The camera came to a halt and the small crew dispersed for a few moments as James Bryan took his place next to the young actress, offering his suggestions on how the scene should play out. She listened intently before assuming the stance and demonstrating how she believed her character would react. He watches her movements and nods in agreement, impressed with her body language and her interpretation of the role. She wraps her hand around the strap-on penis that has been attached to her crotch and grips it with a passion, miming a masturbatory rhythm while staring down at her phallus with a determined glint in her eye. Her co-star takes his place in front of her, both of their bodies on full display for anyone who cares to steal a glance, and he leans face-down on the bed to await the call for action. At this point in the proceedings, they are both to pretending to be stoned, while the woman grabs hold of his waist and enters him from behind. Yet despite the sordid nature of the material, the atmosphere remains light-hearted in between takes as Bryan and the formidable Jean Stone debate how the act of sodomy should be depicted. Satisfied they are on the same page, Bryan returns to the other side of the camera and stands beside his cinematographer as Stone pretends to penetrate her leading man. Once the footage is finally in the can they retire for the evening, finally allowing the two performers the chance to cover up their naked flesh as the equipment is packed away with efficiency, and everyone says their goodbyes to one another. The dildo is placed safely back in its box and the room falls into darkness. ‘The sexual revolution was in full bloom in L.A. at the time, and we all had the flush of that new experience to process,’ he proudly recalls. ‘Naturally, the puritanical social bulwarks of the day were crumbling, and we were all anxious to join the rushing tide of history.’ Feeling amused by the playful role-reversal of this scene, Bryan retires to claim a few short hours of sleep, before they are set to return in the morning to film yet another sex scene. And he was yet to orchestrate the drug-fuelled orgy that would serve as the climax to his adult picture. All in a day’s work!
The Dirtiest Game in the World was released at a time in American history when changes in censorship had allowed filmmakers to explore the kind of graphic sex and violence that had previously been denied of them, and when film school graduates hijacked Hollywood with a new breed of daring and provocative cinema, some films would inadvertently become blockbusters or cult favourites, while countless others would become lost in the annals in motion picture evolution. One such movie was James Bryan’s The Dirtiest Game. Produced two years before the pornographic explosion that would bring hardcore sex to the masses, it would fail to find its audience and, despite gaining modest notoriety due to its controversial themes and bloodletting, in the decades that followed its very existence was unknown. That was until, more than thirty years later, a British author dedicated three pages of his acclaimed book to its neglected charms, and even without an official release on home video, his analysis of the film brought it to the attention of a new generation of exploitation fans. ‘The Dirtiest Game in the World is a compelling debut that holds your attention throughout its (admittedly brief) running time,’ wrote Stephen Thrower in his 2007 tome Nightmare USA. ‘But it’s a cold film, and not for everyone, filled as it is with mean, loveless, cynical, and unsympathetic characters.’ If the purpose of pornography is to arouse and provoke an orgasm, then The Dirtiest Game goes out of its way to conjure up feelings of resentment, sadness, and disgust in the viewer, balancing its full-frontal nudity, and scenes of lesbianism and orgies, with moments of melancholy and self-destruction. Perhaps its lack of success at the box office could in part be blamed on the inconsistent tone of the film, which in turn varies between spoof and melodrama, but in an era when filmmakers had statements they wanted to preach to the world, Bryan lambasted both the corruption of politics and the failure of the hippie dream. And yet somewhere in between the message he had tried to convey, he had not failed in his mission to titillate his audience with bare breasts and sexual shenanigans.
‘As the X-rated business boomed at the mid-point of the seventies, adult film budgets quickly grew higher, driven by the audience demand for greater production values,’ explains Bryan. ‘When The Dirtiest Game was produced, the rules for the very tame theatrical adult features were really strict. Female frontal nudity was okay, but not male nudity, especially not frontal nudity. Fearing action from the vice police, the commercial labs wouldn’t process film with nude scenes, unless it was safely discreet. The sex scenes were strictly done as simulated sex scenes, by virtue of the camera’s modest physically obscuring compositions. Even overtly sexual or crude language was avoided. Yet within a year of my shooting The Dirtiest Game, the line between hardcore, explicit adult films, and the very restrained adult theatrical features – nudie films – was crossed and recrossed, until it was gone forever. The Dirtiest Game was a breakthrough picture in its day; of course, it turned out to be maybe ninety days ahead of its time. My attitude towards adult films was not at all serious; the complete opposite of the producers and distributors who wanted the economic porno boom to last a joyful and profitable thousand years. The Dirtiest Game, for me, the choice of style, was between either the French Surrealists, or the über mystic Leni Riefenstahl, in making a first adult film. It’s apparent, in this case, the Surrealists held sway. Cheesy, cheap-ass movies have always been a great source of endless entertainment for me, and the general audience often finds this approach to filmmaking difficult to deal with. Now, with The Dirtiest Game being a sex film from the get-go, a prime cheap-ass opportunity presented itself. I could not resist leading the waiting audience into even more challenging cheap and cheesy territory. As long as we were already on the fringe, why not? Many audience members walked out of the Pussycat Theatre screenings, but none asked for their money back. For me, that’s success on two levels.’
