There is nothing like running into an old friend in an airport to raise the spirits. And there, lurking among the smut in a magazine and gift store were the unmistakable lineaments of an old friend. The airport in question was in Frankfurt, and although I knew that this friend was much admired in Germany, I was nonetheless surprised at finding him in what would be considered by some a rather embarrassing position.
Worse still, the friend wore a white jacket with a close-up color photo of the pert bottom of a woman in very tight and very short shorts. One had to question the fashion choice.
In America this friend frequents the “literature” sections of legitimate bookstores, and on his home continent you're as unlikely to find him wedged in among the porn novels as you are to find George Bush browsing the latest poetry.
Undeterred by public censure and otherwise unconcerned with the fate of my international reputation, I moved closer and extended a hand of greeting to this prince of literature and pulled him away from the shelf. With a complaining squeak he slid out from his tight position between the plexiglas frame of the smut carousel and a thick volume of low-brow German muck featuring a leathclad androgyne on its a cover.
Thus liberated from this unworthy company, the friend greeted me with a look of fond remembrance, and I in turn took in the full measure of his transformation.
In English this novel is known as Blue Movie, and the first edition is dominated by its bright orange background on which the title is printed in blue block letters. The ending capital “E” of both words is aligned and amalgamated 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, thus making 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 women in various 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, when his funds were plentiful before the dot.com bubble burst, often surfed the internet in search of first editions by Hemingway, Terry Southern, Jim Bouton, and other titans of 20th century letters. 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 enlivened by the widest possible streak of sexual satire. 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 children's literature. Much to its credit, Candy was banned for several years in America; Southern never registered the manuscript and thus never received any royalties on the novel.
Among my friend's book collection is a first edition of the German translation of Blue Movie which I had the privilege of examining a few years ago; I recall that the German first edition 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 effect. It was a fine cover, and I would not want to suggest that the Germans always go for a lurid presentation like this latest paperback edition, although the national penchant for porn encourages an aesthetic orientation towards the tawdry.
The point about the German paperback is that it is a marketing ploy to pique the interest of sex-starved international travelers: jet lag, oxygen deprivation, a steady intake of bad coffee and in-flight pretzels, and a finely paced dirty book is a volatile mix that is apt to wrap the libido so tightly around itself that it might uncoil with lethal, fuselage-splitting force. At 39,000 feet this is no joke: look for the Transportation Safety Administration to ban smut from the airways before too long, especially material detailing the delights of seventy-two or more virgins.
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 by its cover. But readers who are looking to get a high-altitude erotic lift out of Der Super-Porno will be disappointed.
Although Der Super-Porno/Blue Movie addresses just about every imaginable avenue of sexual “deviance,” it is anything but erotic. One can sense this from the opening scene which features a sexually transgressive starlet named Teeny Marie who Southern describes as “a rather artificial person.” Southern presents Teeny in various forms of “disassembly” in order to construct 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. Needless to say, this winning mouth gets quite a workout in the novel's first chapter.
The governing idea of the book is that a pretentious, two-time-Oscar-winning movie director, who really sees himself as a film-maker in the tradition of Chaplin, Berman and Fellini, 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 director, involve themselves in evermore outrageous sexual acts; the book culminates with an incest scene between a previously wholesome brother-and-sister pair of big stars and, finally, turns to the producer's taste for necrophilia.
Southern dedicated Blue Movie to Stanley Kubrick, who directed Southern's script, Dr. Strangelove, in 1962. Seeing himself as the greatest of complete filmmakers, Kubrick took an undeserved co-writing credit on that movie. 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.
Indeed, 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 is nothing less than an 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 auteur, 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 were subjected to by Kubrick encouraged their eventual split. Whereas Blue Movie is beautifully written and absurdly hilarious, Eyes Wide Shut is pretentious and silly — just as Southern might have predicted. If one wants to erase that movie's grim, unsexy orgies and laughable portentousness from one's memory banks, I recommend a return to Blue Movie which, now that both men are dead, can be read as an ultra-irreverent send-up of Kubrick's grandiosity.
The newer generation's “most highly respected” Hollywood director, Steven Soderbergh has recently bought Southern's library at an estimated $200,000 and donated it to the New York Public Library; among the mass of material contained in the Southern archive are some 75 unproduced movie scripts. This gift by a Hollywood figure is a fine gesture on behalf of the greatest, darkly comic script writer the cinema has known.
But I suspect that Southern, who died in 1995, would have been equally pleased to know that his finest novel (at a slight 140 pages, his brilliant Magic Christian is really a just a novella) has found an afterlife in translation amongst the lowliest of German smut. Southern would doubtless have appreciated the irony that his own supremely artistic book about a grandiose attempt to turn pornography into art should itself be relegated to the muck. Southern knew well, as Kubrick fatally did not, that in the contest between art and filth, only the latter is truly immortal. Southern also knew that to mix the high with the low without the aid of satire and irony is the greatest of artistic sins.
After flicking through the novel's pages by way of reacquaintance, I took my old friend, Der Super-Porno, up to the front of the store and put it unapologetically on the counter. As the cashier wrung it up I looked down at the book and said, “Ein Meisterwerk” — a masterpiece.