Sexploitation aficionados have sometimes compared Joe Sarno’s films to Ingmar Bergman’s, because Sarno’s studies of small-town sexual ennui are so beautiful and chilly. Those comparisons are a bit of a reach, given that Sarno was unapologetically making smut, with slight plots and stilted dialogue. But Sarno was savvy enough to realize that so long as he included enough nudity, his backers didn’t much care what he slipped between the sex scenes, or how he shot his films. During his 1960s heyday, Sarno explored sexual frustration among the middle class, and considered how libertinism was just suburbanites’ way of handling insecurity over their social status. And he did all that in films that were strikingly lit and composed, with simmering jazz soundtracks.
Wiktor Ericsson’s documentary A Life In Dirty Movies captures Joe Sarno toward the end of his life—he died in 2010—when he and his wife Peggy were nestled in their New York apartment, occasionally venturing out to vacation at their second home in Stockholm, and to attend retrospectives of Joe’s work around the world. A Life In Dirty Movies follows three tracks simultaneously. About a third of the film looks back on Sarno’s career, with colleagues and critics breaking down what set his work apart from his softcore contemporaries. (“Chickenshit and chicken salad,” insists Sarno’s former producer Arthur Morowitz. “Joe made films.”) The other two-thirds deals with the Sarnos’ loving relationship, and their efforts to make one more movie, after decades of idleness.
The material about the modern-day Peggy and Joe is incredibly sweet. Peggy says Joe’s secret to a strong marriage is for two people whose “fuck-ups match” to find each other. Here, Joe comes across as an old craftsman, somewhat resignedly making concessions to the market as he writes his latest script, while Peggy offers helpful notes on his writing, gently reminding him that people don’t use phone booths any more, and arguing that he needs to go back to thinking of himself as an artist, not a pornographer. (After reading one bit of explicit dialogue aloud, Peggy tells Joe, “It’s true when you get excited that your pants are wet, but I can’t imagine saying it.”) Their strong bond holds them together, even as the bills pile up, and as Joe discovers that in the 2000s, it’s hard to find either financial backers or actresses willing to make Sarno’s kind of sex films.
But A Life In Dirty Movies is also fascinating just as a document of changing cultural mores. In the 1960s, when any nudity in a film was still a novelty, Sarno could make his subtle softcore features, focusing largely on the interior lives and desires of women. Sarno liked to dwell on faces and moans more than humping and genitalia—if one of his films attracted “the raincoat crowd,” he’d made a mistake, according to one of his former collaborators—but with the popularization of hardcore pornography in the 1970s, he found he had to turn his attention to erections and money shots to stay viable. Sarno made pornos under pseudonyms, while taking money from Peggy’s disapproving father to make a real Sarno film every now and then. He didn’t begin to get his due until the home-video era—and the advent of specialty companies like Something Weird.
Yet Peggy and Joe don’t seem bitter at all in A Life In Dirty Movies. They’re both endearingly matter-of-fact, as two people who spent the better part of their lives on movie sets populated by naked people would be. Ericsson’s film shows the Sarnos surrounded by sex—from Joe’s hand-drawn illustrations of the sexual positions he wants in his next movie to Peggy looking at a scene from one of Joe’s old films and admiring how an actress’ breasts still look full even when she’s lying on her back—but they maintain a defiant dignity about the work they did. Joe boasts that he never watched other people’s films, except for Bergman’s, because he wanted everything on the screen to have come from his own head. And he says he never believed he was in the business of selling nudity. “I made a film first,” he says, “And then I put the sex in it.”