PRINT March 1974

Joe Sarno, The Dismemberer

I APPROACH THE BOX OFFICE, eager. I have noted things in Vibrations. I wish to see it again. I seek to confirm. I look up. Shame Shame Everybody Knows Her Name is on the marquee—along with The Sex Object. What happened to Vibrations? It was only night before last that I saw it.

I am talking to the manager . . . wanted to see it . . . was supposed to run a week, no?

Well, yes, but sometimes . . . exceptional circumstances . . . withdrawn last night.

Uhm uhm . . . is it possible to—

And he is smiling.

—to . . . well, like rent it?

Not from them, they shipped it back this morning . . . “Joe Sarno.” “I beg your pardon?”

“He’s your man. Joe Sarno. He made it, ask him.” And the manager showing shark teeth to me. I heard about it, huh?

Embarrassed to say well, I uh saw it, actually.

“Listen” . . . I’m to relax. Whatever I heard—listen, he don’t like to knock his own pictures, but this one? It’s a dud, a phony. That’s why they yanked it off. “It just copped out. Didn’t show below the waist. No ass, no hair, no panties. No jockeys even. The man is crazy to put a product out like that. Don’t he know times have changed? He calls that an x-rated—”



“Excuse me?” from me.

“This weekend. Anomalies.” His head is nodding, but I asked him no question that required a yes. But I am nodding, too. Which is strange. “You go see it, he’s hung like a horse.” Good Lord, he thinks I’m a skin-flick freak. No, no, I found disillusioning qualities, I want to tell him.

Or did I?

Skin flicks are the fashion now. We speak of Russ Meyer: that comedy through hyperbolizing breast obsession. Or Radley Metzger: his phenomenology of the erotic motion. Or Matt Cimber (whom we rescue from merely being Jayne Mansfield’s widower): an eros that pretends to be a pornography masquerading as the documentary.

Does Joe Sarno’s work prevent the erotic referentiality from taking the upper hand? Does it inhibit the mystified naive spectator who has come to peep so as to be a prey to what he peers at? So as to be invaded by the percepts he forms of the body, activities, speech, and thoughts of another? (Pornographic film is the model of the social artifact, whether reportage, spectacle, advertising, or photograph, the naive interaction which causes a text to be experienced as what is outside the text: as the real.)

Or is this the work of a chicken S&M freak too hung up to show . . . ah-hem . . . buttocks—

(Can I say asses in this magazine?)

—buttocks, then. Or, after all, is that jittery camera work a distancing device, giving consciousness? (In the essay “Denial,” Freud says that consciousness is always the result of a pushing away of experience.)

“He’s in Sweden. Why not try—”


“I’m sorry, but you could call—”


“Well, if you’ll wait, I’ll see if his associate can talk. . . .”


“Say that again?”

. . . sensibility altering devices . . . post-Godardian . . . “is he available?” I repeat.

“SAM, THERE’S A GUY WANTS TO INTERVIEW SARNO ON . . . what was that word?”

“Godard,” I say.


And distantly: “hahahaha.”

And the smell of cigar smoke.

And my embarrassed, “Well, I’m sorry to have—”


“I honestly have no idea, son.”

A possibility, then: Joe Sarno is a chicken S&M freak too hung up to show . . . asses.

Cold opening. To a gentle organ rock beat . . . expecting which, I relax, prepare to give the commitment required of the pornographic spectator. She is quite nude, not facing me, seen from the side as well as the back so that I may spy on her large luminous breasts, and, at the same time, become a prey to those dimply buttocks. My mental reservation is gone now; I am on loan, as it were, to her; my person invaded. Yet I see her put a skirt on (the sensual pose is yielding to a utilitarian one). I see her put beads on (I wish to prevent this process) and now she turns to me, as a newscaster turns to the camera the instant before speaking. I had come to see her take off the clothes, not this. It was disturbing as the sight of the actress waiting in the wings is to the theater goer. She was smiling, and yet there was more than that message of invitation. I knew that the addition imposed on this classic representation of eros derived explicitly from my remembering the preceding frames of preparing. I had peeped into the means of production by which my person had been invaded, and it was as if I had just heard a voice uttering you, and I was ashamed.