During the seventies, the epicentre of the pornographic scene were the sleazy adult theatres that populated the Deuce, a succession of grindhouse cinemas along 42nd Street in New York’s Times Square, where patrons would come to watch the latest hardcore pictures, huddled among drug dealers and prostitutes, where they discretely relieved themselves to the lurid acts onscreen. Long before VHS and the internet brought masturbation into the comfort of the home, the peepshows and sex films were the main source of excitement for those searching for a taste of debauchery and decadence. As the city’s mayor desperately attempted to clean up the streets, audiences watched with perverse glee at an array of women-in-prison, Naziploitation, and sexually-explicit motion pictures, all the while preparing to retreat into the shadows at the first sight of police activity. ‘In Times Square, striking up associations was a quick business, and money always makes strange bedfellows,’ detailed Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford in their exploration Sleazoid Express. ‘The street was wall-to-wall grindhouses, down-at-the-heels creations left over from the Minsky’s Burlesque days, old theatres that still retained a stained, velour elegance, and an imposing physicality, with large auditoriums, balconies, big screens, velvet curtains, and long-ago closed-off opera seats.’ Organized crime soon came to dominate the scene, with the notorious mobster Michael Zaffarano taking control of the Pussycat Theatre and its accompanying topless bar and massage parlour. The more revenue that pornography brought into the crime families, the more investment they returned to the industry, and by the end of the seventies the adult scene had become a dangerous place to be. On the West Coast, San Francisco’s the O’Farrell was the most popular venue for erotic cinema, with its two owners, the notorious duo Jim and Artie Mitchell, finding success during the height of the porno boom with their erotic masterpiece Behind the Green Door. While James Bryan’s The Dirtiest Game in the World would precede the golden age of pornography, and thus fail to become a box office success, it remains an important step in the evolution of the genre, and an often-overlooked oddity that combined sexual thrills with political overtones.
While pornography was launched into the mainstream following the overnight success of Deep Throat in the summer of 1972, this only became possibly following the dissolution of the Production Code. A set of stringent rules that had governed Hollywood since the thirties, this had kept the film industry shackled for almost forty years, before a change of leadership at the Motion Picture Association of America allowed filmmakers to embrace the liberation of sexuality that had washed over the nation with the rise of the hippie counterculture. The relatively restrained nudie-cuties and beaver films of the sixties were suddenly abandoned in favour of graphic, unsimulated acts of sex, fellatio, cunnilingus, and anal penetration. With Andy Warhol leading the way with his controversial Blue Movie, other filmmakers soon followed, and by the dawn of the new decade, hardcore sex had become the default entry into the film industry. Many of the directors to find success in the American slasher boom of the eighties had started out ten years earlier with sex films, with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Wes Craven producing the pseudo-documentary Together in 1971, and Danny Steinmann, later enjoying success with 1985’s Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, directing the cult classic High Rise in the mid-seventies. But arguably the most recognised of these was Tom DeSimone who, a decade before creating the gothic slasher Hell Night, shot a succession of graphic motion pictures, often under the alias Lancer Brooks. ‘It was just something I did to make money when I got out of film school,’ he admits. ‘I have no feelings one way or the other. It was a job.’ And long before making a name for himself with the low-budget video nasty Don’t Go in the Woods, the arrival of James Bryan was marked with his shocking debut The Dirtiest Game in the World. With both Night of the Living Dead and Easy Rider ushering in the era of independent cinema, countless filmmakers rode on this wave of artistic freedom as they attempted to challenge the status quo of the film industry, fighting the demands of the studios and the expectations of the public by subverting formulas and pushing the boundaries of taste.
But even as the likes of The Devil in Miss Jones proved that audiences enjoyed watching complete strangers engage in all manner of sexual depravity, there were those who questioned the negative effects that pornography had on its audience. And in the decades since the arrival of Deep Throat, detractors, film scholars, and even veterans of the industry have continued to debate the merits and dangers of sex in cinema. ‘One of the biggest problems the courts have addressed is how to define pornography,’ noted writer Carol Gorman in a 1988 study. ‘Pornography has always had a derogatory connotation. It comes from the Greek word pornographos, which interpreted means to describe prostitutes and their trade.’ While one may imagine that a director of pornography is nothing more than a pimp, and his actors akin to paid sex workers, outside of the influence of organised crime it has often been a relatively safe industry, with many filmmakers using erotica merely as a stepping-stone towards a more respected genre of storytelling. And even though the function of a pornographic film was to arouse, some directors incorporated themes of politics, religion, and morality into their narratives in order to question the climate of the day. ‘My idea regarding the mixing of explicit material and the political storyline was an extreme test on my notion of the common wisdom dealing with the nature of the exploitation film,’ claims Bryan. ‘If you deliver the required ten exploitation scenes, then I reasoned you should be able to do whatever you wanted with the rest of the running time. I proved my point.’ Thus, throughout the seventies, adult filmmakers would choose to explore such subject matters as the state of purgatory between life and death (The Devil in Miss Jones), and the tyrannical ruling of a depraved Roman emperor (Caligula). The Dirtiest Game, however, was very much a product of its time, which depicted the social divide between the radical youths of the late sixties and the politicians that felt out-of-touch with the younger generation.
Long before the commercial heyday of pornography, authorities had waged a war against the adult film industry and its encroachment on polite society by attempting to enforce strict regulations and even criminal prosecutions on those who created, distributed, and even indulged in such depravity. In New York City, the government’s desire to purge Times Square of the sex trade often resulted in few arrests and no real change to the industry, and with each new operation that the NYPD or FBI launched, its failure only served to embarrass the puritanical state even further. ‘The peep show operators are now in Federal Court, seeking the freedom of speech, and freedom of press, protections of the First Amendment,’ detailed an article published by the New York Times in 1972. ‘Michael M. Klein, the assistant corporation counsel who has been handling the city’s obscenity cases, agrees that there is a campaign to vigorously enforce the laws in the Times Square area, but he says the peep shows are still free to operate if they restrict their showings to softcore pornography. Softcore pornography allows complete nudity and simulated sexual acts, but stops short of explicit sex.’ But the success of Deep Throat during this time would alter the landscape for the remainder of the decade, with the demands of hardcore sex thrusting pornography into the mainstream. Just a few short years earlier, the world was not ready for such graphic sexual acts to be so readily available in respectable cinemas across America, and so when the cameras first began rolling on James Bryan’s The Dirtiest Game, they were operating under the strict regulations that had governed the industry throughout the sixties. ‘After graduating from film school, I was anxious to do a feature length movie,’ says Bryan. ‘I saw adult films as the least expensive and the most accessible of exploitation films to produce, and it was a perfect opportunity to become the epitome of the outrageous hippie moviemaker we were all striving to be at that time.’
