Monday, March 19, 2007

Boogie Nights: The Midnight Blue Collection Vols. 1-5 review

Al Goldstein is a man that you either love or hate--there are few points in-between. Despite my feelings about a lot of what he's done as a pornographer emeritus, against all my better nature, I love this guy. He's vile, disgusting, a total capitalist pig, an exploiter, and so much more. But he admits it. Having founded Screw magazine in NYC in 1968, making it one of the first above-ground smut rags to display people having sex (that's penetration folks), Goldstein is no stranger to arrests and courtrooms.

If I was to compare him to anyone, it would be Lenny Bruce. The same themes are there in the lives of these flawed men: the self-destructiveness, the sexual obsessions, the Jewishness, the scathing politics, the self-deprecating humor and outlandishness, the frequently unpopular views on the "war between the sexes," a total disdain for decorum and America's obsession with appearances, hypocrisy (even their own), and then some.

Besides running a sometimes lucrative business selling Screw, Goldstein also sold gonzo sex tapes of celebrities, as well as his own porno productions. At one point, he was a millionaire with multiple homes, his own publishing house, all the women he could ever manage, and an ongoing cable access show that eclipses all the rest.

From 1975-2002, Midnight Blue was that show, and while it wasn't able to show full-on sex, the programming could be called extremely crass, lewd, tawdry, and vulgar. But, as one of the DVD's trivia-tracks states, "these were simpler times." Indeed they were, but mainstream feminism and AIDs were about to disrupt the swinger heaven, and the porno acropolis...soon to be a necropolis. By 2001, the internet finished the job, making old school pornographers like Goldstein redundant. But there was a lot more to Al Goldstein and his persona throughout the 70s-00s, and his decline can be seen as an indicator of the end of the old New York City, which should be lamented. Screw's publisher had a real knack for making life hell for NYC politicians, but he was also one of the lone voices that attacked Reaganism when nobody else would.

He lambasted Donald Trump for being the mafia frontman loser that he still is today, while he was also known to use his Midnight Blue program as his own bully pulpit, and wantonly.
Often, the attacks on his ex-wife, celebrities, other pornographers, and NYC faces, were purely personal. To be fair, the man is a mixed-bag, but he makes no bones of who and what he was/is, or his own private hypocrisies.

This makes him very unique as an American personality.

While feminist leadership were embracing the right-wing and censorship, Al Goldstein and his ilk in their porno Arcadia were ironically entrusted by the situation to guard the First Amendment. Like Lenny, they were reluctant defenders who eventually got it, and understood their role in the heat of that explosive historical moment. Blue Underground's Midnight Blue series, then, can only be a personal document of the rise and fall of Al Goldstein and of the sexual revolution and the end of fun in America. The quality of the series is surprisingly good, especially for the earliest segments. If you remember TV reception from the 1970s-80s, this will all be a walk down memory lane, only cleaned-up a bit, color corrected, and restored--it looks and sounds pretty good overall.

Hence, the series is a collection of the very best of the Midnight Blue cable access show. Here's the beef:

The Deep Throat Special Edition Vol. 1--This is exactly what it states it is: interviews with the major players behind Deep Throat (though Linda Lovelace is conspicuously absent). Interviews with Chuck Traynor, Gerard Damiano, Harry Reems, and Carol Connors (mother to one Thora Birch, one of the main-attractions of this volume), are apocryphal and give some great supplements to the documentary "Inside Deep Throat" and the general literature surrounding the film. But the star attraction is Al Goldstein.

His interviewing style is blunt, crass, and exhilarating. He literally cuts-to-the-chase in almost every interview, often asking questions nobody else would have had the temerity to ask. Perhaps the best interviews are with Harry Reems, however, and he comes-off as really understanding where pornography was at the time, as well as where it was going (home video).
Most of the footage for this volume covers 1975-1980, and includes some interesting tidbits on Linda Lovelace and her constantly changing stories about how the sex industry (and Traynor in-particular) treated her. The veracity of the majority of these stories has been impeached since the late-1980s.

Carol Connors' striptease can only be described as religious. This is probably the best of the series. It would have been great if Damiano had talked more about his ties with organized crime, but he preferred being able to walk for the rest of his life.

