Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies: London Review

Scenes from a soft-porn marriage

This engaging but evasive documentary profiles a legendary New York couple who turned sexploitation cinema into high art.

There are no second acts in American porno, or so it would appear in this engaging but selectively revealing documentary about Joseph W. Sarno. Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Sarno is a semi-legendary name in sexploitation cinema, the soft-porn genre that flourished between the censorious primness of the early 1960s and the hardcore home-video explosion of the late 1970s and 1980s.

The debut feature of young Swedish screenwriter Wiktor Ericsson, A Life In Dirty Movies had its international premiere at the London film festival last week, with a U.S. debut scheduled for next month’s Doc NYC festival. After that, TV should prove its natural home, though specialist theatrical interest is not out of the question.

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A former World War II bomber pilot, Sarno later became a prolific sexploitation writer-director with over 70 titles to his name. But unlike more lurid contemporaries such as Russ Meyer, he approached the genre with a rare subtlety and sophistication. Dubbed “the Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street” by serious film critics, he was an arthouse auteur of soft-core erotic melodramas, typically written from an emotionally complex female perspective and often addressing the darker side of psycho-sexual neurosis. In recent years, retrospectives of his work have played at prestigious European film festivals and cinematheques.

Ericsson paints an affectionate and touchingly romantic picture of Sarno and his wife Peggy Steffans Sarno, his longtime collaborator and sometime leading lady, shadowing the couple from their chaotic New York apartment to their summer home in Stockholm. Joe and Peggy reflect on their shared life story, the marriage that her parents fiercely opposed, their golden decade of success, and the devastating blow that hardcore porn dealt to their fortunes.

Punctuating the contemporary footage are clips from Sarno classics such as Sin in the Suburbs, Inga and Confessions of a Young American Housewife, which live up to their Bergmanesque billing. In addition, Ericsson includes interviews from critics, cinema historians, friends and fellow film-makers, including cult director John Waters and porn star turned sex educator Annie Sprinkle.

A Life in Dirty Movies is a celebration of an unusual talent, but also an elegy for an unfulfilled life. Though Sarno was 88 years old at the time of shooting, he was still trying to get producers and funders interested in one last comeback project. Despite plenty of indulgent support from friends and family, it comes as no great surprise when the film never happens. Late in the documentary, Peggy also reveals some sad home truths about her husband's drastic career collapse in the mid 1970s.

Ericsson and his team do a decent job on a limited budget, but they fail to tell the full story. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Sarno directed dozens of hardcore flicks under various pseudonyms, most of them trashy straight-to-video affairs with titles like Porked! , The Pink Clam and 21 Hump Street. Clearly his motive was financial and he was not proud of the work. But by erasing this inconvenient second act, A Life in Dirty Movies appears a little too keen to push a simplistic narrative about porno's wholesome, arty, innocent roots.

In doing so, Ericsson does a disservice to both his subject and his audience. A Life in Dirty Movies is still a sweet and illuminating journey into cult cinema history, but it would have been more honest and psychologically rich if it had shown us the money shot.

Production company: Anagram Produktion

Producers: Erik Magnusson, Martin Persson

Starring: Joseph Sarno, Peggy Steffans Sarno, John Waters

Director: Wiktor Ericsson

Cinematographers: Dino Harambasic, Martin Thorbjörnsson, Sophie Winqvist

Editors: Erik Bäfving, Dino Harambasic, Steen Johannessen

Music: Bugge Wesseltoft

Sales company: Yellow Affair

Unrated, 78 minutes