Review: A Life in Dirty Movies

A Life in Dirty Movies is a documentary about the life and films of Joe Sarno who was professed as “The Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” a titan of sexploitation cinema from the 1960s through the mid-1970s.

Early on in watching A Life in Dirty Movies you may find a weird number of allusions coming to mind as the narrative unfolds such as the character of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) in Boogie Nights. Yet as the story moves on you’ll see the individual, the milieu, the genre and where some of the legends about these films came, as well as information on the transformative shift from what was once sexploitation to hardcore; and thus Joe Sarno as an artist goes from the avant guard to a man of a bygone era almost immediately.

As a man he is almost unchanged. In one of the wonders of the Internet age his films, like those of other mavericks and originals in specific niches; have found new life and appreciation due to discussions and video availability. As the story unfolds and you see footage, even if you never saw one of his films, that illustrates what the likes of his widow Peggy Sarno, John Waters, and film historians are saying: in this softcore world Sarno found a voice.

It’s one of the film writing axioms that within your genre you find the room to speak and ply your craft. This was the case here. The fact that years later be it in the United States or Sweden there were retrospectives and reconsideration and seemingly sudden interest in his film is a testament to what Sarno did do, and what after a while he was no longer allowed to do as frequently.

Part of the film talks of his work in a filmographic sense with talking-heads and footage, part of it is current as he is trying to write and get a new script produced well into the 21st century as well as making ends, juxtapose that with the sudden recognition he’s getting and the travails he faced personally aside from the career that couldn’t and didn’t want to conform to where business took his form and there’s a lot to work with and fit into this compact film.

It does meld together well and the conclusion has impact. I can’t help but think the final third did feel a bit herky-jerky not because of narrative decisions, but rather pacing decisions in the edit that built emotional backstory and current context that shifts a bit too abruptly. The shift in the end does need some abruptness based on the parameters but it lends itself to a compartmentalized fragmented view of the film that had come to tie together many disparate elements to that point.

Ultimately this is a case wherein film is the best chronicler of film history in a manner such that the information would reach an audience that may not have been receptive to Sarno’s story another way. As is illustrated in the film Joe struggled to win any sort of favor with his wife’s family and it seemed even his industry had forsaken him, but when he died the New York Times dedicated the topmost, largest obit on that day to his memory. A mark had been made, but to the completely uninitiated that or text on his work may not be the most effective introduction, but rather this film is. For I think without it, without cutting in clips starting with one that is a jarring amount of cinéma vérité in sexploitation film; I may not have come away from the film with an appreciation for what he did and a curiosity to perhaps see it. A writer can do wonderful things in describing a film, but a lot of film writing can communicate more easily when the audience has already experienced the film it’s harder still to paint that picture and compel someone to seek out further and in that way this film may allow Sarno’s legacy to live on further.