Biographer Jimmy McDonough once pointed something out for me. What Russ Meyer was to the one extreme of sexploitation cinema on the West Coast of America, Radley Metzger on the East Coast was the other side. Whilst Meyer was creating pictures that focused on the visual cliches and superficiality of sexuality, Metzger created a solid filmography that allowed the landscape of human sexual response to be psychosexually examined on screen. Forget the ‘smut’ that many associate with the word sexploitation, Metzger developed a catalogue of sophisticated adult erotica that allowed the audience an introspective viewpoint of their own desires and feelings. In basic layman’s terms, Metzger is perhaps one of the most successful directors to allow his audience to ‘think’ and be ‘aroused’ at the same time. This month see’s the first ever uncut UK releases of three of his best pieces of work, Camille 2000, Lickerish Quartet and Score, through the cult distribution label Arrow. Released on both DVD and Blu-Ray, these films have been digitally restored and packaged with director commentaries and behind the scenes material. Metzger himself took some time out to answer a few questions.
Firstly congratulations on the Arrow releases, how does it feel seeing your work restored and remastered for existing and new audiences? They look beautiful and Arrow have done a great job. It’s nice to see them again as they were when we first shot them. It’s also exciting to see all the bonus features, some really nice making of footage that was shot as behind the scenes on each film. What was it like revisiting that?
I don’t tend to watch my films, I don’t go back over them again and again. But it was nice to see the behind the scenes material, I had to watch it again when I was doing the commentary and narration, which I hadn’t seen for a long time.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about 35mm, its future and preservation as many studios now shoot digitally so it’s nice to see that you’ve kept so much, not just the behind the scenes stuff but cut scenes from your features too.
It’s really sweet of you to say that. It’s not easy preserving film over such a lot period of time and I’m terrible because I keep everything. You should come to New York and see my closets, they’re full of everything that other filmmakers would throw away. I always took a 16mm camera with me on set but it was just a case of when there was time to film. Different crew would just pick it up at different times and shoot what was happening if there was time to. Score was different. We had a member of crew who didn’t think they were doing enough and wanted to shoot the behind the scenes stuff which is probably why it looks so different because its consistent and there’s little wobbling or jumping.
In terms of the footage that you edited from the final cut, were you ever tempted to re-insert it back for the restoration? I’m thinking the striptease that you cut from Camille 2000.
It never really crossed my mind. That was cut more for the pace and flow of the film, it didn’t work originally and we didn’t want to stall the energy of the characters.
These three in particular were made right in the heart of a social revolution in terms of attitudes towards sexuality and how it was depicted on screen. For you, was it ever about making a political statement through your filmmaking or more a reflection of the times?
It was kind of at the apex of, I don’t know if apex is the word but, the sexual revolution of the sixties, it started certainly in the late fifties, 1964 the Beatles came to New York and we certainly were reflecting the times. But there’s always a counter culture aspect to young filmmakers and I was no exception. Where you feel that it’s your responsibility almost to be a little shocking at the culture, to kind of say to everybody ‘Hey look I’m here!’ I think it’s certainly political and in almost every way filmmakers and writers want to say ‘come out of your complacency’. On reflection it’s probably true in the horror genre which developed simultaneously.
I’ve been quite of fan of erotic cinema, sexploitation film and how sexuality has been depicted on screen for a very long time but what I like about your films, and these three in particular, is the representation of sensuality and sexuality as one entity as opposed to a strict black and white depiction, especially when it comes to portraying homosexuality, heterosexuality and all things in between. I think Score and Lickerish Quartet are very fluid in their portrayal, is that something that you’ve always felt? Do you think it’s changed in cinema as audiences and filmmakers have gone on?
I think a lot of it is dependent on your source material. I think that there’s a kind of a putzi quality to what you see today. You have a story and then you’ll have things stuck into the story whereas I was very lucky. I was able to rely on source material where the sensuality came out of the story, it wasn’t something that you had to add or talk about. As far as Score I think a great deal of what is successful, I think a lot of its success is the author of the play- it was based on an off-Broadway play, the playwright did a really commendable job in the dealings of seduction.
