Mark Kermode - Oral acrobatics

Two X-rated insights are better than a kick in the head, writes Mark Kermode

Inside Deep Throat

Two new releases document the creation of a pair of landmark movies from the lawless heyday of X-rated independent movie-making. While the identity of the Watergate informant "Deep Throat" is now public knowledge, the porno flick that inspired his nickname remains something of an enigma. Directed by a hairdressing cinephile, financed by shady mobsters, and starring a woman who later became a cheerleader for Women Against Pornography, Deep Throat provided a startling paradigm for the changing fortunes of the celluloid sex industry.

In their lively (if occasionally glib) documentary Inside Deep Throat, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato assemble an impressive stable of talking heads to re- call this unpredictable hit, which began life as a seedy, underground sex comedy and wound up riding a wave of "porno chic" as millions of ordinary Americans flocked to watch Linda Lovelace perform oral acrobatics.

Interspersing archival newsreel footage with entertaining contemporary interviews (most notably with Deep Throat survivors Gerard Damiano and Harry Reems), Bailey and Barbato conjure a nostalgic evocation of the social and political madness of the early Seventies, buoyed up by a jukebox soundtrack that owes a weighty debt to Paul Thomas Anderson's sublime Boogie Nights. At its best, Inside Deep Throat offers revealing insights into what Norman Mailer calls the intersection "between art and crime", investigating the alternative distribution network of "checkers" and "sweepers" who would "babysit" prints of Deep Throat and skim the profits accordingly, and unravelling the complex legal cases that began with the bludgeoning rhetoric of Nixon's corrupt "new moral leadership" and culminated in Reems facing imprisonment for simply playing a role in a film.

Despite some half-baked grandstanding in Dennis Hopper's narration about "freedom" versus "shame and hypocrisy" and a reluctance to address the nastier sides of its subject's history (if only Lovelace and her wife-beating manager Chuck Traynor had been alive to tell their tales), Inside Deep Throat offers an open-minded - not to say wide-eyed - account of a bizarre cultural moment whose ancient controversies still resonate today.

Equally apposite is Mario Van Peebles's dramatised account of his father Melvin's renegade hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, an independently financed flick brimming with revolutionary rage which kick-started the money-making blaxploitation cycle of the early Seventies. Made under the guise of a low-rent skin-flick (allegedly to ward off union harassment) and duly slapped with an X-rating "by an all-white jury", Melvin Van Peebles's incendiary classic was dedicated to "all the brothers and sisters who've had enough of The Man" and gained the patronage of supporters from Bill Cosby to the Black Panthers.

Having witnessed his father's frustrations in the wake of Watermelon Man, 13-year-old Mario was famously enlisted to "lose his cherry" in a scene from Sweetback over which an uncomfortable question mark still hangs - both with Mario himself (who here tackles it head-on) and with the British Board of Film Classification. Now an acclaimed film-maker in his own right (he directed the rip-roaring New Jack City), Mario brings the story full circle in Baadasssss!, playing his dad in a sparky, evocative tribute that (like father, like son) he also co-wrote, produced and directed. The result is an insightful and affectionate memoir of one man's occasionally deranged attempts to bring the barricades to the box office. Melding precise period detail with dreamy fantastical invention, Baadasssss! is a dark fairy tale which offers a timely reminder that cinema can be so much more than just a neatly packaged consumerist commodity.

On the subject of which - Mr and Mrs Smith marks the start of the traditional "summer blockbuster" season, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie swapping screwball banter as secretive assassins attempting to sort out their marital problems amid a landscape of gun battles, bomb blasts and car chases. Plundering an array of sources (the title dates back to a Hitchcock classic, while the action rips off True Lies and The Long Kiss Goodnight), this overblown character-comedy-cum-action-smash-'em-up can't decide whether to tickle and tease its audience or just kick them in the head. Having brought a degree of depth to The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman struggles to make sense of Simon Kinberg's severally rewritten script, which started out as an academic Masters thesis and winds up as a classic committee-driven hotchpotch. Pitt and Jolie pout and preen, but it's Liman's old Swingers buddy Vince Vaughn who steals the show as a nerdy singleton running a hit-man agency while still living with his mum. I counted seven laughs, umpteen explosions and no surprises. Ho hum.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?