JANUARY 26, 2021
SATIRE, IN THE RIGHT HANDS, is nobody’s friend. It should make you wince, maybe even disgust you, at least as often as it makes you laugh. We’re now living in the best, and most dangerous, time for satirists — if, that is, you recognize that satirists are not advance agents for social justice, not benign tellers of parables designed to make you giggle politely at someone else’s foibles and misguided views, but never, ever, your own.
That’s where Blue Movie, Terry Southern’s guided missile of a dirty book, now bravely reissued by Grove Press, comes in. Blue Movie is a farce about the making of Hollywood’s first big-budget, all-star, hardcore porno. It is unlikely to make many friends in 2020: every page is likely to offend the sensitive; the book is designed that way. For me, its only competition as funniest book ever written are Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Fran Ross’s Oreo, a still-waiting-to-be-discovered classic that reads as if James Joyce had been reborn as a Black-Jewish teenage-girl stand-up. Blue Movie, like most of Southern’s work, epitomizes the regard any self-respecting kid who’s been told to behave and keep clean has for the nearest puddle. That is to say, as a chance to splash around and get dirty for the sheer fun of seeing (to paraphrase Southern) whose shit gets hot as a result. The jokes don’t just play with sexist and racist and homophobic conventions — they leap into them, inflate them, make them more ridiculous than ever until they seem candidates for the Mount Rushmore of tastelessness.
I’m not going to falsify the book and claim that its outrageousness is some plea for understanding or tolerance. Southern, like every true comic sensibility, wanted to see how far he could go, and, in the process, to see how far the reader was willing to go. Does Southern go too far? Of course he does. And his blistering short story, “The Blood of a Wig” (the final piece in the superb collection Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes) is about how such a sensibility risks cutting itself off from a humanity it can’t resist trying to outrage. To laugh at Terry Southern, you have to be willing to laugh at what appalls, disgusts, and even upsets you. It is revolting in Blue Movie when a studio boss, a closet necrophiliac, defiles the corpse of his number-one star. But the joke is also the logical extension of the almost cannibalistic nature of the star system. To enjoy Terry Southern, you have to get on the wavelength of an author who was keen on the potential for chaos — and I mean sirens wailing, people-running-through-the-streets-or-battling-each-other-for-the-last-bottle-of-water, full-on-cusp-of-the-apocalypse panic — because he found chaos funny. The sound that echoes through his books is the cackle of the author himself, convulsed at what he has wrought.
The marked contrast in Terry Southern’s work is between the author’s comfort with chaos and the deadly precision of tone, tempo, and word choice. Norman Mailer memorably classified Southern’s writing as “clean, mean, coolly deliberate, and murderous prose.” Each descriptive was exactly right. Southern combined hipster argot, the American vernacular’s penchant for nicknames and abbreviations, the friendly middle-class boosterism of a small-town businessman, and a refined, almost fussy propriety. His voice is as if an English gentleman were trapped in the body of a slightly demented Jaycee who’s been given a drug allowing him to spew out his most profane fantasies, all with unceasing good manners. The year after Southern died, William Styron published a remembrance of his friend in The Paris Review which included an account of a tour Styron, his wife Rose, and Southern took of Chicago’s Cook County Jail during which Southern was offered the chance to sit in the electric chair. He responded: “I’ve always wanted to experience the hot squat, vicariously that is. But I think that today I’ll decline your very tempting invitation.”
And that politesse remained even when Southern moved on to more salacious matters. In a letter quoted in The Candy Men, a history of Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, written by Southern’s son Nile, Southern attempts to help a nervous editor find a suitable euphemism for “cock.” Of course, as with all euphemisms, each seem dirtier than the word they are meant to replace: “I’m not insisting on the word ‘Cock’ […] ‘Hot greaser joint’ is acceptable, as is ‘bit’, ‘wood’, ‘rod’, ‘dip-stick’, ‘shaft’, ‘staff’ and ‘jelly-roll’ (or ‘jumbo’, or the very contemporary ‘zoomba’!).” The same is true of “the full anal-pen,” the term used in Blue Movie instead of “buttfucking,” much more decorous and about 10 times dirtier.
Southern’s language is not just a matter of contrasts and word choice but also matter of rhythm, the abbreviations (like Southern’s description of the literary scene as “the quality lit biz”) bringing you up shorter than you expected but imposing a new tempo that feels as if it has been there all along, waiting to be discovered. In Candy, two frat boy types, drinking and horny at a Greenwich Village bar are “lushing it up and keen for puss.” Obscene? You bet, but there’s a concise rise-and-fall to the rhythm of that sentence, the satisfaction of hearing a tossed-off remark rendered expertly and then left to settle, a vibrating stiletto of filthy wit. To all this, in Blue Movie, Southern adds showbiz slang, much of it reading like a hipster had taken over the copy desk at Variety. Thus a lauded director’s “oeuvre” is summed up as not only copping the top statuary at Venice and Cannes but “all smash at the box.”
