Behind the Green Door: Deconstructing Gloria

From “The X List: The National Society of Film Critics’ Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On”

I was nineteen when I saw “Behind the Green Door” in 1972, the same age as Marilyn Chambers, a Meg Ryan type who played Gloria, the innocent babe abducted and whisked off to a private sex club where onstage she is stripped, caressed by tender women in black cassocks, suckled by a coven of hippies, and penetrated by male trapeze artists in crotchless tights. Thus pleasured, Gloria becomes an avid pleasuregiver, fellating one trapeze artist as she milks the other two, and whipping partners, club patrons, and movie audiences into Chantilly cream.

Was my face red! Then, as now, I couldn’t say whether it was from embarrassment, excitement, or some combination thereof. When the lights came up, I recall lacing my boyfriend’s fingers into mine and joking, “No that’s process art.”

Thirty-three years later, I’m amused that I felt compelled to intellectualize the experience. (For the uninitiated, process art, uncle of deconstruction, applies to work that bares the means of its making.)

I’m also amazed that I got why the Michell Brothers’ “Behind the Screen Door” was so passionately received by the academics, undergrads, and townies who thronged the auditorium at the University of California, San Diego, that night. The orgasmothon distilled the incense-and-peppermint scent of 1972, the different-strokes tolerance, the psychedelic-shack imagery. (A prancing-fluids sequence employs the kaleidoscopic color-negative effect used by Richard Avedon in his famous 1967 shots of The Beatles.)

Because Jim and Artie MItchell embedded Gloria’s sexual initiation in a narrative (two truckers at a diner recount Gloria’s story to the cook), my lit professor could compare it to Boccaccio’s “Dacameron” and Joe Sixpack could think it was an urban legend. And because the Mitchells framed Gloria’s erotic immersion as a performance, my art professor could talk about it as performance art (not unlike Vito Acconci’s onanistic conceptual short “Seedbed”), while the panting freshman boys and some marines from Camp Pendleton nearby related to it as live-action “Penthouse” pictorial. I’m sure some UCSD sociology professor cited the multi-culti demographic of the sex-club audience, and I know that my gal pals Melvyn and Jeff noticed the transvestites and homosexual members there.

And, heaven help us, I know that the teaching assistants in Manny Farber’s film history class (my boyfriend and I included) actually made claims that the film’s “money shot” in transfigured time owed much to cinema vanguardists Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage.

“Behind the Green Door” had something for everyone, even the feminists who debated whether it objectified women or liberated them.

For a nascent feminist of limited sexual experience who had never seen an uncircumcised penis, it was… an eye-opener. Unlike one other porn film I had endured, this wasn’t an extreme-close-up montage of disembodied sex organs being Hoovered. The organs here were connected to real bodies and real faces, and the action seemed to take place in real time. What I remembered about the other porn film was that it was all about cascading, fountaining, erupting climaxes. What I remembered about “Door” was the foreplay. Yeah, I know, I’m such a girl.

In “Behind the Green Door,” Marilyn Chambers has honey-colored hair, flawless tawny skin, upturned nose, downturned mouth – the “99-44/100 percent pure” features that got her hired ast eh face on the Ivory Snow box. It was that the 56/100th of impure lust that made all the difference, losing Chambers her lucrative contract with Procter & Gamble and bringing untold pleasure to ticket buyers responsible for making the $60.000 skin flick return grosses of nearly $30 million. Only the IRS knows how much it’s made on video (or do they?), but it’s still hugely popular and such a cultural force that Stanley Kubrick paid perverse tribute to it in the sex-club scene in “Eyes Wide Shut”.

After watching “Door” for the first time in more than thirty years, I am still captivated by Chambers, who is so in the moment that she puts Method actors to shame. Almost any woman can feign pleasure better than the women in the average skin fick, but Chambers is the rare actress in a porn movie whose body language doesn’t have quotes around it. I’d never make the claim you should see “Door” for the acting; still, I’d rank Chambers up there with Jeanne Moreau in “The Lovers” and Holly Hunter in “The Piano,” actresses who make eros onscreen seem as transcendent as it does in life.