Porn Queens of the 70's

Director: Danielle Stallings

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Starring Anne Mattingly as Daphne, Porn Queens of the 70's (1994) is a twenty-minute "underground" film that opens with mournful, almost classical music & the aging porn queen at her make-up table & mirror, looking as though she & her dressing table are floating in black space.

Porn Queens of the 70'sShe is haggard & at first glance rather homely as she begins her poetic monolog, "I've had a wild life," putting on her fake eyelashes & bright scarlet lipstick. "My past still hangs over my head. I'm still paying for old debts." She fiddles with her appearance then gazing at her hands says, "I wish they made make-up for hands."

Jump-cut to another setting, a private living room with comfortable but rather poor furniture, a poster on the wall of young porn stars. Into the room saunters overweight Daphne in a hideous moomoo, obviously having just put on a lot of make-up.

She sits down beside a dumpy sad looking man who is smoking a cigarette. She says to him, "Harvey, they're filming now. The camera's on." She forces him into a strained miserable conversation during which he is at best polite. Her eagerness to be part of the film, & his distance from her excitement, adds up to a sorrowful portrait.

He looks around in misery before saying, "Daphne, come with me to the doctor."

"Oh Harvey, I can't." He's obviously frightened as well as sad, but she's totally into herself this day, perhaps everyday, & he's on his own.

At a coffeeshop & then walking down a sidewalk, Daphne is filmed in ugly sunglasses speaking about how Harvey doesn't seem himself lately. "He's never bothered me about doing the porn films but it bothers him I know. He's sensitive. Tonight I'm having a party with some of my friends from the old days, & he's gonna have to face them."

It continues in this manner for some while until Daphne seems like the devil incarnate, not for being shameless, but for being so self-centered & vain. And over what? Not much to tell the truth.

Up to this point the film has an almost documentary feel to it. It's obviously acted, & not acted very well, but it's the sort of bad acting the subject of a documentary might affect if she's as full of herself as Daphne seems to be.

As it progresses the film becomes much more its author's work & less documentary-like, & doesn't always feel like it grows out of the characters, but out of beliefs & expectations about people who mispent their youth in any aspect of the sex industry.

I could most certainly be wrong, but I got no sense that the script was based on knowledge of, interviews with, or friendships with women actually involved in pornography. It's an artificial story about emotionally crippled, vanity-struck, suffering souls who care only about themselves, & the women encountered appear to share in common below average IQs.

I've perhaps known too many women in various aspects of the sex industry, even passing on the dukbious honor of a role offered in a Russ Meyers film. I hung out in the disco era with hookers & dungeon mistresses & only barely evaded doing some of the stuff they were doing for money. I did some very seedy modeling for a foot-fetish magazine distributed exclusively through adult bookstores. I used to meet for lunches together with a "masseuse" who was actually a call girl but whose dream was to become a stand-up comic. She'd sit with me in a favorite cafe practicing her routines for feedback before going on open-mike night to the comedy club.

I hung out in clubs with a "retired" hooker who headed a chapter of C.O.Y.O.T.E. (the prostitutes' union), a brilliant radical who alas turned out simultaneously to be a member of the Weather Underground & vanished from my life when to my great horror & surprise she went to prison for a long, long time for having bombed a Safeway. I was aggressively courted by an older novelist of the beat era who as a young woman had been the producer & cinematographer providing product for the triple-X adult cinemas of the 70s, until the FBI shut her down.

What these crazy, wild, unusual women had in common besides attachment to various aspects of the sex trade was intelligence. Most were frank geniuses & great friends. Not all of them were troubled but some were, over childhood traumas or abuse of controlled substances or both, but a few didn't seem to have any serious issues at all so that the main commonality was intelligence.

Yet when Daphne throws her little soiree, we meet only women on the low end of intellect completely deluded about themselves. And as this didn't fit at all with the women I've known, I never completely bought who these characters were presented as being. They were, instead, actors mouthing one writer's opinion of who they would have to be, possibly with an axe to grind, at least with a "storyteller's" idea for a twist ending that works as fiction exclusively.

That Daphne & her friends were not convincing to me was this film's only great fault. But nearly every film requires some suspension of disbelief, & it's the rare film that is about "real" people. So I found the pretense of this being a documentary a good excuse to assume everyone who passes before the lens (except Daphne's husband) are trying to live up to a very low expectation of who they are.

Daphne goes on a veritable shopping spree having the time of her life being followed by the camera. It's been a while since her exhibitionism has been allowed such an outlet, & she struts like a sow on its way to a favorite wallow.