You also have a background in importing and distributing European sexploitation fare and softcore pornography in the sixties, do you think any of your work in that field influenced the way you approached filmmaking, such as a greater understanding of the audience of how to portray themes more clearly?
That has been called to my attention. I think that I was very conscious of – well a famous director once talked about the fact that he never went to see movies because of something called unconscious plagiarism. Having studied these films because I had to make the trailers and had to take the film and analyse it, select scenes, and that kind of contact, maybe through the process of osmosis, a lot of it I think bled over. I try very hard, I’ve always been very concerned about not copying other people or by not copying my previous films. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes you just can’t help it. But despite of all the efforts I’m sure that something seeps through your pores from that kind of exposure. Because it’s the exposure of where you take a film to doing a trailer, it’s very intense. I was able to, because I was working for Janus Films which is now the Criterion Collection, I had only really the top of the line films to work with which included lots of Bergman films and Antonioni.
You mention Antonioni, there’s certainly some similar set feelings between Camille 2000 and Blow Up, was Blow Up any influence at all?
Blow Up didn’t make much on an impression. The one that really had a strong influence on me was L’avventura which was the earlier film.
This is the first time that all three films are being released uncut over here in the UK and I can imagine there will be a few people who will watch it for the first time and really wonder what all the fuss was about. How tolerant do you really think audiences, filmmakers and studios have become?
I think in general audiences, and particularly young audiences, seem to be less demanding than they were. I feel that they seem to settle for less which is a shame because they’re cheating themselves. But that’s just an overall impression I get from watching filmmakers and audiences in general.
Do you find that anybody comes up to you now and says things about the subject matter, the willingness and understanding of the open relationship in Score for example, when you do screenings or interviews?
The films cut very deeply into audiences. I think at the time and even now – I had a very nice moment where I was invited to a film festival in Oldenburg and was given an award and the audience were very similar to the crowds when the films were first released. It was almost like ‘If you’re going to be a little different, that’s ok’. I feel that people took away at the time different things from it.
What strikes me now is that there are still a lot of filmmakers who only care for the physicality of sexuality and the mechanics of the act, almost for shock value, but you really seem to explore psychosexuality, the emotional and mental side to it all. I never thought you could survive on a shock level because there’s always somebody across the street who can be more shocking. If you’re going to try and attract an audience based on that, it’s, again, like horror, if you’re going to be horrific, there’s always someone who will be more horrific and I think the only way you can really compete is on the basis that you just articulate the emotion.
Watching the films back, one scene in particular stood out for me, the bondage party scene in Camille 2000 where Marguerite is held on a chain and forced to watch the man that she loves with someone else. It’s very sadistic and sadly very cruel. Do you think that people tend to respond more to the psychology then the physicality of sex?
Yes. The answer is most definitely yes.
In current filmmaking, it was very easy to be reminded of 9 Songs, Shortbus and Closer in terms of the loneliness and emotional torment in relationships when watching Camille 2000 and especially Lickerish Quartet. Do you think they have modern counterparts or do you just see them as films of their own?
Well, I cant think of anything that I’ve seen that explicitly reminds me of what I did but its touching to know that audiences are responding to the scenes that we shot as intended.
There’s no doubt that Metzger stands as a pinnacle in the genre of erotic cinema; a figure that has constantly tried to emphasise and embrace the adult emotions and complex psychology surrounding human sexuality with such a deft touch that there are few real competitors. A great starter point for new audiences and a welcome restoration for the existing fan base, the Arrow releases of Camille 2000, Lickerish Quartet and Score are a cinematic delight long overdue a UK release.
Radley Metzger’s ‘Camille 2000’, ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ and ‘Score’ have been beautifully restored and are available on Blu-ray & DVD now.