Inside Deep Throat (documentary)

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Many documentaries end with words on the screen telling us something sobering — what happened next to the people in the film, or a statistic about the film’s subject, perhaps. You can often measure the effectiveness of the documentary by the impact those final words have on you. Are you shocked? Outraged? Relieved? Bored?

“Inside Deep Throat,” which recounts the history of the seminal (sorry, but that’s the right word for it) porn film “Deep Throat,” spends some time discussing the legal problems the filmmakers had, being prosecuted for violating obscenity statutes and so forth. At the end of the documentary, we read that “the laws used to prosecute ‘Deep Throat’ are still in place.” The clear intention is that we are supposed to be shocked by this, to think that our country still has such provincial, archaic laws on the books — but the film never actually makes a case for that. It assumes, before it ever begins preaching, that only choir members are present, and hence makes no effort to convert the non-believer.

That’s where I realized (if I had not already) that I was not among the people “Inside Deep Throat” was aimed at. Its target demographic is viewers who see pornography as harmless fun, kitschy in its 1970s incarnations, lame but useful in its more modern forms. “Inside Deep Throat” is pure popcorn info-tainment, a look at how one skin flick polarized a nation and changed an industry, and not an examination of pornography itself, at least not a serious one. That isn’t a weakness in the film, necessarily, though it does limit its audience to the ranks of those who already agree with it.

Our filmmakers are Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the duo behind such excellent Age of Irony documentaries as “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Party Monster,” as well as the subsequent fictionalized version of the latter, which put Macaulay Culkin in butt-less leather pants in his role as an ’80s-era club kid, drug addict and murderer.

With “Inside Deep Throat,” as ever, Bailey and Barbato are not interested in history so much as pop-cultural camp value. Their documentaries are fast-cut and up-tempo, with eye-catching visuals used to spruce up the talking-heads interview segments. They are fond of lingering on their subjects for a second or two after the person has finished speaking, intentionally making the process seem amusingly awkward.

These stylistic trappings mask what is actually a fairly adept method of filmmaking, concisely revealing a lot of information and getting to the heart of the matter with precision. Early in the film, they ask “Deep Throat” director Jerry Damiano if “Deep Throat” — the highest-grossing porn film ever made — is a good movie. “No, I don’t think it’s a good movie,” he says matter-of-factly. Point made, audience entertained, let’s move on.

“Deep Throat” was made for $25,000 in 1972, with only a tiny plot and some badly acted comedy distinguishing it from the other “stag films” of its day. It struck a nerve with people, though, and gained enough legitimacy to be booked in regular theaters, resulting in lines around the block and outrageous box-office receipts. (Bailey and Barbato repeat the urban legend that it eventually made $600 million, an impossible sum that the Los Angeles Times debunked, noted here. Whatever the final tally was, though, it was certainly unprecedented for an X-rated porno.)

Much of “Inside Deep Throat” is nothing more than dirty now-old men talking about their involvement with the production and the ensuing publicity, indecency charges and trials. The filmmakers also include interviews with such likely candidates as Hugh Hefner, John Waters and Dr. Ruth, and with less-expected commentators like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Dick Cavett. The directors make the point that pop culture is an all-encompassing creature: You can’t talk about a film of the 1970s without talking about the 1970s in general.

Linda Lovelace, the sweet small-town girl who starred in “Deep Throat,” says in footage from 1972 that she was paid only $1,200 for it — “but now I’m known, so it’s OK.” She wanted to be an actress, but soon found that porn fame isn’t really the kind of fame that you can do anything with.

Ditto Harry Reems, the mustachioed male lead who was eventually convicted by a federal court for indecency because of his role in the film. His luck went downhill after “Deep Throat,” and he never found work outside of that industry. He’s now a real estate agent in Park City, Utah — home to the Sundance Film Festival, where “Inside Deep Throat” premiered. (Yes, he was there.)

Bailey and Barbato cover all their bases and tell a fine story, reminding us often that “Deep Throat” was an important cultural touchstone. It brought hardcore pornography from the fringe to the forefront. Thousands of porn films are made every year now, compared to the mere hundreds of mainstream movies. Home VCRs played a part in that proliferation, too, but without “Deep Throat,” the industry would have remained a small, filthy tangent to the legitimate film business, not a huge force in its own right.

If you wish there were more hand-wringing over that fact, and less celebrating of “Deep Throat’s” effect on American society, then this documentary will only cause you concern. Its aim is to entertain and to recount a fascinating chapter in pop-culture history. It does this reasonably well, though its winking, tongue-in-cheek attitude wears thin after a while.

B- (1 hr., 30 min.; NC-17, several brief excerpts from porn movies, only one of which is truly NC-17-worthy.)