by Rebecca Burgan
In the wake of the new wave art house boom of the 1960s, sexploitation films and art films mimicked each other’s aesthetics to market to a wider audience. American auteur Joseph W. Sarno (1921-2010) produced a prolific catalog of softcore films in the '60s and '70s. Hoping that the hardcore genre was short-lived, Sarno found his niche in the arty sexploitation world, where dramatic lighting, complex sensitive characters, and female sexuality dominated. His technical skills and quick production time set him apart from other directors in the genre, whereas those with a comparable technique would have gone on to mainstream films. He directed his actors to express their anxieties and passions through realism, capturing gritty sexual emotion in its immediacy. He was a master of sexual cinematic verisimilitude.
Sarno’s films emphasize women’s relationships and women’s pleasure, whereas the men are more objectified as instruments to help achieve the female orgasm—a fairly fresh feminist notion at the time. Visual focus during orgasm was often directed at facial expressions rather than a tight zoom on some tight penetration. The sincerity of the sexual experience is revealed more intimately by the face. Gustav Machaty's 1933 Czechoslovakian art film, Ecstasy, starring Hedy Lamarr, was still pre-Code but was banned in America and in Germany by Hitler. Audiences watched Lamarr’s titillating nude body traipse through the woods and skinny dip in the lake, leading up to a moment of sexual ecstasy revealed only through a close-up on her pained face. The director employed an inspired technique of realism to achieve the right expressions from her—poking her rump off screen with a safety pin. The film was banned because of her scandalously debauched motivation for pleasure: cheating on her gross old husband. The censors decreed, you had to be married to revel in such pleasure and make faces like that. More intimate and revealing than a nude bathing scene, the close-up disturbed the Production Code censors in America, who considered even a safer, morally balanced edit of the film to be too indecent for audiences. The film was basically buried, and Lamarr was only allowed to work again if she cleaned up her act.