The adult industry has a long history of mimicking and riffing straight film genres, putting a triple-X spin on titles and concepts, but fake documentaries hark back to the grand old days of Kroger Babb and the sex ed films of the forties. At itinerant carny shows, patrons could see social ill documentaries which offered connoisseurs opportunities to watch taboo images and behaviour under the auspices of moral or medical education - safe fodder under Hollywood’s evil Production Code.
The sexploitation and porn industries owe a great debt to the Code, because the Catholic-tinged, tightwad rules not only reduced frank social issues in film to black & white statements (flirting, alcoholism, pre-marital sex were all immoral), but they fostered a pent-up hunger for naughty images in any context, whether pornographic, sweater girl sexuality, or in European art films.
The contrast in the late fifties was never better expressed than the kind of material being filmed in grand CinemaScope: in 1956, Hollywood reserved the widescreen format for clichéd romances with a sleeping bed for each marital partner, or historical biblical epics about persistent, vigilant moral behaviour; in France, Roger Vadim gave us Brigitte Bardot’s boobies within the first 5 mins. of And God Created Woman before the actress quickly defined the widescreen sexpot archetype, and reflected European maturity.
In 1967, Swedish filmmaker Vilgot Sjoman pushed the limits further in I Am Curious – Yellow by crafting a part documentary / social drama with fleeting adult moments, including having the lead actress fondle an actor’s pickle. Nudity was part of the director’s dialectic - the actors improvised scenes and experienced some of the naked emotions and moral dilemmas of their characters – and the European imports that popped up in art house theatres weakened the Code’s final grasp on tightly controlling film content, paving the way for adult films in indie theatres – art house, or classic grindhouse.
Aphrodisiac represents the industrious side of American adult filmmakers because it repackaged smut in the old-style, social ill documentary format, and makes a simplistic pro-marijuana statement that pot is great for the libido. It’s the message that’s perpetually repeated by the pedestrian narrator, the sidewalk Q&A’s with supposedly average people, and the ersatz ‘couples’ who subsequently re-enact their miraculous moments of sexual (re)awakening after smoking or ingesting weed.
The trouble is, with the couples largely comprised of porn stars (including John Holmes, fresh from Johnny Wadd), Aphrodisiac is basically an adult film comprised of couple sequences linked by ersatz docu-vignettes, but lacking the intellectual commentary typical of politically agitative filmmakers such as Sjoman or Dusan Makavejev (W.R.: Mysteries of the Orgasm), the film has a decisive flow, and isn’t trying to jostle audiences.
The message is simple: Go one…Have a good time!
Unlike Sjoman and Makaveyev’s films, there are no arguments about Swedish politics, and the end scene doesn’t involve the decapitated head of a heroine singing a Communist worker song from a metal serving tray.
Director Dennis Van Zak also keeps the hardcore moments brief: there’s often some foliage blocking views, pickle-teasing is seen from a distance in one interracial sequence, and Holmes’ equine impaler is never shown up close & personal. Van Zak actually made a point of downplaying pornographic details (and Holmes’ schlong) because anything crude would’ve distracted and contrasted too heavily with the stock news montages used to illustrate the benefits of pot over booze, going as far back as Prohibition.
The cheeky humour also told grindhouse patrons ‘Relax, this isn’t a high school sex ed film; you’ll get some titillation.’ There are no money shots, but certainly in the uncut version, patrons were treated to everything else, underscored with rhapsodic (stock) classical music.
And perhaps due to the influence of the Italian mondo films, Van Zak also films a “sensitivity group” session where college kids ‘spend days’ together naked, under the guidance of a tutor who puts them through exercises designed to break down the inhibitions Man has built up over the ages that made impulsive touching and bonking Wrong.
The group disrobe, touch each other, and are required to stare at testicles, though it’s never wholly clear how this all ties to Van Zak’s message of Pot = Better Sex. One suspects the focus group was an unexpected bonus for the filmmakers, and the camera crew jumped at the chance to film more pickles, boobies, and beavers.
The film wraps up with the expectedly upbeat message that Pot is Good, and ought to be legalized due to its untapped benefits that far outclass the downer effects of alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee – all legal stimulants.
When director Ron Mann made his own pro-pot film Grass (1999), he referenced Aphrodisiac alongside classic social ill films such as Reefer Madness (1936), and it’s worth citing the similarities in zippy pacing and cheeky stock film montages used by both filmmakers.
Whereas Van Zak was able to close his film with a hope for legal pot – buoyed by seventies optimism and heavy, in your face drug usage - the political climate eventually shifted towards further vilifying the drug as a gateway to hard opiates; that left Mann with nothing to close Grass, since there wasn’t any sign of change in the air, so while Aphrodisiac is a bogus documentary with facts culled from textbooks and news headlines, it’s less of a downer, and features a vignette with Holmes and his adult film colleagues.
Impulse Pictures’ DVD (distributed by Synapse Films) sports a well-worn but uncircumcised print featuring the naughty vignettes, and it’s actually hard to imagine the film being functional without the smut because the factual montages are pretty facile. The film could (and was) shorn of X-rated material for a shorter 43 min. version (the industrial film title design is quite clever), but what’s also lost are the good-bad acting, the on-camera addresses and goofy narration, and the experience of seeing a gritty guilty pleasure. Although a bare bones DVD release, connoisseurs of grindhouse and adult-tinged sexploitation ought to be pleased, and the label has once again concocted a stellar DVD cover.
Pity there’s little production info on the film, but the producers apparently used the production to start Topar Films, whose 12-title distribution roster included David Hamilton’s Bilitis (1977), Blue Fin (1978), and David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979), not to mention Juan Piquer Simon’s Superman rip-off Supersonic Man (1980).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan