Dir. Joseph Mangine
Ah, to dig further into an area of cinema that you truly know little of. Full of surprises, films that you don't know the basics of fully let alone the true obscurities like Smoke and Flesh. This film nicely connects itself between counter culture, sexploitation and softcore, drug films and American underground cinema of the time. What I wasn't expecting was how good this film is technically and altogether knowing that these films are usually scrappier, the reason many are loved. Usually these films are campy fun, but this knocked my socks off in what I got and for what it is. The first few images included freeze frames of urban city bustle, a female voiceover describing how life stops in the day in work hours, a clock heard ticking away, already setting up a veneer of gloss and boldness unexpected for the film as I started viewing it. Night comes, and you are hit by sumptuous black-and-white photography as a masked motorbiker travels on the inner city streets of New York City. It intercuts with an old, balding man and his younger, sexy wife planning about a party. Then the film is set-up - a night at said party held by the youth of the day, with liberal pot smoking and lots of intermingling between the genders. The motorbiker is the friend of the house owner/party planner whose brought the weed with him. The old man is actually a professor who with his wife go to these sorts of parties frequently to bask in the lifestyle. From here, this is less of a plot driven film but almost a slice of life drama that is as sexploitation as you can get.
Plot strands do take place. The professor, sexually impotent, allows his wife to sleep with any man she wants as long as he can watch and take photos, spotting an appropriate hunk at the party. People hook up and mingle. The closest to a dramatic plot twist happens in the last quarter when the party thrower Turk's girlfriend is followed home by a group of hoodlums, one who feels she cock-blocked him from her and leads to the potential for a fight taking place at the party. Aside from this, the film just follows various characters partying. Almost plotless, but for seventy minutes, it's enjoyable to merely follow the characters get high and become intimate. It's certainly softcore for the large amount of sex and female nudity, which won't disappoint most, but its casual, realistic, aimless tone adding a greater amount of entertainment in how it nearly veers into the experimental "talky" dramas of the time. A matter-of-fact breeziness, far more legitimately respectable in content because of it while being much more erotic and fun at the same time. For one of the first, and maybe only times, someone can write that they've seen a game of strip Scalextric, and I can add that it never comes off as one of the embarrassing examples of these modified versions that exists in films - I've been reminded of Strip Ouija board of Terror Toons (2002) the same day I was writing this review for example. The romance between a white guy and a black girl, the later probably the most beautiful of the female cast and charismatic, starts with them having the munchies for a giant, and I mean giant, tub of ice cream, and ends with kinky shenanigans with whipped cream, probably one of the most sexually arousing scenes I've seen to be completely honest, something to applaud when usually you piss yourself in laughter at the stereotypical tackiness of softcore cinema and its abuse of saxophones. While made to titillate, the film is easy going from every perspective seen, adding a great deal.
Also despite being a counter culture film of its time, it never comes off as dated, naive hippy/hipster preaching of a better life. Little is made of anyone having fun like this, and even the plot with the old professor, while getting a little weird with the extreme close-ups of his teeth, is seen as bringing him and his wife closer, the third person getting as much out of it too. The marijuana smoking is not languished over, never celebrated or criticised, only the waste of an entire roll of kitchen paper, as its thrown in the bin for the cardboard tub to be used as the inhaler, being offensive. There is an LSD freakout, done with visual manipulation and extreme close-ups of eyes, that's closer to typical drug films, with the actor shouting maniacally as it fully kicks in, spiked into their drink in case the worse happens as a semblance of a plot takes place, but aside from it this is far from Reefer Madness (1936) as you can get. That plot transition, where the hoodlums introduced separately very early on end up in the house, takes on more of the vibe of an exploitation film, threat to the girlfriend of Turk and to anyone else involved. Aside from it though, the film is so laid back it never mattered that it hadn't the narrative of most sexploitation films, the right length to avoid dragging and too interesting to dwindle. And the content in it, minor details are inherently memorable. Perspectives from inside a fish tank. Shots on a motorbike in a tunnel. The strip Scalextric scene where the loser of each race has to take off a piece of clothing.
The film's great visual quality, such a jaw dropping surprise to see in an exploitation film like it with a limited budget, furthers the virtues of it, alongside the late sixties psychedelic rock score that gets you in the mood. It never takes itself seriously, nor makes excuses for itself existing. The result is just cool in tone. Unfortunately its director only made one other film. Surprisingly its Neon Maniacs (1986), one of the odder creations from the eighties horror boom, far from the best but still a hell of a lot of entertainment. Together with this, its shows someone in Joseph Mangine who would've contributed some very entertaining and different films to cult cinema if he had done more work as a director. The end of Smoke and Flesh finishes with returning back to daytime, back to work and the clock back up and running, ticking away. A snapshot of an interesting night that just happened to be part of an exploitation film. A memorable viewing experience.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None) - None
Very little in the film gets close to being unconventional in tone. Even the LSD freakout, while great, stays in the conventions of freaky strobing effects.
Again, another dip into American grindhouse cinema for this month that has been rewarding. For any flaws this might have, it nonetheless makes up for them, providing a snapshot of a very alternative slice of American cinema waiting to be scrutinised. It was a joy just to have my expectations surpassed from a b-movie like this.