We look at the first two films made by acclaimed documentarian (and early 8mm pornographic loop maker) Lech Kowalski, both related to the New York adult film scene in the 1970s.
‘Walter and Cutie’ (1977) is a cinéma vérité film, featuring porn regular Day Jason and an elderly Wall St economist and writer.
Both films have been rarely seen since the 1970s.
Also, what was it like to appear in one of Lech Kowalski’s loops? Writer Mark Kramer was there, performing with Rialto Report favorites Terri Hall and Ultramax, and wrote one of the best articles we’ve read about the experience of acting in a pornographic film.
Two of the more curious, interesting, but almost completely unknown films relating to the adult film scene in New York are Lech Kowalski’s documentary ‘Sex Star’ (1976) and his cinéma vérité short, ‘Walter and Cutie’ (1977).
But neither are porn films and, although he directed a number of 8mm sex loops, Kowalski was not a porn director.
Born in 1950s London, Kowalski’s family relocated to Utica, NY while he was still an infant. He struggled socially and academically until he received the gift of an 8mm camera, which changed his life. After making films as a teenager (including one about high school potheads), he enrolled in New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1971. He was strongly influenced by Shirley Clarke and Thomas Reichman, early champions of cinéma vérité. Both of them had directed pioneering and unmistakably New York films that would only be appreciated many years later, including ‘Portrait of Jason’ (1967) and ‘Mingus: Charlie Mingus’ (1968).
Kowalski learned about cinema and cameras from Reichmann and started to work as Reichmann’s camera assistant. (Reichman would direct several pornographic feature films of his own under a series of noms-de-porn, before taking his life in 1975.)
Kowalski soon met an editor who ran a sideline producing porno films, and who made him an offer: he would let Kowalski in on the sex film deal if he remodeled the editor’s home in Staten Island. Kowalski agreed and started shooting porno films.
By his reckoning, Kowalski shot over a dozen porn loops, meeting many of the 1970s porno-acting regulars. But these weren’t run-of-the-mill happy-go-lucky uplifting celebrations of sexuality. As one writer commented, “They were dark, depressing and rough, completely focused on the body and its fragility, that one had to ask himself… who could have masturbated to such films?”
In August 1974, Kowalski also made an experimental blood-themed porn film called ‘Loops of Violence’ (aka ‘New Loops’) for a rock and roll promoter. It featured Terri Hall and Ultramax, and was shot in his loft using one of the first Sony Porta-pack video cameras, and then re-photographed onto 16mm film. The experience of performing in the film was expertly captured by male co-star Mark Kramer in his excellent article ‘New Loops’ (which is reproduced following this article).
Kowalski’s first hand experience with pornography culminated in his first film, a feature length documentary ‘Sex Star’, which he made in 1976. ‘Sex Star’ featured Andrea True, Georgina Spelvin, Gay Talese, Marc Stevens and his mother Honey. It was described as “an explosive behind the scenes view of the people who make sexual fantasies come true on the silver screen.” It also included footage shot on the set of a Gerard Damiano film.
The film was 85 minutes long, and played to a packed house at Utica College’s Film Symposium in April 1976 where it was followed by a Q&A. Sadly the film has long disappeared, and even the filmmaker has no copy. A few surviving blurry stills and reviews only enhance the film’s legend.
Kowalski’s mentor Shirley Clarke had invested some money in ‘Sex Stars’ – even though she didn’t share an interest in the subject. She suggested that Kowalski meet someone who made sexually-oriented films – but that were more artistic and not pornographic in the typical way. She suggested he pay a visit to see Walter Gutman.
Gutman was a Wall Street stock market analyst and writer, primarily known for his witty, speculative and offbeat weekly market letters, which were anthologized in various volumes including ‘The Gutman Letters’ (1969). He was also an artist and avant-garde filmmaker, who backed, wrote, starred in, and directed several underground films.
By the time of their meeting, Walter was in his mid-70s, and lived on East 60th St in Manhattan. Kowalski went to his apartment and watched his films, many of which were about circus women who were big and strong, and who were always picking Walter up in their arms. One film was called ‘Juicy Lucy’ and featured a woman who was a buxom weight lifter.