Vibrations appeared and cut to credits over New York street scene. A girl (very butch: short hair, the trench coat which marks the bimbo) with a suitcase in hand (a transient, then: very fast girl) crosses 43rd between Broadway and 7th Avenue coming toward us—

Reverse angle. We look down 43rd from her eyes, but they see so little: not the street, nor even much of the sidewalk she evidently must be walking on (the camera is moving). Fully half the sidewalk (the half nearest the street) is missing. The illusionistic effect was so successful, it felt like being in a chute of some sort. I remember wanting to pull back from this . . . alleyway, sluiceway, penned in—all went through my mind. I wanted to see to my escape.

The one I call the femme is talking.

“How did you find me?” She is accusatory, hard.

The butch, from 43rd:

“I read one of your poems in the paper.” That voice is harder still.

Something was peculiar about the voices, as though they came from an echo chamber whose resonance has been eliminated in the main; yet a trace of the hollow remains. These are not voices as we experience them, so that the first words, like the beginning frames, produced distance.

Julia, the butch, has come to resume an affair with sister Barbara who had run away. As they talk in extreme close-up, the top edge of the screen crops Julia’s head, performs a slicing that is not experienced as a cropping (as an illusion) but as an amputation (a full presence): a being is missing a section of its cerebrum and yet still lives. And even when the framing does not maim, it cramps. We see close-ups of such exaggeration that faces cram the screen so that cheeks touch either side. Or two characters will stand, as in this reunion scene, facing front, silent, without affect; and it will be as if they shared a solitary-confinement cell. For its height appears not more than, say, an inch greater than theirs, and its width almost identical to their combined widths as they stand almost touching. Over and over Sarno will cramp and confine as we watch.


(And the cuts are frequently used—as here, ending the conversation brutally—to subtract from the mimesis of the real. They are never the creators of continuity, the sutures of a seamless narrative. What is cut away is the climax, the words, gestures, expressions, or actions that would make clear. The cuts sustain a certain emotion of anxiety in the audience. Before the obtuse matter, one is obsessed, irritated, facile, wrong, and made to know he is wrong. So Barbara has begun an objection, has uttered a phrase and stopped; and Julia has not yet countered: material has been cut and we strain to understand. And then:)

Cut to dark: blacks and grays, it is a different room. (The film is in black and white, even though the economics of the sexploitation business require color production.) Yet the black and the gray is not the first thing we notice; it is the white, the white of the breasts, a strong light on the breasts of each as they undress, saying not a word. The lighting stresses the breasts, their fleshliness.

The breasts. One is drawn. Julia’s. They do not appear to have been blown up by the silicone or paraffin method (as in images of Las Vegas chorus lines), nor to be monuments, awe-inspiring (as in Playboy gatefolds). They are malleable, kneadable. They will recur strategically and now in this early scene, Julia is in bed (her sister offscreen), seen on her back. Her two (bony) shoulders, well-lit, call attention by their difference to the sensual mounds of the breasts (difference is a very large rhetorical principle operating through the film). The referentiality, promoted by the strategy of difference, produces a complete erotic investment by the spectator. Yet as the camera closes in on the chest, and the breasts move, the illusion of the mound (the appeal to the sense of touch) increasing, a particular insight forces itself upon me that is not the sister moving the breast off-camera, that is Sarno. And quite suddenly, in two frames or in three, at the most, a finger appears next to the shoulder. Whose finger is that? The illusion-shattering sensation at this moment of the first person.