The United States that greeted Bryan when he emerged from film school at the tail end of the sixties was a nation that was angry and frustrated, reacting with disdain at a misunderstood war that was waging in Vietnam, and the corruption that was eating away at the heart of the American government. The repressed atmosphere of the sixties had given way to a generation of youths that were not afraid to question authority, and as the influence of the Californian hippie movement began to spread across the country, many teenagers rejected the capitalist way of life and embarked on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, aided with the mind-expanding influences of marijuana and LSD. The art of the day aimed to liberate, with music, literature, and cinema often depicting protagonists that pursue a life that differed to that of their parents. ‘Although the majority of hippies referred to themselves as hippies, they also called themselves by other names, which changed over time and varied with location,’ elaborated John Anthony Moretta in The Hippies: A 1960s History. ‘Seekers were those dedicated to the quest to find their true selves, by breaking free from the spiritually and emotionally suffocating middle-class life; heads were so named because part of the seeker’s journey to find one’s self usually involved dope use, particularly LSD, which promoted keener awareness and consciousness expansion. Or there was the freak, a far-out person too odd, too abnormal, to be part of mainstream society.’ And it was this youth culture that Bryan wished to explore when developing his feature film debut; a generation of young people that felt alienated from the world around them, and convinced that there would be answers to their confusion by embracing the philosophies of fifties Beat poets, the experimental music of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, and the avant-garde cinema of Kenneth Anger and Paul Morrissey. American society was undergoing a cultural rebellion, and pornography was destined to be a part of this.
I. The Goddamn Hippie Vote
As Jack Valenti announced the decision of the American censors to abandon the rules of the Production Code in favour of a less stringent system, a new generation of film students were graduating from universities across America with dreams of dominating Hollywood. One such young hopeful was James Bryan. By this point, the twenty-six-year-old Texan had already abandoned one possible career for another, having initially intended on dedicating his life to medicine. ‘I was a pre-med student at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. My doctor uncle did his pre-med there. They are recognised for their School of Forestry, and the sports team are the Lumberjacks,’ he recalls. But even with this path laid out before him, another passion had cultivated within. ‘My early interest in filmmaking developed with my family’s enjoyment of films. I really liked Disney films, westerns with Roy Rogers, and Abbott and Costello comedies. I would laugh so long and loud, others of the audience would complain to my parents. I took over the family’s 8mm camera and started shooting little bits of film. The local drug store and film processing counter had film cement but no splicers, so I used a pair of pliers to do my first editing. The pliers had grooves for gripping, so the cement splice produced a sort of ripple effect on all my cuts. 8mm splicing tape became available around that time, and in high school I cast friends in a number of longer film shorts.’ In 1965, two years after his graduation from Stephen F. Austin University, Bryan relocated to Los Angeles to enrol at the University of Los Angeles, California. More commonly referred to as UCLA, the institution was renowned for having nurtured the burgeoning talents of many future filmmakers, and Bryan hoped to hone his talents on their celebrated film course. During his time on campus, one fellow student that would garner a reputation was George Lucas, whose provocative short films Freiheit and 1:42:08 were precursors to his groundbreaking science fiction piece Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. ‘I didn’t know anything about movies before I started film school,’ confessed Lucas. And for anyone wishing to master the art of filmmaking in the late sixties, UCLA was the place to be.
It would be during his studies in Los Angeles that Bryan’s passion for cinema, and his potential role in it, became undeniable. ‘As a film student at UCLA, I did several short animation films, a number of live action shorts, and did camera on a handful of documentaries,’ says Bryan. ‘Most of my film work was done with the participation of fellow film students Bill Haugse, Bob Eberlein, Chris Munger, and, most often, with Frank Millen, who was on both sides of the camera on the majority of my projects. The biggest influence for me would have to be the abundant screenings in the extensive UCLA; film history courses which sent me rushing off in so many different directions on the cinema compass. I wanted to do it all. No genre would be safe. My first animation project, Inner Limits, was broadcast on network television. I scored a job on a National Geographic TV special, doing a special effects animated dinosaur segment. And I got one of the first student grants from the newly established American Film Institute for my thesis production, Camden, Texas, a short documentary. I was off in all directions at once, drunk with a creative joy of moviemaking madness. I had co-directed, with Don Goodman, a documentary on the making of a skin flick by one of our film school cohorts, so it wasn’t a necessarily a foreign concept. Francis Ford Coppola did the same thing a few quarters before my arrival at UCLA. In their assigned editing room, a couple of my classmates found Francis Coppola’s outtakes and trims from a nudie he had directed and edited on the quiet while taking classes at UCLA.’ Other aspiring filmmakers studying at UCLA during the time that Bryan developed a succession of short films were future directors Rob Reiner and Paul Schrader, and by the dawn of the seventies, as the old Hollywood gasped its final breath, a new generation of auteurs were ready to remake the film industry with their own radical sensibilities.
James Bryan had no desire to inspire a revolution or change the world with his art, but he did harbour a strong urge to provoke and shock. But with the graphic horror of the Vietnam War broadcast in all its uncensored horror by the American media, violent motion pictures seemed to pale in comparison. But the adult film industry, however, seemed more promising. Here, a filmmaker could shoot a relatively low-budget movie and distribute it around specialist theatres and drive-ins, guaranteeing a modest profit. And with the recent change in censorship, now the exploration of sex was less restrictive than in the sixties. ‘For a few years, hardcore movies had been shown in quasi-legal sex clubs in America, while their more mainstream softcore rivals were becoming stronger and stronger, featuring lengthy simulated sex scenes that would have been considered obscene just a couple of years earlier,’ wrote David Flint in Babylon Blue: An Illustrated History of Adult Cinema. Inspired by the minor success of several recent erotic films, and desperate for a way to launch his own filmmaking career, Bryan decided that he would create his own pornographic movie. ‘Those moved by the passion to behold physical beauty joined agreeably with those moved by the passion to display physical beauty, in this rag-tag pageant of our jaunty little production,’ he explains. ‘At that time, people in search of all things hip were attracted to the oh, so naughty nudie film production scene. It was new and exciting for most of us, and, as I recall, there always seemed to be new volunteer stillmen showing up on the set, ready to help us out.’ Once Bryan had gathered together his small crew, which would include fellow UCLA alumni Chris Munger and Frank Millen, his attention then turned to assembling a troupe of young and attractive performers that were willing to bare all for the camera.
