Jun 13, 2014
English film distributor turned auteur Antony Balch’s dream project was adapting his alpha-Beat bud William S. Burroughs’ magnum opus Naked Lunch (1959) and although he never achieved that dream due to botched funding, a 'disagreement' with star Mick Jagger (who thought the filmmaker was coming on to him), and an early death (he died of stomach cancer at the premature age of 42 in 1980), he did manage to direct two features in preparation for getting the skills he would need for the film that would never be. Indeed, after collaborating on a series of experimental avant-garde shorts with Burroughs, including Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut Ups (1966), Balch would direct a feature that, like Naked Lunch, was comprised of a series of loosely connected petite vignettes of the oftentimes absurdist sort. Originally released under the name Secrets of Sex (1970), Balch’s film was released under the less seemingly pornographic name Bizarre in the United States, but has also been known as Eros Exploding, Erotic Tales from Mummy's Tomb, Multiplication, and Tales of the Bizarre. Made at the end of the Swinging London era (although released in 1970, the film was shot in 1969) and paying blatant tribute to queer criminal literary figures like Burroughs and Jean Genet, Secrets of Sex certainly has an outrageously outmoded aesthetic and an obscenely goofy essence about it, but those are some of the film's main appeals, as a vintage piece of sardonic and exceedingly eccentric episodic celluloid insanity that cannot really be compared to many other cinematic works. Mistakenly described by beatnik Renaissance man Brion Gysin (who was supposed to write the screenplay for Balch’s unrealized Naked Lunch adaption) as “a soft porn, which was too soft by the time it got made,” Secrets of Sex does indeed have tons of bare bouncy breasts and big bushes, and even dangling dongs, but the work ultimately makes a mockery of sex in a variety of rather clever and inventive darkly comedic ways. Featuring tomatoes being pelted at big bosoms, two sadomasochistic female photographers mutilating a male model’s member for the mere aesthetic pleasure, a young cheating husband shoving a phone in the ass of a female would-be-burglar during silly sex while the operator unwittingly listens on the other end, and a rich old man receiving a terminally ill mutant monster baby from his sexy scientist wife, among countless things, Secrets of Sex is the sort of celluloid sexploitation skit show you might expect from Paul Morrissey had he been less conservative, obsessed with Burroughs’ The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971), and had less of a venomous personality. Indeed, the film is, among other things, a playful cross-genre film anthology of the devilishly mirthful sort narrated by a faceless mummy about the timeless war of the sexes in the age of sexual liberation. A film that truly lives up to its rather generic American title ‘Bizarre,’ Balch’s film is a rare stylish sexploitation flick with wit and lavish direction that makes the films of Russ Meyer seem like the patently pathetic fantasies of a virginal beta-boy that drools like a dullard over being beaten by women (indeed, Meyer would make for a great character to lampoon in the film). Although the film features dozens upon dozens of perky jumbo jugs, Secrets of Sex somehow manages to prove that brains and boobs are not always mutually exclusive, at least when approached by a queer dandy who seems to have an equal cynicism towards both boys and birds, especially when it comes to those of the rampantly heterosexual variety. Written by at least five ‘official’ writers (as well as various uncredited writers, including Brion Gysin and Ian Cullen), Balch’s film demonstrates that there is actually a special place in the world for campy yet cultivated Beat sexploitation comedies.
Opening with three naked Aryans—two guys and a girl—in a haystack embracing in a trance-like fashion and a quote from John Milton’s 17-century epic poem Paradise Lost (in fact, it is the same one featured at the beginning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), Secrets of Sex tells the 1000-year-old story of a “wise and elegant” Arab Judge who suspected his young and beautiful wife was hiding a man in a trunk and thus took decisive action to rid the world of this mystery man in a most vengeful fashion. Since the wife refused to unlock the trunk, the Arab Judge had the trunk buried and the key thrown into the ocean. Needless to say, there was a man in the trunk and he went on to become a mummy (played by co-writer Elliott Stein, who proposed the idea of adding a mummy narrator to the film, so as to tie all the various vignettes together in a reasonably coherent fashion), who also happens to be the all-knowing narrator of Secrets of Sex, as a sort of undead sexologist. After featuring a scene of a gang of Burroughs-esque ‘Wild Boys’ (quite notably, aside from the fact that one of the boys is featured reading Burroughs' 1964 cut-up novel Nova Express, Balch's film predates The Wild Boys by a year) with submachine guns approaching a gang of busty babes who had just been pelted with tomatoes, the Mummy narrator more or less explains that the war of the sexes did not begin with feminism and the counter-culture generation, but is a timeless battle inspired by a dangerous game of desire, infatuation, obsession, and ultimately revenge. Indeed, by the end of the film, a mutant baby will be spawned and various people—both young and old-will die due to issues relating to sex and romance. In that regard, Secrets of Sex is one of the goofiest films ever made on the always interesting theme of sex and death.