Are you so well provided for, you do not experience erotic absence? Are your woman’s breasts this large and this shapely and this kneadable and this replenishing? Does your man move your breasts in the way hers are being moved? Does he exhibit an interest like . . . make you feel as alive like an animal as . . . we stare, my movie mate and I. The touch of one another would be distracting. Pornography, like language, provides substitutes for that which is lacking within us. It solaces and its solace requires a bed of narrative. Requiring a beginning where the clothes are on, both of us adoring the moment when the clothes come off, that final thrill when the panties are pulled down, and the fly zips down. To experience it, we must have plot; must have the clothes on, the bra to be on; and the slip, if a slip is worn; and the blouse to go on; and the skirt and the nylons and the shoes and the handbag and the coat, preferably stylish; and the woman to walk backward out the door and then ring the doorbell and the man to come hurrying forward. To lose ourselves in the referentiality, we must go from such a beginning to an unhurried, fully plotted foreplay to a steady rhythmic screwing fully evidenced and unreproducible, an event, whole, furnishing at last, not an image of discourse, but a kind of natural form, as if two huge bodies had been spontaneously produced before us in whose presence we are awe-struck. So was I struck when, seeing the well-lit bones of the shoulders, I gave credence to the mounds of the breast. But when I saw the supplementary finger, when I perceived the disturbing sense of the author, I grew irritated like the masturbator in the porn house suddenly aware that beside him are eyes peering at him and not the screen. My theater manager will be right, when two hours from now as I exit, he tells me: “A dud, a phony.” I detest these impediments to my enjoyment.

Sarno has chosen to work in the debased medium of soft-core pornography, and at a moment in film history rich with raids on what is modish. He could have gone, simultaneously, in two conventional directions: toward the piracy of full erection, ejaculation, and the other representations that almost all censors permit—toward an easy arousal of the audience; but also toward a pretense of delivering the real—toward an eventfulness bristling with social urgency, with images of alienation, the decay of society, the automata who rule it.

My theater manager was right. Sarno doesn’t belong in a sexploitation house. His rigorous reduction on what we are conditioned to call reality, this alone would disqualify him from that robust success with audiences enjoyed, not so long ago, by Matt Cimber who broke it all open, whose change in status from Widower of Jayne Mansfield to King of the Filmed Marriage Manuals (the original hard-cores) had entirely to do with his opulent gratification of our lust to see. A peep show is what he gave us, what Russ Meyer had never been able to show: full tumescence and discreetly observed penetration (Cimber never made the mistake of letting genitalia fill the screen) and the semen and the traces of the joy on the face of he who possesses the superior phallus and reams out she who is the hyperbole of full some receptivity. It was all in an unsouped-up real-seeming color, photographed by a perfectly third-person (stationary) camera; unlike that tricky Meyer who used to make the camera move to the rhythm of the intercourse, who introduced the author, spoiling the eros. Cimber was a man considerate enough to permit us to see all that our needs required.

Still, for the man or woman unspoiled by Cimber, there is eroticism aplenty in Sarno. The bones of her shoulders, brightly lit, call attention to the breast. In a moment of orgiastic fervor, the bottom and considerate partner reaches a hand up and placing it on the back of the topmost partner, squeezes the menage into a writhing massive heap. A woman is turned side to side by her partner. Sarno has had her suck her belly in. And her ribs show. And because they show, her breasts appear even more opulent than they are. And because she is being moved side to side and because they are enlarged, they slide, are alive, are felt as separate . . . beings, with lives of their own.

It is a powerful eroticism undercut suddenly by a car outside the window accelerating. And accelerating; sound that will not stop. And a screaming now: not entirely that of near orgasm. And these kneadable breasts—from them, a near-blinding light.

Sarno gives (eros) and Sarno takes away. Sarno seduces you and Sarno douses you. Sarno constructs, one after the other, erotic systems that capture your consciousness; and then he disintegrates them. And you confront the reality of the absence of these beings. They were illusions and you—fool! (you say to yourself)—lived them as real.

It is done by sensory dislocation. The woman of the cold opening, now in skirt and beads, sits in a kind of throne and headrest lined in velvet. Nice texture to that velvet. She uses the vibrator whose hum mesmerizes. Blinding white light suddenly. And I mean it literally. I recoiled from the intensity. The scream was white, it was painful. How many seconds before I realized, I was looking at a white hallway wall.

