Truth be told The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies tries just a little too hard to convince us that the titular heroes of the film are just like any other aging couple fondly reminiscing about the good ol’ days. And it’s not that long time porn director Joe Sarno and his muse/partner Peggy Steffans don’t play their roles to perfection. Pay close attention, though, and you begin to wonder if they are trying to fool us or are just fooling themselves.
The documentary opens with Joe, retired, watching old reels of some of his early work. “She was good” he says of one of the porn stars. “I forget her name,” he adds, without apparent irony. Peggy drifts into the room while he is watching porn and the couple argues about whether or not the pair simulating sex on screen actually had sex while being filmed. For a second they do seem like any other retired couple jovially bickering about different memories of some distant event.
But as we continue to listen, inconsistencies emerge–ones that suggest not that the couple remembers things differently but that they may be trying to construct different narratives. “We could discuss John Ford […] Hawkes, Truffaut,” she insists, insinuating that what elevated their porn was that they were honest to goodness artists. “You tried to make it as hot as you could without showing anything,” Joe counters, bluntly. “A lot of people were against my relationship to Joe,” Peggy insists. They were “not really aware” of what Peggy and Joe did, claims her mother.
There may also be one too many ideas vying for our attention. Are pornographers the real first amendment champions of our culture? (No, but films about them always seem to want to claim they are.) Is there a difference between the soft-core films of Joe Sarno and current iterations of pornography? (Yes, and John Waters is here to tell you why the old porn from back in the day was better.) Can a couple that met on the set of a porn film have a long-lasting, loving relationship? (Sure: people who make porn are just like the rest of us except for how they make a living.) Is pornography a detrimental influence on society? (“We don’t set the moral of the country; the country set the morals of the film.”)
These loose threads wouldn’t bother me much if the film seemed aware of them as such–or even if it just acknowledged that the argument it was making was pretty one-sided. I’ve read Ordeal one too many times not to take the nostalgia for the hey day of porn without a two ton salt lick. When Peggy shares late in the film that Joe (who passed away) has left her with debts she can’t pay off because there are no royalties to speak of in the porn industry, I guess a Puritan would wag his finger and say that you reap what you sow. All I could muster was a sad shake of my head. Who does make money from porn? That’s not really a question the film wants you to think about too much.
And yet one can’t help feeling happy for Joe when, late in the film, he gets some of the recognition for his pioneering work. Such is the power of empathy. Everyone wants to be recognized for their achievements, and they want those they love to have good things, too. In that, I could finally agree, the Sarnos were just like everyone else.
A Life in Dirty Movies will be available for download and on DVD from Film Movement on November 25.