Heavy Petting Movie Review

When it was first released in 1989, the sex documentary Heavy Petting made good use of the counterculture's obsession at the time with naïve postwar cultural kitsch, mining the extensive back catalog of sex education films from the 1950s and '60s in order to take a none-too-subtle jab at American society's hysterical hypocrisy about sexuality. In 1982, The Atomic Café (made by some of the same people) had utilized much the same method to make a statement about government propaganda about atomic warfare during the 1950s, also having a deep well of ludicrous and self-satirizing films to draw from for comic effect. Like Café had been earlier in the decade, Heavy Petting quickly became a favorite on the arthouse and film society circuit, fulfilling much the same sort of function as Reefer Madness did in allowing hipsters an easy laugh at the squares. Finally available on DVD, what seems clear is that it was probably better the first time around.

Directors Obie Benz and Joshua Waletzky deserve credit for not trying to impose too much structure on their purposefully goofy project. So they freely mix the personal recollections of their many guests, who talk in wistful terms about their first time and how much their experiences differed from the hushed and censoring ways in which sex was talked about in society, with all those priceless sex-ed films, not to mention clips from old films and TV shows. The interviews themselves are a roster of '80s alternative cool, with artists associated with icy reserve like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson opening up with jokey and self-deprecating candor. The late, great monologist Spalding Gray shows up to spin some wit at his own expense, as do those other veterans of the downtown scene, Ann Magnuson and Sandra Bernhard. The more freewheeling experimentation of an earlier counterculture is celebrated by a wildly grinning Abbie Hoffman. The most priceless interview, however, is Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs', done together, with an ebullient Ginsberg going on and on while the skeletal Burroughs listens to the side and giving the occasional dry comment: "Who wants to be loved?"

Where Heavy Petting goes off the rails is in not assembling its starry roster of interviewees into a more forceful piece of work. As it stands, this lively free association essay on sexual freedom has more heart than a half-dozen more standard-format documentaries, but it doesn't know what to do with it. Interviews are inserted seemingly at random and without really any identification -- which isn't really necessary with the likes of Byrne and Burroughs, of course, but it would have been helpful for some of the guests. While enjoyable as far as it goes, this is in the end too thin a piece of work to really make much impact, seeming at times in its wildly haphazard assemblage of random elements to be more of an ad for itself than a coherent piece of work.

But, then again, you do get to hear David Byrne talk about sex, which holds an undeniable and strange fascination.

The DVD comes in widescreen format with extended "sexual confessions" from many of the film's participants, as well as an interview with Obie Benz. The second disc comes with original source material: 10 sex-ed, anti-pornography, and VD scare films from the 1930s to '50s; including "As Boys Grow" and "Easy to Get."

Cast & Crew

Director : Obie Benz, Joshua Waletzky

Producer : Obie Benz



Heavy Petting Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2007


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