Joseph and Peggy Sarno make for a poignant elderly couple, perhaps an embodiment of the dream of “growing old together.” He’s a grandpa figure with a big belly and rolling gait; she’s slim and still gorgeous with elegantly piercing eyes and a raspy voice that recalls Sylvia Sidney in her later years. It’s immediately clear to us that Peggy, who’s younger and tougher, governs the somewhat out-to-lunch man’s affairs, shielding him from the truth of their always-potentially-impending financial collapse. Getting by is hard for artists of most stripes, especially for a man pushing 90 who once directed softcore movies, with a heyday 50 years in the rearview mirror. But the Sarnos generally maintain a remarkably positive emotional tenor: He’s trying to produce a new film, and she’s keeping the motor of their domestic life humming, most amusingly providing her husband script notes, such as advising him that a woman would no longer need to stop at a phone booth to call her illicit lover.
A Life in Dirty Movies abounds in such moving, shrewdly suggestive details, and, for that, you forgive the film for its preoccupation with breadth over depth. There’s simply too much material here for an 80-minute documentary to adequately address. Sarno wrote and directed something like 75 films over a long career that barely weathered the adult film market’s shift from softcore erotica in the early 1960s to the colder, harder, industrialized porn of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Followed by director Wiktor Ericsson over the last few years of his life, before he died of natural causes in 2010, Sarno cuts a figure that suggests a mixture of Ed Wood and Ingmar Bergman. The latter impression was purposeful: The filmmaker deeply admired Bergman’s work, and even had a retreat in Sweden, where he produced several movies (most famously Inga, one of the first X-rated movies to be released in the United States) with American money. Most pointedly, though, Sarno radiates an infectious artistic idealism that refutes the modern notion of the porn-trafficker-as-pimp, and speaks volumes as to why his films are so markedly different from today’s erotica. Sarno’s work had something that many filmmakers’ lack: It evinced an appreciation for women as humans rather than as objects for self-fulfilling attainment.
It’s regrettable that Ericsson doesn’t more explicitly elaborate on the troubling implications of the rise of hardcore porn, particularly how it reflects on the growing narcissism of American capitalism at large (a form of de-evolution that clearly haunts the couple). But he astutely includes long sequences from Sarno’s films, implicatively allowing you to play a game of compare-and-contrast that leaves the mechanical gyrations of the randomly downloaded porn of the contemporary age severely wanting. We see how Sarno’s essential naiveté, which paved the way for his and Peggy’s eventual dire financial straits, also inspired him to fashion sex scenes that had the courage to be actively sexy.
Ericsson emphasizes one of the strongest and most distinctive features of Sarno’s aesthetic: his concentration on female pleasure, particularly as registered in the face, which offers a promise of an illusion of intimacy that draws many emotionally healthy people to porn to begin with. (An excerpt from Laura’s Toys is so sexy and personal that it nearly stops this entire film in its tracks.) With his strikingly stylized emphasis on women’s self-actualization, and the fashions with which the typical suburban arrangement often endangered it, Sarno was really 42nd street’s answer to Douglas Sirk, which means, sadly, that he was destined to be underappreciated in his own time. Even more alarmingly, we might be drifting toward an increasingly self-absorbed pop culture that’s incapable of valuing the intimacy of Sarno’s work at all. Watching A Life in Dirty Movies, we not only feel the Sarnos’ loss, but our own.