‘I met Titus Moede, then under his stage name Titus Moody, when I first went looking for a connection to the available adult film actors and actresses for my movie,’ explains Bryan on his first casting choice. ‘Mike Hall, the soundman, knew of a small equipment rental outfit that, in turn, led me to the guy who knew all the adult talent in Hollywood: Titus Moody. Titus worked as a production still photographer, and a sometime character actor. His mom, Cherry Moede, did the photo processing, and together they fed stills to adult publications, and made 8x10s for the acting talent and the crew members on the productions. Titus was casting central for the adult business, and he knew how to put together a great set of stills for advertising your production.’ Having started in the industry in the late fifties as an extra, Chicago native Moede had shown great promise as an athlete and baseball player during his high school years, but after finally arriving in California, he turned his attention to acting. He soon began to build up his résumé with a run of low-budget exploitation pictures, before making his directorial debut in 1966 with a short film entitled Outlaw Motorcycles. After adopting the pseudonym Titus Moody, Moede worked on such cult curiosities as Hells Chosen Few, before finally crossing paths with Bryan. ‘We used to always go down to Barney’s Beanery and party together,’ he told Cult Movies in 1995. ‘And I was just sitting there one night, and this guy came over – his name was Jim Bryan – and said, ‘Can we come over to your apartment? We want to start doing some line readings and rehearsing.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And then, before I knew it, I was leading actor in The Dirtiest Game.’
With his central role cast, Bryan began recruiting local talent for the supporting characters. ‘I mainly looked at people in terms of type, thinking acting talent would be a plus, but not so important as being ready, in our case, to do that acting in the nude,’ he continues. ‘When I met Titus at his apartment, I knew at once I wanted him for the lead. Actually, in responding to his offbeat unfocused projection of personal energy, I was casting against type. Coleman Francis was sleeping on the couch at the time, presenting the perfect picture of the derelict political hack; my idea of the corrupt boss-type. With Titus, all the available women I needed could be found scribbled down in his well-worn phone book. As it was, Titus would listen to my descriptive sketch of characters from the script, then either he gave me phone numbers or had people drop by when I would be around his place. Bruce Beard, who had worked with a well-known San Francisco improv group, was staying at my apartment for a few weeks, and jumped in to help when I told him I was going to be writing a script about sex, drugs, and politics. We pretty much hashed out the story outline, and created a character for him in one evening of bouncing ideas back and forth. Seeing how I was working the casting, Titus sent along the untried first-timer Jean Stone, to see if he was correct in assuming that she would fit nicely into my unorthodox casting approach. She was unarguably an authentic original-type; that robust and driven Jean. She had stopped over in L.A. on her way from Australia to a pioneer kibbutz in Israel.’
While he had already worked with Moede on the latter’s feature directorial debut The Last American Hobo, fifty-year-old Coleman Francis was a veteran of fantasy and horror cinema, having appeared in such cult favourites as This Island Earth and Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho!, as well as also working as a B-movie director throughout the early sixties. Arguably the most important role to be filled would be that of Felicia, Moede’s alcoholic and sexually-frustrated wife, whose point-of-view the film is depicted from. Requiring both extensive nudity and the ability to portray a young woman on the cusp of an emotional breakdown, Bryan decided to cast an unknown actress called Sheryl Powell. Although he was already working behind-the-scenes as an assistant director and editor, long-time friend Frank Millen was cast as Moede’s best friend and love rival, Frank. ‘Frank Millen was, of course, the first to be cast as the best friend, in that I never considered making a film without the benefit of his headache-inducing comic genius. Frank generated laughs in front of the camera, as well as behind-the-scenes in his unmatched role as the manic assistant director. He single-handedly kept the spirit of Laurel and Hardy meets Abbott and Costello alive, and buoyed up on our hectic set, while generating non-stop epidemic outbursts of involuntary laughter, offset with those urgent gasps for air from the hapless cast and crew.’
Unlike the hardcore pictures that had emerged following the shocked reaction to Warhol’s Blue Movie, many of which boasted close-up shots of oral sex and vagina intercourse, Bryan’s The Dirtiest Game in the World featured an abundance of female – and, occasionally, discrete male – nudity, but no real penetration. The sex was simulated and relatively inoffensive, but the overall tone of the film was oppressive and nihilistic. He had conceived it as a satire on contemporary politics, but somewhere amidst the sex and comedy was the tragic tale of a lonely and mentally-unstable woman who, in the spirit of Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion, slowly loses her grip on reality. The sudden onslaught of violence during the final reel, which intercuts with footage of an orgy, could also be seen as a reaction to the brutal murders committed by the Manson Family just months earlier, which not only saw the death of Polanki’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, but was the moment that many believed brought the free love of the sixties to a violent end. ‘In sympathy with the tenor of the times, Bryan saw sex films as subversive,’ claimed Stephen Thrower in Nightmare USA. ‘The Dirtiest Game in the World is a political satire, a snapshot of the sexual revolution and its discontents, and an act of cinematic provocation that climaxes with a truly alarming burst of violence. In terms of sexual explicitness, it’s at the leading edge of what was permissible at the time.’
