Inside Deep Throat

For any number of reasons, documentary filmmakers have been turning their lenses on the 1970s with increasing frequency lately. It might be more accurate to say that these seventies documentaries have found wider audiences than most other docs, but in the last two years, seventies docs include Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, The Weather Underground, and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, with Eugne Jarecki’s The Trials of Henry Kissinger also touching on ’70s politics, specifically Kissinger’s support of Pinochet and his role in Vietnam. Add the Robb Moss doc, The Same River Twice, and it’s clear that the 70s are hot–at least for documentary filmmakers.

I’m tempted to read that popularity as a retreat to a moment whose political conflicts now appear to be resolved, a reading that the predictable, if mildly prurient, documentary Inside Deep Throat (IMDB) seems to invite, but I’m trying to resist that reading to some extent in order to think about how all of these films seem to comment, on one level or another, on the contemporary political moment (Jarekci’s Kissinger doc is the most important and effective by far in this regard).

In his review, Roger Ebert–constant crusader against the silliness of the ratings system–notes the oddity of the fact that a studio such as Universal would produce a documentary about an NC-17 film but would be unlikely to make such a film, and that’s something that struck me as I watched was the degree to which representations of the sex scenes in Deep Throat were framed by precisely that “eductaional” rhetoric that the film was trying to subvert. Instead of men in white lab coats, you have Camille Paglia and Dr. Ruth, but the same discourse of edification returns with a vengeance. You also get an oddly distracting voice-over narration from Dennis Hopper. I get the fact that he’s identified with 1970s excess, but it seemed like a use of celebrity just for the sake of having a celebrity.

In addition, the support of Universal and HBO (the new Miramax in its support of low-budget sexy flicks) turned the film’s educative impulse into a flashy, high-gloss trip through seventies culture. As Manohla Dargis’s review implies, it’s the closest you’ll get to a “blockbuster” documentary, and quite frankly, I found that the graphics and the huge music budget tamed any subversiveness this doc might have had. I’m trying to avoid any surface-depth metaphors because that’s not quite what I’m concerned about here (though the film was remarkably shallow given the incredible cast of interviewees–more on that in a minute). Instead, the documentary seemed to want to make Deep Throat into a “safe” form of titilation for average Americans. Take a walk on the wild side but stay where I can see you.

The discourse of “healthy” rebellion permeates the entire film, with the dcoumentary apparently assuming that all viewersnow regard the uproar over Deep Throat to be an overreation, implying with a wink and a nudge that viewers of the film would have been among the sophisticates like Erica Jong, Gore Vidal, and Stormin’ Norman Mailer, who would have attended screenings of the film, police be damned.

Inside Deep Throat also simplifies the political conflicts over the film, reducing the battles to a cynical “fisrt shot” by Tricky Dick Nixon in the family values battles that continue to dominate political discourse. While the connection certainly exists, it reduces both conflicts to relatively simple two-sided positions. Free expression or censorship. It’s a lot more complicated than that. The essential conflict centers on the prosecutors’ decision to go after male lead, Harry Reems, who faced a five-year jail term for his involvement in the film. Instead of focusing on the exploitative aspects of the industry that exposed Reems and co-star Linda Lovelace (who received immunity for reasons that weren’t explained) to the greatest amount of risk while securing only minimal profits, the film concentrates solely on the “free expression” question.

Perhaps more troubling was the bashing of 1970s era feminism the film engages in after disclosing that Reems was eventually cleared of all charges. While I do find the extreme anti-pornography positions of some 1970s feminists somewhat unsupportable, Inside Deep Throat seems to blame people like Susan Brownmiller for exploiting impressionistic kids like Linda Lovelace for their own purposes without really thinking about their arguments in any real detail. When Susan Brownmiller becomes a villain of equal stature with district attorney Larry Parrish, that’s not a very nuanced reading.

Inside Deep Throat concludes by reminding us that a modest little film made for $25,000 ended up grossing $600 million (according to some seriously unreliable estimates), but then laments the fact that pornography has become so heavily commodified (this in a film that cites Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt as references–no commodification there). Ironic shots of the Adult Video Awards in Vegas show hotties with implants suggest the dgree to which the industry has become artificial since the golden age of porn (didn’t Mark Walhberg already cover this in Boogie Nights?) before we get the mandatory reminder about freedom of speech with an American flag isolated against a night sky no less.

I think I would have enjoyed this film more if it weren’t so transparent, if I had been surprised at least once over the course of watching it. About the only real enjoyment I got was playing “spot the film theorist,” with appearances by two pretty cool academic film theorists, Linda Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”) and Jon Lewis (Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry). Williams does make the good point that Deep Throat is one of the first films to make women’s sexual fulfillment an issue onscreen (as David Edelstein’s review points out), and while I did enjoy many of the interviews, I felt this doc stopped short of doing anything interesting with some really fascnating material, most importantly because it never really questioned its own assumptions about the material it was analyzing.


  1. Darren Said,

    March 24, 2005 @ 11:16 am

    “I think I would have enjoyed this film more if it weren’t so transparent, if I had been surprised at least once over the course of watching it . . . it never really questioned its own assumptions about the material it was analyzing.”

    I haven’t had an opportunity to see Inside Deep Throat, and I’m really in no hurry to do so, but I think your final criticism gets to my main frustration with so many of the recent spate of documentaries. The filmmakers too often are neither good journalists (going in with broad questions and reporting their findings regardless) nor good essayists (arguing a specific, personal opinion with wit and insight). They fall somewhere in between and end up reinforcing simplistic thinking. I’m starting to think of it as “Behind the Music” filmmaking — the story is already transparently plotted, and everything else acts in service of that plot.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 24, 2005 @ 5:24 pm

    I’m probably being a little harsh on “Inside Deep Throat” here, but your comparison with the “Behind the Music” genre is apt, complete with the simple historical narrative that frames things. There is some argument in IDT about “Deep Throat” representing the need for free expression or open discussion of sexuality, but it’s not a complicated one. I think “IDT” was a fairly entertaining film, but I didn’t feel like it added anything new to my understanding of that film, the 1970s, or contemporary “morals” arguments. It was just an okay story, not much more.

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