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Puerile Palpitations

Heart Throbs at Off the Wall

By Mark T. Whitaker

SMUT. That's how the Cambridge Police characterized an earlier version of this series of film shorts, entitled Heart Throbs, which Off the Wall tried to use to kick off its fall season in September. The premiere failed. It failed because Cambridge's Board of License Commissioners threatened to revoke the theater's operating license if it persisted in bringing that kind of garbage--or something to that effect--into this nice little town.

Off the Wall's managers and regulars--all bona fide members of Cambridge's bohemian fringe--preferred to think of these shorts as "art films." Art films--you know, the kind Nabokov knew would be worth a few chuckles when he used the term in Lolita, when Lolita tells the lecherous Professor Humbert that she has been to live in an artists' colony in Mexico.

"You didn't star in any of their art films, did you?" the pathologically jealous French instructor says, interrogating his coy step-daughter. That's the school of "art" to which Heart Throbs belongs: the sort you might judge to be of considerable artistic merit--unless someone you knew were mixed up in them.

This year's version of the show, Heart Throbs '77, belongs to the same school. In revising it (cutting out five shorts and adding three new ones), the managers vowed they would not take the possibility of renewed censorship into account. And they seem to have remained true to their promise. A number of these shorts are still perverse and pornographic, if not as "sensual" as the show's publicity promises.

To give you an idea: a short called "Ass," by Tom DeMore, is built on the idea of a stag movie for donkeys, replete with all but completely graphic bestiality. A cartoon short called "Desire Pie," meanwhile, filmed by a group from the Carpenter Center, looks like an animated version of the amateurish depictions of coitus in bathroom stalls around campus (with a few touches reminiscent of The Yellow Submarine thrown in--for artistic merit).

Off the Wall advertises these shorts as non-sexist. Don't believe it. One of the funniest, "The Club," is a cartoon based on the idea of a very British eating club for phalluses; the viewer is led in through the door, and there are the penises, reading the Sunday papers, smoking pipes, doing vigorous push-ups in the adjacent gym. Another, "The Bed," by James Broughton, explores some of the possibilities of interaction with that piece of furniture, some unusual (doing a ritual dance around it), but others stereotypical and crude.

The assumption seems to be that if it is funny and perverse, it escapes sexism. For example, one short consists of a long strip-tease worthy of New Orleans and Blaze Starr, but with a twist. Once the stripper is down to her G-string, she starts taking off her hair and limbs, until nothing is left but a breastless torso. Funny, maybe; sexist, definitely--which is to question why Off the Wall should have pretended otherwise.

There is not much more you can say about this program; either the idea of funning around with the porno genre appeals to you or it does not. At least one short is a real gem: "Bach to Bach," with the voices of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. While the camera takes you on a guided tour of the ornaments in a New York apartment, you hear a man and a woman who have picked each other up in a bar and are now trading a series of cocktail party inanities to ward off their nervousness about the whole affair. ("You know," Nichols says, "In the last two hours I can't tell you how my anxieties have been allayed.") Perhaps the comparative brilliance of "Bach to Bach" says something significant--that the less visually explicit the sexuality of a takeoff is, the more room is left for imaginative satire.

But what struck me as more interesting was the coincidence of Heart Throbs' reopening with the showing of Oh, Calcutta! in the Square. I wondered what the people who have to live here and see the property rates fluctuate thought of all this. When on top of all else I saw a woman breast-feeding her child in front of the pinball machines at Tommy's Lunch the day after Heart Throbs' opening, I wanted to know whether a local stalwart like Tommy, who might not be expected to take the most liberated attitude toward nursing in public, thought there might be some sort of conspiracy afoot. However, Mr. Stefanian declined to comment--for the printable record, that is.

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