Mau Mau Sex Sex, a full-length feature documentary, is a classic case of "It's not how it looks." At first pass, it appears to be an exposť on the sexploitation industry. 'Nuff said. It turns out, however, that Mau Mau Sex Sex is a pleasantly disarming character study of two old men, Dave Friedman and Dan Sonney, who also happened to be purveyors of porn back in the day of the "nudie cutie" flicks.
As producer and director Ted Bonnitt says, "I was cloaking a profile of two old men with some sex and comedy. If I had not put those exploitation movies in it, do you think anybody would have watched this one?"
You could say the Mau Mau Sex Sex story begins in a San Francisco dumpster where co-producer and writer Eddie Muller found a vast collection from the "grindhouse" era: posters and lobby cards advertising "Adults Only" movies from the 1930s. That discovery led to his first published book, Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of Adult-Only Cinema, and then to collaboration on the film with Bonnitt.
Muller, author of several books on films noir, says, "It's so perfect, when you think about it, that the genesis of all of this was pulling stuff out of a dumpster and finding this hidden subculture." Eddie Muller programs the annual Noir Fests at the Castro in San Francisco and the American Cinematheque in LA and recently helped the Oakland Parkway Theater's Noir Fest with its line-up. Muller's latest book is The Art of Noir: Posters and Graphics from the Classic Film Noir Era.
Did you and Dave Friedman know each other from before Mau Mau Sex Sex?
Dave was a huge resource for Grindhouse. I read his book Youth in Babylon as part of my research and I interviewed Dave several times during the course of writing that book.
Mau Mau Sex Sex is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the exploitation business, correct?
It was Ted's stroke of genius to tighten the focus and have it be about the relationship of these two guys. We made a good team because Ted kept that as his guiding principle. And because I had written Grindhouse and was versed in the background, I was able to help weave all the historical stuff in and out and give it structure and context.
When did meet you Ted Bonnitt?
Ted was interested in a book I had worked on about the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy theories. We had talked in general about the whole phenomena of conspiracy theories and how it applied to many things.
Are conspiracies still a pet hobby of yours?
I hate to tell you, but I think reality has outpaced the conspiracy theorists. We're living in one giant conspiracy. There's no way out. Nobody bats an eye anymore. This is really off the track, but when you stop and just think about what has transpired in the last five years or so, it's mind-boggling. It turns normal people with normal questions into lunatic freaks when you say something like, "That guy in the White House stole the election." People might call you a crank. It is a conspiracy.
We do have to live with stunning contradictions. How about Dan and Dave? It seems, on a more personal level, that they lived with a few glaring contradictions.
Yes, Dan, being a devout Catholic with all girls in his family, yet here he is in a business where everything in their life is paid for by the exploitation of women. We're not there to excoriate. We want people to question it themselves. We don't want to point fingers. I'll be quite honest with you. I don't really know how I feel about it.
I met Margaret, Dan's wife, and I do not know if she was fully aware of what Dan did for a living. It's a different generation. In some respects, it's a portrait of men and women of that generation. If she said, "Well I don't know how I feel about that," then Dan's answer would be, "Well, how do you feel about the food on the table?" That would be the end of the conversation. Dan was a bear in his younger days. He could just steamroll people. We're making a movie about a guy like that who has mellowed out.
The thing about Dave that made him so fascinating was his relationship with Carole. That was a successful marriage. The other thing that was fascinating is that Carole and Dave were very different. Politically, they were 180 degrees opposed. Carole was a liberal, thinking woman. Dave is a really conservative Republican. Carole was the nicest, most articulate, intelligent woman married to a sleaze-meister. Dave is a bright, articulate guy, but Dave just knows what he likes. He likes being a bad boy. He knows what he can get away with, and he'll do it.
Dave might be offended that I'm saying this, but the dynamics of exploitation are really interesting to me. It's a fine line. Let's say you're a young woman and you want to be in the movie business and you meet a guy like Dave Friedman and he says, "Honey, I'll put you in the movies." And then, you start shooting a movie and he says, "Ok, take your top off." They go through all that, and the woman might start thinking, "Ok. Did that. It wasn't horrible, the money's good. People pay attention to me. Not a bad way to make a buck." Now, the dynamic is virtually the same if you're talking about a guy pulling a woman into prostitution. It's the same, yet it's totally different. Dave just operates on this whole other level where there's a camera involved, as opposed to the direct exploitation, as in, "Ok, you go with him. I take the money." Then, he's just pimping. But with a camera, it's different. It leaves you scratching your head.
What if I approached him and said that I wanted to be in the movies, but instead of in front of the camera, I wanted to work behind it?
He'd say, "Can you tell one end of the camera from the other and how much do you cost?" He wouldn't have a problem with that at all.
So you couldn't say Dave was sexist, but more an opportunist. His opinion of women, on a personal level, must have been different because, as we see in the film, his wife Carole is competent and intelligent.
Carole could think circles around most people. As it turned out, she was reaching the end of her life, and she did have some minor concerns about Dave's place in the social, cultural history of the US. She would hate to think that he contributed to some of the moral decay that she saw afflicting our fine nation.
Dave's work seems very benign compared to many things these days.
I always say that nothing you've seen in my book or in MMSS remotely approaches the decadence and miserable quality of anything you'd see on MTV. I watched the MTV awards the other night and thought, "It's over. This is like the dance of death on the grave of culture." It's fascinating, the way the media plays into that. I'll steer you toward Morris Berman's book, The Twilight of American Culture. It's invigorating because he's saying, "This culture is done." He says there's a role to play in being part of the underground, so that when everything falls, you can be sure the stuff worth keeping isn't lost and buried.
Would you put MMSS in the category of preserving culture in the "twilight of American culture"?
[Laughs] If it has any subversive quality to it at all, it's combating ageism in this society. I find older people infinitely more interesting than young people. On a viewer's level, I find it interesting to see all this flesh contrasted with these two old guys struggling with the trials of the flesh themselves. I find it pretty poignant. You see the home movies of the guys in their prime. The message of the movie is very subtle. We didn't want to bring in a sledgehammer. The point is to have 80 fun minutes. The thought-provoking part - well, I'm not going to say it's secondary, but clearly, this is not an academic work.
My way of thinking is, I like to leave a little bit of something in people's heads. You can't really ask for a whole lot more than that. Generally, you accomplish that by being accessible, intelligent and funny. It may not set their brains on fire, but it will stick with them. My credo that I work by is, "Bar room not classroom." People will listen if they feel that you're telling a story in a bar room. The minute your story starts to sound like something in a classroom, they shut down. They really don't want to hear it. My entire approach to everything is, "We're hanging out in a bar and I'm telling you a story. Listen to this, I'm going to entertain you." I believe they will remember that story where they will forget the one they heard in the classroom.