"The sex impulse is like a fiery horse. Uncontrolled, it may be destructive and dangerous," warned an "educational" film strip from the 1950s. The attempt to rein in those impulses is what "Heavy Petting" takes a lighthearted look at.
Comedian Sandra Bernhard allowed a boy to give her "a shot in my butt" while playing "doctor" in return for a popsicle. Performance artists Ann Magnuson recalls that the word "penis" used to make her howl with laughter. The late Abbie Hoffman remembers "the Great Circle Jerk of '51."
"Heavy Petting" is a brief, cheery compendium of teen-age enthusiasms, filtered through the memories of an interesting array of former teen-agers. Though its interviewees range from David Byrne to William Burroughs, the film's heart is firmly planted in the 1950's, when adolescent longings were so fervently at war with social mores.
This daffy documentary probes the era of primitive sexuality, i.e., the Fifties. It was a time of slow dances, dry humps and circle jerks, of girls practicing French Kisses on one another and guys mastering the art of unhooking a bra with one hand. Director Obie Benz mixes old news-reels, sex-education films ("Don't do a don't"), clips from teen-date flicks (the howl is watching John Saxon pressing Luana Patten to go all the way in 1956's Rock, Pretty Baby) and twenty-three personal interviews. The late Abbie Hoffman confides that he and his pals tried to fill a milk bottle with their sperm. Sandra Bernhard recalls playing doctor; she let a boy give her a shot in the butt in return for a fudgesicle. David Byrne says he thought jerking off would exhaust his semen supply and leave him dry at eighteen. All this and more await those who enter this wickedly witty time warp. Benz is obviously aware of the cultural sophistication of modern filmgoers, and expresses in Heavy Petting the confidence that they'll get both the information - and the joke - in his movie.
More "witnesses" pop up in Heavy Petting (Skouras), a droll docucomedy about sex and our furtive stabs at it during the faraway Fifties. Celebrities of every stripe - from Laurie Anderson and David Byrne to Sandra Bernhard and Spalding Gray - reveal how they weathered their youth past puberty. Bernhard, for example, confesses to having played "doctor," while monologist Gray wonders whether self-abusers of generation had a special liking for Davy Crockett hats. Add to this glimpses of TV, feature films and sex-education epics of period (Ozzie and Harriet followed by High School Hellcats and How to Say No should indicate the breadth of the inquiry), and it's clear that producer-director Obie Benz knows his business. His business is jolly entertainment, along with a reminder that we've come a long way since the days of the circle jerk.
"Don't do a don't. Do do a do."
It used to be so simple, according to one of the many educational films which make up one-third of "Heavy Petting."
There probably is not a long line of people breathlessly awaiting confessions of teen sexual habits from the likes of such noted American bohemians as writer William Burroughs, comedian Sandra Bernhard, performance artist Laurie Anderson and musician David Byrne.
It is assumed that bohemians are bohemians because they "did" everything and were always on the radical cultural fringe, unlike the rest of us who struggled out of the sexual inhibitions of the '50s and '60s.
It is assumed wrong. One of the delights of "Heavy Petting," a documentary look at sex and dating in pre-sexual revolution America, is that the experiences cited are so universal, from Sandra Bernhard's reminiscences of playing doctor to Spalding Gray's complaint that the sex manuals he furtively read were too technical. The film intersplices musing by 23 adults with telling cuts from records, movies, TV and hygiene films of 30 years ago.
As originally conceived by producer/director Obie Benz, "Heavy Petting" was to consist only of a montage of old films and music. Benz had trouble tracking a theme through the material, however, and the project was dropped. Later, he came up with the idea of using interviews to help us connect with the concept, to tell us, in effect, "This is the age from which we came. Remember?"
The technique, a producer's nightmare because of all the rights involved, works wonderfully, if a bit overlong at 70 minutes. (The movie is being shown with the Oscar-winning Steven Wright short, "Appointments of Dennis Jennings.") Each snippet of interview frames cultural artifacts that range from affecting moments with a young Brando in "The Wild One" (or Natalie Wood and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause") to more sanitized "Ozzie and Harriet" excerpts, to bits of unintentionally hilarious educational films with titles like "What to Do on a Date," "Molly Grows Up" and "Perversion for Profit." In the latter, an evangelistic announcer tells us with feverish intensity: "We do know that once a person is perverted, it is practically impossible for him to return to normal attitudes."
We see TV news footage in which a deadpan Elvis Prestley explains why he can't make his pelvis behave onstage. ("When I hear rock 'n' roll, I can't stand still. I've tried it and I can't do it.") We see a VD prevention film in which the spread of syphilis is given the Dragnet treatment. We see Marilyn Monroe at her most vulnerably come-hitherish in "Bus Stop." (Someone could probably make a further documentary about how Monroe's on-screen sexuality, which played smoldering desire off of coy innocence, perfectly suited her era.)
