Listeners to the Third Eye podcast and those who know me personally are probably sick of hearing me speak in laudatory tones of the virtues of Radley Metzger’s The Image, an amazing S&M film marked by dazzling visuals, surprising Paris locations and a strong cast (particularly the fearless and stunning Mary Mendum aka Rebecca Brooke, stage actress and veteran of Hair as well as vital centerpiece of the strongest of Joe Sarno‘s films, during his 70’s post-Swedish venture). Above and beyond its aesthetic virtues, it was further the greatest S&M film ever lensed, featuring some truly daring setpieces that continue to raise eyebrows to the present day.
Thus it was with no small measure of anticipation that I came across the recent release of perhaps the most highly praised of Metzger’s hardcore efforts, and indeed one of the most famous of the genre per se during the brief heyday of “porno chic”, The Opening of Misty Beethoven.
Featuring yet another stunning lead in the gorgeous Constance Money, as well as Story of Joanna team Jamie Gillis and former ballet student Terri Hall, the film is further peopled with the likes of gay porn headliner Casey Donovan (nee Calvin Culver) and outspoken High Society magazine editor Gloria Leonard, whose lined, world weary face and close cropped mannish haircut leaves her something of a more déclassé version of Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan from Blakes Seven, with the remainder of the cast filled out by a number of relative unknowns.
Metzger delivers his usual European location hopping (Paris and Rome are both represented), with a gorgeous estate somewhere in New Jersey utilized for the more impressive of the interior sequences (an amazing setting which the film bewilderingly informs us has since been torn down…making aesthetes around the world shake their heads in bafflement as to exactly who the déclassé fool may have been who would perpetrate such a crime against beauty and culture).
The only porn films to even approach Misty Beethoven either visually or in terms of the appearance of having a lavish budget were Insatiable, to a lesser extent Story of Joanna (with its palatial setting), and if you count it as such, Metzger’s own borderline “very hard R” effort The Image. This is truly mind boggling stuff, particularly given the general standards of the competition even at the high point of the aforementioned “porno chic”, a brief period in the mid to late 70’s where porn was regularly attended by and acceptable to more openminded couples among the general public and even gained some measure of critical attention and press coverage.
All hype aside, the true star of the picture is Jamie Gillis. An industry veteran probably best described as a more handsome, far less neurotic Elliot Gould (with perhaps a dash of Kiss’ Paul Stanley for good measure), Gillis was described to me by none other than (s)exploitation legend Roberta Findlay quite accurately as “styling himself as a sort of Oxford professor”. A likeable, laid back sort, at least to go by his onscreen persona, he carries an affectation of refinement perfectly suited for roles like Jason in Story of Joanna or Dr. Seymour Love here.
There’s a subtext of classier-than-expected even in terms of the casting: beyond Gillis, we have Constance Money, a psych major whose intellect is cited numerous times in the liner notes both directly and anecdotally, Jacqueline Beaudant, an artist and commercial photographer whose sole foray into porn is represented here, and even “Alberto the Shadow” from Scarface (Mark Margolis) makes an appearance (though one absent from the expected action in any way). This is not your standard desperate runaway or crack whore type that so often populate the field, nor even the deliberately taboo busting philosophical sort that populated a fair portion of the industry in its 70’s heyday – instead, we have real working actors, actual intelligence and true artists represented herein.
Filled with a decadent aesthetic, the film proves well suited to its roots in turn of the century European fiction and the soirees and gatherings of the glamorous and artistic that took place in the parlors of the well off patrons and hobnobbers that hosted them. While sourced back to ancient Rome (the obvious root of the tale lies in the bawdy poet and man of letters Ovid), Metzger is clearly more interested in the mise en scene of Louis XIV and the likes of Huysmans, Rachilde, Lorrain and Mirbeau than the annals of Tacitus (one brief but important scene in the film aside).