Kowalski remembers: “His films were naïve and playful. They were completely not self-conscious. They had a certain kind of Grandma Moses naturalism to them. I would call them passionate. They existed for Walters fantasies. They were about the form of the women’s bodies. Walter’s body resembled theirs. He was pudgy and soft. In the films, there was a moment when a woman would lift Walter as if to carry him across a threshold. These were the climax moments. I found the films erotic in some odd un-sexy combination of ways. I tried viewing them from Walter’s point of view. They charmed me for the unprofessional yet effective way they were filmed. I do not like clever overly photographed and produced films. I like films that feel extremely real, like they are made by a single person, not the product of a collaboration of a group of people, and especially influenced by a professional film editor. He giggled as we watched them. I wondered if he wondered what I thought of his films. By meeting Walter and seeing his films I discovered why I was bored with porno films and by people who acted in them. They all lacked passion.”
Kowalski was inspired to make a film like Walter’s: “I wanted to make a film that was real and at the same time set up – but still a documentary situation staged by bringing characters together who under normal conditions would never have met. It was to be a bacchanalian exploration of something that I was not too sure about.”
The ensuing film was named after the only two characters, ‘Walter and Cutie’. ‘Cutie’ was actually Day Jason, an aspiring young ballet dancer with a string of adult films to her name, including films by Carter Stevens and Roberta Findlay. Most notably, Jason had appeared in Radley Metzger’s ‘The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann’ (1974).
Kowalski was meticulous in setting up the film’s construct: “When I asked Walter to be in the film I did not tell him that the girl was not a big buxom strong circus type woman. In fact Cutie was nineteen, thin, and with very small breasts. In other words, the opposite of the kind of women he found enticing. This was to be my little surprise for Walter. I wanted to see how he would react to opposite of what he liked.
“I did not tell Cutie that she would meet a man who was seventy-five. I paid Cutie $150 and Walter did it for free. He was a sweet man. I was interested in the young versus old. I was interested in the visual contrast between the skin of the older man and the younger girl.”
Kowalski remembers: “I was never interested in fly-on-the-wall documentaries in any of my films. That’s documentary, but it’s not. I was just interested in the thin line between fiction and documentary. The observational fly-on-the-wall versus the fly who has something to say, injecting and influencing the story. I think I was influenced by a slight Andy Warhol kind of thinking, but more in the direction of documentary, and less pretty people.”
The resulting 16mm, 25 minute color film is a charming, bizarre, erotic, and touching document. All the action takes place in the one room, where an elaborate courtship takes place as a prelude to a night of paid love.
Kowalski describes the film in the following way: “Using a direct-camera style, the film has an intimate behind-closed-doors approach: the first shot, Cutie’s face, Walter’s face, the first kiss. Walter, an elderly potbellied man, welcomes this young nineteen-year-old woman. Their games of seduction are charming, the ritual of the purification of Cutie’s body is gracious. Their dance prolongs into a striptease, then an adolescent embrace on the carpet. And when the young nymph comes out of the bath, Walter venerates her on bended knee. The gestures of the lovers are filled with a cajoling insouciance and their conversation is in full swing. She evokes the pornographic films that employ her and the friendly sex she sometimes shares with women. Walter and Cutie ends with the Edenic tableau of the couple lying on a bed upon which fruit, no longer forbidden, are laid out. Walter has snuggled his head up against Cutie’s breast in childlike abandon. Their pleasurable chance encounter is shared devoid of any sense of guilt.”
Every so often, you hear Kowalski’s voice off-camera talking to Walter and Cutie, and asking them questions – a technique Kowalski had admired in Thomas Reichman’s ground-breaking film ‘Mingus’, about the jazz musician Charlie Mingus. Kowalski asks about the reasons for the popularity of pornographic films, and at one stage he gives Cutie a cigarette and lights it for her – all while remaining off-camera.
Kowalski recognized that the film did not fit into any convenient category: “I did not want to put titles or end credits on ‘Walter and Cutie’. I did not consider it a real film but a slice out of time. A personal experiment. In fact, sometimes while screening ‘Sex Stars’ I would play ‘Walter and Cutie’ right before the last twenty-minute reel of ‘Sex Stars’. I did not want to make it a formal kind of documentary. I wanted it to simply exist. At that time, I was not happy with documentaries but did not know how to deal with that issue. I also did not want the film to be an art piece, I was experimenting with form and had no real concept of dramatic structure as applied to documentary or narrative filmmaking.”
The film elicited various reactions. Kowalski remembered Shirley Clarke’s response: “She booked a room at the University where she was teaching to screen Walter and Cutie. After the screening, she was angry and started to cry. She said little and all I remember was that she said that someday I would understand why she was upset.”
