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Birds, Bees, and Desperate Housewives, or How Joe Sarno Made Sex Look Good

Volume 4 in Film Movement’s Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series pairs one of his most famous and groundbreaking films, Sin in the Suburbs (1964), with simply one of his best, Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974). Their ten-year separation reflects a whole era of development in that middle-class phenomenon called the Sexual Revolution. Thrown in as a kind of bonus is Warm Nights Hot Pleasures (1964), the film made immediately after Sin in the Suburbs.

In American cinema of the ’60s and early ’70s, there were three ways of presenting themes of characters having sex. The mainstream Hollywood way was generally not at all, although this was changing as censorship boundaries were gradually expanded by indie exploitation movies, often at considerable legal expense.

Theirs was the second way: present sex titillatingly while appeasing local censor boards with “socially redeeming value”, which meant meting out harsh puritanical punishment to those who strayed from the married missionary position. In other words, sex was kept safely dirty and shameful. This explains, for example, the ending of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), the first major Hollywood production under the MPAA’s new X rating to win an Oscar for Best Picture. If that film feels like a downer, that’s how America wanted its hustlers. The likes of Xaviera Hollander, “the Happy Hooker”, was still a few years away, awaiting the arrival of the short-lived “porno chic” era.

Whereas Sweden was commonly held up as a political-economic “Third Way” between the capitalist West and the communist Iron Curtain, the budding or chafing sexual revolution in cinema was having its own Third Way in the form of Swedish-American filmmaker Joe Sarno, whose idol was Ingmar Bergman. Sarno made films that, while adopting an intense (and cheap) style, explored dramatic and credible arcs of character and plot in which sexual liberation was generally held a good thing, it’s just that many people’s traditional guilt-ridden hang-ups couldn’t handle it.

The Swedish influence on sexual cinema was pronounced, not only in Bergman’s films but, for example, in Vilgot Sjöman’s scandalous I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and I Am Curious (Blue) (1968), whose landmark court cases were spurred by distributor Barney Rosset. These films created an uproar not really so much for brief moments of softcore sex — though that was why most tickets were purchased — but for their “socially redeeming context” of socialist critiques and the fact that their liberated heroines weren’t punished for enjoying themselves sexually. Sweden had such a cutting-edge attitude that Sarno made several films there, including the hit Inga (1968), and found it personally liberating to discover professional production values along with stage-trained actors who had no objection to nudity.

And that brings us to this Film Movement’s Blu-ray, which contains films made before and after Sarno’s Swedish period. In my PopMatters review of Film Movement’s first Sarno volume, I observed “tight close-ups of angst-ridden neurotics who talk without facing each other, a general sense of isolation underlined by lighting and composition, and softcore gropings scored by percussion. [The work] also concentrates almost entirely on women, with men as disposable pretty playthings in women‘s often intergenerational power struggles for their sexual identity.” Except for the more expansive musical scores, I can say that in spades regarding the two main entries here, and it’s exhilarating.