A cinephile from the bygone era of 40’s film noir and RKO melodrama, Joe Marzano (at left holding the camera) could be considered a conceptual and physical fusion of Orson Welles and Hugo Haas. After making 16mm shorts throughout the 50’s (notably an excellent adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Erostratus
), Joe worked his way up to the self-financed, two-hour Man Outside
(1965). Struggling along with friends and acquaintances such as Paul Morrissey and Brian DePalma, Joe hoped the picture would pull him out of obscurity and into the mainstream, but the most recognition it received was a rave review by Judith Crist. Afterwards, he found work as an editor for an outfit producing industrial films. (One of these pictures, To Face Life Again
, was an unusual document about disfigured accident victims readjusting to life.) There he met Lew Waldeck, the editor of the ‘Olga’s Girls’ series of low-budget soft-core. Soon enough, Waldeck introduced Joe to the wild world of sexploitation.
As crumbling cultural barriers were allowing more and more on-screen nudity, something of a l’age d’or
of titillation was developing. From the relatively high-profile Russ Meyer to the lesser-known Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno and Joseph P. Mawra, each filmed their private fetishes, desires and hang-ups for a pittance, normally backed by clueless financiers who were willing to bankroll titles that often had little or nothing to do with the finished picture. Without script or concept, a producer would assemble a crew of inexpensive, hungry talent and tell them, “I want a sex film called Cool It, Baby
.” It was their job to make it happen.
Most of what they ended up making, however, was substandard and generally dismissed as trash. But some of the people worked from true creative expression — people like Marzano. Through Lew Waldeck, Joe met Lou Campa and George Weiss, who were ready to embark on a new project. Campa had just finished the tawdry Artist’s Studio Secrets
, and Weiss’s reputation dated back to producing Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?
. (Waldeck recalled that Weiss wrote the sensational wording for all four Olga’s Girls
trailers and took it as a goof, while Campa accepted his exaggerated prose as serious ad copy.) They gave Waldeck $12,000 to make a picture, and said whatever he didn’t spend would be his salary. Given that enticing stipulation, he brought in Cool It, Baby
(1967) for seven grand.
Above: Joe Marzano (holding camera), Barbara Ellen and Beverly Baum in Cool it, Baby; click to enlarge.
Contrary to what’s listed in the opening credits, the picture was not directed by Campa. (On the posters and publicity, the nonexistent ‘Louis Champion’ is credited.) Marzano was asked if he’d like to do it, but declined when told that the camera (for whatever reason) needed to remain stationary on the tripod. The film ultimately had no director, and screenwriter Lou Palisano delivered an unfinished script which was fleshed out by Marzano. Joe stayed on as an actor and directed some sequences, Waldeck directed others, and Campa reportedly lounged on a sofa throughout. Few of them cared about who got credit for what, Joe later recalled, because they simply had fun doing it, feeling as if they were making a Monogram or PRC picture back in the 40’s.
Cool It Baby
opens as a no-frills blackmail melodrama, with static introductory footage (the camera’s nailed to the floor) accompanied by a droning narration. But it develops into a Rashomon
courtroom drama, as characters relate their testimony through flashback. With each story comes a new character, and consequently the scenario ingeniously dovetails sadism, white slavery, vice, Satanic rituals, suicide and murder, while the dialog gradually amplifies to a crazed state of delirium. (Joe claimed that George Weiss acted as a kind of technical advisor during the S&M scenes, by coaching an actress how to beat someone realistically.) Against all odds, the picture’s a success.
Other than help write and direct it, Marzano brought most of the cast onboard himself. All of which impressed Campa, who entrusted Joe with $10,000 for another picture; and Joe, given his proclivity for the classics, thought Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Furs
, would make ideal sexploitation. At first glance, the film is a professional and artistic advance over Cool It, Baby
. Now able to control the lighting, Joe was also free to experiment with the photography, and had two cameras at his disposal. With Lew Waldeck off shooting another picture, George Cirello stepped in as cinematographer, but Marzano did a lot of the photography himself. He brought back several of his friends from the earlier cast, and completed the post-production work, editing and sound mix on his own — taking a tremendous burden off producer Campa.
Given that money and a five-day shooting schedule, Joe got together with his friend Barbara Ellen to write the screenplay. The first dialogue sequence follows the novel verbatim, but after that the only connection between the book and the film is the title. Hired to make sexploitation, Joe instead seized the opportunity to put his personal demons and desires, pent-up disillusionments, failed relationships and fetishes all on 35mm for worldwide distribution, using Venus in Furs
(1967) to create an art film that sacrifices boobs for Bergman.