As Gerard Damiano’s 1973 classic The Devil in Miss Jones proved, a pornographic picture can gain both critical acclaim and box office success providing it strikes the right notes, with respected writer Roger Ebert describing it as having ‘a very nice, moody, even poignant atmosphere that’s a relief after all the frantic fun-seeking of Miss Lovelace and colleagues.’ But so many critics and film experts are quick to dismiss adult films as merely being an exercise in arousing and providing a visual stimulant to aid the viewer in their masturbation. ‘When it comes to pornography, it can be even easier to dismiss the entire genre as mere jack-off material,’ admitted author Shira Tarrant in the Pornographic Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know. ‘Yet it is precisely this dismissal that renders pop culture, and, specifically pornography, so crucial to understand. Its ubiquitous presence in so many aspects of our lives means that pornography is a rich source for studying the ways in which ideas about gender, race, class, beauty, and sex are constructed, conveyed, and maintained. Pornography is an important media category for questioning normative expectations, and exploring forms of resistance that challenge racism, classism, ageism, and related intersectional subjugations. Pornography has been at the centre of legislation, lawsuits, and public debate. It is the site where legal controversy over free speech and censorship collide. Pornography impacts both public politics and private life.’ And with The Dirtiest Game in the World, James Bryan wanted to make a film that explored politics, loyalty, and depression, while also indulging in our most human of urges: sex.
II: Please, Hurt Me!
Barely fifteen miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles lies Venice Beach, a sprawling blanket of golden sand that spreads out alongside the deep blue waves of the Pacific Ocean. Just a few blocks away, James Bryan had gathered together the film unit at his apartment on the corner of Market Street and Riviera Avenue, watching with a keen eye as one of his young actors, Sheryl Powell, writhes across the carpet of the lounge in pain. Crying hysterically, she places the barrel of a revolver into her mouth and massages her tongue against its length, simulating the act of fellatio. Bryan is even more tense than usual as this scene serves as the emotional climax to the movie, and it’s her conviction to this moment that will either make or break his motion picture. He had lured his audience into theatres with the promise of graphic nudity, and he was determined to drive them back out with brutal violence. Or, as Bryan describes it, how ‘one fellow in Montana blew chunks during the razorblade scene.’ A few weeks earlier, he was deep in preproduction with his closest collaborators, anxious to commence work on his feature debut. ‘There was a heady atmosphere around the set of The Dirtiest Game,’ he says enthusiastically. With Titus Moede leading the ensemble, Bryan was ready to get behind the camera and make his mark on the world of erotic cinema. And with the United States watching a disgraced President walk shamefully from the White House just four years later, The Dirtiest Games in the World was a true representation of its time: awash with political corruption and sex scandals.
Depicting a city full of the obnoxious and selfish politicians and hippies, the paranoid and self-destructive tone of seventies America was already clearly visible in Bryan’s imagination, perfectly encapsulating the feelings of the nation. In the same year that the country launched a military operation against Cambodia, and the National Guard shot dead four protesters at Kent University in Ohio, Bryan called action for the first time within the walls of his modest-sized Venice apartment. ‘As your representative, I will go anywhere, any time, and do whatever is in my power to ensure the continuity of our system of government,’ announces political candidate Titus Moore to the cheering crowd of enthusiastic voters. ‘I will unite this party. I will find ways of bringing young people of this country back into the polls. I will search out the silent majority, the radical left wing, as well as the right, and get them on the streets of our cities to work for our party, and gain the ultimate: a victory at the polls this November.’ Election time is growing near and Moore is desperate to somehow secure the votes of the young, a move which should guarantee his victory against the opposition. But in truth his campaign is out-of-touch with the younger generation and so, at the behest of his campaign manager, R.J., he decides to reach out to the local community in order to secure their support.
While Titus may seem like a symbol of hope to his voters, behind closed doors he is suffering through a loveless marriage with his emotionally-troubled wife. A notorious alcoholic among their social circle, Felicia has been consumed by her manic depression, insecurities over her relationship with her spouse, and an insatiable sexual appetite that permanently remains unfulfilled. Her fragile emotional state is tested even further when he confesses that their marriage means nothing to him, and that it is nothing more than a façade to convince the public that he is a respectable family man. Single-minded in purpose, Titus is obsessed with winning the upcoming election and anything that does not benefit his cause, such as the burden of his troubled wife, is routinely dismissed. Even when she strips off in front of him and tries to pleasure him with her hand, before pushing him down onto the bed and allowing him to have his way with her, this fails to provoke any real emotion from him. His behaviour is as cold and calculating as one would expect from a politician. Only his wife truly sees him for what he really is; everyone on the campaign, and those that will sign against his name in the voting booths in November, only see the fake smiles and empty promises that adorn his posters and public speeches.
With R.J. convinced that securing the support of the hippie counterculture would win their vote, he dispatches Titus and his best friend and assistant, Frank, to a small office belonging to a fringe group known as the Free Citizens Committee for the Legalisation of Marijuana. After detailing the purpose of their visit to a longhaired hipster called Bruce, in which they claim to support his cause, they are referred to his social director, Jean Stone. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the name of the film’s most liberated and right on character is called Stone, as being stoned was a way of life for the hippie movement. And while most films of the era applauded the anti-establishment philosophies of the hippies, particularly those that congregated around Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Bryan dared to depict them amoral and lacking the love and tolerance that they preached to the man. ‘Hippie men treated women as sex objects to be tossed aside on a whim,’ claimed historian William Rorabaugh in an article published by the University of Washington. ‘Early on, few hippie women understood feminism, but after they found themselves discarded, they began to see their own exploitation, especially if they had to raise children alone. The love generation had a lot of children.’
At the centre of the hippie doctrine was the belief that relationships were a form of oppression, and so monogamy was discarded in favour of indiscriminate sexual encounters, while their spiritual journeys were aided with the regular consumption of LSD and marijuana. As a result of this, they were often targeted by police officers that were sent by the straight society, where they were thrown into the back of cruisers and taken away to the local jail. ‘Anybody who was anybody among hippies had been arrested for something,’ wrote The Atlantic in 1967. ‘The principal cause of their conflict with the police was their smoking marijuana, probably harmless, but definitely illegal. Such clear proof of the failure of the law to meet the knowledge of the age presented itself to the querulous minds of hippies as suﬃcient grounds to condemn the law complete. Hippies thought they saw on Haight Street that everyone’s eyes were filled with loving joy and giving, but the eyes of the hippies were often in fact sorrowful and frightened, for they had plunged themselves into an experiment they were uncertain they could carry through. Fortified by LSD, they had come far enough to see distance behind them, but no clear course ahead.’ With many youngsters having joined the hippie movement because they felt alone and without purpose in their life, no amount of drugs of manifestos could eradicate these insecurities, and so the scene of free love often hid a darker feeling of hate beneath.’