There are not many American writers for whom style really is content. We’re too earnest a nation, too attached to making our art about messages or lessons, and usually, easily digestible ones. The American authors who take style as something close to an ethics of writing are quite often the most elegant. Think of W. M. Spackman’s slim comedies of erotic manners, the bespoke mordancy of Frederick Seidel’s verse, or of Raymond Chandler, whose style fought it out with his moralism and beat it two falls out of three. Southern, whose elegant prose exists amid the chaos and rut it’s describing, is such a stylist. Saying the right thing — even if it is the most outrageous or obscene thing — in exactly the right way is the only morality at work in his work.
Blue Movie is his best novel, the funniest, the most extreme, the most sustained narrative. At the heart of it is Boris Adrian, “King B.,” Southern’s homage to Stanley Kubrick, with whom Southern collaborated on the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. Blue Movie came out two years after Stanley the K’s acclaimed snoozer 2001 and, accordingly, Boris’s work is wildly praised, wildly successful, and nearly incomprehensible. He is also in the position of doing whatever it is that he wants to do, if there were anything he wanted to do. Boris doesn’t have even the energy anymore to read scripts, and early on Southern suggests that Boris exists in a state of pampered empty-headedness (the kind that produced Fellini’s 8 ½), the state where directors are encouraged to believe profundity lurks within their every half-formed pensée. Inspiration, if you want to call it that, arrives during the Hollywood party that opens the book and a screening of the inevitable stag reel. What Boris sees is “[u]gly people in harsh, flat lighting, dominated by the same rear master-shot […] of some cretin’s buttocks thrusting halfheartedly into a dopey girl’s black-stockinged honey-pot — except somehow it looked more like a cesspool.” And B. wonders, “How is it possible to make an attractive girl look that bad?” So, he decides he will be the one to liberate the screen by bringing smut the gloss, star power, and vision nowhere to be found in stag films. “Why isn’t it possible,” he asks, “to make one that’s really good — one that’s genuinely erotic and beautiful […] suppose the film were made under studio conditions — feature-length, color, beautiful actors, strong plot.”
To this end, Boris enlists the help of independent producer Sid Krassman (whose surname tells you everything you need to know), “a hairy, chunklike man,” garrulous and vulgar to his soul. Sid’s quest for funding takes him to the principality of Liechtenstein, desperate for tourist dollars. He strikes a deal for a $10 million budget in exchange for which the film will be exhibited solely in that principality, meaning cineastes, jetsetters, swingers, and industry watchers will all have to journey there in order to see King B.’s new one. It’s up to Boris to lure the talent — a French actress of the “mais oui, cheri” type who’s also an out and vocal lesbian; the female American superstar who wants critical credibility to go along with her box office dominance; and the perky all-American brother-and-sister twins who’ll star in the incest episode of The Faces of Love, the name Boris’s award-winning screenwriter has come up with for his opus.
It’s probably necessary to throw in a little context here. Blue Movie appeared in that period when Hollywood studios, happy to take advantage of the still-recent MPAA ratings system, were willing to release films that had been rated X — like Midnight Cowboy and, a bit later, A Clockwork Orange — because there was an adult audience, and a critical one, ready to support them but before the advent of porno chic, the time when Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door got mainstream attention and couples and hipsters joined the raincoat brigade at the local adult movie houses. The Hollywood of Blue Movie, like the real Hollywood of that time, is heading toward increased frankness and even explicitness. There were probably Hollywood directors dreaming that eventually one of them would go all the way. None did. The filmmakers who did have almost all been foreign, like the Japanese director Nagisa Oshima in his 1976 In the Realm of the Senses, and more than two decades later, Patrice Chéreau with Intimacy, Leos Carax in Pola X, Catherine Breillat with Romance, and Lars von Trier in Antichrist (in which the penetration shot that occurs when Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe are having sex is performed by two stands-ins).
Boris’s desire to be the trailblazer comes from a combination of boredom, ego, the desire to be a provocateur, and though it’s easy to pass over it, from a genuine and still unsolved aesthetic problem that Southern seems to grasp: How do you film sex without falling into either coyness or blatant crudity?
Sex has always been the taboo that, in the movies, needs to keep being broken again and again. The movies in which we see shocks of recognition of our own sex lives — not the trauma or upheaval but simply the natural behavior we take for granted have amounted to paltry few. What few sex scenes still exist in the comic book convention that currently constitutes mainstream American movies, are rife with ludicrous conventions. (My personal favorite is the actress clasping bedsheet tightly between arms and torso as post-coital boob bandeau.) When you see something approaching natural behavior, like the moment in Wayne Kramer’s wonderful noir romance The Cooler where Maria Bello rests her hand casually on William H. Macy’s naked crotch, it’s a shock. Not the act but the realization of how much cinema avoids this part of our lives.
