The Telephone Book
or: Are You Hung Up?
You ever see a film that makes you think, "They don't make 'em like this anymore"? Of course you have. Much rarer than that sensation, though, is a film that makes you believe that not only do they not make 'em like this anymore but they may have never made 'em like this to begin with. That's the world which this film inhabits. It's a product of the '70s NYC underground, but watching it is like stumbling across a transmission from another planet. Mike Vraney of Shock Cinema tagged it "mind-roasting", and I'd say that's a fair assessment.
It's about a young girl named Alice (played by Sarah Kennedy, who's fabulous). We first see her lounging around her apartment, waiting for something to happen. We discover that the girl knows how to decorate -- her bedspread is an American flag, while her wallpaper is comprised of dozens of pictures depicting people having sex. Eventually, the telephone rings. It's an obscene phone call. Rather than being repelled as one would expect, Alice is transfixed by the man on the other line. Something in his demeanor, the things he says, the sheer unmitigated audacity of his 24-karat calls just drives her crazy. After a couple more calls, she decides that she absolutely must meet this champion of dirty callers. The man says his name is John Smith, and he's in the telephone book. Alice's job? Find him. With that, the film dives into the world of sexual perversion circa 1970, and brother, if you're gonna follow it down, be forewarned that it ain't comin' up for air any time soon.
Naturally, Alice isn't going to find her man straight off, and that's where the film has its fun. Her quest leads her into the clutches of others who are eager to use her to satisfy their own sexual peccadillos. (Here, the film's X-rating helps immensely -- hard to remember there was a time when an adult rating could freely be used and embraced by adventurous filmmakers with something to say...) As you may have gathered, there isn't really a narrative; instead, we have a series of incidents. And yet it works, maybe because moment by moment the film is as sharp and funny as anything you're likely to see. It's a pretty pointed satire on sexual mores, and it doesn't leave anyone out. Much like the Mothers of Invention's great album "We're Only in it For the Money", this film takes a subculture and mercilessly mocks all involved parties -- the off-kilter people who've bought into it, the straight-world inhabitants who don't get it and the poor souls who try to live in both worlds. The last category provides one of the film's best segments, wherein a psychiatrist who previously exposed himself on a subway to Alice tries to get her to tell a dirty story about her best roll in the hay and she responds with a long, strange story about a respectable businessman (played by William Hickey!) who wakes up one morning with an extraordinary case of what the medical community calls priaprism.
It's also in this segment that we get a piece of one of the larger themes at work here. When asked to say a dirty word, Alice thinks for a minute and responds with "sidewalk". She then explains that she thinks that's a dirty word because obscenity is all in the mind and that word just doesn't sit right with her. This idea keeps coming back; for instance, later in the scene when the psychiatrist draws a crude penis and asks Alice to tell her what the picture makes her think of, she responds with "The state of Maryland." There are also a few scenes of former obscene phone callers being interviewed about their experiences and why they stopped making calls; in one of these bits, the only word that gets bleeped out is "snot". Even the film's main business contains a sly joke: When Alice finally meets the real John Smith, he explains that he got to be the greatest obscene caller in history by understanding psychology and tailoring his calls to have maximum impact for the callee... yet we never actually hear one of these calls. The only thing we see is the response of the person on the other end. The one call we do hear a part of is at the beginning, and that one's cut into mere suggestion. As I mentioned, the film carries an X, and yet it's mainly for copious femme nudity and the obvious verbal thematic material (plus some extremely naughty animation at film's end). It's a prank on the 42nd-Street-raincoaters, a dirty movie that mocks the very idea of a dirty movie. (This idea would later be taken to its aggressive anti-erotic extreme in "Cafe Flesh", but that's a different discussion.)
Speaking of the audience, the film's preoccupation with sex belies an understanding of how people actually view
dirty movies -- alone. There is a slight strain of melancholy trickling through the knockabout fun. The choice of obscene phone calls as this film's modus operandi speaks to the idea that, for all the sex that's going on, nobody actually talks to anyone anymore. (This is actually explicitly stated in a riotous sequence between Alice and a porn star making his comeback film; the man says his film will speak the the condition of modern man, and when Alice presses him to define this condition, he responds with "Fucked up. Unable to communicate.") The psychiatrist, a man paid to listen and understand, has no interest in Alice's words except to get himself off. A woman Alice meets in the park doesn't say two words to her before taking her home for power-tool play. Her friend (played by Jill Clayburgh!!) never really cares what Alice has to say, not even when she mentions that she doesn't want to make calls at her apartment because her apartment makes her suicidally depressed. She even reveals that, despite being young and attractive, her sex life is more or less completely masturbatory and that she prefers reading dirty books to personal interaction. It's natural, then, that's she'd fall for John Smith, a man whose entire erotic charm lies on his words -- all she needs is someone to talk to her. Smith, meanwhile, uses the phone as a substitute for actual sex -- when Alice asks him if he's had any physical relations with women, he responds angrily that he's had hundreds of women... all on the phone, of course, but to him that's as real as anything. He also admits that he doesn't do well with people when he has to speak to them eye to eye, which explains why he shows up at Alice's apartment wearing a pig mask. (Great Moments in Dialogue: Alice: "Why don't you just wear dark sunglasses?" Smith: "I'm theatrical.") The film views sex as an essentially narcissistic activity, which lends a harder edge to much of the satirical material. Quite a thing to bring up so soon after the free-love movement, but that's how it goes.
So yeah, this film's pretty great. It's funny and freewheeling and, despite the serious thematic material I've brought up, it's never self-serious or pretentious. Movies like this are what makes this hobby so enticing -- it's like having a secret movie all to yourself that you can't wait to share with the world. It's a rarity worth finding.