Fire up the DVR and invite it to record some revolution, if you like. Over the weekend I had a chance to review advance DVD copies of a documentary that’s premiering on VH1 this week, and on the Sundance Channel next week. If you’re at all interested, go after the Sundance one, because while VH1 alleges to “boldly explore a time in history that challenged centuries of traditional morality about sex,” the VH1 version is censored out the wazoo with black bars and blurry bits over every possible naughty part, not to mention naughty language – and oh, that delicious irony implicit in fuzzy-censoring because of the fuck-you-very-much FCC affecting a documentary talking about the sexual revolution in America.
If you’re a documentary buff, this won’t be your cup of naked, simply because VH1-style documentaries are sweeping gloss coverage of huge spans of time – in this case, the 1950’s through the 1990’s. But it doesn’t bother me because I’m used to it from VH1’s other projects, and because I think that is a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, who target these documentary clip shows at the VH1 audience, an audience who probably knows “Something Happened” back then but isn’t sure what it was or how it affects them today. So while “I Love the 80’s” was all about 80’s music and pop culture, and “The Drug Years” was all about the culture and consequence of illicit drug use in America, Sex: The Revolution examines the cultural holyshit that resulted from the sexual revolution. From birth control to bare bottoms, swinging, sex clubs and feminist revolts, the gay movement, the rise of the religious right, and everyone’s favorite pie face, Anita Bryant—every little bit of the sex revolution is in there, in little bits. It’s like Prego, only with sex instead of tomatoes.
Please note: The Sundance Channel version is rated TV:MA, and according to the Sundance website, the four parts air on May 19 and May 20th/21st at midnight and 1am. Check your local cable listings to see if that same schedule applies in your area, and if you have parental controls enabled on your DVR, it might not record things that are designated with a TV:MA rating.
As narrator Martin Torgoff says, the documentary explores why the US is a “sex drenched” culture, and how it got to be that way. If you’re looking for insightful depth of commentary, this isn’t it. The style of this particular type of documentary runs so fast through decades of change that it seems to encourage through name dropping and celebrity interviews the Google-research of its viewers. I happen to watch tv with a computer on my lap, as does Hubby, so as we watched Parts 1 and 2 on Friday night, he was curious about the supreme court cases mentioned, while I was curious about Sandstone, Plato’s Retreat, and Bette Midler’s career in the bathhouses of New York City. As a habit, we Google while we watch – and this documentary is perfect for our obsessive multitasking viewing style. Our search history, it is a kinky place.
The style of narration, which is edited together with musical clips, archived footage, and contemporary interviews, is similar to the other VH1-umentaries, but it works for this subject as well as it did for The Drug Years (which I watched multiple times whenever I encountered it on tv) because the undertaking is so multi-facted. The sexual revolution encompasses several major socio-political uprisings, from feminism to gay rights, and touching on all of them requires a deft flexibility that doesn’t always flourish in documentary work. I don’t know that the series actually explained why we’re a sex-drenched culture, though I agree that we are. I always figured it was part of the Puritan morality that was part and parcel to the founding of the whole damn place, concurrent with that fear that someone, somewhere, was having an orgasm and must be stopped. The documentary seems to attribute the drenching to the excess and then the backlash, with the two sides washing over each other since the early 1990’s but I don’t think a firm conclusion was ever erected.
Also, I wish that the individuals being interviewed were identified with more alacrity, because there were times I was fascinated by someone’s attitude or with their commentary, and wanted to know who the crap they were, and had to wait until the subtitles got around to telling me who they were and what they’d written. The expectation that I know who Erica Jong is? Not a stretch. I do know who she is (and I totally got a kick out the idea that the woman who coined the term “zipless fuck” and wrote candidly about assertive female desire was a classicly elegant woman in a black dress and pearls). But New York Magazine columnist Ariel Levy, who wrote Female Chauvanist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, was onscreen about three or four times before she was identified, and I was Googling the text of her comments to see if they could tell me who she was. I get that the focus is on what these folks have to say rather than who they were (though why Cybill Shephard, exactly?) but some of the elements of who they are inform the fact that they’re talking to me.
I was fascinated by the uncensored nudity, not because it was nudity (look, boobs!) but because it was nearly naked or naked people who looked normal, and not toned, airbrused and post-production edited within an inch of their actual skeletons. Even the Playboy bunnies serving drinks had jiggly bottoms, which isn’t what I’m used to seeing from Playboy.
Some of the highlights:
1. Watching Hugh Hefner get his ass verbally handed to him on The Dick Cavett show by feminist Susan Brownmiller.
2. Footage of the aftermath of the Harvey Milk and George Mosconi assassinations, and the outrage following Dan White’s manslaughter conviction.
3. Helen Gurley Brown and the rise of Cosmopolitan in constrast and comparison with Playboy
4. Two words: Bathhouse Bette. Love her.
As I watched, I kept trying to figure out where, when, and how romance novels would hook into the sexual revolution. There’s no doubt in my mind that they are related, especially since The Flame and the Flower debuted in 1972, and romance novels were among the first depictions in popular culture of female sexual fulfillment at the hands (and mouth and mighty, mighty wang) of the hero, born partially out of his sexual and emotional compulsion to please her – to say nothing of the rape motif of early romance and the critical presumption of ambivalent sexual attitudes on the part of the early romance reader. There’s a good bit of revolution present in the repeated narrative of a mighty wang, meeting the powerful va-hay-hay, and going on over there to live happily ever after.
As I chew on the role of romance novels in the revolution, it makes me ponder the possibility of a documentary that would weave the two together, examining the socio-political climate as romance novels hit the market, and the changes therein as the genre flourished. Sex: The Revolution examines pornography, and pro-sexuality texts like the Masters & Johnson studies and the Kinsey reports, and of course The Joy of Sex, but there likely wasn’t enough time to take a left turn into narratives that embrace female sexuality like those found in romance novels (and no, I’m not saying they’re porno. Far from it). If you watch the documentary, I’m curious what you think of it. Let me know.