Tuesday 1 August 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? The Opening Of Misty Beethoven (1976)

What's it all about?
It's Pygmalion with blowjobs. Dr Seymour Love (Jamie Gillis) is writing a book about sex and finds his subject in Misty Beethoven (Constance Money), a prostitute he initially deems “the nadir of passion” and “a sexual civil servant”. Love decides that, with the help of his friend Geraldine, (Jacqueline Beudant) he will make Misty the next Goldenrod girl.

Why haven't you seen it?
Because you don't tend to spend 85 minutes watching a feature film on Pornhub. This just isn't the way adult films are consumed (or made) anymore.

Why should you see it?
Porn today is pretty distinctly separate from what we consider artistically interesting filmmaking, despite arthouse cinema's occasional excursions into hardcore, but that wasn't always the case. The porno chic era (roughly speaking the early 70's to the early 80s, when video took over the industry) brought audiences films that had developed plots and characters and interesting filmmakers behind the cameras who, like their actors, appeared to have the ambition to tell a story as well as deliver the goods. Of all those filmmakers, the most talented and most interesting was Radley Metzger (who made his hardcore work under the name Henry Paris).

Metzger had established himself with softcore films like Therese and Isabelle, Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet, before making a diversion into hardcore with The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann. The premise of The Opening of Misty Beethoven is simple, serving essentially as a skeletal plot and structure on which to hang a series of sexual set pieces which range from arousing to amusing. It would be easy to dismiss a film like Misty Beethoven sight unseen, after all, it's just porn, what cinematic interest could there really be in it? That discounts Metzger, who was an artist and an auteur, but just happened to work in adult films.

You can see Metzger's artistry from the very beginning of this film. Dr Love meets Misty in a porn cinema, where she has a very old client (who, for no particular reason, is dressed as Napoleon). As she services her client we can see that Misty is syncing her motions with those on screen. This blurring of the line between film and reality when it comes to sex is a key theme of Metzger's work, it formed the throughline of both The Lickerish Quartet and The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann. Here it serves as a punchline to the scene and as an indication of the tone Metzger and his actors are going for, but also as further proof that the Henry Paris films are as important to the idea of Metzger as an auteur as any of his softcore work.

The Opening of Misty Beethoven is a very funny film, one that mixes its comedy with its salacious moments in an effective way. Dr Love and Geraldine are both very rich and they fly all over the world with Misty, always on an airline that offers sex as part of the service. In one drily amusing scene, Dr Love books his next flight with a stewardess who runs through the options “so that's first class, sex, non-smoking, adult movie or family movie?”. Misty's training is also often played for laughs, particularly in early scenes as she struggles to get the hang of oral sex.

That this delicate tonal balance works is down to the actors. Jamie Gillis was something of a legend in adult cinema, but on this evidence he could easily have made it as a straight actor. Taking what is essentially the Henry Higgns part, Gillis is the perfect balance of charming and bastardly. The real find of the film is Constance Money. She's got a 'prettiest girl in her small town' charm and a look of broken innocence that gives the porn cinema scene, and a couple of others, an undertone of sadness. Like Gillis, she's also a capable actor. Despite the film's silliness, you do find yourself falling for and rooting for Misty and that's largely down to Constance Money's presence and her performance.

Another area where Metzger strikes a delicate balance is in the sex scenes. This is a hardcore film, make no mistake, and it gets pretty full on in some surprising ways (a pegging scene in an otherwise straight film) but remarkably it never feels dirty. I think this is because, for the most part, the film treats sex as something fun. This isn't an angsty film, nobody has to feel guilt about what they're into or about getting what they want. Partly this is because this is pre-HIV, there wasn't the same inherent risk in such free sexuality, but it also goes along with the film's comedic tone. Sex is everywhere. Dr Love and Geraldine have it served to them by staff, along with their drinks. Every scene has people having sex in the background, enjoying themselves. The approach normalises that freedom, that's why it seldom feels furtive.

Beyond its attractive cast, Misty Beethoven looks great. Metzger often frames his sex scenes in wide shots, creating canvasses of bodies set in beautifully designed spaces. He also, for the most part, puts the camera's focus on story before (or at least in conjunction with) sex. This results in an unusual moment of introspection. After a scene in which Misty has achieved a longtime goal of getting 3 men off at once, the camera holds on Constance Money as she cleans up, sits on the bed, and briefly cries. It's a tiny moment, but one that asks a lot of questions about Misty, and about whether this world is as much fun as it looks from the outside. This is a piece of characterisation most films of this ilk would never take the time for, but it pays off in the film's last act.

The Opening of Misty Beethoven is so much more than 'just a porn film'. It's an auteur's film, shot with genuine artistry, a key text in Metzger's great career. It's a well acted, amusing and entertaining film as well. Deep Throat is almost certainly the most important adult film ever made. The Opening of Misty Beethoven might be the best. 

How can you see it?
A 2012 HD restoration is available, with exhaustive extras, on region free Blu Ray from DistibPix. 

Note: For further info on Constance Money and The Opening of Misty Beethoven, I highly recommend the episode of The Rialto Report linked below, which includes Money's first in depth interview in almost 40 years. 
Podcast: http://ow.ly/Cx3u30dDIws

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