Thursday, March 24, 2016

"With Her, It Would Be Different:" 1001 EROTIC NIGHTS: THE STORY OF SCHEHERAZADE

In the summer of 1982, Edwin and Summer Browns 1001 Erotic Nights: The Story of Scheherazade was released by Essex Distributing to adult film theaters across the U.S. and became a huge crossover hit with a large audience of men, women, and couples.  Essex’s one-sheet poster for the film stressed its high production values and excellent reviews in men’s magazines, touting “the first million-dollar adult X-travaganza” as reigning queen of adult cinema Annette Haven, elegantly and demurely costumed in a flowing patterned diaphanous green gown, towered over critics’ blurbs which included the sine qua non “100% - Hustler’s highest rating ever!”  The film was a hardcore adaptation of The Arabian Nights and starred Haven as the harem girl Scheherazade and John Leslie as the Persian ruler Shahryar (cheekily re-named, as I will detail below) to whom Scheherazade told stories each night to forestall her planned execution at dawn, a result of the Sultan’s bitter refusal to trust a woman after being betrayed by the Sultana (Lisa de Leeuw) and his trusted General Sargon (Herschel Savage).  Scheherazade’s tales are enacted by West Coast adult cinema’s most popular and photogenic performers in a series of very stylish erotic set-pieces which move the film through the genre’s array of explicit and varied “numbers.”  In the figure of Scheherazade, the Browns had found a protagonist around whom to construct a film which could effectively showcase the Annette Haven star persona, mobilize many of the most common conventions of the adult historical costume picture, and use the portmanteau structure of the movie’s source material to motivate an episodic narrative which was often seen as lowering the artistic pedigree of erotic films.

         Edwin and Summer Brown were a married team of adult filmmakers who worked under both their given names and a number of pseudonyms.  In the credits of 1001 Erotic Nights, they appear as “Steven Lucas and Sondra Winters.”  The Browns had produced and directed Haven’s breakthrough film, the espionage thriller China Girl in 1974 for 1975 release, and they had worked with her again on For The Love of Pleasure in 1979.

       Haven tells the story of being cast in China Girl only because she could pronounce “deoxyribonucleic acid” at her audition for the role of scientist Teresa Hartgrave, but during the shoot, Haven and the Browns discovered that they shared a common vision of a more artistic adult cinema and the working methods likely to bring it into being:  Haven worked closely with producer Summer, writer and director Edwin, and cinematographer Teru Hayashi to develop a singular approach to the choreography and direction of her sex scenes and to establish key elements of her star persona which would be varied and expanded upon in a range of films for the rest of the decade.  Haven insisted that all of the sex scenes, including those of erotic torture orchestrated by the villainous Madame Woo (Pamela Yen) to extract secrets from the kidnapped scientists, proceed in an unhurried fashion and showcase much eye contact and fingertip touching between the performers, emphasizing whole-body sexuality rather than an obsessive focus on the genitals.  In addition, cinematographer Hayashi doubled as the film’s body make-up artist, and Haven required thereafter that her films carefully integrate body make-up, lighting, and cinematography to showcase her fair complexion and give her body an alabaster glow during scenes of nudity and sex.  China Girl also introduced two elements which would be a recurrent feature of many of Haven’s subsequent films, namely an emphasis on Orientalist, non-western sexual discourses and techniques and a central female character who is an Aphrodite-like “mistress of the dance” orchestrating the procession of sexual numbers and the related emotional journeys of the characters who surround her.  

At first, Madame Woo orchestrates the sexual
experiences of her interrogation subject

Impervious to Madame Woos' sexual 
torture, the intellectually and sexually 
powerful Teresa seizes control of 
the erotic journeys of the other 
characters, including that 
of Madame Woo herself.

