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American Stag

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/23/07 11:07:03

"America's first independent film circuit. Or just porn."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: No matter what the subject, apparently, it's possible to say things were better before everything went commercial. At least, that's the case made by "American Stag", which has its eye not on the modern porn film, but on the blue movies made up until about 1968, when the courts ruled that film was protected by the First Ammendment.

After all, as soon as something is legal, it's ripe for commercial exploitation. Before this, American Stag tells us, blue movies - called "stag pictures" or "smokers" because of how they were exhibited in the smoke-filled, men-only rooms in V.F.W. halls or Elks' lodges where "stag parties" were held - were generally the work of amateurs. They were shot on consumer 8mm or 16mm equipment, were seldom more than one reel in length, and produced in almost complete anonymity due to their questionable legality. Even well into the sound era, they were frequently silent films.

And, based upon what director Benjamin Meade shows us, kind of charming. Production values weren't that great, and the people involved tended to be ordinary people, with original-issue breasts, pasty skin, excess hair and all. The staging and camera work isn't sophisticated, but there is the sense of people having fun, telling a story and having sex because they enjoy it. Certainly, not everyone will agree with this assessment - Meade has fun juxtaposing a female film historian discussing how they were disgusting and even worse when interracial pairings were involved with a male one saying they could be considered educational (where else were men going to learn new ways to please their partners at the time?) and, hey, they were integrated when people of different skin colors couldn't even hold hands in commercial film. Admittedly, there' s no real response to the charge that these films presented rape as good fun.

Of course, he also tends to cut away before the really hard-core stuff, too. The festival screening was preceded by the Alloy Orchestra accompanying a montage of stag films, many the same ones excerpted in the movie, which had all the penetration that was cut from the finished documentary. Maybe that would have made American Stag a little less cuddly as well as harder to sell. It also lets the move fall into a bit of a dull rhythm by the end - funny celebrity, film historian, relatively tame clip, and repeat.

The celebrities are at least amusing most of the time, even if they do seem kind of arbitrary (why Adam Corolla, Tommy Chong, and Melvin Van Peebles, specifically?). The film historians and writers like Chris Gore, Barbara Hammer, Linda Williams, and David Skal are informative and entertaining. The music, by the Alloy Orchestra among others, is offbeat and keeps one's attention even when the clips are becoming less than exciting. To his credit, Meade doesn't come close to overstaying his welcome: He manages to say everything he was looking to say about these movies in, as he put it, "sixty-seven minutes and ten seconds - ten seconds over the length needed to be considered a feature".

Which is kind of appropriate, given the subject matter. Who wants to see a long and rambling work about films that are so famously short and to the point?

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