Unlike The Image, there is little about Misty Beethoven that is actually erotic, in a proper sense. Like a European softcore film, it may titillate, but never really follow through in the sense of the average fuck film. It’s hard if not impossible to see your stereotypical lonely guy using this as a tool to actually get off – it’s the apertif to set the mood, not the main course, as it were.
More akin to his earlier, often critically lauded efforts like Candy, the Lickerish Quartet and Score stylistically, Metzger directs Misty Beethoven like the disciple of Fellini he so often shows himself to be. Like the early Tinto Brass, he carries the op-art, Lichtensteinian feel of psychedelia and the Italian fumetti-film (which includes such visual feasts as The Tenth Victim, Baba Yaga, The Frightened Woman, and Diabolik, as well as the much later Valentina series that aired as a compilation film on Cinemax) in orientation, and brings along with him the close up cutaways of random observers and party guests that accentuate the absurdism and humor of the situation, and indeed, the human condition and all its sundry affairs thereof.
Similarly, art and architecture takes center stage, even above and beyond the characters involved – more attention is paid to sets and setting (particularly the bizarre and stylized cutaway set representing Love’s apartment, and where much of Misty’s “training” takes place). Those familiar with my reviews of similar fare from the likes of Vinegar Syndrome may be expecting some serious attention to minor details of costumerie, lighting and set design, but Metzger positively suffuses the film with the sort of aesthetic my eye tends to gravitate towards, rendering any such pinpoint observations somewhat irrelevant. Suffice to say, this is one beautiful and classy film in every respect.
Even the cover art commissioned for the Blu-ray hearkens to an earlier and more sumptuous aesthetic, falling somewhere between the Art Deco of the 1920s and the Symbolist and Decadent movements in art, with the likes of Klimt and Gustave Moreau. There’s further more than a hint of religious iconography to be found herein – with representations of Gloria Leonard and Ras King serving as cherubim or maenad framing and announcing the arrival of a strangely redheaded Constance Money (who is actually blonde) – an impossibly alluring Scarlet Woman presented and toasted by her author and supplicant, Jamie Gillis (very much in the Crowley role here, announcing the arrival of the end result of his life’s work, while simultaneously acknowledging his inferiority thereto). For a porn film, this is very heady stuff.
Now admittedly, this is not the original poster art (reproduced in part in the liner notes), but two things are to be noted in defense of this choice. First, the poster art misleadingly featured Jacqueline Beaudant, reclining in one of those odd wall cutouts mentioned earlier – not a bad choice artistically, but hardly honest in terms of content or tone (not only is she not one of the leading players, consider this: is the film really as wistful and melancholy as her demeanor would seem to suggest?).
Secondly, in terms of the inner workings of the film, the zeitgeist that drives it and representative of the film’s iconic status as possibly one of the greatest (or certainly the most ambitious) films of its type, and as a representation of the personae of Metzger and Gillis, or at least what their films and portrayals would have us believe them to be, the new artwork improves on the already more than acceptable if not impressive original to a degree that cannot be properly related in words: only a visual comparison will suffice.
The film opens with a brief walk down the Paris red light district of Pigalle (for referential purposes, think the golden era of the Deuce). Our leading man enters a rather unlikely porn theater, where an attempted hook between low rent whore Misty Beethoven and Dr. Seymour Love is interrupted by her regular appointment to beat off some old guy dressed in full Napoleon regalia a few rows back.
Mission accomplished, she takes Love to the brothel she works at, where he recognizes the moans of Geraldine Rich (the aforementioned Jacqueline Beaudant), an old confidante apparently there on a lark. The two of them try to convince the rather bourgeoise whore of the virtues of oral sex (which disgusts her). While she initially rejects their proposal (to introduce her to Hugh Hefneresque magazine mogul Lawrence Layman and make her his new “Goodtime Girl”), she relents when she realizes the limitations of her current prospects.