As any independent filmmaker could concur, working on low-budget productions often means that the producers must draw on any resources available in order to obtain a shot without breaking the bank. This could mean borrowing from a friend, a rival production or, in the case of Bryan and his apartment on Market Street, using your own home as a base of operations. ‘Choosing the Venice locations had as much to do with convenience as with artistic and evocative dramatic qualities,’ admits Bryan. ‘I lived in Venice at the time. Venice was cool in that new bohemian kind of way, and the rents were very cheap. Perhaps inspired by Touch of Evil, there was a not-so-casual competition among us UCLA film students to keep coming up with inspired Venice locations to film around. Prompted by my really low budget, I filmed in my own apartment on Market Street, as well as the neighbours’ place downstairs. The more story locations you can find at one site, the more time you can save avoiding additional set strikes, and time-consuming moves to the next distant location. Incidentally, my good taste in locations was confirmed when the exterior of this same apartment house later appeared in Fade to Black. The cameraman, Chris Munger, had rented a room down the street in the Marko Building, because Jim Morrison had stayed there before Jim’s efforts with The Doors were so well rewarded. We used the Jim Morrison room as a location, and a bit later as our editing room.’
While independent films are notorious for their rushed schedule, even by the standards of low-budget filmmaking, The Dirtiest Game in the World was in the can in record speed. ‘As far as short schedules go, The Dirtiest Game was done on a three-day schedule for all the main scenes,’ reveals Bryan. ‘I did some pickup shots, working with one or two people, later on. My budget was well under $20,000. As far as the number of thrilling sex/nude scenes, I tried for at least ten in total. To keep on the rushed schedule and stay under my lab budget, I tried to maintain a two-take maximum during filming. If the first take was good, we’d shoot a second take ‘for the trailer/preview,’ which meant the extra lab cost for doing an optical copy of scenes to be used in the trailer could be saved. The cost per-foot for processing the camera negative was, and is, a good deal cheaper than shooting and processing an optical dupe negative of scenes selected from the cut feature negative for use in the trailer. In the end, we were able to hold the shooting ratio below three-to-one for The Dirtiest Game. The music score budget presented a bit of a problem as well. I wanted to record an original musical score for The Dirtiest Game, and by arranging to record three different modest scores in a single session, composer Country Al Ross delivered nicely discounted music for each of us three producers sharing the costs.’
It was Titus’ introduction to the liberated Jean Stone that would prove to be his undoing as, in order to assimilate himself into the hippie’s inner-circle, he agrees to smoke a joint with her. Even as Frank runs from the apartment in protest, Titus indulges in the pleasures of marijuana. And perhaps in a nod to the thirties anti-pot documentary Reefer Madness, which misrepresented the effects the drug can have on an individual, Titus strips naked and deliriously allows his new friend to sodomise him with her strap-on. It has been argued that men who assume the dominated role in a sexual relationship are those who struggle with their own masculinity, a lack of dominance in their everyday relationships, and so this is the case with Titus, who is a servant to his campaign and a failure in his marriage. ‘In practice, to judge from the accounts of sex workers, ‘by far the most common service paid for by men in heterosexual S&M is the extravagant display of submission,’ claimed university professor Carol J. Clover in the introduction to Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power. ‘Certainly, this image, and this practice, pose problems for any monolithic understanding of pornography. It is not just that the usual positions are reversed; it is that the reversal opens up the possibility that at least some male consumers, at least some of the time, are not uniformly identified with the male-dominant role, but rather are aligned with what convention and the social unconscious designate as the powerless or effeminate position.’ And with Jean having dominated the naïve Titus, she will draw him into her world of decadence and self-destruction.
III. So Hard to be Lonely
Patrons casually make their way into the theatre as its director watches from the shadows, eager to see how his audience will respond to the lurid images that he is about to inflict upon them. The movie’s poster has promised a copious supply of sex and naked female flesh, and he has delivered exactly what he had intended, but the finale of tonight’s entertainment will not be the one that they would expect. Just as he pushes them to the brink of sexual gratification, he is going to subject them to an onslaught of graphic violence, bloodletting of such a disturbing nature that he hopes at least half the crowd will rush to escape through the doors with disgust. And in the coming months, he would hear such tales of revulsion, protest, and despair. ‘Audiences were shocked. Shocked, I tell you!’ laughs Bryan. ‘The distributor actually heard back from the bookers and sub-distributors around the country. This was a little out of the ordinary, so it made them nervous, or so they told me. On a personal level, my close friends found it disturbing, and the more delicately-minded didn’t speak to me for a few weeks afterwards. My reputation as an off-the-rails film maniac was firmly established. Sweet!’ But before he could punish his audience, first he had to slowly build them up to the all-important climax.
Having returned to his party to discuss the previous evening’s events, Titus explains to R.J. that there was more to the hippie lifestyle than they had believed, and yet despite his newfound dedication to their cause, he is greeted with apathy from his campaign manager. Frank, meanwhile, expresses reservations on their manipulative strategy, but R.J., describing Titus as looking fagged out, is convinced that this is the only way they can win the election. But the more he becomes seduced by the freewheelin’ Jean Stone, the more alienated and frustrated his own wife becomes. In an act of desperation, she even points a revolver at him, resulting in Titus aggressively pinning her down on the bed, tearing off her clothes, and having violent intercourse with her. While for a moment she may have felt sexually fulfilled, she has still been denied the love and affection that she has craved, and the divide between them continues to grow exponentially. The situation becomes even more complicated when, having attempted to confront Jean, Felicia is seduced by the alluring young woman, and the two engage in lesbianism on the beach. The following morning, despite the hope of more to come, Felicia is dropped off at Jean’s apartment and dismissed as nothing more than a meaningless encounter. She calls the ever-loyal Frank to their apartment for a shoulder to cry on, but as emotions become heated, she peels off her clothes and offers her body to him.
