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Notes from Above Ground

We are always surprised by the banality of the perverse, by the limitations the body places on sexual activity, by the commonplaces of the erotic imagination. A subject so intensely charged ought, it would seem, to come up with more when it erupts in public view. The paraphernalia of fetishism should be more exotic than leather, chains, boots, and fur. One wants the Black Mass to be more chilling than it is. Only events like those British child murders, which occur from time to time, are truly shocking—and they, like the excesses of the Roman amphitheatre, fall more into the category of blood than flesh. We are not much interested in blood as entertainment these days. Perhaps we have been satisfied, even sated, by the daily life of the cities, the evening news on television, the events of last year, and the repeated promises of mass blood on real streets. This year, what we like are public exhibitions of flesh.

There is almost no one left in town who is not an expert on sex, going from film to theater to newsstand to bookstore—talking and writing about what he has seen. Everyone knows which theatrical coupling was real and which was simulated. Everyone tells us how sexually healthy he is and how non-erotic the performance, the performer, the book. The New York Review of Sex advertises in these pages. Screw and Pleasure, two of the other raunchy commercial off-shoots of the old love-drug-revolution press, are read for fun by people I know. One turns the pages of these papers, sees a naked girl whose legs are spread, and says—very Yellow Book—“What bad teeth she has!” We are apparently developing a new genre of middle-class pornography: one which stimulates no one at all.

The audience for this year’s exhibitions grows colder and more demanding. “I was disappointed,” said Clive Barnes as he left a performance of Che! during which the cast had sodomized (I use the term loosely) one another all evening. “I am very very bored,” a Feiffer voyeur says, “If anything, more bored than in real life.” “Oh,” one says upon hearing of the latest step away from sublimation, “is that all? Are you sure there was nothing more?”

The more spectacles we are exposed to, the more we expect. Surely there must be something none of us has thought of. In a way, it is this coolness which makes our presence at the public displays seem socially dislocating. We do not attend them as voluptuaries or even as voyeurs, bound together by the camaraderie of a dirty audience seeing a dirty thing. Rather, we are spectators at cultural events. One night we watch a disruption, the next, an ecstacy. We remain at the center of things. We are keeping up.

In this context, it is disorienting to sit behind Leonard Lyons and Morris Ernst, both aging and correct, at Che! while a naked actor attempts to perform fellatio on himself two feet from Lyons’s nose. Some years ago it would have been a winged fancy of Lenny Bruce’s to imagine them there. But now they sit, impassive, inquiring with the rest of us into the state of the actors’ on-stage potency. Afterward, Ernst did write something about these affairs abusing the right of privacy, by which I assume he considered the instrument of abuse to be the hook which lifted him from his apartment to the theater. Still, he did not perform a citizen’s arrest.

It is clear that nothing loses its potential for astonishment more rapidly than nudity. We did, after all, know essentially what was there all along. By the time one has sat under genitals at Geese, Che!, Dionysus in 69—wherever you will—naked theater begins to sort itself out like any other. Geese, one sees, is a dreadful 1950s gay play gone nude. Che! is so fashionably stoned as to place itself effectively beyond criticism; and Dionysus in 69, that free version of The Bacchae, is functional nude theater—the nudity adding a primitive ritualistic quality to the writhing scenes of birth, murder, and frenzy which, when performed by actors in clothes, too often make us laugh. And even there, we are not all that caught up in the rites. When buckets of stage blood begin to slosh around the room, half the audience scurries out of range. Ecstasy is OK, but who wants to ruin a coat?

Flesh on the screen is another matter. Since the actors are not really there, we are not really there either. To go from the theater to the tenderloin grind-houses is to create even more distance, moving back in time and down in class. I have heard that some skin-flicks are good, but it seems unlikely. It is their function, after all, to complement the ordinary fantasies of somewhat witless horny men; if they become too bizarre, too special in taste, they lose their broad appeal. Skin-flicks, therefore, reflect the standards of the community they serve and tend to be humorless and hypocritical, still making use of shame as titillation in the old pre-liberation fashion—rather like a filmed confessions magazine story. A little soft whipping. A little rape. The convention: “I didn’t want to do it—but I went crazy with lust.” An almost mandatory sequence of girls stroking one another in a male dream of lesbian motivation: “You’re sick of men? Have you ever tried it with girls?”

