by David Yearsley
Spotting an acquaintance in an airport can be unsettling. Should you say hello or disappear wordlessly down the concourse?
It’s especially awkward when you spot that friend lurking among the smut section in a bookstore/giftshop in Frankfurt.
I decided to make my presence known. I went over and extended a hand of greeting. With a complaining squeak he slid out from his tight position between the plexiglas frame of the book carousel and a thick volume graced by a leatherclad androgyne. He wore white jacket with a close-up color photo of the pert bottom of a woman in very tight and very short silver shorts. One had to question the fashion choice. In America this friend frequents the literature sections of bookstores, and on his home continent you’re as unlikely to find him wedged in among the pornography as you are to find George W. Bush browsing the latest poetry. The fact that the publisher of the new German edition is the respected Rowohlt firm hardly vaults the volume beyond its surroundings.
In English this novel is known as Blue Movie and the first edition’s cover is dominated by its bright orange background on which the title is printed in blue block letters. The ending letters s of both words are aligned vertically and connected into one extra-long “E” with five vertical lines. Rows of small orange squares are cut out of these vertical lines to suggest the sprocket holes of a short strip of celluloid—a clever visual reference to the theme of the book. This extra-long “E” allows for four film frames in which are pictured different views of naked woman in variously suggestive poses. In contrast to the latest German edition, the effect of the English first-edition cover is arty rather than smutty.
I know an avid bibliophile who collects the first editions of the titans of 20th century letters: Hemingway, Terry Southern, Jim Bouton. To date he has amassed more than a dozen paperback editions of Southern’s first novel, Candy, an updating of Voltaire’s Candide to a 1950s America—a work that takes on sexual mores and racism in increasingly outrageous and trenchant fashion.. Completed with the help of Mason Hoffenberg, Candy was first published in 1958 in Paris under a pseudonym, since Southern was then hoping to sell a children’s book and rightly feared that Candy would not do much to enhance his moral standing with publishers of juvenile literature. Even in Paris Candy was immediately banned.
Among my friend’s book collection is a first edition of the German translation of Blue Movie. That volume was rather similar in overall graphic layout to that of the English original, although the dominant color of the German edition was dark-blue, almost black, thus projecting a more sinister affect.
The more explicit cover of the latest German paperback version is, among other things, meant to pique the interest of sex-starved international travelers. The German translation of the phrase Blue Movie furthers the marketing strategy reflected by the smutty cover photo: the title chosen by the original translator, who remains anonymous to this day, is the wonderfully blunt Der Super-Porno. While the meaning of this German title is clear enough and funny enough in English, it has none of the ironic decorousness of Terry Southern’s coyly euphemistic title, Blue Movie. The translator had to find an ingenious solution to the problem posed by the fact that this particular English meaning of “blue” is unavailable in German. I applaud his choice of Der Super-Porno. With its racy cover and over-the-top title, and its placement among the truly pornographic literature, the German marketers are hoping bookstore patrons will judge Der Super Porno (erroneously) by its cover.
Readers hoping to get a high-altitude erotic lift out of Der Super-Porno will be disappointed. The novel is anything but arousing. One can sense this from the opening scene which features a sexually transgressive starlet named Teeny Marie, whom Southern, in full understatement mode, describes as “a rather artificial person.” Southern presents Teeny in various forms of “disassembly” in order to launch a hilarious critique of Hollywood’s plasticized body culture, a critique as telling now as it was in 1970: “inventory-wise, from tip to toe, and in rough chronology, it was like this: severe malaria as a child had made Teeny Maria totally hairless; carcinoma had taken her breasts; and finally she had lost a leg, her left, in an auto crash outside Villefranche-sur-Mer, and an eye, her right, during an incredible ‘dart-fight’ in a Soho pub.” In spite of these physical setbacks, she was gifted with incredible mouth, lips — “a composite of Hayley Mills and Muhammad Ali”—and extremely white teeth. This mouth gets quite a workout in the novel’s first chapter.
In the novel a pretentious, two-time Oscar-winning movie director decides to make a pornographic movie that will attain the level of true art. Production eventually moves to a secret site in far-off Liechtenstein where the greatest Hollywood stars, eager to work with the famed auteur, involve themselves in increasingly degraded sexual acts: incest scene between a previously wholesome brother-and-sister pair of big stars; a sating of the producer’s necrophilia.
Southern dedicated Blue Movie to Stanley Kubrick, who directed Southern’s script, Dr. Strangelove in 1962. Not coincidentally, Kubrick, with whom Southern often disagreed but apparently remained on friendly terms, bears more than a little resemblance to the fictional director in Blue Movie.
The greatest posthumous irony worked by Southern’s novel is that Kubrick’s last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, enacts the project set forth in Blue Movie: Kubrick’s swan song marked his own attempt to raise porn to the level of high art. Like the novel’s vacuous stars, who are overly eager to gain artistic legitimacy by working with a great auter, Hollywood’s most famous and well-paid couple, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, starred in Kubrick’s last movie. One wonders if the bogus sexual epiphanies the pair was subjected to by Kubrick encouraged the split that came soon after the film’s release.
Whereas Blue Movie attains greatness partly through the dissonance between elegant prose and the absurdly hilarious action it describes, Eyes Wide Shut is ponderous and silly—just as Southern might have predicted.
In 2003 director Steven Soderbergh made it possible for the New York Public Library to acquire Southern’s papers with a gift of around $200,000. Among the mass of material contained in the Southern archive are some seventy-five unproduced movie scripts. The acquisition was a fine gesture on behalf of the greatest, darkly-comic script writer the cinema has known, hailed as a “genius” by Soderbergh and the finest comic writer of his tiem by Gore Vidal.
I suspect that Southern, who died in 1995 would have been bemused to know that Blue Movie has found an afterlife in repackaged translation amongst the lowliest of German smut. Southern would have appreciated the irony that his book about a grandiose attempt to turn pornography into art should itself be relegated to the porn section. Southern knew well, as Kubrick fatally did not, that in the contest between between art and smut, only the latter is truly immortal.
I took my old friend, Der Super-Porno, up to the Frankfurt airport bookstore and put it proudly on the counter. I looked the cashier straight in the eye and said: “Ein Meisterstück” —a masterpiece.