In Love’s unusual apartment, whose sole prominent furnishings appear to be a couch and a large decorative wall featuring the cutouts Beaudine reclines in for the original 1976 poster art (and indeed for several scenes throughout the course of the film). We get treated to several comical minutes of Misty’s “training” (which a lot of guys probably wish their own ladies had undergone), where she gradually learns to overcome her revulsion towards being come on, delivering oral favors and taking it via the backdoor route.
They next head off on an unlikely flight where you get to choose whether you want sex (all the way or head) or between family or adult film along with your meal and seating section (where can I take one of these?). The trio arrives in Rome, with Metzger apparently utilizing a crew provided by French crime cum softcore cum hardcore director Max Pecas (who apparently worked alongside Metzger previously on The Image), where Misty sports a fantastic Greco-Roman upswept hairdo (her semi-ponytail and shoulder-exposing dress wouldn’t be out of place in Caligula or I, Claudius). Misty begins to “make a name for herself” by sleeping around with several members of the “elite” – a fellow at the opera, an art gallery dealer (played by the quite obviously “out” Casey Donovan, who despite doing a straight scene with Money, appears fully decked out in lipstick, mascara, eyeshadow and blush!).
Terri Hall joins us to give some elocution meets lesbianism lessons to Misty (partnering with Beaudine, who stands in for the Lawrence Layman part of the equation). Much is made of some relatively minor “gender reversals” as this and Geraldine’s patronizing of a male hooker in her opening scene, but it seems to be another case of making a big hash out of nothing – these are some pretty minor statements on sexual politics, all things considered.
There’s a very silly sequence obviously played for laughs where Misty gives head and/or beats off 3 guys in some rather goofy butler outfits (each wears a prominent yellow carnation in their lapel!) simultaneously, and a studio wrap party sequence where Misty finally meets her intended target, which includes an actual action stunt from Ras King, where he leaps off a catwalk onto some mattresses!
There’s a once-fashionable ménage a trois (whatever happened to that little craze?) between Money (who once again throws on a sexy little ponytail…yum!), Leonard and King, which technically becomes a ménage a quatre for the pegging scene (apparently the first of its kind onscreen) by utilizing the “stunt ass” of Casey Donovan and which pushes the film into the more “trisexual” (to quote Andy Milligan) realm of Metzger’s earlier Score.
There’s even a dash of actual emotional resonance, in the Caesar scene and what immediately follows (which I won’t spoil by discussing in print), and something of a happy ending (which shows some psychological acuity by referencing the emotional role reversal that tends to occur in real life relationships and love affairs). Hell, in the end, it’s almost romantic. Seriously. In short, this ain’t your average porno flick, kiddies.
There are numerous quotable lines to be found herein, but here are a few of my personal favorites:
“You should return every penny you made since you started in this business…or give a rebate, like the car companies…my dear, you are the absolute nadir of passion, the most unexciting thing God has ever created…a sexual civil service worker.” – Gillis and Beaudant to Money, in the early Paris brothel sequence
“The erotic impulse is like rain. And as it seeps down the water table of custom, it becomes less intoxicating and less potent. It seeps down social class by social class…until it reaches the basement (indicates Misty).” – Gillis to Money, during the “training” scenes in his stylized apartment.
“Never let the fact that they are doing it wrong stop you from doing it right.” – ibid
“The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the hard-on of the king” – Gillis quoting – or more to the point, deliberately misquoting – Shakespeare, to Beaudant, ibid
Despite the presence of a few industry notables, Misty Beethoven is ultimately a two person piece, with Gillis and Money performing a little centerpiece dance of psychological and emotional connection peppered by figures that flit in and out of the picture briefly (in both a real time and metaphorical sense). While Beaudant is present throughout the majority of the film’s running time, she’s more of a background furnishing or at best a sort of Greek chorus wryly commenting on the proceedings (more with her facial expressions than any actual lines, though she does get in several zingers along the way).