Kowalski went on to make a series of documentaries, including films about Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, and ‘Hey! Is Dee Dee Home?’, which focused on Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone and his struggle with heroin addiction.
He remembers Walter and Cutie: “It is connected to a special time in New York City history, and in my own history. I cannot tell you more about, or exactly why I made Walter and Cutie, this odd short film. I do however remember being interested by the look, the color palette and the shooting style of Walter and Cutie and if I had to do it over again the only thing I would do differently would be to have filmed the movie myself.”
It was either the best or worst of times.
Real estate was soft, penises were hard, morals were loose, and a lost generation of wayward young exhibitionists had converged upon the metropolitan underbelly, ripe for action.
Terri could not have been more than 18, a chestnut-maned callipygian cupcake whose humid eyes bubbled with diseased vitality. I had not known her for even an hour and already we stood naked together, anticipating our moment of merged mucosae.
These were the glory days of commercial concupiscence, a time when libidos ran wild, if not free. I was being paid one hundred 1974 dollars by director Lech Kowalski, downtown Manhattan’s answer to Roman Polanski, to commingle my flesh with Terri’s beneath the 16mm camera’s unblinking gaze. For an additional $100 consideration, Lech was also using as the film’s location my dreary Greenwich Village apartment.
Terri and I awaited our cue to play a scene of bloody, sexually explicit psychodrama in the loosely scripted opus ‘New Loops’, which was conceived by its director as an X-rated lampoon of the sexploitation thrillers then popular in many of the crumbling beaux arts movie palaces lining New York City’s once-notorious 42nd Street.
Special effects was off-brand ketchup: Grand Guignol on a beer budget. It was nothing short of form following dysfunction.
At 22 febrile years of age, and the product of era when relentless sexual exploration was widely touted as the key to a better life, I could not have imagined a sweeter gig.
From earliest adolescence, I had been transfixed by the interplay of dirty art and arty dirt, and their visual power, unrivaled except by religious relics, to produce glandular responses. All this and less was mine at last.
Urban civilization had broken down into two opposing tribes, the voyeurs and the exhibitionists, each feeding on the other’s paraphilia.
Skin magazines celebrating an emergent pornutopia were side-by with ‘Life’ and ‘Time’ on suburban newsstands. Garish storefronts and marquees with flame-orange exteriors sprouted seemingly overnight in virtually all of America’s increasingly derelict downtowns and post-industrial outlands.
Jism flowed like fossil fuel as peepshows and other adult entertainment enterprises gushed dollars for the mob and other laissez-faire capitalists of the day.
The zeitgeisty message was “Do It!” closely followed by its corollary, “Fuck It!”
Rejoicing in the discovery that I wasn’t alone in my conviction that the sex that mattered most was the sex that happened onscreen, I moved eastward to Manhattan, determined to go through the looking glass.
Fortuitously, the boomtown climate offered a place before the camera’s prurient gaze for even a modestly endowed dreamer like me.
Despite director Lech Kowalski’s blunt filmic disinterest in orchestrating acts of arousal, as a mafia sub-contractor he was obligated to reel in a certain amount of hardcore sex for theatrical exhibition. In the years to come, the sleekly enigmatic Lech would attain a certain global cultdom for his Sex Pistols tour documentary, D.O.A; in the meantime, he had a demonstrated flair for eliciting scenes of maximum degradation from his ‘talent’, as well as always bringing in his pornos under budget.
In pursuit of this worthy objective, my Greenwich Village living room had been festooned with swaying chains, bondage devices and other dungeony brac-a-brac in a bargain-debasement milieu of Gothic creepiness.
Cables snaked throughout the premises, lighting units dangled from trusses, and Lech’s camera crew huddled around the Arriflex awaiting the maestro’s signal.
Also colonizing this already suffocating mise-en-scene was a clutch of carnal cosmopolitans including the highly recognizable and semi-legendary screen stud Marc “Mr. 10 ½” Stevens, whose genitalia would be eternalized in at least one Robert Mapplethorpe still life, and top-heavy temptress Darby Lloyd Rains, an overly expressive blonde who went on to attain brief renown in the ponderously scripted crotch-opera Memories Within Miss Aggie.
