The late Roger Watkins' last major pornographic opus, still shot on 35mm as opposed to his subsequent video DECADENCE (ironically, the most readily available of his challenging movies on DVD, distributed by Caballero), the aptly titled American BABYLON remains an adult film unlike any other before or since. Not everyone might agree that this is a good thing. Those looking for a quick fornication fix and a few cheap thrills could be motivated to flee the premises in desperate frustration. Way ahead of its time in its bold mixture of complex, multi-layered narrative and explicit sexual content, this officially still hard to see work should be painstakingly restored and pristinely remastered and then geared towards the discerning art-house crowd, who should finally be able to appreciate Watkins' amazing achievement. Middle American middle class mores are at the heart of this savage satire, the closest this most downbeat of directorial deities whose most "mainstream" effort was the incomparable LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET ever came to anything that could be accurately described as comedy though many may not think it is funny, because they're feeling targeted perhaps ?
Ultimate milquetoast Tom (indelibly portrayed by the excellent Michael Gaunt in an absolute career performance) lives with his bossy wife Mary (very well played by Chelsea Blake, the pushy stage mom from the late Ron Sullivan's magnificent GREAT SEXPECTATIONS) next door to a weirdo named Robert (Bobby Astyr, a stupendous character actor, sadly also no longer with us) and his neglected spouse Joan, an unexpectedly poignant turn by underrated Tish Ambrose. Devoting his time obsessively to collecting and watching porno films, Robert tries to get his all too prim 'n' proper neighbor to acknowledge and share his passion, subtly guiding their frequent discussions from the mundane subjects of everyday life towards involuntary intimate confessions. Joan's pathetic attempts at an affair with the cluelessly clumsy Tom force him to become an active participant in their little hothouse melodrama, an uncomfortable role for someone who would rather be an innocent bystander even in his own life. Narrative trickery causes the film to fold back unto itself, Watkins brutally deconstructing both porn and movie-making itself in an audacious final twist foreshadowed by the title of the final film the reluctant "friends" watch together : Menopausal Males in Bondage.
Even though the sex will probably fail to stimulate the raincoat crowd, this doesn't mean it's in any way routine or performed in a disinterested "professional" fashion. These are sad characters, all too recognizable as our secret selves, the people we would rather not be. While the storyline is ultimately revealed as an artificial construct, American BABYLON stubbornly refuses to deal in escapism or wish fulfillment the way most pornography actively does by its very nature. Mary's almost alarming amorous aggressiveness towards her husband rings as true as Joan's heartbreaking neediness, exchanging an inattentive husband for a barely more animated lover, draining both situations from the fabricated "sensuality" the genre traditionally provides. Clues as to the final outcome are provided by appearances from the film within a film's performers in these supposedly realistic set-ups, Taija Rae (prior to her glamor make over) turning up as both Joan's strap-on wielding friend Denise and as part of Robert's "remembered" transgression with "sister" Lonnie Lee, who was also in DECADENCE.
The frequent shifts from full color to black and white could also prove helpful if simultaneously and deliberately, no doubt misleading in audiences attempting to distinguish between what's real and what's imagined. This visual style, developed by Watkins in close conjunction with camera god Larry Revene, is instrumental in achieving the film's intended effect, deceptively simple in concept yet immaculately intricate in execution. Same goes for the elaborate sound design, seemingly all over the place at first, with radio evangelists competing with hillbilly bluegrass, virtually exploding in an instrumental rendition of the Star Spangled Banner playing over a painted portrait of Abraham Lincoln, whose nickname ("Honest Abe") supplies a particularly wry kick in the groin as it's precisely honesty that has proved in short supply during the preceding narrative, including maybe on the part of its maker as well.
As a final trivia note, the German theatrical distributor who undoubtedly felt the flick was a bit soft on sex spliced in two scenes from another source starring the then underage Traci Lords with Ron Jeremy and Jamie Gillis respectively, rudely disrupting the free form flow of the original work even though his meddling remains somewhat understandable from a purely commercial point of view. This version has actually turned up on several occasions at Belgium's last operational "old school" (i.e. 35mm rather than DVD projection) adult theater, the Brussels ABC cinema on the Boulevard Adolphe Max, as late as 2008, to generally stunned silence from its regular patrons, predictably preoccupied with inspecting each other's bulging crotches rather than the formidable film unspooling before them. Rest assured, this is their loss
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