Porn Stars of the 70s Vol. 2--While this volume is a mixed-bag, it's still pretty good, and features some stunning sex ads for escort services, sex toys, and personals (too personal sometimes!). Again, we get a gaggle of seedy porno folks, and the insights are pretty probing and intriguing. Marilyn Chambers gives some great interview, and illustrates how difficult it was then (and now) for a porno star to cross-over into "straight" show business. The Annie Sprinkle of old is here with some of her legendary first sexual performance pieces, and even Seka is shown to be a pioneer of women controlling their destiny in the porn business. It's an interesting flipside to feminist (and fundamentalist Christian) propaganda, where every single woman involved in porn is a "victim."

Yet, Goldstein even includes some of these stories of exploitation, as a minor actress talks about being "overworked and underpaid," and being pressured to do acts she hadn't agreed to before a shoot. By the late-1970s, porn just didn't pay the big money anymore, if it paid actors and actresses at all, and even the men were getting screwed. Once again, Al Goldstein steals the show, and is just as much an attraction as the ads for Plato's Retreat (a swinger's club killed by AIDs, Reagan, and then-closeted Mayor Ed Koch), and prostitutes.

Goldstein's comments are so scathing, but so dead-on and wrapped in some serious wit that they are uproariously funny. I suspect the "trivia track" is from his pen, and is a welcome addition to the series for those who don't have a lot of the background on the Manhattan sex scenes during the sexual revolution. This set appears to be confined primarily to 1977, though there are a few segments from 1975, 1978, and 1979.

Celebrities Edition Vol. 3--Wow, this is weird one. Russ Meyer, Tiny Tim (eek!), R. Crumb (a favorite), Gilbert Gottfried, Penn and Teller, Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Schwarzenegger" means "the black ploughman"), Al Lewis (Grampa from the Munsters), O.J. Simpson at the Hooker's Ball in SF, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, and some very embarrassing renegade sex tapes of the Go-Gos and Rob Lowe.

It's pretty hilarious watching some of these folks talking about sex--particularly Gilbert Gottfried who finally had a chance to do his real shtick on Midnight Blue. The trivia track takes some good pot-shots at Schwarzenegger, such as the fact that his father was a member of the Nazi party under Hitler, and that the Austrian museum for Arnie has been closed due to "lack of interest." O.J. also gets a few pot-shots. Speaking of "pot", the NORML ads, and the faux drug ads are a real hoot. My favorites: Al's "fuck you" editorials to Sean Penn (Madonna era), Donald Trump, Jack Nicholson, Howard Stern (boy, does he nail how lame this asshole is), and Claudia Schiffer.

The Schiffer editorial is possibly the most poetic slam of anyone in the English language ever, even rivaling William Blake, Alexander Pope, William S. Burroughs, Twain, and Oscar Wilde.
Dragging Descartes, Spinoza, and Plato into it helped, but it's the torrent of earned abuse alongside of all them that really makes this classic material that would make any Jewish comedian jealous. Even Don Rickles would be envious of this tirade that sums-up what a model is in-reality. This makes Vol. 3 a close contender with Vol. 1 for the best volume.

R. Crumb discusses some of the true and disturbing facts about women's behavior that are on-display in Crumb, several years before the Terry Zwigoff documentary, while the Go-Gos and Barbara Streisand porno tapes will raise more than a few eyebrows. I'd heard of both bootlegs, but the Go-Gos tape is perhaps the most obvious smoking-gun for female sexism that there is (keyword: MALE ROADIE). Well, besides the collected writings of Andrea Dworkin, the dead man hater. Sadly, Midnight Blue was barred by the FCC and Manhattan Cable from airing these bootleg sex tapes uncut, and it was surprising they weren't presented unexpurgated on this volume (and the series), and complete. Still, you have unique footage of Garret Morris (SNL, 1975-1980), Buck Henry, more sex-industry ads, and more of Goldstein's inimitable style as an interviewer that must be seen to be believed.

PS: It's not Babs. This volume appears to cover 1977-89.

