“A copy of Michelangelo’s David is being displayed at Forest Lawn Memorial Park here without a figleaf. ‘We thought the time had come to try it,’ said Charles Pink, manager.”
—New York Times, 7/20/69
Lunch at The Telephone Booth is no ordinary “feed,” though food is not the point, of course, but the topless and bottomless waitresses who serve it and take turns “dancing” on a dais. The ringside seats for these ballets are at the bar, but the performers’ charms, both fore and aft, are in direct or mirror view of every table. The room is dark, the more fulgently to set off powdered and spotlighted epidermises, and at the same time shield the viewers, some of whom, as if expecting a televised police raid, hide behind smoked glasses as well.
Who are the viewers? Leering lechers? Inveterate voyeurs? Not all of them, at any rate; a bashful gastronome in the booth next to mine hardly bothers to glance in the direction of the dais, or for that matter away from his plate. As for the overt and steady watchers, most of them seem to share a predilection for bosoms, seldom lowering their sights from that level, at all events, though a more bizarre penchant, if it existed, would be unobservable in the circumstances anyway.
The girls wear short black jackets during their stints of waiting on table (i.e., pushing drinks). These are shed on the dais—where each dancer is cued by her “own” recording (her favorite? the only one she recognizes?)—but they conceal so little in the first place that the strip is teaseless. All the same, the first disrobing provokes an exclamation—“Get a load of that!”—from an ogler newly installed at the bar. “That” is a case of bouncy overendowment which the girl seems to defy the customers to notice, looking them straight in the eyes, if that is where they are looking. But her ballet is a dilly, and really indescribable, unless it might be called pussyfooting.
A platinum Esquire-cartoon blond appears next, wearing pasted-on, stage-prop tits, very sheer panty-hose (against the chill? to conceal some foam-rubber supplementation?), and a moue. She is half bombed, I think, but her dance, no bacchanal, might have been mimicked from a circus pooch. She cannot be more than twenty-three, which is middle-aged in this profession, yet she is repelled by sex, obviously, and contemptuous of men. At what more halcyon time of life did she discover that her “virtue” was irretrievable, I wonder, and how many more years as an itinerant go-go stripper, graduating to call-girl, will she be able to take before losing the last few of her marbles and being carried off with the screaming meemies?
The next girl is, at the other extreme, tough, able to take care not only of herself but of every man in the room, some of whom may have been taken care of already, in fact, judging by her claque. Apart from a Theseus-like wish concerning the thin gold chain of her G-string, however, I am not inspired by any lewd ambition at all which, alas, could be a sign of Craft ebbing. She is too angular for Ingres (Le Bain Turc) and would not have fetched the top price in a seraglio. But while the other girls do no more than go through their paces barely, she puts her soul into hers, simulating the throes of the denouement with egregious thrusts and excruciating gyrations. “Hey, that hurts,” one castration-threatened spectator cries out, and another, still more worried, rounds on him with: “It would break it off.” At this point a dirty old man at the bar chimes in with “How’d ya like to take her home?,” the answer to which—“Yeah, only anywhere but there”—probably comes from a married man. Strutting off after her number, the nymph confesses that “These Monday mornings are really getting to me,” but a suggestion is offered from the floor for this, too: “Why don’t you go and entertain our troops in Sweden?”
The next girl, tall, Junoesque, dallying long hair (a postiche?) down her back from a bandeau, is the beauty of the bevy—sculpturally considered, at least—but her movements are muzzy (from smoking “grass”? oncoming menses?). She is the only one, in any case—that cadent, if rented hair—who could raise my libidinal temperature a therm, but then, only a necrophiliac could be seriously bothered by the other exposures. After her “act” I tell her that of all the girls she would look the best in clothes (well, see-through and cellophane clothes, anyway), but she is not certain that the remark is entirely complimentary, and her smile turns to a “level-with-me-Mister” expression. She is the least at home here of all the girls, at any rate, and that in itself goes a long way toward making her the most attractive. Her name is Christine (she says). If I were to call her that another time, she would probably look at me “hard,” trying to remember when we had slept together.
