them together in the cover photo above.) I’ve seen summations of Radley’s career which went so far as to say “had society not taken a hard right turn in the 80s towards repression and sanctimoniousness [with regards to adult entertainment and sexuality,] Metzger would today be remembered among great auteurs like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.” [Slightly paraphrased.]

It may sound hyperbolic but, for me, after seeing Therese and Isabelle (which was itself early in his career) I can see what they were talking about. Metzger may have made erotica and pornography which many consider to be a lesser medium, but he had a flair for cinematography and capturing the emotional weight behind sex rather than gratuitously focusing on the act itself. Judging by the small sampling of his films which I’ve seen, I’d say his work displays an unprecedented humanity and artistry in the realm of adult cinema. I had heard of the “porn chic” period of the ’70s before but I assumed the standard of quality therein was limited to the likes of Deep Throat. That is to say: better than the straight to video shovelware of the ’80s-’90s as well as the internet fodder of the 2000s but still well below the Hollywood standard. His work proved to me that my earlier assumption was wrong.

Taking this discovery into account, I feel it’s time for erotica and even (to an extent) pornography to be widely respected on their own merits again rather than relegated to dingy back rooms and shameful solitary sessions on the computer. Sex itself can inspire the most profound emotions in existence, positive and negative. The act of making love is a tool to unlock the most intense pleasure in the animal kingdom. The ritual of physical intimacy, including foreplay and aftercare, are the closest two (or more!) people can ever be to one another, not just physically but emotionally. The human body is an aesthetic marvel given to us by the lord Jesus. These are not concepts to be ashamed of, and mainstream media should not pretend they don’t exist. Works of art which explore these realities should not only be accepted but, when perfected by a master in their craft, celebrated by the masses again. I feel the reason this is not the case is due to shame towards sex born out of authoritarian Judeo-Christian denominations deeply influencing our culture over millennia and personal inadequacy many feel towards their perceived lack of partners/skill in the act. The fact that any media which overtly addresses the subject is defamed only creates a feedback loop for these self-defeating attitudes towards the most natural urge in the world.

In short, it’s time society recognizes that sex is not inherently shameful or intimidating. I believe (certain) works of erotica can have an important role in demystifying it. For the rest of this essay, I will briefly discuss those which I have seen.

Therese and Isabelle

This one’s a soft-core, restrained, lesbian erotica. Besides the gorgeous poster, I decided to check this one out on a whim because the idea of a movie which tackled this subject matter all the way back in 1968 was too interesting to pass up. It was on the strength of this first exposure to Metzger’s filmography that I decided to check out his other projects.

Anyway I recommend watching this one in particular if you’re uncomfortable with adult entertainment. It’s not a porno, but there are some tastefully shot (IE not gratuitous) scenes of the two making love coupled with poetic narration. The story is sweet and reminded me of one of my fave underrated novels, A Separate Peace. (ASP is similar with the boarding school setting and homoerotic undertones but in that case, the participants are male.)

There’s some great cinematography to found here, including:

  1. the girls’ shadows coming together in their first kiss

  2. revolving camera through the leaves around their entwined bodies making love in the forest

  3. the future Therese looking at her past self, who is crying on the bench after Isabelle moves away

  4. the shot of the two on the stairs, framed by banisters

My only criticisms are that we never really get enough time to know each woman as her own independent character. They exist to fall in love, not to be fully fleshed out people. That, and the ending is a bit too abrupt. Overall though, this is a genuinely emotional love story with a progressive hook that was far ahead of its time. In terms of telling a nice story and creating a compelling dynamic between the two leads, this is Metzger’s best film that I have seen.

The Opening of Misty Beethoven

Check out that still image below; I really love these late ’60s thru mid-’70s art films with their ridiculously chic architecture. (Specifically Dr Sayer’s BDSM villa and now Dr Love’s pleasure palace.)

As far Misty Beethoven goes, the short and sweet of it is, I love this take on Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. It preserves the feminist spirit of the play’s original ending while still being fun for everyone. (The musical betrayed the intentions of the original author by having the woman get back together with the guy, who learns nothing from being a misogynist the whole time.)

Regardless of what you think on the merits of pornography, or lack thereof, Misty Beethoven convinced me there’s genuine artistry to be found in these old ’70s golden age films. The camera angles and framing are far more dynamic than anything the genre has seen since. In fact, as often as not, these elements are better than in most mainstream films of today. The story is mostly a means to an end, but there’s enough of it to where you feel compelled to keep watching whether you’re horny or not, whether you’ve finished already or not. The fact that the audience are witnessing developed characters making love as opposed to a bunch of nameless genitalia-vessels adds an emotional sincerity to the coupling which allows us to become more invested in the act. I felt genuine happiness when Misty Beethoven came back to Seymour Love in the end of this film–it was adorable to see these two people who’d been through so much finally reunited.