David Byrne, while compelling in his sensitive reflections on the choreography of petting, is not -- in this movie, anyway -- the only talking head of note. Aging writer Burroughs, appearing on-camera with poet Allen Ginsberg, is as irascible as reputed. ("Do you want to be loved?" Ginsberg asks him. "Mmmmn, not really... by my cats, perhaps.") And the late Abbie Hoffman, antic in his descriptions of early masturbatory adventures, is, ironically, the liveliest of all who were interviewed.
For Heavy Petting, their satire on sex in the dark ages of the '50s, Obie Benz and Josh Waletzky have put together a pretty heavy cast, too. Following lead-talking head David Byrne come such high school heroes and nerds as Sandra Bernhard, Spalding Gray, Ann Magnuson, Josh Mostel, and Laurie Anderson. Posed tastefully against Reds-style black, most are quite funny about the painful business of adolescent sex - or sexual rites and etiquette, anyways. William Burroughs may be both funniest and truest when he just winces as Allen Ginsberg describes telling a girl, "Boy, you've got big breast!" and getting smartly hit with her book bag. In this film homosexuality is just a gleam in the beholder's eyes. This cute and coy documentary (from an idea by The Atomic Café's Pierce Rafferty) doesn't want to get into anything, well, heavy.
A documentary that avoids the oftentimes ponderous nature of the genre, Heavy Petting is a fine realization of the thought-provoking possibilities in comedy. In a sense, Obie Benz's shrewd and riotous film is, from out "liberated" perspective, like shooting fish in a barrel: it holds up to ridicule the sexual mores of the 1950s and, with a heavy dose of primary sources exposes us to the television and cinema and advisory "educational" film material of the time and lets us stand back in sophisticated amazement and chuckle. We also get contemporary "witnesses" - David Byrne, Allen Ginsberg, Spalding Grey, Abbie Hoffman - looking back.
You may remember the fine 1982 documentary "The Atomic Café," which re-created the anxieties of growing up in the '50s through old Civil Defense instructional films. Some of the same folks (though not "Atomic" co-directors Kevin Rafferty and Jayne Loader) are now back with an even more intense journey into fear from the same era.
Frank Zappa once asked in song: "What's the ugliest part of your body?" After a few answers, he finally concluded, "I think it's your mind." Obie Benz's Heavy Petting asks a similar question of post-war and pre-sexual liberation America, but he lets the archival film clips that are the movie's heart come to that conclusion themselves. The sexism of those decades, as well as the sexual hysteria in the face of relaxed mores, are reflected in Petting's testimonial. On the surface and savagely persistent, though, is a hilarity that comes from the audience's recognition and identification with real life as served up by Benz.
We've had nostalgia for the music of the 1950's, the movies of the '50s, and even for the bomb shelters of the '50s, so why not for sex in the '50s?
"Heavy Petting" is an entertaining film and a fascinating social document. It's a look at how a "free" society attempts to control the behavior of its citizenry -- in this case, its sexual behavior.
Allan Oberly (Obie) Benz, a former San Franciscan who used to give away his "white bread" inheritance to progressive causes, turned up recently at the Moscow Film Festival happily promoting - of all things - his new $ 1 million dollar feature documentary "Heavy Petting."
The first image is of David Byrne of the Talking Heads looking a bit uncomfortable, as if he'd been coerced into confessing something he'd rather keep private. Speaking haltingly to the camera he says: "There was kissing with your mouth closed. Arm around. Kissing with your mouth open and French kissing. Feeling the girl's breast with her bra on, then with her bra off. And then beyond that, kind of all hell broke loose. If you wanted to feel someone's genitals, or the girl felt your or you felt hers, or whatever, then it was just like you were getting beyond bases, I think by then. The steps, they didn't go in order anymore."
Rarely has a film shown up Juliet's prettified version of love as well as Heavy Petting, a title that proves there is something in a name. Tongue in cheek all the way, Obie Benz's Petting tracks the sexual restrictions adults tried imposing on teenagers of the '50s even as Elvis was weakening their wills. Benz (Oscar-nominated for America in Transition, on U.S. policy in El Salvador) and Pierce Rafferty (co-director of Atomic Café) start by inter-cutting excerpts from educational movies newsreels, TV shows, and feature films, including one movie titled How to Say No, to capture the decade that said no to everything. By limiting his footage to a spoof of the '50s, Benz avoids direct political comment, but each send-up of those bygone prescriptions echoes the (holy) rolling naysaying of the Reagan years. Benz goes on to interview famous people telling their tales of teenage woe, and the list is impressive: David Byrne, Allen Ginsberg, Sandra Bernhard, William Burroughs, Spalding Gray, Laurie Anderson, and Abbie Hoffman, among others. Unhappily, these passages are better for the simple fan value of seeing your favorite celebrities onscreen than for any social commentary (much less wit). The archival footage is the camp that steals the show: my favorite pedagogical gem is the once called Discipline During Adolescence.
"Heavy Petting," the docu-comedy about American teen-age sexuality in the 1950s, has been invited as a late entry to the 16th annual Moscow International Film Festival, which begins today.