We live in the age of the throw-away documentary. Perhaps this seems unnecessarily disparaging, and I only mean it partly so, as I love documentaries and am happy that there are many more being made lately; all the same, as anyone with a Netflix account knows, we are awash in films that focus on some semi-niche of reality for 80-100 minutes. My guess is that there are so many being made simply because the barrier to entry is lowest in this corner of cinema city, as unlike much narrative film making, a documentary can often follow a tried (or tired) and true structure as long as it plugs into some topic that has not been addressed in exactly that same way before. Talking heads are cheaper than actors, and “reality” needs much less glamour to mount successfully than fictionalized reality, which often requires a bit of seduction. I have seen a lot of these docs (thanks again to Netflix), and while some are very good, like the recent Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, many, even when they aren’t bad (like the much overrated Marwencol), tend to feel exploitative and samey. Find some person to latch onto, usually an against-the-system outsider, or an outsider in general, rough out the narrative in a way that at least makes a play toward suspense or a reversal of some kind in the fourth reel, throw in a few talking heads for “context,” and poof, you’ve made a movie.
A Life in Dirty Movies is, in many ways, a cookie from such a cutter. It reflects on the life of Joe Sarno and his wife, Peggy, who made sexploitation films back in the heyday (and really, the only day) of the genre, the 60s and 70s. Now, I am familiar with Mr. Sarno and his films, but I must confess I have not seen any of them, simply because sexploitation bores me silly (aside from the films of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman). Sarno, called the “Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” made many acknowledged classics of the genre – the reference to Bergman is due to his interest in the interiority of his characters, their relationships, and his emphasis on women and their pleasure. All to the good, and the doc did succeed in making me want to sample his filmography, especially his work made in the late 70s, after sexploitation was no longer a viable genre. Anyone looking for a thorough overview of Mr. Sarno’s biography, his career, or the contextualization of his work within film history as a whole might be disappointed by this film, however. There is some of that, of course, but it is very glancing; the film is really a contemporary portrait of Sarno and his wife, in their final years together. The film takes up Sarno in his late eighties, when he is trying to put together one final project. The star of the film, though, is Peggy, eighteen years his junior and, to a large degree, his mouthpiece and memory. While the film might fail as an educational vehicle, I found the divergences from the norm refreshing, and ultimately enlightening. As a portrait of an artist, it is a rich one, in that it concentrates on what few films about working artists do: how they end up, what they feel their legacy is, and how they manage to live day-to-day, having been on the margins of the mainstream, and success, all their lives. We see the Sarnos at their “summer home,” a quite anonymous apartment in an equally anonymous Swedish apartment block; Peggy talks at length about the personal sacrifices they both made, but she in particular, to take him on as a partner and live the life they did (needless to say, Mom and Dad were not too thrilled about having the young actress marry a sex film director two decades her senior). There is little “dirt” here, as Peggy has few regrets, and believes in the integrity of her husband’s work (although she does not hold back on criticism either). What makes the film compelling is indeed the day-to-day, ambient nature of its unfolding. We get a true sense of how life for an artist gets defined, and defines itself, by way of trying to make a living. One would hardly call a business person or professional before himself to explain, for instance, why he switched out of insurance and became a car salesman, or why he never got to V.P. instead of settling for regional manager. An artist, on the other hand, is always caught partly between reality and ideality, between the contingencies of living and the desire for something other. Sarno, in this regard, has to “answer” (partly to the audience, or society, but in the narrative of the film, to the parents) for why sexploitation is art, and why he made sexploitation at all. In the beginning, of course, it was because he was offered the work, and had experience using a camera. He enjoyed making films, and these were the films he could easily make. Once hardcore pornography became the norm, he was forced to choose; he wasn’t interested in making hardcore, but he also didn’t want to stop making films, and sexploitation had become instantly passe. So, he made some pornography (not very successfully) and also managed to finance, mostly through his father-in-law, further sexploitation features (also not very successful). All artists deal with negotiating the reality of their ideals – indeed, that place between desire/concept/vision and the reality of material execution, often defined by external forces, is the space of art – but this film provides a more poignant than average portrait of what these struggles really look and feel like. Life is a series of exclusions, forced choices, and unexpected detours for all but the “lucky” few; artists simply live this reality in a more self-conscious, heightened, and often frustrated way. The film does a great job of giving us the feel of such a history, but it also builds to a satisfying climax – with Sarno’s death comes, perhaps not paradoxically, the ultimate redemption of his legacy.