Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Wife Swappers

Although the mondo film was, as its name suggests, an Italian invention, its pseudo-documentary exploitation format was one which was readily exportable to other countries and imitable by their film-makers.

Thus West Germany gave us the Schoolgirl Report series and the US entries like the Italian sounding Mondo Oscenita and the more overtly homegrown Mondo Mod, Mondo Teeno and Mondo Topless.

British film-makers, however, tended to avoid the mondo label, instead preferring the likes of raw and primitive, usually deployed in some combination with London.

One of the key British players here was Stanley Long, a writer, producer, director, cinematographer and general go-to-man who worked on numerous British exploitation films in a variety of capacities over the course of the 1960s.

Another, working in a similarly broad range of capacities was Derek Ford.

The two men pooled their talents at the end of the decade, with the result being this film, an expose of the then-hot phenomenon of Wife Swapping.

The film's hypocritical mixture of voyeurism and condemnation is evident from the opening voice-off atop scene-setting images of London:

“Within the urban sprawl of any great city there is almost an infinite number of variations in human behaviour, millions upon millions of people going about their everyday business. Unfortunately we shall also find gambling alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography and every conceivable kind of sexual licentiousness.”

Needless to say, without these vices and licentiousness, along with a desire amongst a certain portion of the public to partake in them via film – I'm talking about you and me – the film-makers obviously wouldn't have had anything to work with.

But if their moral claims must be taken with a more than the recommended daily amount of salt, this can also be explained by the need for the film to have some sort of educational or social value.

Or, to be more exacting, particular kinds of these values. The nature of the BBFC at the time was, after all, such that no film without suitable pedigree – i.e. not a Stanley Long production – could ever really be neutral about wife swapping or sexual licentiousness. The terms couldn't be placed up for discussion, but rather had to be taken at face value. The established order of things, or things as they had existed before the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, had to be reasserted.

This reactionary aspect first becomes manifest about a third of the way into the film with the appearance of a psychoanalyst whose role is to proffering purportedly informed, objective and scientific commentary upon the reconstructions cum case studies presented for our entertainment and edification.

The message seems to be that unless your sex life is confined to the missionary position for the purposes of dutiful procreation then you will come to a nasty end: “The logic of all S&M relationships is the seeking of total destruction,” with the jaded thrill-seeker going to greater and greater lengths in pursuit of a newer, harder, kick.

If this puritanical attitude prevents the film from being as much fun as it might otherwise be it also heightens its value as a cultural artefact beyond the usual incidentals of fashions, hairstyles and so on.

This is important in that there's actually previous little to get excited about in terms of nudity and sex, while the balance of the material within the film is heavily skewed towards the imagined and reconstructed, with little that comes across as genuine – and this with other mondo films as a baseline.

This is most evident in a sequence which warns against the danger of wife swapping meetings being used as a front for garnering blackmail material. The blackmailers use special cameras which do not require as much light as their normal counterparts, but for this to be made visible to the filmmakers' camera everything obviously has to be lit conventionally.

A sequence featuring a publisher of contact magazines is better, with the man's discussion of how he first got into the business and of its risks coming across as having been drawn from life and the experiences of the film-makers' themselves or others within their circle. Again, however, one can't help feeling it would have been better had a real-life pornographer been present on camera rather than an actor playing one.

Another point of note is the film's title. In the US the film was released as The Swappers rather than The Wife Swappers. It may seem a minor alteration but is in fact one which suggests an important shift in meaning: Wife Swapping implies a male prerogative, that the woman is a piece of property to be exchanged with another man without her having much say in the matter, swapping a somewhat more egalitarian arrangement.

Perhaps the greatest irony about the film's approach is in relation to the life of director Ford. According to fellow-filmmaker Ray Selfe, Ford was something of a male nymphomaniac – or satyr. While not wishing to commit the intentional fallacy, of drawing direct comparisons between author and text, or engage in amateur psychoanalysis of the sort found within the diegesis, there does seem to be something inadvertently revealing about The Wife Swappers' approach.

The film's opposition between public virtue and private vice is also one that Ford himself seems to have followed, publicly professing to be a somewhat reluctant maker of softcore sex films whilst privately shooting hardcore inserts and versions after hours.

In this he contrasts with another figure associated with the production, stills photographer John Lindsay, who is inadvertently caught on camera in this capacity in the opening scene. Lindsay never made any secret of shooting hardcore, nor that it was just business, nothing personal.

In sum, neither the best nor the worst of its type – such positions necessarily being relative ones – but worth a look for the British trash fan.

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