San Franciscans with a long memory may recall that curator, teacher and film scholar Jack Stevenson once lived here, regularly presenting programs of collected rarities like “A History of Exploitation Cinema.” One doubted that sort of interest would continue to flourish once he moved in 1993 to Denmark. For love, as the saying goes.
Yet in addition to subsequently writing tomes about such famous filmic Danes as Lars von Trier and Benjamin Christiansen (of 1922’s fantastical Haxan aka Witchcraft Though the Ages), Stevenson did indeed find fresh chapters of exploitation history to mine in his adopted the land. He’s back this week with two local shows to promote the U.S. publication of Scandinavian Blue: The Erotic Cinema of Sweden and Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s, a fascinating (and very fun) chronicle of the large role those nations played in bringing down global censorship barriers.
This isn’t his first such visit: Four years ago, when the book was still in-progress, Stevenson visited Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with “Swinging Scandinavia: How Nordic Sex Cinema Conquered the World.” That program offered excerpts from movies as early as 1952 and as late as 1972, traversing the taboo-breaking gamut from once-shocking glimpsed skinny dippers to hardcore porn.
This time he brings two complete original features. The centerpiece of YBCA’s Thursday program is Knud Leif Thomsen’s 1966 Venom (also known as Gift), a B&W drama that was deliberately provoking if not actually pornographic. At least it wasn’t in the form that got released: When censors objected to scenes in which characters briefly watch a porn film, Thomsen insisted that rather than cut the offending images their “naughty bits” be obscured with large white crosses drawn on the frames. He figured such obvious tampering would inflame independent-minded Danes, who might not necessarily enjoy graphic sexual imagery, but would definitely take umbrage at being told what they could or couldn’t see. Thus censorship of moving images would be pushed to the forefront of public debate. (Printed-matter censorship had already ended by governmental decree.)
That explicit film-within-the-film is just one of Venom’s efforts at shocking the bourgeoise–onscreen and off. Its protagonist Per (Soren Stromberg) is a towheaded young man who simply shows up one day on a speedboat outside a well-to-do family’s summer house. Befriending the daughter (whom he gives famous “dirty” novel Fanny Hill as a graduation present), the coolly amoral Per does everything he can to shake their complacency, just for the hell of it. He burns a Bible, goads the uptight father, flirts with the neglected mother.
It’s hard to believe now that Venom could have kicked up such a firestorm. But coming smack in the middle of the decade’s warp-speed sociopolitical upheavals, the film knew just what buttons to press. Thomsen’s intent was far from exploitative, indeed being quite schematic. He even explained in the press that he was personally against pornography, “Not because I perceive it to be ‘damaging’ but rather because it is an unavoidable consequence of a purely materialistic lifestyle.”
A much bigger international tempest ensued with the release of 1968’s even more serious-minded I Am Curious (Yellow), Swedish director Vilgot Sjoman’s Godardian collage of interviews, staged sequences, radical aesthetics and rhetoric. Full nudity and a graphic (though simulated) sex scene made it the subject of key legal decisions worldwide. The U.S. Supreme Court finally got round to it in 1971–by which time much, much “harder” content had been seen here and abroad.
Some of which was captured in 1970 Pornography in Denmark, which Stevenson will show at Oddball Films on Saturday. Made by San Francisco-based aspiring adult cinema auteur Alex de Renzy, this documentary got away with including explicit materials because its tone was educational, not lascivious–apparently closeup penetration’s filth index was all about context.
De Renzy examined Denmark’s “new approach” to public sexual expressions as manifested in its hosting the 1969 “world’s first porno fair.” We also visit a dirty bookstore owned by some librarian-looking entrepreneurial women, the set of a porn flick (whose female performer looks pretty damn bored), and the home of a nice young couple who both work in the sex biz, sometimes together.
En route we get such exciting insights as “Making a pornographic film can raise a sharp appetite! Here the staff and the film stars interrupt the film’s work to have open-faced sandwiches and coffee!” Our narrator also complains of most cheap pornos that “Emotional relationships between the characters are nonexistent,” predicting that as sex cinema grows in popularity it will also gain in plot sophistication and nuance. De Renzy is under no illusion that most such enterprises are purely altruistic; even the ’69 Porn Expo seems mostly aimed at taking advantage of the fact that “A tourist’s raincoat has large pockets.”
But what’s important, he stresses, is that even the crassest sexploitation is less likely to corrupt than provide a useful outlet for citizens’ otherwise unsatisfied private urges. “Those who expected Denmark to become a country of rapists were pleasantly disappointed,” he wryly notes of the country’s decriminalizing “obscene” materials.
Both the YBCA and Oddball evenings will feature assorted shorts and trailers from Stevenson’s personal collection, as well as the chance to get your very own signed copy of Scandinavian Blue.
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