On the cusp of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “This Is Softcore: The Art Cinema Erotica of Radley Metzger” retrospective, it appears the 85-year-old auteur is finally getting his due. It’s no shock that Metzger is a career scrapper: On a glowing August morning, he discussed his 20-plus film catalogue with an unsentimental acuity that betrays his age and a gentlemanly aplomb that, it must be said, jarred my initial expectations, given Metzger’s erotica-veteran status. What has Metzger done for the American cinema? Consider the love scenes in movies like Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me or David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, too lurid to survive the censorship of the prior 1960s, but too flowery and poetic to be considered anywhere near exploitation. The trend—triangulating lovemaking, eye candy and mood music into a kind of art-sex stew—had many fathers, but given Metzger’s surprisingly classy softcore riffs on Shaw, Bizet, or Dumas, there’s no questioning he was one of them. Loaded with lessons for young cineastes, he considers himself a filmmaker, full stop, and damn right: The word “porn” never once emerged in our roving discussion of his work.
It seems like your most infamous, renowned film today is The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Do you think that’s due to the recent restoration, or is there another reason? How do you view it in the context of your body of work?
It had very explicit footage, but basically it was pretty much what I do. The humor was the same—of course, I leaned very heavily, as always, on classic plot structures, and that one is obviously Pygmalion. The fact that it came along with explicit stuff called a lot of attention to itself, but I’m not sure it was any funnier or more charming; it was a little bit more lavish than the rest, we shot it in three countries and four cities, and the production really got kind of out of hand.
In terms of excess?
We just kept spending a lot more on it than we anticipated. I got sort of carried away.
Well, the attention for production design is a signature of yours.
I don’t wanna sound corny, but it’s a visual medium, and I always felt that you’ve got to constantly be pulling and keeping the eye. That was why I went to Europe. What little money you had, at that time, went much further, and you were able to put it into production values: sets, costumes, décor, locations. At the time, I think that was one of the elements that set our films apart. We were trying to stand out from the crowd by offering something a little more sumptuous. I think that’s one of the reasons we shot at what was, at the time, the equivalent of CinemaScope. Small, independent productions didn’t use that anamorphic process, but we did, to the same objective as creating a more attractive visual fabric.
Making it a real film, not just a string of explicit scenes. If I’m not mistaken, you grew disappointed as the rest of the film—the non-explicit parts—dwindled in importance, with the rise of hardcore.
Well, when I went into explicit footage, I got a lot of attention, and I’m not sure that a lot of it was deserved, in the sense that I didn’t have a lot of competition. By the time I did, say, Misty, I had 12 or 13 features under my belt; I don’t think anybody else had that experience. You don’t have to be a great filmmaker: If you do 13 features, you’ve got a lot of experience and you’re gonna apply that. People came to explicit filmmaking from all kinds of other professions—still photography, for instance. One guy was a hairdresser. I think, by the time explicit films got a little more age and experience, these people were fine. I’m not saying this from a snobbish point of view at all, but at that time, there really wasn’t anybody else, and our stuff kind of shined sometimes, by comparison.
Your very first film, Dark Odyssey, was a straight-up immigration drama. Was erotica always an interest of yours? Or is that just how your career shook out?
Well, when you enter filmmaking without a lot of money, you have to find ways to call attention to yourself! I think there’s a split: One of the ways is to enter the field of horror films, and a lot of young people were doing that. I chose erotic films because I had a small distribution company and we had acquired a couple of French films which were legitimate comedies, but they had bare breasts—not even in an erotic context, but that created an audience. It fulfilled, rather, an audience that was out there, waiting for that kind of film. It meant that you could attract people, or tell them that you’re there, without spending enormous amounts of money on advertising. It was kind of a desperation move. If you do a straight drama, you’re just one of a crowd, and you would have to spend a great deal of funding to tell people that you’re there—whereas if you put in horror, or eroticism, you stood out from the crowd. And the people saw you.
I think that was the impetus that made us do that. Dark Odyssey was one of those heartfelt shoestring productions. It had to do with the clash of two different cultures, and how what’s moral in one culture isn’t moral in another, and it really was trying to make a statement about what was wrong with the world. We finished it, we were pleased with our result, and absolutely nobody showed up. It was a total, total, record-breaking disaster. And I kind of had to pick myself up off the mat of life, and figure out how I was going to continue in my chosen field. Because I always wanted to make films. I’m happy to say that a couple of wonderful reviews have come over the Internet recently, so there’s a kind of a happy ending, I suppose—but at the time, it was something I just had to deal with.
Interesting. Even in some of your erotic films, there’s a question of relative morality—like you were looking to kind of defang the sexual taboos.
It’s funny you should say that, because that is exactly what I was trying to do. You can set up a camera and photograph two people making love, yes, but anybody could do that, and everybody was doing it. So they didn’t need you, they didn’t need me, to do that. I think one of the underlying spines of what I did was shedding a little light on things that were, at that time, fairly taboo. These are things that people didn’t talk about, and they certainly didn’t talk about it in polite society—and that was our market, by the way. There were many audiences for eroticism, and we were fortunate because we appealed to the group called “young marrieds.” People who weren’t completely comfortable, but they could accept and tolerate subjects which were, ah, heretofore not widely talked about. Remember, this was before Stonewall. A different period. If you take a little, as Mary Poppins said, to make the medicine go down, if you couch it in something entertaining—hopefully, witty and well-photographed—it’s a lot easier to take.
My favorite film of yours that I’ve seen, Camille 2000, basically substitutes sex for love, in terms of using atmosphere, mood, and softcore scenes where you would have had, 30 years prior, pages and pages of romantic dialogue.
That story had been filmed close to 30 times in the history of film, as Camille and also as La Traviata, which is based on the Dumas novel. I have to say that, and I’m not sure I could defend the wisdom of this, we were very, very faithful in our adaptation. A lot of people confuse the source material because he wrote the book The Lady of the Camelias and turned it into a play the following year, which was the basis of the Garbo film. But we did the original story of it, and we shot more footage than I ever shot in my life. Unfortunately, we had to leave a lot of it out. But we had the funding at that time, and I was very lucky; I got the best art director in the world, Enrico Sabbatini, and I think a lot of the effectiveness of that film comes from his efforts. Unfortunately, he died very young.