* * *
The “kicks” from non-haptic sex, the sexual object under a glass bell—not the girls‘ “kicks,” which apart from the money appear to be related to the child’s wish to discard its clothes and be noticed—depend in part on the satisfaction of aesthetic criteria, which in turn are governed by the subject’s psychological make-up as a whole. Attempts to isolate and measure male susceptibilities to female form, qua form, are now being made, in fact, simply by projecting adjustable outlines of female shapes on a screen, and enlarging, shrinking, and otherwise modifying them to the subjects’ desiderations. The latter are both avowed and, because of the unreliability of imputing the exact tendency of the attraction to the impulse, determined by electrical sensing devices. So far, after co-ordination with other personality data, the findings indicate that breast-fixated college-age American males are better adjusted than bottom-fixated ones; and that options favoring comparatively large amplitudes—a rise in the graph—earn correspondingly higher psycho-social stability marks.
In the absence of co-ordination between the natural and social sciences, however, this does not appear to be a pragmatically conclusive fact, while in view of the present low opinion of physiological testing of this kind generally, one may even doubt that it is a fact at all. (The retardation of the heartbeats and consequent conservation of oxygen in submerging crocodiles was thought until lately to be one of all-wise Nature’s protective devices, but it has now been discovered that the slow-downs are caused entirely by fear of the scientific experimenters! See Nature, 7/12/69.) Further research along these (adjustable) lines will undoubtedly continue, nevertheless, as sex is further removed, and finally entirely separated from procreation.
Meanwhile, it is certainly better to “make love, not war.” (And no matter that the biological overlove in love-making is as wasteful as overkill: a mere seventeen nuclear missiles are said to be enough to destroy human life on the planet, but thousands already exist; so, too, a single sperm cell is enough to create human life, yet each ejaculation of male seed contains at least two hundred and fifty millions of them. Did you ever think of that, Mr. Portnoy?) Necessary as it was, however, and whatever, if anything, it may have had to do with love, the sex explosion—as distinct from a long-awaited and more profoundly subversive Revolution of Eros—has become a bore. One already looks forward to a time beyond it when it will be possible to do it and forget about it and even go on to other things. “We liberate sexuality not in order that men may be dominated by [it],” Freud wrote (in 1908!), “but in order to make a suppression possible.” Voilà! Temptation exists to be resisted.
II: New York
The first half-hour of Skin, said to be representative of the new sex flicks, takes place at the Botanical Gardens—in order to compare the phalloi of humans and flora, it would seem, except that the former never appear, and one begins to suspect that the title really refers to lemons or oranges. The dermatological mystery deepens in the next scene, which is about drug-taking and the Bay Area needle set, but in the one after that a derrière (just the rondures, no connecting anatomy!) canters about the screen in time with the D-minor organ fugue from Fantasia. What was it Plato said about “the desire and pursuit of the whole”?
* * *
Television commercials here are beginning to exploit the third-sex market. “For women only,” says a lesbian contralto on behalf of “Virginia Slims,” which are being promoted as a Sapphic cigarette. And an advertisement for an electric lawnmower, after demonstrating the machine’s superiority over a grazing sheep, considers whether the animal might be made a meal of, but concludes that “that would be like eating the gardener.” The next thing you know, says R., homosexuals will be demanding equal time.
* * *
Oh! Calcutta!, on the other hand, is for regular guys. Or is it? Are the men the real attraction, perhaps, and the women merely decoys? Men in paris—fissiparous sex—account for a large part of the audience, in any case, though most of the episodes deal with country matters and none, I think, is construable, except wholly transposed, as their “scene.” But whatever the audience’s sectarian proclivities—and the other conspicuous feature is the absence of the young and the freaked-out—it inhibits as an entity. Communality on such a scale at a peep show contradicts ancient, if anti-social, notions of privacy. Nor does one’s consciousness of the communality ever let up, thanks to the univocal laughter, embarrassed at first, perhaps, but first, last, and most other times, embarrassing.
Anthropologists are currently explaining the limitation of pornography to male fantasies as a consequence of the involvement of “more extensive higher cortical control” in male sexual activity than in female. However that may be, sexual functionalism, together with the decline, for other reasons as well, of the mystery of sexuality, is challenging the taken-for-granted supremacy of the female nude, as well as the bartering-bride system which obliges or encourages women to think of their bodies—and men to think of women’s bodies—as their most valuable possession; which can’t be a very welcome development to the woman in the street.
But the male nude on stage is handicapped (if that is the word for it) by the veto against virile members—not in dramas involving urological examinations, of course, but certainly in amorous action pieces à la Calcutta. A young man in the buff, mounting a young and comely woman in the same, is expected, in time, to register a visible physical reaction. But the young man in Calcutta remains sapless and detumescent, and whatever the reason—saltpeter? pederasty? sexual shell-shock? androgen deficiency? the milking of the actors, like vipers, before each performance?—his failure to become potent does not consort with the minimum realistic requirement of the circumstances.