There’s humor sprinkled throughout the script to keep the mood relaxed, reminding the audience, especially the more timid or less-experienced among them, that sex is supposed to be fun. It’s not this big scary performance you have to get right, which I feel like some people psych themselves into at their own detriment. If we’re gonna be such a repressed society where sex ed is barely taught in schools, where many parents are too prudish to discuss the topic with their kids (at an appropriate age of course), then we better fucking hope the porn communicates the basics effectively and supportively. Otherwise we’re gonna raise a generation who fears, or otherwise self-censors themselves from a deeply enjoyable experience, and puts strain on their romantic relationships as a result.

And that’s really the gist of it; what sets the golden age apart from the modern amateur hour on video and the internet is the element of realism. The performers are uniquely proportioned, hairy and flawed like real people you could meet on the street. They are not the overly sculpted, shaved and glamorized participants of the modern era. The ’70s scenes weren’t all about plowing your partner from the word “go” with her yelling and screaming the second you bump uglies. It showed the foreplay, the interplay of personalities involved, the crescendo of the act itself, in a similar manner to what the audience would experience in real life. This prevented the spread of unrealistic expectations which, in my opinion, modern porn is often guilty of. The problem with these unrealistic expectations is that they set some people up for unwarranted feelings of inadequacy and/or resentment against their partner when things don’t go the way they expected from watching Pornhub.

Anyway, in terms of what it sets out to do, (get the audience turned on with some well shot scenes of lovemaking) I can confirm now that The Opening of Misty Beethoven is indeed, Radley’s magnum opus.

The Lickerish Quartet

In some aspects, I consider this film to be superior to Misty Beethoven, specifically the cinematography, locations/set design and music. There’s more of an emphasis on art-house abstractions at the expense of the penetration. And for me, that’s just fine, I can enjoy the beauty in either, but if you’re looking for gratuitous carnality you may be disappointed. There is sex, but less of it and far more stylized. The best example of what I mean is the coupling that occurs in a library, which is fitted with a giant dictionary page printed on the floor. The scene in question is peppered with zoomed-in quick cuts to the definition of every dirty word in the book. There’s another sex scene in an open field, complete with gorgeous musical accompaniment, and very reminiscent of my favorite sequence from Femina Ridens. (Stelvio Cipriani composed the scores for both, though admittedly his work for this film is much less extraordinary.)

Another positive for me is the characterization, which is also stronger than Misty Beethoven and arguably Therese and Isabelle as well. The people in Quartet have backstories which in turn establish unique dynamics between each of them. There’s a married couple and their young adult son with clear animosity between them from the first scene. Later, they go to the carnival and encounter a young woman whom they recognize as a porno actress, and invite her over. Initially, the husband doesn’t let on to their guest that they all know she was in porn. He attempts to subtly put on the film to humiliate her for a laugh, but finds out that suddenly the woman in the movie is inexplicably a different person. The young lady spends the night, and the rest of the story takes place over the next day as she seduces the family members one by one.

Over the course of events, we learn that the husband resents his wife and son (whom we later discover is not his). His wife calls him impotent. He throws her shameful past (childhood runaway who joined the circus and got pregnant) in her face. The son claims to have had disturbing visions which the father dismisses as lunacy. The presence of the lady-guest seems to bring all of this to a head, with both men competing for her attention, as the woman of the house watches from afar in obvious jealousy.

The way each family member has sex with the guest are all unique and provides additional insight into their characters:

  1. The husband’s coupling with the woman is rough and primal. It’s in a claustrophobic setting (the aforementioned library) and he’s undressing her with his eyes from the start. As the woman lays on the table in the middle of the room, he circles her like a predator stalking his prey. They roll around on the floor, highlighted by quick cuts to the definition of dirty words behind them and punctuated by an ominous soundtrack.

  2. The son’s begins indoors as well, but he’s incredibly timid. Literally, he’s slinking behind some furniture and the woman has to pull him out. She leads, dancing through the hallways to lure him out into the courtyard. Then they do the deed standing up among the trees, accompanied by an uplifting score.

  3. The wife and the woman watch stag films together on the couch, fully clothed, and mutually pleasure one another.

Now, if that all isn’t the perfect tinderbox for some character drama, I don’t know what is. I was expecting a pornographic take on Eugene O’Neil’s Long Days Journey Into Night the way Misty was a porno based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Unfortunately this promising setup is not explored to its full potential. The way the porno actress spends the night and pleasures each family member in turn, I thought she was going to spark the clearly foreshadowed conflict between father and son. I thought they were either gonna fight over her, or the woman would somehow bring the fractured family together. (With Quartet being a tongue in cheek ’70s smut film, maybe she would accomplish this in a delightfully over the top fourway as the title implies!)

