Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Radley Metzger.

I first met Radley Metzger almost 8 years ago, back in March of 2001. I’d just started working for the company that was distributing his films on video, and he stopped in one afternoon to drop off materials for a project he’d been working on, a sort of “Best of” compilation of the lesbian scenes from his films (and those of Audubon Films, his distribution company) called GIRLS WHO LIKE GIRLS. I knew of his reputation as the classiest of all erotic filmmakers, but I’d never seen any of his films at the time and didn’t know just what I would be able to talk to him about, other than saying hello and telling him how much I looked forward to selling his titles. Much to my surprise, we spoke for about a half hour (at a distance; I had a cold at the time and he was concerned about catching it) about a variety of things, but mostly about film - about new films he’d seen and liked, about favorites and my own personal interest – and the only reason we stopped was because my boss interrupted us to remind me that I had to get back to work. Radley would show up at the offices once every couple of weeks, and when he did we’d always find time to talk. We became friends outside of the office, too, and when I was (ahem) “let go” of that job at the end of 2003, we stayed in touch. We still have lunch every so often, though less often now that I’m in Austin (though we found time during the holidays), and while he has thus far resisted my numerous offers for us to pay tribute to him at the Alamo Drafthouse, I’m determined to get him down here one of these days. He’s a wonderful man, and I’m honored to say he’s my friend.

More so than that, he’s also an immensely talented filmmaker, and I say that in the present tense, despite the fact that he hasn’t directed a picture since 1984, because I know in my heart that he will direct again someday. Once I finally sat down to look at some of his films, I was more than impressed with what I saw, that being a director who understood very well the importance of the image but never did so at the expense of the story or the characters. His films (even the Henry Paris ones) are not just mere classy erotica, but also classy cinema, period, and knowing what a student and lover of film history the man is I understand a little bit more than others just how they all got that way. This is a total filmmaker, one who truly understands how to make a real movie, and while I suppose he could have moved away from erotica to make other kinds of pictures (which he did – and did well - with 1978’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY) the fact that was the best at what he did certainly helps to set him apart. Like the “other” RM (Russ Meyer) a Radley Metzger film looks, feels and sounds like no one else’s. His pictures are fun and provocative, but never really lightweight; there’s always something beyond the sex and games, a thoughtfulness and maturity to sex and relationships that few other filmmakers (and certainly no other erotic filmmakers) have ever really been able to match. It’s almost a mistake to call Radley an “erotic filmmaker”, because his films were never really sex films as much as they were films about sex; character pieces where sex was the main topic of conversation and the point of motivations for everyone involved. They’re also about intimacy, about the need to understand and care for the people we love as much as they do us, and I always find it interesting how, for the most part, almost every one of his lead characters ends up a better, happier and healthier person in the end. (OK, except for the ones who die, I’ll grant you that.)

The general conscientious among those who know his work is that his best film is 1970’s THE LICKERISH QUARTET (though SCORE and THE IMAGE have their fans, too), and I'm inclined to agree with them. THE LICKERISH QUARTET has become more than just my favorite film of Radley’s, but one of my favorite films of all time, one that I’m inclined to revisit now and again. People who don’t really understand genre films often point out how LICKERISH is some kind of goofy mixture of erotic film and art film, but what they don’t seem to get is that it’s really Radley making his grand statement on cinema, a personal message from him to his audience in the manner that he wants to tell it, and I love and admire the film all the more because of the private nature of it. Some have called the film pretentious - though I think one person’s pretension is another’s ambition – but not everyone is going to get it when you’re laying it all out like this, and perhaps I’m seeing more of my friend than most viewers ever would. But I love it to death. Then again, that’s what THE LICKERISH QUARTET is all about, anyway. The set-up – Bourgeoisie family invite a beautiful young woman back to their home after seeing her in a stag film, then discover the film now features different performers when they screen it in front of her – can really go either way, but what Radley does here is that he lets you in on our shared secret: He knows that you’re not going to see the film as he sees it. The movie that’s going on in your mind may well be 100% different from the one he’s making. Who you are - your life experiences, loves, and sorrow – will make his film what you want it to be and not what he made. We all sit there and share the same experience, but we experience it differently, and the same goes for love and relationships, too. As the film progresses, the young woman (played by Silvana Venturelli, who also co-starred in Radley’s CAMILLE 2000) seduces all the members of the family by being whatever it is they want her to be – their ideal fantasy, the person who really listens to them – and in doing so becomes that thing that most people think eludes them, the one who can bring them happiness, just as moviegoers look to the screen to get some long-lost feeling back. That Radley does all this within the confines of an erotic film also happens to be one of the things I love about THE LICKERISH QUARTET, because by making this a genre film and an art film at the same time, he’s challenging the audience to love the film solely as it is, not as what they think it is or wants it to be. It’s a movie that’s as much about watching and movies as it is about the people in it, and I would think and hope that anyone who loves film as much as I do (or Radley does) would understand this and come to love THE LICKERISH QUARTET, providing they even see it, of course. It’s the film that I instantly think of when I think of Radley. It’s his masterpiece.

Radley Metzger turns 80 years old today. I can tell you that he’s as fit and healthy a man at 80 than I wish I could ever be, along with a wit and wisdom that makes him cooler than most anyone else I know. (He also has a great hair. I don’t know how he does it, but it always looks real good.) To my friend, I say, Happy Birthday and I wish there are many more to come. And to the filmmaker, I say, please get back behind the camera. Nobody makes movies like you, and we need more of them.


Ray Sawhill said...

Thanks for a very cool posting. Metzger's a great filmmaker, super-overdue to be rediscovered yet again. I envy you being his friend -- in a good way.

actionmoviefreak said...

Happy Birthday, happy life! How wonderful to be able to express your creativity, create something beautiful and lasting, and be appreciated, especially if it is not widely accepted. I'll be Captain Obvious and say he was ahead of his time. Reminds me of Mike Nichols.

"one person’s pretension is another’s ambition" I couldn't agree more. Ambition is often misunderstood by someone who dislikes or doesn't appreciate or understand something, so they make a judgment and label it pretentious. I think people look down on "art films" and seldom understand them. Like how beautiful they are is somehow not to the filmmakers credit.

Thanks for another enjoyable read, and your insight. It brought to mind "Your Friends and Neighbors". I wonder if Mr. Metzger has seen it . . . also Julia and Julia (1987).

Bruce said...

Radley is THE Man. he is not only a fine filmmaker, he is a very important figure in the history of American culture between 1960 and 1980, or so.