With an interesting soundtrack cobbled together from library cues (the particular library culled from actually ties Misty Beethoven to the 1966 Spiderman cartoon series thereby!), yet prominently featuring the likes of Morricone associates and fellow soundtrack composers Bruno Nicolai and Allesandro Allesandroni, plus similarly structured pieces from fellow Italian scorers such as Franco Bonfanti, and even a few prog rock acts, Misty Beethoven continues to stand head and shoulders above the competition in nearly every way, delivering a tremendous comparative onscreen bang for the buck – while filmed on a very low budget, it looks incredibly expensive. In effect, Metzger delivers the best of both worlds, as it were, pleasing both audience and his creditors in one surprising fell swoop.
What makes things even more interesting is the company it hails from. Distribpix, also formerly known as VideoXPix, was established way back in the mid ‘60s, with working relationships with such veteran directors of the New York exploitation and sexploitation field as Mike and Roberta Findlay, Joe Sarno, and John and Lem Amero, before moving into the hardcore arena and finally establishing the long running Video Shack chain back in the days of VHS and the mom and pop stores (!). Within the last decade, Distribpix has apparently returned and dedicated itself to re-releasing vintage softcore and hardcore films to DVD and Blu-Ray – and if this is any indication of the quality of their product, all I can say is bring it on, guys.
There is more attention paid to this one XXX film and the package we’re presented with than any 10 blockbuster studio films or much feted cinematic masterpieces by famed directors from the days when movies actually mattered. Colors are positively eye popping, and the print appears to be utterly pristine – assuredly even veterans of the “porno chic” theater experience have never seen the film looking like this.
Distribpix has gone whole hog on this one, delivering a lavish 2 DVD or one Blu-ray set packaged with several inserts, including a replica 1977 Adult Film Association award for best screenplay, a magnet (and how many people can claim to have a representation of porn legend Jamie Gillis on their refrigerator?), as well as some flyers which imply that the company has its hands on the rest of Metzger’s “Henry Paris” porn career, and most or all of which I’m certainly looking forward to seeing. They’re also selling engraved champagne glasses with the “Henry Paris” signature, and a first time release of the film’s soundtrack, which was apparently the result of a long hunt through misattributed credit listings and false leads to compile and remaster for release.
Misty Beethoven also boasts an extremely comprehensive and personal 55 page liner note booklet, which traces the lives and career highlights of nearly every member in the cast, as well as providing some personal anecdotes and reminiscences of Gillis in his final days and an (apparently successful) attempt to reunite him with the director and star of his favorite of all the films he’d been involved with in a career spanning over three decades.
The film itself comes in a truly deluxe edition, featuring both the original hardcore print and the edited softcore version, a common practice from the days when porn films actually attempted plots and some approximation of serious “acting”, with scripts, location shooting, and some attempt at auteurism in direction, in the (often mistaken) belief that the films could play to a mainstream market, sans penetration sequences. Though the info text attributes the practice to attempted circumvention of local obscenity laws, this seems a bit quixotic, as each state had its own particular variations on such…and seriously, was getting a hyper-low budget porn film into a few more theaters really worth all that effort?
The film also comes with subtitles (in several languages!) and most surprisingly, a much appreciated and quite informative info text option, ala BBC releases of Doctor Who!
A few real gems come up here and there in the info text, generally referring to Money and her relationship to Metzger – a fair portion of her dialogue wound up dubbed by another actress, she was apparently a difficult presence on set and noted for her incessant demands for additional cash, and when Metzger reused some footage from the film in a few subsequent releases, she came after him with legal action.
While understandable in a sense, this reuse of footage remains a fairly common practice in the world of porn (how many of those 4 hour scene compilation tapes have you seen?) and even in exploitation per se – can you picture if actors pulled this on a Jesus “let’s sneak in footage for 3 films at the same time and on the same dime” Franco shoot? But all that being duly noted, Gillis apparently got on with Money like a house on fire, and bore a great fondness for both actress and film 30 plus years on, so take it as you will.