While no holds are barred on stage, it seems that erections are countenanced only in films, some of the latest of which, whether or not for that reason, have become pilot courses in the phenomenon. And this double standard not only denies the stage actor full expression, but exposes him to prejudicial reflections on his abilities, and even on his character, implying, as it does, that he must behave like “a thief in the night,” if he behaves at all, and thus is to be relegated to the same class of invertebrates (morally speaking) as Blake’s worm. The double standard becomes triple, quadruple, quintuple, moreover, when compounded with bookselling laws, actual sex laws (different in every state), and the Blue Laws of the Independent Government of Television, whose theater critics, incidentally, would be unable even to describe Calcutta with apt and ultimate brevity, the word being banned on the “medium.”
Nudity wears off quickly. In fact clothes are not long off in Calcutta—but long enough for the observation of details satisfying on the whole, it seems, to male egos—before the audience is ready (at least) to receive an entirely new cast of bodies (well, you would hardly call it a dramatis personae). But the interchangeability of bodies, and the greater uniformity in nude than clothed ones, are premises of the depersonalizing treatment of sex—the only possible treatment, I should add, if the third-party role of the audience is not to be intolerable.
A further premise is that starting over again with clothes can reinvigorate. It does so to some extent in the sado-masochistic fantasy scene, where a fully-clothed girl carrying a rod, kneels head to floor, bottom high and audienceward, and one by one, but forestalling the final one, upraises her numerous petticoats. The raising of the final one is a foudroyant effect (comparatively)—abetted by a good countdown technique—the sheer effrontery (or backery) of which, until dissipated by overexposure, seems to hold the audience in a euphoric trance. An unrelated-to-other-features bottom loses identity, however, and we lose our bearings, soon forgetting what it is—an enlarged peach? an idée fixe?—and why we are basking in it. Finally, too, we are disappointed not to witness even one piquant tap with that rod—for her sake, if she really likes it.
On balance, Calcutta is probably worth the while, for purely negative reasons, of anyone anxious to see standards of “erotic culture” improved. And in that sense its most sizable service is simply in obviating further, future demonstrations of how dull sex can be as a subject for a full evening—yet is not that necessarily or sui generis; but Calcutta neglects the variety of the subject; it might, for instance, and to advantage, have interspersed the bed-work scenes with illustrations of the “polymorphous perverse,” peeking at selected fetishes, or better, bestiality, for that would at least allow for some horseplay.
The undesirableness of puerility even in pornography is fully, positively, demonstrated as well, most unfortunately (for Calcutta) in the two episodes which had starting possibilities as social satire, the take-off on “swinging” via the sex want-ad columns, and the send-up of the Masters and Johnson sex institute. The latter is the most nearly successful caper of the evening, nevertheless, partly because the clinical view of sex exactly fits the case, and partly because the tables are turned to show that the “sexual response” of the volunteer lovers—who are attached with electrodes and wired to a computer-like console that lights up when intercourse begins—is far less remarkable than that of the kinky institute staff.
* * *
What, I wonder, not breathlessly, will be the role of the “artistic merit” and “redeeming social value” clauses when the moribund “living theater” moves on from group therapy to the theater of intercourse, and when actors and actresses break with the convention of laying each other onstage and come down and lay the audience? At the present rate of escalation, by which onstage erections may well be de rigueur in another six months, and in a year or so Calcutta itself could be making a comeback as camp, the possibility is not far away. (Does anyone still recall that only two years ago the Mayor himself had to overrule a ban on some bare-breasted African danseuses, and that he could do so only because they were savages, after all, and it didn’t matter?)
I wonder, too, whether Calcutta celebrates sexual freedom as much as it does sexual frustration. Catharsis in any sense at all, let alone—well, what was that “function” old Wilhelm Reich once made so much of?—has never seemed more remote. “I want it now,” moans a singer at the end, but does anyone?—do even sexual have-nots?—as a result, that is, of incitement by these exhibitions? Or are the latter something of an anti-arouser, in the sense that while substitute performances may nourish the sexual imagination, can they not also reduce it, by invasions not so much of physical as of mental privacy?
* * *
Myself, I am beginning to think that the unclothed state may have been intended only for the gods—and chez eux: even sea-changed Venus was draped before her entry into the mortal sphere, after all—or for those who, like the Doukhobors and the Digambora, practice it in the names of gods. But that is to forget two other passages suitable for the condition: “Naked I came into the world, naked I shall go.”