It is done, sometimes, by a contradiction of sensory dislocation, the cut to which one responds late. The day is gray. A thoughtful Julia walks toward us in Central Park. Julia walks toward us in this room, Barbara sitting reading the . . . “weren’t we in the park?” . . . sitting reading the paper. Cut to Dick Parrish entering the room and Julia in that chair reading the . . . “Julia? it was Barbara before!” Characters are subject to instantaneous dissolution or transportation and grant us by their indifference to this, an ironical power over them. We know they have been yanked, that time has rudely passed for them . . . for them? We have deceived ourselves again. They are not characters, but images. It was we who were yanked, the yank always felt after its occurrence; the yank felt, even though the following scene be calm, as a diacritical mark over it, the author’s intrusion.

When the author is perceived, a voice uttering I is perceived, and necessarily we hear you. And we understand that before this second-person address—while the illusion of the scene was functioning—our consciousness had not been, in some fundamental sense. Preventing my ease at the peep show, Sarno is demonstrating that consciousness is a discontinuous mode, necessarily related to the shattering of an illusion.

“So you want to ride the see-saw with us.”

The woman of the beads speaks to a blushing man.

“Why don’t you get . . . comfortable.” She utters it in a croon. A footstep (from where?! we don’t know) echoes. The floor has creaked and no one has moved.

The man who blushed is on top. We see the pair only from the waist up. Their bottom parts don’t exist for us. We strain to see them, we infer them from the movement of the tops. How vigorously, in what wide arcs, the bottoms are moving if the chests and heads are moving like that! The scene is long, the camera is stationary. We hear the rustle of the sheets (the force of the bottom parts moving must be severe to make such sound, as of wind). When the screaming starts, the conviction is explicit. They are half-beings, amputated; trunks and heads at love play.

They screw, they scream. Jump cuts show the passage through the night. Screams alternate with heavy breathing. The breathing is erotic (no words: words would have destroyed the conviction: This is real!), but when the screaming starts it rudely shoves out our sensual feelings. The breathing sections have the effect of rests in a music of pain, and finally we are conditioned. In the presence of eros, we are edgy. We wait for the other shoe to drop.

Barbara and the “writer” who lives upstairs over dishes of ice cream. Ice cream? The high contrasts mock the activity. The ironic venom is in every scene, venom of lighting, framing, scene content (as in the antique ice cream eating), camera movement, noise ’on the soundtrack. Often, the rebuke is an agglutination of three or more of these devices.

Julia discovers that the door to the orgiast’s apartment is ajar. She opens, goes to the “throne,” grasps the armrests, slips the vibrator under her skirt. The organ music has started again, a prancing sound, unpleasant, as if tiny creatures were walking on one. Julia’s head is lolling. The image is caught up in another system of meaning: it’s as if we were watching through the window of a gas chamber.

If every scene is to be spattered with this venom, it is fitting that the motif I have chosen will be. It is the breast, Julia’s, able to sensitize the palms of the voyeur and able to hurt. The breasts can force the eyelids to shut to avoid their glare. The woman will half rise on the bed and catching Sarno’s light, reflecting it to the audience, she acts as a living spotlight. We are no longer in a system representing dysphoria. These materials, interacting with us, act it out.

And these end-of-the-film devices:

. . . heavy breathing, a sex passage. The sound has previously worked to build the effect of realness. Now it is the sound of a patient under anesthesia.

. . . Julia is drawing Barbara into the sex group. The shy man helps her off with her sweater. Pulls it over her head. Her head is obscured by the garment as he struggles to pull it off. The orgy has been made to vanish, and meaning proceeds from the discourse of the condemned now. That fabric caught around her head looks like the hood on the hanged man.

. . . Julia supine, her breast in its succulent mode. A shock. A head appears hovering above it. Another head. And now a third. And a fourth. All seen from the back, seen as hair. They coalesce, obscure Julia. The orgiastic scene vanishes. Before us is a four-headed beast. A dismembered hand appears next to it.