Shiva casts and choreographs Simon's
sexual and psychological odyssey
in the afterlife.
Haven’s second project with the Browns, the fantasy psychodrama For the Love of Pleasure (1979) made the connection between these elements quite explicit: Haven plays the spectral character Shiva, named after the male Hindu god who was slayer of dragons and patron saint of yoga and the arts.  Shiva leads the film’s protagonist, the recently-deceased, selfish sociopath Simon (Jamie Gillis) through a series of sexual experiences which eventually sensitize him to the boredom of shallow gluttony and lust so he can experience the agony of their unremitting indulgence for all eternity.

1001 Erotic Nights achieved the rare feat of crossing over from the adult film audience to become a hit with moviegoers who were not habitu├ęs of x-rated theaters.  Throughout the era of theatrical distribution, individual adult movies used a number of strategies to stand out within a genre that the larger movie-going public mistakenly assumed consisted of interchangeable films. 

Some porn films used a topical theme from current events, news stories, or popular fads in films such as CB Mamas (1977) and Lure of the Triangle (1978). 1001 Erotic Nights mobilized established conventions of adult cinema’s variations or burlesques on contemporary Hollywood hits, classic films, popular songs, or well-known stories, as did A Coming of Angels (1977) Dracula Sucks aka Lust at First Bite, Sex World (both 1978), Vista Valley PTA (1981), and Urban Cowgirls (1982).    

While some of the above films attempted to evoke the doomed Romanticism found in popular plays and novels and their later adaptations by the Archers, Hammer Films, and other mainstream film studios,* 1001 Erotic Nights takes the more common path of exploiting the comic potential in remaking a well-known story as an explicit erotic film.  The template for this type of film, which erotic filmmakers employ to this very day in their ubiquitous porn parodies of Hollywood hits, does not come from the adult industry at all but from Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963).  Richardson’s film constantly uses historical anachronism as a comic device in the musical score, voice-over narration, actors’ performances, and intrusive flourishes of film style while subtly recasting Fielding’s 18th-century novel as a parable of the emancipatory yearnings of postwar youth set against the hypocrisy of their elders. 
Eagle-eyed adult film fans will spot the source for dozens of
             comic motifs and bits of business from their favorite x-rated
costume pictures in Tony Richardson's 1963 hit.
1001 Erotic Nights is suffused with this sensibility from its opening image of a map of Asia Minor with a spot marked “You Are Here” while the narrator informs us that John Leslie’s character is a distant relative of Genghis Khan named Sultan Shaka Khan.  Less than a minute later, the threesome between the Sultana, General Sargon, and the Dancing Boy (Joey Silvera) is scored with a sitar rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” which has been altered just enough to avoid copyright injunction.  A consultation between the Sultan and his astrologer (Sean Desmond) self destructs into a “That’s Good?” / “No, that’s bad” routine from television’s rural variety show Hee Haw, and the noblewoman in one of Scheherazade’s tales (Nicole Black) soothes a hesitant fisherman (Jon Martin) about to climb into bed with her young daughters Alana (Lysa Thatcher) and Helen (Tigr) by telling him, “Take them if you like.  They’re over eighteen.”

Even more than high production values and a remarkable level of style and wit, the dominant structuring element in both Essex’s publicity and the film itself was the larger-than-life presence of Annette Haven in the title role.  1001 Erotic Nights was part of an early-eighties production trend of higher-budget star vehicles showcasing the adult industry’s most popular and accomplished female performers.  This trend also included Rockin’ With Seka, Insatiable starring Marilyn Chambers (both 1980), Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle and Roommates with Samantha Fox, Veronica Hart, and Kelly Nichols (both 1981). Although female stars had been crucial to adult cinema’s crossover from as early as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door in 1972, for much of the seventies, one-sheet posters and newspaper ads for even the most upscale releases had focused on a piquant title, a barely-printable double entendre tag line, and a bold and eye catching graphic design (see the poster for Lure of the Triangle, above).  Commercial designer and adult film director Armand Weston, who helmed the award-winning Expose Me Lovely (1975) and the aforementioned Take Off, also designed the posters and newspaper ads for dozens of porn features, and many distributors considered his work as central to a film’s eventual success as its cast or production values.