Then there’s the extras. 25 minutes of outtakes from the film. A documentary on Process Blue’s restoration of the film. There were supposed to be trailers for the other “Henry Paris” films, but unfortunately the disc I have appears to have a glitch where selection of all 5 trailers individually will only play the one for The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, probably the least interesting of the batch*.
* in the event, while this glitch was present on my main Blu player the PS3, the Insignia was able to navigate the trailers as intended, so it appears to be an intermittent glitch – whether you get to see the rest of the trailers or not apparently depends on the player you have.
Having therefore managed to see the elusive trailers in question in the end, I must say that I’m particularly looking forward to Barbara Broadcast, which seems to share many of the same values aesthetically and features an S&M outtake from the filming of Misty Beethoven featuring Gillis and Money. You also get an amusing trailer for Maraschino Cherry, with a very Margot Kidderesque Gloria Leonard delivering a “candid” monologue to the viewer and yet another (if less interesting) domination sequence and featuring an appearance from both the lovely Constance Money and auburn tressed looker Annette Haven – both films seem quite interesting, and I’m looking forward to seeing each.
There’s Jamie Gillis’ final onscreen interview, where despite his apparent illness, he seems both in good spirits and in good shape, having aged gracefully and being more vibrant and present here than some other veterans I’ve run into in recent years. It’s a bit annoying, as the presentation is rather choppy, coming in the format of an email interview – while Gillis provides live and in person answers, questions appear as onscreen title cards accompanied by the exact same snippet of music from the film each and every time, which becomes both repetitive and comical after a few iterations. It would have been preferable just to edit together and run Gillis’ answers as a continuous stream, but hey, it’s good to have the man onscreen and opening up here, so take that for what it’s worth.
Gillis is surprisingly candid about both the pervasiveness of mob involvement in the industry (a subject most vets are understandably quite dodgy about discussing) and the dogged pursuit of the LAPD, and rants for a few minutes about the representation of the industry (and his own On the Prowl series) in Boogie Nights, and even discusses a few porn starlets (several of whom remain unfortunately unidentified except by photo). Regardless, it’s a welcome addition to the package in every way.
There’s a brief extra about Constance Money called “Desperately Seeking Susan”, which is purely narration with stills from the film, and reiterates information already presented in the liner notes.
You get another narrative extra in the same format, “Remembering Jamie Gillis”, but this proves to be a very personal and affecting reminiscence of one Benson Hurst, a British accented former Italian student relating to how he discovered “porno chic” and eventually met and developed a relationship with the man in question which sustained itself through his final days.
Finally, you get a 45 minute documentary on Metzger, porno chic and the film in question, which shows both Metzger and, surprisingly, Leonard in good condition (Leonard appears to have both mellowed and grown into her age – she seemed much older in 1975 than she does now as a seasoned veteran!).
In the end, like all the best film experiences, Misty Beethoven is ultimately exactly what you make of it. Hardly the sort of porn film for lonely guys to get off to, it’s still hardcore, and as such may or may not be the sort of thing you pull out to share with your girlfriend one evening, depending on how adventurous a couple you are. More of an art film, a Euro-cult film, or even a romance than what we’ve come to expect as a porno film, it is simultaneously too hardcore for the crowd that would likely be more inclined towards that end of the filmic equation and too high class, artistically inclined, or even snooty for the average porn aficionado. Ultimately, this is a rare and unique hybrid, designed and marketed to a small and rarified demographic: the Decadent aesthete, the artistically inclined, cultured personage who does not balk with Puritanical shock and disdain at free sexual expression. Or in other words, right up my alley. Doubtless listeners and followers of Third Eye may find themselves similarly inclined, and as such, Distribpix’ all-out deluxe special edition of Misty Beethoven comes to the audience so described with high marks and unqualified recommendation.
Begin your own education with Dr. Love and company here.