For an idea of how pretentious and self-indulgent it gets, Joe, playing a supporting character, wrote more dialogue for himself than the two leads, and keeps the camera fixed on himself during a very awkward dinner table recitation of Oscar Wilde. (The scene may have been intended as an homage to Welles’s “Marx wasn’t a German, Marx was a Jew” diatribe in The Stranger
, but here it’s a digression without purpose.) Add to this an interminable part with a woman taking a milk bath, plus the unexpected obstacle Joe faced when trying to wheedle his ‘Venus’ out of her clothes. Barbara Ellen was having problems with her husband at the time, and felt that doing nude scenes would stir up trouble at home. Incidentally, Joe’s first choice to play Venus was the young Warhol actress Mary Woronov, who appeared in Chelsea Girls
a year earlier. Although she’d expressed interest in doing it, Joe decided against hiring Mary because the Warhol crew had a reputation for being unreliable. In retrospect, casting her as Venus would’ve been inspired.
Above: Is Venus in Furs sexploitation? The woman with her head cropped off on the extreme left is Janet Banzet, who had minor roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Lillith prior to a run of soft-core movies for Lou Campa. She appeared in Is There Sex After Death? before committing suicide in 1971. To her right: unknown woman; Shep Wild in back with barbells; Bob James in drag in foreground; unknown actress behind him; and Susan James (Bob’s wife) at far right. Click to enlarge.
Perhaps puzzled by what Joe was filming or jealous of the attention he’d been getting, Campa began interfering and economizing. He wanted to change the title from Venus in Furs
to the senseless “Cherished Women.” For a scene set on the grand stairway outside the New York Public Library, Joe had a Fellini-esque vision of dozens of girls running toward the camera. Campa agreed and lined up the talent, but on the day of the shoot he arrived with just three women. (After making a few phone calls, Joe rounded up two more for a total of five.) As Cool It Baby
had lap dissolves and fades, Joe wanted to use these effects but Campa refused to pay for them. He also wouldn’t allow Joe to shoot some necessary expository scenes, and instead had him pad a rambling, un-erotic orgy sequence. And when the film was completed, Joe, realizing Campa would try to shaft him, threatened to destroy the picture unless he got paid.
Despite its shortcomings, Venus in Furs
is a fascinating example of an artist at odds with exploitation, commerce, and mainstream values. If placed alongside some of his best work of the 50’s and 60’s — Erostratus, When They Sleep, You Or I, Hang Up, Man Outside
— a portrait emerges of creative genius depressed by stifling business and financial concerns. Given the opportunity and freedom, Joe could have easily been a respected, major American filmmaker.
Eventually released on DVD, Cool It, Baby
and Venus in Furs
were joined on a single disc by a picture which was
written, produced and directed by Lou Campa, Miniskirt Love
(1967). Its thin plot concerned with an aunt seducing her thirteen-year-old nephew (played by a guy in his thirties), it’s sloppy, inept and artless. The DVD distributor would have done better by instead digging up C. Davis Smith’s surprisingly morose To Turn a Trick
(1967), in which Joe Marzano acted and worked on the sound. (While it’s Smith’s best film, he’s said he has no recollection of making it!)
Campa made a few more of these (with titles like Sock It to Me, Baby
) before his descent into mob-financed hardcore. Joe, on the other hand, never directed in 35mm again. Making the rounds, he met with the sexploitation distributors Sam Lake and Joseph Brenner, and used Man Outside
as an audition to no avail. He photographed Lloyd Michael Williams’s experimental Line of Apogee
(1968), and worked as an assistant director on Jack Glenn’s unreleased House of the Seven Gables
(1967). He even went back to Campa and sold him a script called The Leather Girls
, about an all-girl biker gang that may have been sparked by Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
(and predated Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She Devils on Wheels
by a year). Campa never shot it, but Joe made an abbreviated version in the late 70’s in super-8mm. He continued in super-8 with Pounds Of Love
(1980), a Hugo Haas-style feature about an overweight, insecure man driven mad by a young, attractive girl. But even super-8 became unaffordable, and Joe went on to make a proliferation of short films on videotape up until his untimely death in the summer of 2000. Just weeks before, he’d finished another short. Passionate and dedicated to the end, Joe could never stop filming.