As is proper for a series about transgression, AMMI’s “Carnal Knowledge” program includes a pair of veritable outlaws from the year of the Summer of Love. Customs officials seized Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) upon its entry into the States for its sexually explicit content, and Andy Warhol found himself under FBI investigation for interstate transport of obscene material with Lonesome Cowboys (1967), which was confiscated and recut in Atlanta in 1969. In an increasingly permissive climate—influenced by a series of pro-expression court decisions—the Production Code was withering on the vine, and in 1968 the Motion Picture Association of America introduced the first version of their ratings system. That the staid Academy awarded the X’ed Midnight Cowboy (1969) its Best Picture Oscar isn’t as remarkable a snatch of anything-goes ’60s lore as it may seem—the rating didn’t become a scarlet-neon letter until the newly empowered porn industry had a chance to co-opt it.
“Carnal Knowledge” is arranged as a series of double features: Barbarella (1967) and Vixen! (1968) incite a catfight; the Belle de Jour (1967) compares notes with Jane Fonda’s part-time call girl in Klute (1971); and puzzlingly, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice‘s smug swap meet is rudely upended by the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange (1971). Kubrick’s film is only the most extreme exhibit of the paranoia and panicked ambivalence churning in the period’s studio output. In Mike Nichols’s title-provider, the hysterical chauvinist played by Jack Nicholson is unmanned to the point of penile dysfunction by uppity broads, while Klute, Clockwork, and Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) all partake in horrific sexual violence against women. Hitch’s penultimate work, tracking the impotent Necktie Murderer, is a fascinating, exceedingly nasty specimen. His escalating female trouble, which metastasized through the ’60s (Psycho, The Birds), becomes frenzied indeed once the censor’s shackles are lifted altogether; the director makes momentary tableaux of the bug-eyed, tongue-out victims into gruesome money shots.
Off the Hollywood path, unveiled sex was more than a psychic disease (or a marketing hook). I Am Curious (Yellow) and Dusan Makavejev’s W.R.— Mysteries of the Organism (1971) both conflate erotic freedom with proletariat liberation via patchworks of documentary, character study, and Godardian meta-goofing. The Swedish entry intrigues mainly as a historical artifact, but Makavejev’s deliriously cerebral farrago—an indulgent homage to Wilhelm Reich—hasn’t dated a second. Brian De Palma’s shoestring Hi, Mom! gets accreditation for star Robert De Niro’s elaborate attempts to nail his sweetheart in surreptitious view of an outdoor camera, though its anarchic coup de grâce is an extended “interactive theater” set piece in which black-power pranksters terrorize their hilariously complicit white-liberal patrons. And while Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) has plenty of that, the shaggy real-time rhythms belie its thematic rigor—exploring sex as financial and emotional barter, Morrissey’s first film “presented by Andy Warhol” is funny, engrossing, and unexpectedly plangent.