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3/26/2009

Film & Video

FFF: Return of the X
UCF professor Berry Sandler looks back on his controversial cult film

 

An Evening With
Ken Russell and
Barry Sandler
featuring Crimes of Passion
9 p.m. Saturday, March 28
Regal Winter Park Village 20
407-629-1088, ext. 225
$20

In a sense, the characters in the 1984 film Crimes of Passion are painted with broad strokes: the hooker with the heart of gold; the repressed suburban family man slaving away in a loveless marriage; the psychopathic, amyl nitrate–sniffing evangelist with a satchel full of sex toys. You know, familiar archetypes like that.

There’s nothing common, however, about Crimes of Passion, which will be screened 9 p.m. Saturday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its release. It’s a sick, demented, witty, ostentatious, poignant and above all unique study of psychosexual mores. It was completely of its time, while simultaneously transcending it.

Because who would insert the line “I never forget a face … especially when I’ve sat on it” in a mainstream movie? The answer is screenwriter and University of Central Florida film professor Barry Sandler, and Crimes is his most memorable picture. He’ll join director Ken Russell, who’s being flown in from London, for a Q&A after Saturday’s screening.

“Especially today, filmmakers and audiences are very reluctant and shy about sexuality on screen,” says Sandler. “But [Crimes] has developed a cult following because of the fact that it does break rules and cross boundaries and hit nerves that are very discomforting to people. It stretches the boundaries about how far filmmaking can go.”

The film, about the relationship between a double-life-leading hooker (Kathleen Turner), an emasculated married man (John Laughlin) and a villainous faux clergyman (Anthony Perkins), has always been shadowed by controversy. Director Russell, known for his stylized, Caligulan decadence, had already received an X rating for his 1971 horror film The Devils. Crimes of Passion would be submitted to the ratings board seven times to avoid an X, with the filmmakers eventually acquiescing to a neutered R-rated cut that could never live up to the anticipation the controversy generated.

There was a time when the X rating didn’t spell box-office anathema. Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange were rated X, and no one would dismiss their importance. But when X became the domain of porn, it was no longer viable for mainstream movies. Sandler and then-MPAA ratings board chairman Richard Heffner wanted to change that, using Crimes of Passion as X’s way back.

“Heffner tried to get me to re-legitimize the X rating,” remembers Sandler. “I thought that was a very valid argument. He said, ‘You can keep cutting, but it’s not a matter of a word or a scene. It’s the whole theme of the movie. The psychology of sexuality is a very mature theme, and it’s not for anyone under the age of 18. You should release [Russell’s] original intention.’ But I couldn’t sell the studio on it.”

Even Kathleen Turner was willing to waive the clause in her contract that prohibited her from acting in X-rated films. The final decision ultimately came down to (what else?) money. According to Sandler, New World Pictures, which handled domestic distribution, received a large chunk of funds from American Express, which wouldn’t allow its corporate brand to be soured by X-rated debauchery.

But when Russell’s original, unrated cut was released on video, the film found a home. The sadomasochistic nightstick scene, involving a cop who likes it rough – an essential moment of sobering self-realization for China Blue (Turner) – was restored, as were the flashes of Asian erotica Russell intercut into some of the sex scenes. The Regal screening will show this director’s cut, one of two 35 mm prints in existence.

Crimes of Passion is not short on serious themes. Like much of Sandler’s previous work, including The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox and Making Love, it addresses the facades we wear instead of confronting difficult truths about ourselves. It’s something Bobby Grady (Laughlin) is as guilty of in his sexless, stifling marriage to Amy (Annie Potts) as China Blue is when she literally dons masks to satisfy the fantasies of her tricks.

But the cult status Crimes has gained over the years has less to do with Sandler’s cerebral plotting than with Russell’s sleazily filigreed visual palette. In his evocation of seediness, from peepshows full of sweaty men and soggy tissues to the astonishing array of sex toys spewing from Perkins’ doctor’s bag (a sharpened metal vibrator, an S&M whip made of red licorice), Russell sees the top and shoots his cinematographic wad way over. Furthermore, the scenes between China Blue and her johns are filmed in throbbing, lurid red-and-blue neon that underscores the sin.

“I envisioned it as more of a gritty, almost black-and-white movie,” says Sandler. “But when I was in UCLA at film school, at the top of my list was the idea of Ken Russell directing a movie of mine. When he came aboard, at a certain point I deferred to his vision of the movie. And I love that style of filmmaking, the subtle naturalism mixed with the in-your-face, outrageous hyperbolic filmmaking. I knew with Russell it would be through his eyes. But at the same time, I’ve never worked with a director who was so respectful to the text of the script. He wouldn’t change a word.”

Indeed, Sandler said he “loves Russell to death” but admits the auteur can be a “prickly and irascible” diva. I discovered this firsthand in a phone interview with Russell for this story. The 81-year-old legend, who will step out of retirement to direct an adaptation of Moll Flanders next year, provided such a paucity of words that he made Joaquin Phoenix’s Letterman appearance seem like a gabfest of verbiage. He refused to engage in a dialogue, answering my questions with curt contempt and rarely exceeding three or four words.

As Sandler says, “You don’t go to a Ken Russell film for low-key subtlety.” Don’t let this deter you from attending Saturday’s screening and experiencing one of the 1980s’ most intriguing films. Just don’t be surprised if Sandler does all the talking.

film@orlandoweekly.com
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