A recent interview with currently fêted porn director Axel Braun, who makes erotic fan fiction under the category of parodies for legendary studio Vivid, revealed the apparent fact that he directs everything but the sex scenes. I say apparent because PR is as much about building a lasting mystique as it is selling the one product at the time, so who knows if Signor Braun really does or does not shoot the sex. If he doesn’t, however, then it shows how far the industry has come from that short, heady time in the seventies, when Radley Metzger directed every single part of his films and built a body of work that could seriously lay claim to be the work of an auteur. That the sex is now effectively a second-unit shoot on today’s best-selling titles says a great deal about what pornography has become and how it sees the sex itself within the context of what it sells.
I cannot begin to imagine what a classic piece of erotic cinema such as The Opening Of Misty Beethoven must look like to viewers who have grown up with every type of sex act available to watch for free online, with what is effectively porn on tap. This film is not merely product, or a stag loop aspiring to be a film, aspiring to be narrative cinema – it is a film, it is an example of narrative cinema, as much as any other canonised American film of 1975 was. Certainly, by that year there was no shortage of either violence or simulated sex on screen, but the unsimulated kind was still something the wider public had yet to experience, particularly in the U.K. where the Confessions and Adventures series carried on. There was no internet, no easily available home reproductions of what was seen in cinema, in fact no home entertainment industry beyond rental reels of film, either cut-down versions of complete films or complete ones in 16mm. Therefore, a film that became a box-office hit became one by dint of folks actually turning up and paying at a cinema to see it. Unimaginable today, but it shows that when theatre ticket sales made Misty Beethoven a hit, it really was a hit.
So what made this film stand out from even those other films now labelled under the sub-genre “porno chic”? And does it still? As is now well established, Radley Metzger was an American director who evolved artistically from directing soft-core erotic dramas to hardcore ones under the name Henry Paris. Those few films were made with more care, attention, money and professionalism then was usual for the industry even then. Most of all, they betray a clear auteurist hand, in all their aspects. Misty Beethoven borrows its storyline and structure from Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, and sets it in a heady jet-set swinging fantasy version of seventies America and Europe. The actors are not only exactly that, they are better than much of what you will see in TV and low-budget films of the period. That they can also deliver passion and priapism across some varied sex on camera is as impressive as how lightly some of them tread with humourous interludes that would have fallen flat otherwise. Much of their ability to do this is clearly helped by a decent script, proper lighting, wardrobe and make-up, as well as their surroundings. Actual location shooting in Paris and Rome, careful use of stock footage for establishing shots of other cities (as a former resident of Geneva in the eighties and nineties, I was shocked to realise that the establishing shot used is recognisably the back streets of the old town, just down from a pub I used to drink in), and great production design done in a former RKO studio make the film look like other high quality seventies cinema – I’ve seen thriller and horror films from then look much cheaper and less convincing. The soundtrack is also excellent, assembled from library music but perfectly chosen.
These, however, could all have just been so much expensive clothing wasted on a randy tart (male or female, take your pick), were it not for the film’s humour and desire. The fantasy airline where you book your seat in “sex or non-sex” cabins will remind modern viewers of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, where first class includes scabbard holders for your sword. Misty Beethoven is that level of fantasy and should be enjoyed as such. This is sex and wealth as fun, but with a sense of the emotions behind the actions, and that is why it holds the place in history and viewers’ affections that it does.
The effort to restore and bring this film to modern home cinema is yet another triumph of crowd-sourced funding. The region-free blu-ray looks great, sounds great, and is stacked with hours of extras. These include two uncut restored versions of the film (hardcore and softcore, but this latter contains additional and variant scenes, so is worth seeing) with lossless sound and a range of subtitle options, two commentaries (the director on the hardcore version, co-star Gloria Leonard on the softcore), a longform making-of doc, featurettes including tributes to deceased cast members and a detailed look at the technical process of restoration (something a lot more blu-ray reviewers and fans should actually see before throwing around terms like DNR and filtering), deleted scenes & outtakes, trailers and yet more. Fascinatingly some sex scenes were cut, demonstrating clearly that the emphasis in the final edit was on character and humour. The 60 page booklet that comes sporting the gorgeous new artwork commissioned for this edition is DVD-sized only, but is bursting with information from a number of authors – perfect reading to the original soundtrack, which is also now available to buy on CD. There is also a fridge magnet of the new art and a sturdy postcard of original era key art.
Overall, this edition is quite simply worth every penny of the asking price, and shames many a so-called “special edition” out there. As with a Criterion or Eureka MoC release, the film is fully contextualised, a pleasure for fans but priceless for academics. However, an earlier US DVD release had a commentary from co-stars Gloria Leonard and the late Jamie Gillis which has not been ported over, so owners of that edition will want to hang on to it for that.
Today, The Opening of Misty Beethoven is not only widely considered the best of its era, if not the whole history of pornography as an industry, it is often held up along with such films as the Mitchell Brothers’ Behind The Green Door (1972) and Gerard Damiano’s The Devil In Miss Jones (1973) as clear examples of how porn could have become legitimately mainstream through dint of creativity and quality. These days though, they are seen instead as the epitome of porno chic, a label that implies these were aspirational beyond what porn is, or has become. In a bizarre way, the film’s storyline has become the metaphor for the era – trying to take the raw human material that a few creative types saw potential in, and create art. They tried, and for a few short years succeeded; but in the long run, they became the few who reached too far, their creativity killed off by commerce, crassness and criminality.