Freaks & Geeks Vol. 4--Ouch! This one is interesting in that it documents the S&M scene in Manhattan in the 1970s, but there are sundry other sexual oddities here. One of noteworthy anthropological interest (and for the sexologists down in Bloomington at Kinsey) is Tara Alexander's "spermathon." I'm thinking this was in 1979, but at the time, her record of 86 partners in one night pales to the records of today (edging at around nearly 600 men, from Spantaneous Extasy), and the trivia track lists the most recent records in horrifying detail.

Yes, there's piercing, some BDSM sessions, and a hilarious interview with an dominatrix and a Midnight Blue interviewer who doesn't approve of her lifestyle. The money was on the dom, she coulda taken him. What a schmuck. He offers to punch her for money.

The best is the "Cat House for Dogs" segment. Yup, it was a brothel for dog-owners to take their dogs know. Only it was a media prank by a performance artist and media guerrilla named Joey Skaggs. It wasn't real, but caused a serious uproar in Manhattan at the time. Skaggs strikes me as a former Yippie, a radical 60s-era group that used the same tactics to stir-up controversy and chaos in the media. All said, this is probably the most disappointing volume, and suffers from less Al Goldstein. It's also not for the squeamish who find tattooing, piercing, and whatnot, a little too much. Nonetheless, a lot of what you see here is now mainstreamed! It covers the late-1970s into the the late-1990s. Nuff said.

Porn King, Vol. 5--If you've survived most of the culture shock of the the first four volumes, you haven't been truly shocked yet. Wha?! No, not at all. This is a documentary by first-time director James Guardino about the decline of Al Goldstein, Screw, and the end of Midnight Blue in 2002. By this time, Goldstein's porno empire has been undercut by internet porn, and the former guru's own brand of self-destructiveness.

Around 2001, he had fired a secretary and left a number of obscene messages on the woman's answering machine. It's unclear why. One message he left brought him criminal harassment charges when he told her, "I'm gonna bring you down." Guardino makes it clear that Goldstein had brought the lawsuit upon himself, though it does appear that the woman-in-question might have been a setup by larger forces who had wanted to get at Goldstein for decades. It wasn't hard with a man who stuck his neck out to be hung...

Goldstein details how the former secretary stole sensitive business and accounting information from Screw's databases, as well as some hints that she also committed acts of sabotage in the offices of the paper. Maybe. There are even some hints that her and Goldstein once had had a sexual relationship, possibly underscoring that when his relationships end, the acrimony begins. Who's right? We'll probably never know. It sure isn't Goldstein, but there are questions whether he could have avoided all of the lawsuits documented in the film. According to the liner notes, "Instead of quietly paying a small fine, a hell-bent Goldstein decides to turn the trial into a media sensation." In short, his empire was already falling, and he needed to be a cause celeb as he had been in the past. It probably wasn't the first time he did this, as Screw was inundated with lawsuits over the years, and not always for the skin.

Porn King is a pretty sad tale, even as wrongheaded as Goldstein is in the film, but he somehow survives. It makes Citizen Kane look uplifting. We see a man one-minute in his Florida manse, while the next he's homeless and hoping to score a job for minimum-wage. You couldn't find a more gripping riches-to-rags tale than this one, and it has some truly harrowing moments that will be seared into your mind for days.

Particularly upsetting are the segments of the last Midnight Blue shows where we see Goldstein suffering from a periodontal disease that is rotting his gums and jawbones--words literally do no justice here, and he is pitiable, almost suffering as Job did in the Torah. At one point, Guardino was banned by Goldstein from filming for the crucial 60 days when Screw and Midnight Blue were shuttered, but he delivers what he could. It's a pretty good documentary.
Celebrities and friends like Penn Gillette, Bill Lustig, and many others, paid Al's rent for awhile from 2002-on, and he's back on his feet again on the internet (albeit, not the mogul he once was). Love him, hate him, or feel as ambivalent about him as I do, but this writer would wager that Al Goldstein has learned from his mistakes.

That makes him--as a pornographer--better than most of the incumbents in Congress, or George W. Bush and his gaggle of criminals. This series is the extreme anthropology of the West, and a solid document of the sexual revolution and its aftermath. For the curious, and even scholars out there, it's essential viewing, a window into a simpler and freer time.