After deciding to confront her husband and lover once and for all, Felicia arrives to find the couple engaged in a free-for-all orgy with a group of likeminded hippies, each exploring one another’s bodies without any desire for an emotional connection. Rejected by the group, she returns later with a whip and begins to punish the naked lovers. Slapped and humiliated, she is then pinned down on the carpet by the horde of naked men and woman, while Jean attaches her strap-on and rapes the screaming young woman. With the despair having become too much, Felicia returns home and, disgusted with her bare flesh, begins to slice a razorblade across her skin, nipples, and vagina, smearing the blood over herself until she recoils in horror. Having called Frank to beg for his help, he finally arrives at the apartment to hear the echo of a gunshot. Pushing the door to the lounge open, he finds the body of Felicia, a revolver placed between her legs and blood covering every inch of her body. Unable to process the grief, he collects the gun and makes his way to the orgy, where he opens fire on Titus, killing him instantly. As Jean attempts to wrestle to gun from him, there is another shot, and Frank collapses to the ground, clutches his bleeding stomach. With both Titus and his assistant dead, it seems that the election campaign has come to an end, until R.J. reveals his new candidate for the party: Jean Stone.
Unlike many pornographic features that were produced during the early seventies, The Dirtiest Game in the World was not merely a montage of loosely-connected vignettes that bore little resemblance to one another, serving merely as a segue from one sexual act to another. Instead, it had allowed Bryan the opportunity to create something that was both shocking and provocative. He had provided the audience with the requisite orgy scene, only to intercut it with footage of a woman suffering a nervous breakdown, during which she would mutilate her own genitals, before placing a gun inside her vagina and pulling the trigger. While ostensibly a satire on the politics of the day, the most interesting aspect of the story was that of Felicia, the only character in the film to deserve any kind of sympathy. The audience does not discover what kind of woman she was before her husband had cast her aside, but their abusive marriage had left her a broken and bitter alcoholic. She craved affection and sex but was routinely denied it, and when Jean gave her the perfect sexual encounter, she was immediately cast aside afterwards. It could be argued that Bryan’s screenplay was an exploration on America women at the end of the sixties, during which the liberation movement had intended to free them from the shackles of being nothing more than a housewife or a mother, finally allowing them to express their sexuality without fear of judgement. ‘Sex had been defined historically for women as an adjunct to their destiny: marriage,’ wrote Dany Lacombe in Blue Politics: Pornography and the Law in the Age of Feminism. ‘But for the women of the sixties, who were looking for new roles, such a circumscription of sexuality would not do.’
The Dirtiest Game would subvert the adult genre in a way that allowed Bryan to conclude his story with a tragic ending, something that was uncommon in a genre that existed to arouse and excite its audience. Perhaps if the film had emerged following the success of Deep Throat, during an era in which Time claimed that ‘porn was chic,’ the movie may have enjoyed more success. After all, in 1973, Gerard Damiano’s The Devil in Miss Jones was the first pornographic feature to achieve considerable critical acclaim from mainstream critics due to its themes and concepts. The story followed the tragic death of Justine Jones, who takes her own life after being unable to cope with her lonely existence, only to find herself trapped in purgatory due to suicide being a sin. Unable to gain access to Heaven, she is offered the chance to return to Earth and embrace the lust which she had previously denied. Engaging in all manner of sexual depravity, she finds that these experiences have opened up a desire within that she never knew existed. But despite this revelation, she is sentenced to spend eternity locked inside a room with an impotent man that has no interest in indulging in her flesh. Both films would deal with the suicide of a lonely and broken young woman, although with Damiano’s film, this was how the story would commence, while with Bryan’s, this served as the emotional climax to the movie.
While the prevailing interest in pornography would allow X-rated pictures to be shown in adult-only theatres, the graphic violence and pessimistic conclusion to the picture would cause certain obstacles to Bryan and his producers. With principal photography having concluded on the carpet of his Market Street apartment, his thoughts then turned to postproduction. ‘Back in the day, independent distributors weighted the additional costs of finishing a picture in deciding if they really wanted to distribute it or not,’ he explains. ‘Doing a blow-up from 16mm to 35mm was a big negative factor for a low budget film looking towards a theatrical release. The Dirtiest Game was shot on 35mm for that reason. However, I did do the sound postproduction on 16mm to save a few dollars. The budget edged past $12,000; with the original music from Country Al Ross, the resulting added editing time, the nice main titles, and the end credits. After screening The Dirtiest Game for the most obvious list of adult film distributors, without any success, I went back to doing the preproduction on my second planned film. A few months went by, and then one day a newly formed distribution company called up for a screening, and consequently picked up my picture as their second acquisition for release. They made a couple of changes to increase the running time; buying the Chicago Convention documentary stock footage, and extending with trims and outtakes, and the flashback scene leading up to the fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound. The new company, Grads, didn’t cut any of the violence or the politics. They added just a tad more of both.’
Unlike The Trip and Psych-Out, both of which depicted the hippie scene in California in the late sixties as welcoming and an enlightening experience for those searching for answers, Bryan had instead portrayed the scene of the early seventies as vindictive, self-destructive, and abusive. By the beginning of the new decade, crime had begun to infiltrate the once-loving neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, with prostitution, rape, and drug abuse replacing the free love and trips of the sixties. In many ways, The Dirtiest Game in the World was less about the lies told by the government in order to win the youth vote, and more about the death of the hippie dream. When love and understanding is replaced by selfishness and capitalism, greed begins to eat away at the community, as personified in the character of Jean Stone. Arguably the villain of the story, she manipulates the arrogant Titus Moore into abandoning his marriage and embracing her live for the moment mentality. As a result, his wife, already struggling with alcoholism and depression, is unable to cope with the loneliness and sexual frustration that is consuming her, eventually leading to her suicide. While marketed as an erotic film with moments of black humour, The Dirtiest Game was really a tragedy, laced with moments of eroticism. One of the bleakest pictures to emerge from the seventies adult scene, Bryan held up a mirror to the hippie counterculture, revealing how it had come to betray its own principals and succumb to the power of the almighty dollar.
