J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 15, 2013

DOC NYC ’13: The Sarnos

The late Joseph W. Sarno was never accused of being a ruthless businessman.  The soft-core sexploitation director is considered an auteur by many, but he rarely had an ownership stake in the films he made.  As a result, the Sarno family finances are a bit precarious, making it a challenge to secure financing for a new film.  Wiktor Ericsson follows Sarno and his wife Peggy Steffans Sarno as they take their bows on the international film festival circuit and plug away on his comeback attempt in The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during DOC NYC 2013.

Films like Inga and Sin in the Suburbs made a ton of money for somebody, playing to packed old school Times Square grindhouse theaters.  Sarno just got to make the next one.  At least, he met his future wife when she accepted a part in one of his films.  Like many of his regulars, she was a legit stage thesp, who brought real acting chops to his films.  Frankly, opinions vary regarding the acting you will find in Sarno’s cinematic statements, but let’s just assume the best for now.  Likewise, not everyone buys into Sarno’s press as the “Ingmar Bergman of Sexploitation,” but enough do for us to take it seriously.

Indeed, Ericsson records for posterity the Sarnos enjoying their overdue ovations at a BFI retrospective, which is about as real as it gets.  Not surprisingly, John Waters (the Martin Scorsese of grindhouse docs) is on hand to put Sarno’s career in perspective.  A Sarno film definitely explores sexual subjects, but it is uncharacteristically concerned with female fulfillment.  They are also dark, psychologically complex, and often kind of weird.  Waters suggests they probably were not all that satisfying for 42nd Street patrons looking to take care of business—and he would know from firsthand experience.

Unfortunately, time passed by Sarno’s slightly scandalous oeuvre.  Reluctantly, he accepted some pseudonymous hardcore work, but that was not his thing.  As the product of their circumstances, Ericcson’s Life in Dirty Movies is surprisingly wistful, especially by provocative doc standards.  Ironically, it is a rather nostalgic, almost conservative film, focusing on the Sarnos’ enduring love.

Frankly, the film’s niceness to naughtiness ratio might not go over so well with its target audience.  Dirty is real and honest, but the course of human events would deny it a big finish. Despite the pleasantness of the Sarnos, the doc is rather small in scope, feeling better suited to television than the big screen.  Norwegian jazz musician Bugge Wesseltoft’s upbeat score helps enhance its cinematic quality, but there is no getting around Dirty’s talky intimacy.

Nevertheless, Sarno has a fascinating career that reflects wider cultural trends in unexpected ways.  It is also well worth meeting Steffans on-screen.  Still quite a striking woman with a razor-sharp sense of humor, who helps keep the very personal film moving along.  If Sarno was the Bergman of Sexploitation, than she is the Helen Mirren.  Unlikely to convert new fans wholesale, The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies is mostly recommended for Sarno’s pre-existing admirers and grindhouse connoisseurs when it screens tomorrow (11/16) and Monday (11/18) at the IFC Center as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

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