Porn Queens of the 70'sBut when Daphne decides to stop by the synogogue to honor a dead friend, she's waylaid on the steps by two Jewish matrons who scold her as a sinner & demand she leave at once. "We don't want you here!" They were so obviously waiting for the camera & their cue, it took bad acting to an extreme.

As a story, though, it's beginning to have some power. The biddies on the synogogue steps weren't very credible, as you don't have to know a lot about Torah or the Talmud to understand that even whores are permitted to worship so long as their earnings from such work are not offered to God. But on some symbolic level I could accept the dramatic posture that this woman even in the face of such overt hatred from her community clings to an artificial pride in her own past.

When turned away from her synogogue, Daphne decides to worship somewhere else to honor her dead neighbor, & for the first time I burst out laughing when she went to a Christian church. She's jabbering pridefully about "the things I've done," sitting in a church pew trowling on more makeup. "Women of today could learn a lot from me."

Carlin Ford as Harvey had my sympathy early on & when it's his turn to be interviewed, I was enthralled. "We met at the laudromat." This character comes off as a dear, dear man who means harm to no one. "Daphne needs to be surrounded by people who love her." And he certainly does love her, with the improbable selflessnes of a saint, or a faithful vassal.

The wonderful campy affectations get better & better as we get a momentary glance at the camera crew when Daphne comes home, & we see it's not a real living room at all but a sound stage. By drawing the cameras back to show it's all only a play, the film intentionally sabotages the viewers' willingness to accept it as mocumentary pretending to reality. It is transformed more wholeheartedly into poker-faced tragi-comedy.

The film is deceptively shallow. There's actually a lot going on here, & it could go into a lot of directions. As an author of short tales myself, I find myself speculating where this is going to go! How would I finish this story if I had written it to this point?

Will sweet Harvey lose it when the party guests show up & start killing all Daphne's porno buddies from the '70s? That'd be a cheap bit of cinematic absurdity but I'd enjoy it. Or will he reveal that his trip to the doctor earlier that day was not good news, & Daphne only gets annoyed that he's trying to steal her thunder by having a terminal cancer? Will the friends from her past, whom she romanticizes, turn out to be as cretinish as herself, or to actually hate her guts?

No sooner than I had these thoughts than Harvey announces he has cancer. It turns into a melodrama with both characters obviously too aware of the camera. Daphne pretends to be ultra-sympathetic, tossing herself about the stage like she's Florence Nightingale when really she's a dopy narcissist.

Jump-cut to a card game with her porn friends, having a disgusting conversation about dog poop & worms, Daphne coming & going from the kitchen roasting a brisket with carrots & potatoes.

In the kitchen she says, "These were my best friends in the whole world." Returning to the card table, she wants to talk about how everyone except Harvey has at one time or another done it with everyone else. Harvey excuses himself to close himself in the bedroom alone.

Daphne is relentless in her monstrous narcissism, & she begins to creep out some of her "best friends in the whole world." Despite her monstrosity, it's not impossible to understand why Harvey finds her attractive. With her hair down & her body draped in a big red tent of an evening gown, she's beginning to seem like some Paleolithic goddess of middleaged lustfulness, so of course she's a narcissist, she's a gawdamn Goddess for crine out loud.

One of her friends, Paul (Elias McCabe), is not nearly as proud of their shared pasts. He flares up against Daphne always insisting they talk about who screwed who in what film. Then an exotic dancer (Joan Jurige) drops in to brag about her new boob job, & she's like the mental retard from planet fuck. Lordy this is funny crap.

Daphne's friends are interviewed one by one. They have all the self-awareness of shoes. And while it kept me grinning, it seemed unnecessary to make everyone so damnably stupid, as women in the sex trade might have a lot of faults & problems, but low IQ isn't primary, & more apt to be women who could've been doing art exhibits or writing books & scripts or making little art films.

As the climax approaches, the great "revelation" will regard Daphne's true state of mind & actual feelings about herself. When she breaks down screaming for God to help her it has considerable power, though in making her entire performance up till then a disguise rather than a real person, I was a little disappointed that the narcissism was retroactively supposed to be a pose. It was easy irony rather than from inside the character, heightening the detectible presence of authorial puppetry.

The fact that she is even then disconnected from her husband's terminal illness argues against her narcissism having been a pose, so we're definitely being manipulated by a writer rather than discovering something deeper in a character.

Porn Queens of the 70's is ultimately a pretty slick little film that does give one a lot to think about. It's somewhat reminiscent of director Mike Leigh, but without access to great actors. I don't even know why this has been relegated to the category of underground film. It's a good movie with edginess & panache.

See also my review of Danielle Stalling's later film
Haunted Planet, 2006

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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