Ever since the archaic Production Code crumbled 40 years ago, and screen sex and nudity became staples of the American cinema, audiences have taken enormous pleasure in watching movie stars disrobe. In the Internet age, the nude bodies viewed most frequently belong to ordinary people. These different acts of voyeurism trigger dissimilar fantasies, raising a question: What do amateurs have that stars don't?
This rumination on the implications of on-camera sex is inspired by the return of Jack Stevenson, a collector, curator and writer (Land of a Thousand Balconies) who launched his career in San Francisco before moving to Denmark in the '90s. His biannual visit to Yerba Beuna Center For the Arts this weekend includes three programs of vintage skin and salaciousness under the banner The Superstars Next Door: A Celebration of San Francisco Amateur Sex Cinema From the '60s. For all the lust and lasciviousness on display, though, it's Peoria-innocent compared to the stuff you can watch today with the right URL and a couple of mouse clicks.
The first half of tonight's double bill is entitled "Home Movies," and comprises four short 16mm films made in 1968 with nonprofessionals. (In every sense of the word, presumably, though one wonders.) The one previewed for the press, the playful, awkward His Father's Call-Girl, unspools inside the long-gone Green Door Books on Sixth Street, a no-frills shop that sold a variety of porn mags. Larry and his hot date Lola drop in to browse and, in short order, the dirty old man behind the counter is filming them having sex in the back room.
The tawdriness of His Father's Call-Girl has been diluted by the passage of time, or perhaps we are charmed at the thought that this otherwise unremarkable movie immortalizes the firmness and flexibility of its now-septuagenarian stars. Lola's big hair, frosted to a fare-thee-well, provides another time-stamp, as well as a useful historical corrective to the perception that every San Francisco gal in those days was an Herbal Essence-scented hippie.
What's truly surprising about this particular relic is the absence of swear words, dirty talk and sexual technique. The actors, though enthusiastic, rely on a pretty limited (and only partly visible) bedroom repertoire. The Sexual Revolution may have removed the stigma of multiple partners, but it took another couple decades before the average American was comfortable experimenting with a broader range of, um, activities.
The second show, "Underground," unearths a 65-minute feature from 1968, The Meatrack. A monotone, cold-hearted hunk doesn't just propel the flick; he gives it its name. Everybody wants a piece of the studly J.C., from horny housewives to male drivers who know what kind of ride a hitchhiker in a faded jean jacket is seeking. Since the soft-core sex is just as obscured as that in His Father's Call-Girl, the film's most interesting aspect is the artsy flashbacks to J.C.'s childhood and adolescence, which etch a psychological profile. "You just take account of what you got," his bitter mother lectures him, "and use it for all it's worth."
J.C.'s bisexuality doesn't feel like a political statement so much as a business decision. Director Richard Stockton is an equal-opportunity titillator, just as J.C. is an opportunist open to any offer. (The film boasts precious few exterior shots, but there's a brief sequence in Union Square that includes glimpses of no less than five airline offices. These few seconds assure the film's historical value.)
Jack Stevenson's residency concludes Saturday night with "Flaming Striptease ? A History of Live Sex Performance." As you'd expect, the Condor Club, made internationally famous by Carol Doda, makes a couple of appearances in this 90-minute collection of clips covering the entire range from burlesque to topless dancing to live sex acts. My favorite bit consisted of a Latino rock band, not untalented but way too much in thrall to Carlos Santana, playing behind a couple of girls dancing in g-strings. It's entertainment, it's art and it's commerce, all wrapped up in one happy sliver of '60s nightlife.
The Superstars Next Door: A Celebration of San Francisco Amateur Sex Cinema From the '60s screens October 9 and 11, 2008 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For more information, visit ybca.org.