At one point in Blue Movie, Boris thinks back on a scene in one of his films where the leads make love and cunnilingus is implied as the lead actor’s head “gradually slides out of the frame […] whereupon the camera moves up to her closed-eyed face and holds on her expression of mounting rapture.” To Boris, it’s a cop-out, and the critics acclaiming the scene’s “taste” makes it seem even more of a cop-out. Boris doesn’t want to cop out anymore. But not copping out raises its own set of problems. In her essay on Bonnie and Clyde, Pauline Kael wrote about what bad taste it would have been if the film, out of good taste, had avoided showing us the violence that was its subject. But of course, the violence that film shows us was fake. When the sex in a movie becomes real, when the actors are required to actually have sex, the fiction of the film, and the reality of their characters, is suddenly tossed away. (No offense to Mark Rylance, a marvelous actor, but I doubt very much he was thinking in character when Kerry Fox brought him to orgasm onscreen in Intimacy.) No one cares if the fiction of a porno is broken, because porn is so single-minded. Everything in it is an excuse, a setup for sex. It’s not original on my part to say that porn has now returned to its roots as episodic stag reels (though the tone of so much current porn is just mean), but even when directors were trying to make porn films as actual features, there was nothing that approached the psychology or complexity of straight drama. There couldn’t be. Those things would get in the way of the turn-on, which is porn’s raison d’être. So we are left with the paradox that, psychologically at least, the actuality of porn is much less real than the artifice of drama. And yet why do so many artful sex scenes feel like avoidance and cowardice?
One of the grand jokes in Blue Movie is that, as Boris’s project goes on, as he and his screenwriter congratulate each other on the daring of their vision, as the actors talk about the heaviness of his concept, the movie Southern describes Boris making sounds no more than his original conception: a slick, well-shot porno with a cast of all-star nifties (to borrow a Southernism). There’s no more depth than the stag reels whose aesthetic blankness offended Boris, but it’s a turn-on. Boris’s pretension to being a director falls away and the instinct of the decorative artist takes over (which turned out to be the arc of Kubrick’s career). He talks endlessly through the psychology of the scenes with his actors but it’s a con job, even if he can’t admit it. He’s much more interested in capturing the glint of sunlight on the bud of a clitoris.
The banality of the movie Boris is making is a great subject for a satirist who was so fond of delirious exaggeration. All the episodes seem to follow well-worn porn tropes: there’s the schoolgirl who, seduced by her girlfriend, takes enthusiastically to Sapphic pleasures; there’s the white woman raised in the tropics who can’t resist the temptation of the local men; and, this being porn, the Black men recruited to play her lovers are all outrageously hung, though a couple of them prefer the happy-to-oblige production designer to their leading lady; all of it rendered in the exquisite locales of discovered cabins with roaring fires, secluded riverside grottos. It’s artful, but it ain’t art. What I think Southern is doing here is suggesting that the impulse to turn others on and be in the state of being turned on, reduces everything else in our heads to mush, which, for the artist, means treating the complexity of sex. That’s the comedy and anarchy of sex — and anarchy is the state in which Southern the writer felt most at home.
The erotic shenanigans coexist with behind-the-scenes machinations that seem to have come pretty clearly from what Southern observed as a screenwriter, the deals and backstabbing and bickering that makes it seem a miracle any movie gets made, let alone a good one. Those parts of Blue Movie have links to the show-biz ruthlessness that Budd Schulberg captured in What Makes Sammy Run? and John O’Hara in his still-unheralded 1962 The Big Laugh, one of the great Hollywood novels. In Blue Movie, the cold-eyed Hollywood observer works right alongside the horny adolescent with a lit cherry bomb in one hand and the other hand down the front of his Levi’s. Both of them want to see how much pressure they can pump inside the whole contraption before it all blows up. When it does it’s as if a group of people had been dosed with a lysergic aphrodisiac in the midst of a pie fight. Even the Mafia and the Vatican get in on the act. Blue Movie is one of the rare farces that ties itself in knots and then, instead of picking at the knots, explodes.
If Terry Southern is an artist for this time, it’s also an era particularly unwelcome to an artist like him. We exist in a moment when important questions about consent and power — which of course are part of the larger question of who has power over all our lives — have been swamped by the presumption that there exists an agreed-upon code of correct behavior which rules every aspect of sexual experience including our fantasies. Where it’s believed fantasies should be treated as if they are things the fantasist has actually acted out, or would act out, given the chance. Where the inevitable bummers of having a sex life — confusion, regret, even feeling used — are treated as being no different from abuse or coercion. And where taking agency over our sex life, which means accepting that those lousy parts happen, is considered less enlightened than claiming victimhood.
In this context, I’d like to make a case for the unleashed pornographic imagination of Blue Movie not as a plea for tolerance, but as a call for intolerance, intolerance of mid-Victorian prudery passed off as progressive thought, the kind that treats sexual freedom as something that ought to be managed by the right kind of people. In other words, a woke version of just the kind of repressiveness the right has long used to its ends. To perpetrate a travesty on Emma Goldman’s quote, I think Terry Southern, the bomb thrower made for these uptight times, is saying that if he can’t jerk off, he doesn’t want to be a part of your revolution. Zoomba!