Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Joseph W. Sarno 1921-2010

Joe Sarno and his wife/assistant Peggy Steffans Sarno, photographed in 2002.

Michael Raso of RetroSeduction Cinema has contacted me with the sad news that writer-director Joseph W. Sarno passed away this evening at his home in Manhattan after a short illness. He was 89.

Sarno toiled in the sexploitation industry, but I dislike referring to him as a sexploitation or even an exploitation director, though his films were certainly sold this way. In films like SIN YOU SINNERS (1963), SIN IN THE SUBURBS (1964), RED ROSES OF PASSION (1966), CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1974) and ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (1975), he introduced to American "dirty movies" new and serious dimensions of human psychology and a profound sensitivity to female sexuality in particular. He may well have been the erotic cinema's first proponent of sexual experimentation, which he explored not salaciously but as an exposé of human relationships, yearnings and frailties. His films deal with infidelity, group sex, paganism, sexual accessories, encounter group therapy and, most recurrently, "mind-fuck" situations -- the kind that come about when a free spirit visits a conservative village and liberates its pent-up energies. (I once asked Joe if Pasolini's TEOREMA had been an influence, and he not only hadn't seen it, he'd never heard of it.) Above all, his films are about how people change other people.

Most of his work was shot in the state of New York, with the exception of a trilogy of Florida works made in 1968-69, though he sent his biggest shock waves through the genre with the 1968 release INGA, which introduced Marie Liljedahl and commenced a whole series of films shot in Sweden, where he and his assistant wife Peggy (who, as Peggy Steffans, had starred in the 1963 Adolphus Mekas film HALLELUJAH THE HILLS) "vacationed" every summer.

INGA was historic for filming what may well be the first authentic female orgasm ever shot, and Sarno's insistence on authenticity was one of the secrets of his success. He once told me that, in several of his softcore films, the actors had actual sex below frame to authenticate the passion in their lovemaking scenes -- and it can be felt. (As I think back over his work, for me, the most erotic moment may be a pointed glance between two lesbians who haven't yet connected in THE YOUNG EROTIC FANNY HILL, a moment that makes an otherwise subpar offering rewarding viewing.) Among his Swedish films are THE INDELICATE BALANCE (1969), DADDY, DARLING (1970), THE SEDUCTION OF INGA (1971), YOUNG PLAYTHINGS (1972, with Christina Lindberg), LAURA'S TOYS (1975) and BUTTERFLIES (1975, with Maria Forsa), all of which offer production values wholly on par with the work Ingmar Bergman was producing at the same time.

Aspects of fantasy and horror entered Sarno's work with VEIL OF BLOOD (1973), the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS-like A TOUCH OF GENIE (1974), the Jekyll/Hyde spoof THE SWITCH, OR HOW TO ALTER YOUR EGO (1974) and SACRILEGE (1988). Beginning in the early 1970s, Sarno also very quietly began directing hardcore sex films under a series of aliases, but they all contained telltale thematic ties to the work of which he was most proud. Notable titles in this grouping include THE TROUBLE WITH YOUNG STUFF (1977) and the INSIDE films devoted to sex-stars Gloria Leonard, Jennifer Welles, Annie Sprinkle and Seka.

I first discovered Sarno's work at the drive-in during the 1970s, and I knew it was different and important then. Andrew Sarris recognized Sarno's value nearly a decade earlier, praising it in the pages of THE VILLAGE VOICE. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to champion his work to a new generation of fans in the VHS and DVD era, and even more grateful that I had the pleasure of speaking with him occasionally by telephone. This is a great loss for real adult cinema and, for me, a personal loss.