Two years had passed since the Motion Picture Association of America discarded the Production Code in favour of a new ratings system, which would allow filmmakers to explore themes that would have previously been discarded under the rulership of former president Will H. Hays. While the R rating catered to films that contained scenes of sex or violence, they were still suitable for a commercial release, but anything labelled as X-rated meant that its advertisement options were limited, as were the choices of venues where it could be screened. This was the rating that was usually reserved for pornography. The first film to be awarded this new rating was, ironically, a political satire. Greetings, an early effort from acclaimed filmmaker Brian De Palma, was later reclassified as R-rated, while John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, a tale of hustlers in New York, became the first X-rated picture to win an Academy Award, but by the early seventies the rating was a kiss of death for any film wishing to enjoy success at the box office. But as Bryan submitted his picture to his distributor, there was a sexual revolution on the horizon.
IV. We Got Caught in It
Little did any of the patrons that gathered together at the New Mature World Theatre in New York’s Times Square on 12 June, 1972 realise that they were at ground zero for what historians would come to know as the golden age of pornography. As they sat watching with dumbfounded fascination at scenes of fellatio shot in graphic close-up, something profound happened: adult-only cinema, which had long been kept in the shadows like society’s dirty little secret, was now thrusted to the forefront of popular culture, and as Deep Throat ushered in a new era of sexual liberation, other filmmakers rushed to capitalise on its overnight success. But for The Dirtiest Game in the World, which was shot two years earlier in Los Angeles, its delayed release did little to help it tap into the cultural zeitgeist that porn would become. Had the film been released shortly after this commercial boom, then the name James Bryan could have been uttered alongside the likes of Gerard Damiano and Radley Metzger, but instead it remained one of the most neglected erotic pictures of the early seventies. Watching it half a century later, it is very much a product of its time – not as graphic as its mid-seventies counterparts, and still resembling the America of the late sixties – but this in part adds to its endearing charm. ‘The conflict generated by The Dirtiest Game was generally satisfying for me, in that it was the level of gaping open-mouthed reaction I had hoped for,’ he now confesses.
While awaiting the release of his feature debut, Bryan, still operating from his apartment on Market Street in Venice, opted to shoot a second adult film called Escape to Passion. The Dirtiest Game finally saw the light of day in 1972, and even before Deep Throat became a phenomenal success that summer, there were countless other pornographic films to emerge throughout the year: The 3 Phases of Eve, in which a woman suffering from multiple personalities experiences sex in numerous ways; The Amateur Hookers, where young women turn to prostitution while on vacation; Prison Girls, a women-in-prison movie shot in 3D by Tom DeSimone; Fashion Fantasy, depicting models that turn tricks in order to sell their products; and Behind the Green Door, the second blockbuster of the pornography boom. While the heyday of this scene would arguably be the mid-seventies, culminating with the success of Debbie Does Dallas in 1978, sex remained a constant draw at the box office until home video began to dominate the marketplace the following decade. With The Dirtiest Game delayed for two years, Bryan used this opportunity to make a second feature, both of which would be distributed by Grads Corporation the same year that Deep Throat dominated the world.
‘Adult-themed films with extreme and violent content traditionally take a self-imposed X for a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America,’ explains Bryan. ‘With a self-imposed X, a producer or distributor doesn’t have to pay the usual fee to be screened and rated by the board, but they do get to use the copyrighted rating letter on the advertising and the theatrical prints. The distributor, Grads, was a branch of the top-of-the-line Pussycat adult theatre chain, so The Dirtiest Game got booked in the best adult theatres around the country. It was enough of a success that the Grads Corporation took up my second adult film, Escape to Passion. The distributor did have a slight regret over the extreme nature of The Dirtiest Game; it was not the kind of film that could be reedited to a softer drive-in version, which represented a bonus rental market that could be utilised in a majority of cases of nudie films. The idea of getting a film to cross over into the marginally general release venue of the national drive-in theatres really got my interest. So Escape to Passion was carefully crafted to easily fit the drive-in slot, and so happily it did find its way into the dreamed-of circuit of drive-ins. For me, the ultimate proof of The Dirtiest Game’s success was its inordinate popularity with the government staffers in Washington D.C. A certain Capitol-adjacent bar cashed in on The Dirtiest Game phenomenon, buying at top dollar their own 16mm print from the distributor, and playing it for over a year, until the print faded out and was worn to tatters.’
Before Bryan finally decided to move into more mainstream territories with Lady Street Fighter and the video nasty Don’t Go in the Woods, he spent the majority of the seventies working on an array of adult pictures that have since earned minor cult status among connoisseurs of X-rated cinema. ‘The Dirtiest Game and Escape to Passion were done pretty much back-to-back, with the ambitious and overbalanced Boogie Vision following quickly afterwards,’ he concludes. ‘Instead of the three-day production schedule of the first films, the cast and I improvised scenes over a couple of months, and the tapes of these sessions evolved into a final script, which we shot on an expanded schedule of weeks, instead of days, blowing through the budget and soaking up the cash flow in short order. My plan was for Boogie Vision to be my final adult-related project, before moving exclusively into the general release market. I Love You, I Love You Not was an afterthought, an idea I pitched to former Grads employee Dick Aldrich, as a cheap quickie production that he could use to start up his own new distribution company, and generate for me some badly-needed funding for the stalled Boogie Vision. Before I Love You, I Love You Not could return any money to restart Boogie Vision, Dick Aldrich dropped by the editing room, proposing that we do High School Fantasies on a generously-adequate budget he had in place at the time. Working in adult films can be a hoot, but this contributes to a career in film only if you want to make more adult films. To do general release films, you will have to first overcome the fact you worked in the adult business. It’s the type of film experience that can build your talent and abilities, but those adult credits are likely to be black marks on your general release score card. If you are hoping to cross the X-to-R rating line, the difficultly will be making yourself one of those rare exceptions that prove a pretty hard-shelled rule.’