Film

POINTS OF NO RETURN

A Deep Throat doc and two stories of outcast kids explore the limits of exotica and innocence

Brian D. Johnson February 21 2005
Film

POINTS OF NO RETURN

A Deep Throat doc and two stories of outcast kids explore the limits of exotica and innocence

Brian D. Johnson February 21 2005

POINTS OF NO RETURN

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ON SOME LEVEL, cinema is still a sideshow. We count on movies to take us behind the curtain and show us something we've never seen before, something foreign to our experience. But as Hollywood relies more heavily on formula to shock, amuse and titillate, movies have become safe, market-tested midway rides into the familiar. For the truly exotic, we turn to documentaries and foreign ifims. This month offers a diverse menu. InsideDeep Throat shows how an act of fellatio became a defining moment

in American voyeurism. Born Into Brothels explores Calcutta's red-light district through the eyes of its children. And in Nobody Knows, four abandoned kids spend months fend-

ing for themselves in a Tokyo apartment.

Inside Deep Throat is without precedent— a documentary produced by a major Hollywood studio and stamped with an adult NC-17 rating in the U.S. (Yes, there are glimpses of hard-core footage.) Narrated by Dennis Hopper and produced by Oscarwinner Brian Grazer (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), the film serves as the ultimate example of the phenomenon it describes—the mainstreaming of pornography. Shot for just $25,000 in 1972, and grossing some $600

million, Deep Throat is considered the most profitable movie of all time. Surfing the sexual revolution, it was the first pom film to find a mainstream audience. And it provoked a seminal controversy—sorry, but the title invites double entendre—in a culture war that still rages, hotter than ever, between the forces of censorship and free expression. In fact, you could trace the whole arc of modern American voyeurism from the release of Deep Throat, which turned an extreme taboo into talk show fodder, to the Lewinsky scandal, which trivialized oral sex to the point that the recipient denied it was sex.

Amusing, kitschy, titillating—and deeply pedestrian—Inside Deep Throat is a portrait of small-time pornographers falling through a funhouse version of the American Dream. Gerard Damiano was the stag-movie maker who discovered Linda Lovelace, a suburban girl with a sword-swallowing talent for fellatio. He cast her as a woman who learns her clitoris is in the back of her throat—with

help from a doctor played by Harry Reems, a camera assistant who was pressed into service when the male lead failed to show. Deep Throat’s hysterical success triggered a conservative backlash, as various levels of government moved to ban it. In one weird twist, a prosecutor argued that by celebrating clitoral stimulus, the film was promoting “the wrong kind of orgasm.”

Harry Reems, who earned just $250 from Deep Throat, became the scapegoat. He was the first U.S. actor to be convicted for play-

ing a part, although his conviction was overturned in 1976, with stars such as Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty rallying to his side. Reems, a recovered drug addict, now sounds sensibly embittered. Lovelace, who joined the feminist anti-pom crusade in the ’80s and died in a car crash in 2002, comes across as a mixed-up victim/opportunist. And Damiano, who was muscled out of Deep Throat’s profits by the mob, is shown as an endearing retiree nostalgic for porn’s golden age.

In the early ’70s, porn had some cachet as entry-level work for independent filmmakers. It’s since grown into a massive in-

TITILLATING us

only with the thrill of art, Brothels offers the hope it might save a few children from the sex trade

dustry, strangely coexisting with America’s increasingly sanitized media. Now all it takes is a wardrobe malfunction to mobilize U.S. censors. And with no more than a flash of nipple serving as their WMD, the sexual revolution seems more remote than ever.

Despite the title, there’s nothing lurid about Born Into Brothels, which has won some 20 international honours, including an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It titillates us only with the thrill of art, and the hope it might save a few children from a destiny in the sex trade. Co-director Zana Briski, a Manhattan photojournalist, spent a couple of years documenting Calcutta’s red-light district. Eventually she moved in, bought 20 point-and-shoot cameras for children of prostitutes, and gave up her own work to teach them photography. Some of the kids learn to take wonderful pictures, which find their way to a New York gallery—and spawn an international out-

reach program called Kids With Cameras.

The kids become enraptured by the power to frame experience. One day they bring their cameras to the zoo, which looks like a dire version of their own caged world staring back at them. Another time, they take a bus to the beach. As they’re unleashed onto the sand, a boy upends a pail of water above his head and freezes the cascade in his lens. The video camera catches him catching the moment, which is pure magic. Throughout the film, which Briski co-directs with Ross Kauffman, there’s a kinetic flow between the documentary shoot and the kids’ shots, which merge in a delirium of colour and composition.

By showing us an underworld through the eyes of children, Born Into Brothels inverts a documentary gaze that’s usually stranded between pathos and voyeurism. This is an inspiring story of kids learning to see. There’s a grim tension in the outcome—some will make it, some won’t. But we sense that if they

A Deep Throat doc and two stories of outcast kids explore the limits of exotica and innocence

can capture the world through a lens, maybe they can avoid being captured by it. If photographs do indeed steal souls, these children are stealing theirs back.

Nobody Knows, another tale of desperate kids, is fiction, but it’s inspired by a true story. And with his four non-professional child actors, Japanese writer-director Koreeda Hirokazu blends documentary improvisation with a masterful sense of control. This is an exquisite film. It tells the story of four siblings who move into a small Tokyo apartment with their mother. Each has a different father. Only the eldest, a 12-year-old boy named Akira (Yagira Yûya), is allowed outside. The others are not supposed to exist. With the mother absent for long stretches, Akira runs the household. He

shops, cooks and keeps the accounts. Then the mother abandons them for good.

Over the winter, Akira sticks to the rules, and keeps his siblings hidden. But as his mother’s money runs out, and the bills become crayon paper, the household slowly disintegrates. With the power and water cut off, the children do laundry in the local park and haul water from a fountain. These kids are urban castaways in a more loving Lord of the Flies. In this case, as the veneer of civility is stripped away, what emerges is not savagery but a tragic innocence.

Shot in chronological sequence over four seasons, Nobody Knows unfolds like a timelapse photograph. As the actors’ hair gets longer, we can see them growing up before our eyes—especially Yûya, who anchors the film with a quiet power. (He won the best actor prize in Cannes.) At 141 minutes, this movie is long and slow, but utterly mesmerizing. It’s like childhood. By the time it’s over, you don’t want it to end. ii1]