Instead, Quartet just sort of fizzles out in a weird Twilight Zone style finale. Essentially the actors from the porno that the family had been watching are now shown to be residing in the same home and viewing their own porno starring our main cast. Why, what does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe, since both groups make disparaging comments while watching their respective porn flicks, it’s a meta commentary on the way we judge adult film actors/scenes even though we all partake in sex ourselves. Maybe it’s poking fun at the way many audiences react to adult films: wondering if the participants are enjoying it, picking apart their features, laughing, etc as opposed to focusing on the emotions, the people behind the genitals. Maybe that’s why this film gives us the participants’ backstories, shows us how unhappy these people are and the power of physical love (personified by the porn actress) to alleviate their frustrations if just for a minute. Maybe Metzger is critiquing the audience for our willingness to suspend disbelief in all other aspects of narrative and art except when sex is explicitly involved. Or, it could be a more straightforward message of “existence is confusing, we all make choices we regret and have friction in our interpersonal relationships…so just enjoy the fun things in life, like sex, and go along for the ride.”

I truly don’t know. But the ending was abrupt, anticlimactic and did not live up to the premise which the first hour established. The best aspects of Lickerish Quartet are fantastic and it is honestly on the shortlist for the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. In terms of music, photography and creativity it is definitely Radley’s strongest work. Until the last twenty minutes or so, I was all set to put this on the same level as my cherished gold standard of soft-core art-house erotica, Femina Ridens. Unfortunately the drawbacks are significant enough to where my recommendation comes with a big asterisk attached.

Score

I saw Score (1974) and Camille 2000 (1969) back to back, and in a way it felt like a fitting double feature. These two, taken together, tell the story of Metzger’s whole career very sufficiently. The ’60s offerings were more elegant, avant-garde and creative. The sex is dressed up with gorgeous set design, innovative camera angles/framing and sometimes outright convoluted stories. The ’70s offerings got down to business, they know what they are and offer the goods in spades, the stories are shallower, the tone is sillier and the characters are more of a means to an end. Each approach, the ’60s soft-core and ’70s hard-core porn, has their merits. I personally prefer the former but I understand that most people watch smut to get off to the penetration, not the shot composition.

Score is Metzger’s most by-the-books offering I’ve seen yet, complete with the phone repair guy coming over and jumping into bed with our female lead. What I liked about it was the unique character dynamics–a goody good, dead-bedroom couple and a sexually liberated, deviant couple who have a wild night together switching partners. It all takes place over one raucous night, so the buildup to the bedroom feels natural and the pacing is tight throughout. The trade-off is the noticeable lack of stunning set designs, music and cinematography. Those elements aren’t bad here, just not up to the usual Metzger standard.

Camille 2000

Camille 2000 suffers from a largely uninteresting love-triangle story and an inexcusable lack of sex in what is supposed to be erotica. The whole thing reminded me of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel stripped of the prose which makes his stories so compelling. It’s just a bunch of privileged rich foreign people going through their petty interpersonal drama, blissfully unaware of the larger problems in the world.

On the positive side, the main character wears a gorgeous Gatsby-esque pink suit and on a shallow note, the lead actress (Danielle Gaubert) is by far the most physically attractive of any leading lady in a Metzger film I’ve seen yet. Camille 2000 has some impressionistic sex scenes in a bedroom flanked by mirrors which lends itself to some cool shots. The problem is the runtime is dragged out to 2 hours (!!) with only two full on instances of love making and maybe two more scenes which do nothing but tease. (For comparison, every other Metzger flick is between 75 and 90 minutes, with at least three scenes of someone doing the deed, and some far more than that.)

As an example of what I mean, there’s a whole ten minute sequence in a BDSM/swinger party which looks like a cross between Jabba’s Palace, Studio 54 and an Adam West Batman set. There’s people chained together, walking around naked, making out in jail cells, a woman in a pillory and others getting tugged around on leashes. All this, the seemingly perfect setup for a shamelessly kinky sex scene to play out…and bizarrely, this erotica decides not to make full use of it. Instead, we focus on the main leads’ regret at letting each other go and kissing other people to make each other jealous. That’s like something out of a Nickelodeon tween sitcom, not an X-rated adult film. Now, to his credit, Metzger takes advantage of the bizarre setting to establish some thoughtful shot composition: like our heroine pictured behind chains as if to emphasize that she is trapped by her emotions. That’s why my man is the king of adult entertainment directors, and why I’ve gone out of my way to check out as much of his work as I can find.

All the same, it really felt like the story got in the way of Camille as opposed to serving its purpose to justify showing a bunch of titillating scenes to the audience.

Conclusion

So, that’s my experience with Radley Metzger’s work thus far. There’s tons more films he worked on out there, and if I have the time and drive sometime, I may check them out. If that happens, and any of them leave enough of an impression to where I feel the need to share my thoughts, I will write a follow-up.

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