"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.
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."
This funny, facts-of-'50s-life film, "starring" Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Jayne Mansfield and Allen Ginsberg, opens Friday at the Castro. It's got sing-along zing with such rock-and-roll classics as "Blueberry Hill," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Rockin' Robin," "Ready Teddy" and "Dedicated to the One I Love."
Although Russian audiences cracked up with giggles watching feature-film clips in which American parents warn their children just how far to go, there's a sober relevancy to a couple of World War II Army instructional films: "Fight Syphilis" and "Easy to Get."
Believe it or not, Benz said, for years the army tried to keep those in the secret domain of "national security," but eventually he got access to them in the National Film Archives. Now with the spread of AIDS, there's nothing available, Benz believes, that is as explicit as the army's instructions about how to put on a condom.
Benz, a cheerful charmer even when completely serious, described the sexual revolution cycles: "ten percent of the soldiers came back from World War II with syphilis," he said, speaking at a mile-a-minute clip. "They couldn't cure it then. The dawn of the sexual revolution began with the discovery of penicillin in 1947. It meant you couldn't die from sex.
"The only reasons you couldn't have sex in the '50s were due to pregnancy and morality. When the pill came in, the only reason not to have sex was morality. When those Army films were done, you could die from sex and now, of course, you can die from sex again."
In the '50s, some people who realized that a freer sexual atmosphere was dawning tried to set up guidelines for young people with the sort of instructional films excerpted in "Heavy Petting": "As Boys Grow," "Dating Do's and Don'ts," "How Much Affection?," "How to Say No."
"Since parents still were too embarrassed to talk about sex with their children, these films were shown in guidance classes. They have a fresh innocence that makes them work," Benz said. "They were more honest than a lot of the films made now because teenagers do have real anxiety... they worry about getting dumped by their boyfriend or girlfriend. It can take them years to get over it."
"Heavy Petting" was inspired by a documentary, "Atomic Cafˇ," which included U.S. government film clips from the '50s giving "advice" on how one could duck the bomb and build home shelters. As a founder of the Film Fund, organized to help finance documentaries on progressive issues, Benz was involved in that blackly comic exploration of films, propaganda and dramatic features produced during the Cold War.
Pierce Rafferty, who co-directed that documentary, asked Benz if he would like to help put together an "Atomic Cafˇ of Sex" about '50s morality. Benz thought it could be fun, but he said earnestly, "I also wanted to make a lovable, warm-hearted film about what was really the story of sexuality, and the real story of sexuality is just the story of being human and what your feelings are and sexuality is just an obvious way to achieve intimacy."
Eventually, Benz expanded the original idea to include 23 real then-and-now "witnesses," including Ginsberg and Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater. At that point, Rafferty dropped out of the project and took a credit for the "creative idea."
Benz, raised in a conservative, upper middle-class family in New Jersey, said he was lucky as far as his own sex education was concerned. "My mother has gone to Smith College and read Dr. Spock. She got me a book called "A Boy and His Body," which I read when I was 11. Six months later, I read "A Girl and Her Body." So at the bus stop when everybody was tittering about sex, I knew about periods and I actually told the girls."
Thus buttressed with knowledge, as a young adolescence Benz began to question the advice his Dutch Reform Church was handing out. "One of those nervous men at the Sunday night discussion sessions used to talk about how to behave morally. Once he said that he touched a girl and felt horrible the next day. I thought, "Boy, I'm in the wrong room. All I wanted to do was touch girls and if the church thought I couldn't touch girls, I wanted to get out. I was there two more months and that was it!"
His political radicalization came during the Vietnam War, when he was at Middlebury College in Vermont. "My own spirit of fanaticism," he said with a laugh, "probably came from my mother's father. By "fanaticism," I mean I always worked very carefully to achieve a goal of excellence."
His grandfather was a kind of role model. He developed techniques for mass producing white bread, using conveyor belts, humidified ovens and a special mixture for the dough so it could be baked in four hours instead of 30 hours.
Since he realizes that Woody Allen has given sliced white bread a bad name, Benz defensively declared that his grandfather's bread was good, made with first-rate flour and healthy ingredients. He was a "hard-working, Calvinist guy," Benz said with loving appreciation. When he suddenly inherited money from his grandfather, Benz felt it was his responsibility to "use the money by giving it away." It was a decision that caused considerable controversy in his family.
In the early '70s, Benz was in San Francisco looking for a job as a journalist and participating in the anti-Vietnam War activities. He decided the best way to distribute his money was to do it as part of a collective effort. In organizing the Vanguard Foundation he was joined by Philip Gerbode, whose mother owned a sugar company in Hawaii, Maggie Roth, of the Matson Line Shipping family; and Christine Russell, who has inherited money from the Hass family (Levi Strauss).
They still give away about 400,000 a year in grants. That fund inspired 14 other foundations. Some of the founders went on to become film makers, including Sarah Pillsbury who produced "Desperately Seeking Susan," "River's Edge" and "Eight Men Out."
Benz later organized the Film Fund, because Vanguard was getting so many request from film makers. Vanguard's first media grant went to the collective that made the experimental "TV TV Run," later picked up by public broadcasting. Michael Shamberg, a founding member, later produced, "The Big Chill" and "A Fish Called Wanda."
The urge to make films didn't hit Benz until he was 28 and worried about the Reagan administration's line that revolution was being fostered in Central America by the Soviet Union and Cuba. "I thought it was caused by poverty, dictatorship and repression, and I wanted to tell that story."
Since he has given away most of his liquid assets, he went to Norman Leer, who helped finance a compilation film, "Americas in Transition." The 29-minute overview of six Latin American countries, narrated by Ed Asner, won a number of documentary prizes, including one from the National Educational Film Festival. Benz then worked on "El Salvador: Another Vietnam," with his close friend, Tete Vasconcellos, who was co-editor and co-producer (along with Glen Silber). Both films were nominated for Academy Awards in 1981.
When Benz was going the rounds with his proposal for "Heavy Petting," Lear, then head of Embassy Pictures, encouraged him, though he later dropped out of the project. People who usually give money for "good causes" were not inclined to put up the cash for something that sounded mainly mainstream. Eventually, private investors came through.
It cost a pretty penny, because film and record companies demand a high price for rights to their products. The budgets for movie clips and music each came to about $ 150,000.
"I had to get Brando's personal permission to get one second from "The Wild One" in which he is teasing a girl. It took 18 months to contact him through some American Indian friends I have. Brando gave the gratis but I had to pay the studio. It cost $ 5,000 a minute for all that stuff and that's a low rate. Many studios are charging $ 10,000.
It was a struggle to get a clip from "Rebel Without a Cause," until a studio executive friend of Benz's eased the way. And "20th Century-Fox was very cautious about letting us use a clip of Marilyn Monroe from "Bus Stop." I had to say I was making a film about romance.
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.