The first episode of Secrets of Sex revolves around a young and rather naive man who makes the major mistake of being a model for two sadomasochistic female (and possible Sapphic?) photographers who decide they are tired of merely simulating images of sexual savagery and ultimately have the boy’s member mangled with some sort of sharp torture device, thereupon resulting in his premature death via dyke-like dick destroyers. In the second episode, which is a sort of parody of both melodramas and old school mad scientist horror flicks, a wealthy 69-year-old man stresses his concern to his young fiancée that he would like to have an heir, as his sole son was accidentally killed in a car wreck by his ex-wife. Unfortunately, the old man’s fiancée—a smart and sexy scientist who intimidates men due to her intelligence and intimidates women due to her beauty—has some degenerative genetic mutations in her genes and needless to say, after the young lady becomes pregnant to satisfy her over-the-hill sugar daddy's wishes, she inevitably gives birth to a terminally ill mutant baby that looks like a scrotum with bulging blue eyes. In the third episode, a married and exceedingly young man fittingly reading gay frog thief Jean Genet’s novel The Miracle of the Rose (1946) aka Miracle de la rose catches a masked leather-bound criminal attempting to rob his home. Ultimately, the thief offers the man, who most viewers would probably assume is a homo, sex in an attempt to stop him from calling the cops. In the end, the titillating thief, who has a somewhat grotesque scar covering one of her tits, outsmarts the pretentious ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian) by threatening to tell his wife about his extramarital affair with a lecherous lady of the night. Simultaneously a satire of unintentionally cheesy and intentionally sleazy 1960s British spy films and old silent era slapstick flicks, the fourth episode revolves around a sexy prostitute-like spy of the super sensuous sort named Lindy Leigh who attempts to swindle a horny military attaché, but ultimately finds herself locked up in a safe with countless other salacious (and topless) spies who tried the same damn thing.
In the most bizarre and even vaguely unsettling episode of Secrets of Sex, a NYC-born Nerd (played by Jewish co-screenwriter Elliott Stein, who planned to collaborate with Balch on an aborted film entitled The Sex Life of Adolf Hitler in which he planned to play a Nazi leader), has a big bosomed blonde streetwalker called to his room, as he hopes she will make love to his beloved pet pangolin. Ultimately, the rather repulsive and seemingly half-autistic Nerd attempts to convince the Hooker to make love to his grotesque pet by absurdly claiming to her that “pangolin swapping” is trendy in NYC, but she is not so degenerate as to let herself be defiled by a scaly anteater. Needless to say, the busty Streetwalker gives the bestiality-obsessed John his money back and runs away, only to notice an old woman kissing a pangolin in the street only moments later, thus confirming the Nerd was right all along regarding the popularity of pangolin-woman love affairs. The sixth and final episode is the most nicely nuanced, bizarre, and kaleidoscopic segment of the film and involves an old man strangling an old wealthy woman to death in her own greenhouse after realizing she sexually took advantage of him many decades back, so as to steal his ‘vital fluids.’ As the old whore-killer eloquently states, “misappropriation of men’s souls is a very serious crime.” Ultimately, Secrets of Sex concludes with same brigade of Wild Boys from the beginning of the film putting down their submachine guns and fornicating with their jumbo jugged female prisoners, thereupon resulting in literal fireworks of the rather climatic sort. In the end, the Mummy narrator complains, “So it goes on…and on, and on, and on, and on…” in regard to the perennial viciousness when it comes to sex and the different sexes. Indeed, like the gutter melodramas of sadomasochistic sodomite auteur Andy Milligan (Vapors, The Body Beneath), Balch's film depicts heterosexual sex as a singularly socially corrosive force that is largely responsible for all the violence, death, and hatred in the world.
Undoubtedly, aside from rather desperate dudes that get hard-ons from the mere sight of bare boobs, Secrets of Sex probably makes for a superlatively sorry masturbation aid, but of course, it is rather obvious that auteur Antony Balch was not really interested in making a soulless and pseudo-sensual sexploitation flick for the pathetic pleasure of loser Londoners looking to pull a Pee-wee Herman in one of the director’s semen-soaked theaters (in fact, the film played for six consecutive months at the Jacey Cinema in Piccadilly Circus, which is one of the theaters Balch ran). A rather uncommonly honest cinematic artist, Balch once stated on retrospect regarding his debut feature, “this is a very uneven film, but three episodes and a single shot, are good. I liked the ones with the photographer, Elliot Stein, and the Lady in the Greenhouse. The episode of the monster baby is a bore, but the single shot of it, at the end is brilliant.” Indeed, if only other filmmakers were so honest, the world would not be overflowing with filmic feces. Make no mistake about it, Secrets of Sex is celluloid trash, but it is also charming, perfectly campy, and idiosyncratic trash that seems like it was directed by the strikingly witty, if not equally lowbrow, Brit bastard brother of kraut dandy auteur Werner Schroeter. Sort of like a counter-culture update of the classic British horror omnibus film Dead of Night (1945) meets a Brit Beat equivalent to Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), albeit nowhere near as serious, esoteric, nor socio-politically-oriented, Balch’s anthology manages to be truly bizarre without seeming even remotely contrived. Indeed, considering Balch’s knack for grotesque humor, obsession with sexual perversion, and talent for combining an eclectic hodgepodge of vignettes into a more or less cohesive and eclectic feature film, he would have been a better person than any to adapt Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, especially considering he was a pal of the novelist (in fact, the Beat novelist gave the director a “special thanks” in his 1962 cut-up novel The Ticket That Exploded). For anyone that has wondered what Tales from the Crypt might be like if it was transported to Swinging Sixties London and directed by a man with an equal obsession with both horror and arthouse cinema, Secrets of Sex is certainly the film to checkout. Indeed, as someone that loathes that era, I found Secrets of Sex to be a playfully perverse piece of eccentrically enthralling filmic therapy that reminded me of the abject failure that was the counter-culture zeitgeist.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:23 PM
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