. . . The female labors over the passive man beneath her. He had been moving but suddenly is a corpse on a bier.

Sarno, the dismemberer, is dismembering eros and through eros, that solidity we normally associate with the image and the narrative in general. There is no frozen immutable meaning. Not even the connotations of gas chambers, hoods, slaughtering pens, solitary-confinement cells. Supplemental sense comes to us telling of a world of cells like the cells of Selby’s apartment house dwellers; telling of inmates whose mechanical voices are accusatory; who reach peaks of anger within seconds after the most casual conversation begins. Lighting, framing, costuming—any of the materials of drama or cinema can connote a place of immanent death. The street you walk may turn into the chute. The sweater you pull off may become your shroud. The great solacer itself, the kneadable tit, can oscillate into almost unbearable whiteness. Even the connotations of dysphoria are not stable. You are always in danger of confronting that white screen.

This is cinema which inhabits the real present, second-person cinema of even greater dramatic reach than Godard’s, say. By inhabiting my actual present, Vibrations stops me from inhabiting its fictional past. My sexual voyeruism, rebuked, reveals my cinematic passivity in general; and my voyeurism before the press, the sporting spectacle, the ad, the giant billboard of inviting words, the very mode by which I insert myself into mass culture.

We who went to Sarno’s theater, went for darkness, and for escape from the absences within us. We went for the fetish, for the surrogate which could elicit our empathy. For the tit. And in Sarno, the tit can hurt. For Sarno is in the business of reeducating my consciousness. And yours, if you can find a theater manager fool enough to book a film with tits but no ass.

Sarno couldn’t care less about representing what I’ve already told myself; that I’m alienated, say. To illustrate my own representations to myself, to do it with finer textures, fresher plot, more refined characterization would be merely to illustrate my representations, to leave my mental sets intact. Sarno is not interested in representing anything, but rather in performing an assault that will seriously damage my peep-show mentality.

The peep show never did remove us from the jail of . . . you fill in the blank. The pornographic cinema, like the narrative film in general, like the narrative, was and is a fetish. Sarno, then, as we discover, has his place in that group of writers who, like Freud himself, are concerned with reopening the possibilities of discourse, permitting us to refine our consciousness, if need be, to a pitch of pain in clarity. There in that clarity we shall see, if we can bear it, the landscape of horror in which we dwell, performing our escapist dervishes.

It goes without saying that for Sarno there is no transcendence of this pain in thinking. Nor in violent action as in so much of Godard—in Ferdinand’s forceful driving away with Marianne in Pierrot le Fou, for example. Except for the opening of Vibrations and a brief park scene (both ironically represented), there is no outdoors in Sarno. From Sarno’s point of view, Godard’s work is bound to seem romantic for even entertaining possibilities of transcendence through idea or through violence. And as for that only other response of real interest, sensuality—though entertained (Vibrations being that “entertainment,” that meditation), it is rebuked at its every appearance.

And thus the end, so much like the beginning (the strategy of the film is one of insistence and repetition) . . . Julia handcuffed to a kind of chinning bar (a muted comic image); Julia crucified, the eyes appealing upward, the tongue licking the thirsty lips, the vibrator humming, and Julia swooning as if in transport. The very word tells the tale: transport—to be carried out of oneself, but also to be punished by exile. A woman “doing” her says: “You’re hooked, Julia” (aren’t we? on whatever our peep show), “you can never leave us, Julia.” The organ plays and the vibrator hums and Julia utters: “It’s great—yes—yes—it’s great.” Screams. The scream of her ecstasy, “It’s great,” comes in series. “It’s GREAT, it’s GREAT,” that screaming discontinuous and the body lurching forward, and pushed back by the torturers. The repetition of her agony will not end, while the characters “doing“ her smile as we may be smiling; half smiles, not the smiles of bonhomie. And that organ is cool, prancing, businesslike, indifferent to her suffering as that film is to our own.

Marshall Blonsky