Alove letter to a nearly forgotten corner of American pop culture’s underground, Ted Bonnitt’s “Mau Mau Sex Sex” only begins to provide a real survey of the exploitation pics — and the culture surrounding them — served up from the 1940s through the 1960s by schlock impresarios Dave Friedman and Dan Sonney. While docu stands as a fine celebration of rebels before rebels were cool, it falls far short of being a comprehensive look at a colorful back alley of the movie industry. World premiered in January at the No Dance 2000 fest in Park City and hitting select venues around the country for single-night screenings, pic will soon enjoy a long life on the cult shelf in specialized vid stores.
With the lightest of touch, docu places its two central subjects inside a grand American tradition of making a buck off the public’s bad taste. Bonnitt dives right into his subject, sans narration, capturing the 76-year-old Friedman and the 85-year-old Sonney trading good-natured insults as they ride in the back of a car through the streets of Los Angeles, where they produced and exhibited hundreds of exploitationers over the decades. Docu shrewdly employs film historian and exploitation buff Frank Henenlotter as an irreverent commentator on the films themselves, and his initial comment perhaps sums it all up best: “You have to wonder if (the films) were made on planet Earth.”
Sonney explains how his father, Louis, went from being a coal miner in Washington state to a tough lawman who arrested the region’s most notorious robber, Roy Gardner, only to exploit the arrest into celebrity for both of them. Louis set off making a series of anti-crime mellers, but soon found that cheapie cinemas were raking in the bucks with sex pics. Thus, his 1934 “Maniac” was renamed “Sex Maniac,” and young Dan began to learn the sleazy end of the movie biz. In a fresh insight into the split American desire for Puritan goodness and sensation, Sonney amusingly explains how pics such as “Wages of Sin” began with an “educational” message on the story’s underlying moral, before unreeling doses of sex, violence and other taboos.
Perhaps docu’s choicest moment is when Henenlotter tries to explain Louis’ outrageous 1937 pic, “Forbidden Adventure,” about, well, topless women mating with gorillas. In an equally bizarre touch, Sonney took a somewhat legitimate docu on Kenyan political unrest, “Mau Mau,” and shot insert scenes of bare-breasted women attacked by tribesmen (all filmed in his L.A. studio with African-American thesps and models), and sold pic for the sex and violence.
Friedman, who is now the more energetic of the two and continues to run a carnival, observes that this old-fashioned carny culture is the true root of the exploitation trade. After seeming to be on a fast track in the Paramount publicity department, he dropped out of the Hollywood mainstream, explaining that he had always been attracted to showbiz’s seamier underbelly. Docu does not acknowledge Friedman’s collaboration with Herschel Gordon Lewis and other helmers on series of “nudie-cutie,” “nudist” and ultra-violent slasher pics. While it provides hilarious details on how some of the mega-gory effects were created on a slim budget, Bonnitt’s film falsely implies that these quickies were made without directors at all.
Most disappointing of all, though, is a serious paucity of clips of the movies, with only short bits of such titles as “Blood Feast,” “The Defilers” and “The Pick-Up” shown to any effect. Younger auds used to more hard-core material will be amazed at the self-imposed limits placed on material (i.e., no sex acts, no genitalia), but will not get any strong sense of the censorship battles Friedman frequently waged against such orgs as the Legion of Decency to remove bans on his and other producers’ work.
Though Bonnitt surely intends irony by depicting Friedman and Sonney leading ultra-normal lives with their wives and daughters (both have been married many decades), pic consumes far too much time with domestic trivia when it could have been devoted to film clips and other players in the schlock industry. Factual material is kept to a minimum, so that it’s never clear, for instance, that the Friedmans now live in the southern U.S. Tech work for digital video shoot (shot with Canon XL1 camera) is basic, while Eddie Baytos’ music goes for silly humor rather than the hubba-hubba sound of pics of yore.