The actresses wear garter belts and take forever to get out of their underwear. I don’t recall seeing any men out of theirs; the exploitation film-makers are still skittish about both male genitals and explicit sex acts, which they treat rather like the shower murder in Psycho so that one is never quite sure what one has seen. I do remember a closeup of a mouth which was photographed from inside someone’s trousers—a physiologically curious extension of The Lady in the Lake.

Go East,” one wants to tell the audience. “In the art houses it is happening in focus.” But the eroticism in serious films is perhaps no more attractive to this businesslike audience than reading Genet is to those who share Rex Reed’s esteem for the work of Jacqueline Susann.

I should note that the Hudson Theater, a grind-house which once showed Warhol films, has an ambience somewhat more contemporary in tone than most. The movies are perhaps more daring, and a kind of coarse humor creeps into the ballyhoo for coming attractions. As a result, the laughing people have taken up the Hudson—a source of distraction for the heavy viewers, who occasionally turn and threaten to maim the next person who snickers. Still, the Hudson has not abandoned its own. One of its features is a workmanlike series of “beavers” and “spreaders.” With cool jazz as a background, the naked girls grind for the camera. So many beats for the breast, so many for the ass. Legs apart. Mouth open. All those orifices. On and on.

How one looks at the blue material in a non-specialized film like I Am Curious (Yellow), about which much of the decency fuss has been made, depends largely on where one has looked before. Since the film is only partially devoted to sexual matters (and even these are within the context of Vilgot Sjöman’s concern with growing up absurd in Sweden), since the copulations are lively and direct in contrast to the irritating languor of the skin-flicks, I Am Curious seems rather endearing, sort of neurasthenically stolid and quite innocent. Which, I think, is not what Sjöman intended it to be. Unfortunately, however, it is Sweden that Sjöman is so outraged about; and despite his attempt to convey a sense of urgency about the unresponsiveness of Swedish institutions, its class stratification, and lack of moral commitment, he still does not convince us that Sweden is not eminently reasonable when contrasted with the great nut countries of the world.

As for the sex, it is interjected into the film in the same fashion and in the same proportion as it exists in many people’s lives—or at least in the lives of those New Women who, like Sjöman’s inchoate heroine, try to define themselves by their experience. It is difficult to understand what the fuss is about—but my standards are shot anyway. One can’t deny that all those people must be lining up for something that isn’t at home.

At times these days there is a sense of being caught in a time warp. The grind-house has the atmosphere of the secret guilty decay of the Eisenhower years. The bold symbolic eroticism of the more advanced young, and the prevailing cultural obsession with all things sexual, lead to mutterings about Wandervogel and Berlin nights during Weimar. Yet what is happening in the Forty-second Street bookshops and elsewhere around the country is rather futuristic. The peep show, like the talking typewriter, proclaims tomorrow: man alone with his machine. One walks through a bookstore whose aisles are lined with, to one’s taste, congeries of cock or cunt. In the back are the machines. There, shoulder to shoulder, men stand close to individual visored screens which, for a quarter, unroll fantasies of choice. Some of the machines are like juke-boxes: thirty-six titles. Press the button for a minute of “The Beast” (more gyration than is usual); “Big Balloons Wide Apart” (they are, and she is). Mostly there are girls alone on a bed (one begins to recognize the auteur by the bed-spread). There is an occasional group or couple scene and an odd machine here and there offers male nudes flexing muscles. Neatly dressed, indistinguishable men come and go. They do not look at one another. There is a great silence.

Perhaps this is how it will be one day when there is finally no more room and we are all shoulder to shoulder, plugged in and pacified in the old sci-fi tradition, dreaming private dreams sent us by Central Control. Or are we taking a different turn? For those whose imagination is more apocalyptic than sensual, it is not hard to see in the current assaults on repression the intimations of a new orgiastic society, the beginning of the loss of ego, the loss of mind; to envision future generations as a polymorphous mass whirling around a communal glory hole. But I think we are not yet at the edge. For most of us, provincial life goes on as it has through previous liberations. High school students still smirk at Latin names in sex education lectures. A little less guilt. Perhaps a little more action. The New York Times editorial page stands guard. It is all somehow not new.

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