Elsewhere in the apartment, lesser-known porners made themselves at home. In the kitchen, fixing herself a snack from the contents of my refrigerator, was Ultramax, a hard-living, late-thirty-something Jewess with maternally sagging teats who, because of, or despite, her robust appetite for fellatio, was usually cast by porn directors as a cheap, plentiful source of tragi-comic relief. In the living room, a tousle-headed young toff named Jimmy Sweeney had stripped down and was nonchalantly airing his weighty equipment on the sofa as he smoked a joint, peculated from my carefully hidden stash, as was the small film canister of coke from which ‘Mr. 10 ½’ and Darby Lloyd Rains were taking liberal toots.
Nothing was sacred here, not even the profane.
Terri bore her ketchup like a pro. Beneath the dribbling red condiment, her skin, translucently newt-like as was so often the case with urban adventuresses back then, glowed with dewy perspiration. She had barely even acknowledged my existence, but when Lech called out, “Places everyone!” Terri slid a practiced hand between my butt cheeks and deftly stroked my personhood.
Despite her youth, Terri was already an experienced ‘B-girl’, or bit player on Manhattan’s porno circuit.
Terri looked up at me with the kind of liquid eyes usually reserved for long-lost Prince Charmings, or dying calves in hailstorms, and fitted her ample lips upon mine.
Terri and I went tumbling onto the set like two bobcats in a burlap bag, our extremities tangled, her mouth on my unit, my tongue inside her welcoming aperture.
Through Terri’s legs, I could glimpse the director grinning fiendishly.
“Lick her ass!” commanded Lech.
I had never publicly licked anyone’s ass before, or privately, either.
Without missing a beat, Terri rearranged her posterior, providing a direct line to her astonishingly well-groomed anal pucker.
Terri’s practiced lips kept me aflame as I tried to ignore the sound of Lech’s chortling and focused instead on the not unpleasant task assigned me.
Simultaneously, manacled to the wall and shrieking blasphemies in the soundman’s direction was another non-pro: a friend of the mafia financiers to whom Lech was beholden, and who had agreed to play a ‘wraith’ in exchange for a blowjob… giving one, that is, to Mr. 10 1/2. Fortunately or not, this scene would be left on the cutting-room floor.
In the meantime, Terri and I writhed beneath the hot lights in a briny welter of ketchup as Lech guided us through a series of sodomitic postures. Occasionally the camera was stopped and an assistant would thrust a light meter between our thrusting bodies.
With the mob associate affixed to my wall emitting such utterances as “Love is the law!” and “Get thee behind me!” plus the sudden, flickering luminance of a strobe light upon Terri and me, the distractingly multi-sensory overload was such that every last molecule of my youthful glandularity was required to approach orgasm.
Lech’s experienced eye detected my ejaculatory onset.
“Keep it going”, he urged us as he moved in with the hand-held Arriflex S for the stipulated ‘money shot’.
“We’ve got some good energy here… don’t lose it.”
Terri, clearly no stranger to the money shot’s importance, expertly swept her hair aside so that nothing stood between our act of oral-genital congress and Lech’s camera.
“Don’t get any on the lens”, he cautioned.
Just as my essence was about to pour forth for all to see, I experienced a frozen moment of recognition: So this is what it feels like onscreen.
Then everything went black.
I had gone through the looking glass.
Lech’s film was still being edited when, a couple of months later, I ran into his spectral soundman, Marc Slater, in Times Square. It was the week that President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Nihilism was in the air. Do what thou wilt was the whole of the law. Freelance soundman Slater was, at that moment, earning $7 an hour passing out promo flyers for The Intimate Room at 701 Seventh Avenue, one of the many $10 brothels then common in the vicinity.
Times Square’s shimmering streets of slime were a neon-drenched arpeggio of human frailty. Some aphorist once observed that there was a broken heart for every light on Broadway. By 1974, the inventory came to include hookers of every sex lining The Great White Way’s sidewalks, a hyperreal nightscape of skells, grifters and psychopaths swaying and gibbering in every doorway.
Civilization was in a fucking shambles, but high-sensation urban esthetes like Marc Slater and me had dreams that could not be denied.
Slater handed me a flyer promising “full service and total satisfaction.” Obviously he did not recognize me with my clothes on.
As the crowds eddied and swirled around us, I handed the flyer back to Slater, saying, “New Loops, man! Don’t you remember? Jane Street??”
I detected a glimmering of recognition behind his smoked lenses. Then he broke out in a jagged smile: “Right! You’re the dude who splooged on Lech’s fisheye lens?
It turned out that Slater, one of the earliest Lech Kowalski disciples, was about to begin production on another darkly ironic porno satire. And just to keep his Mafia investors happy, the working title of Slater’s self-referential, Luis Bunuel-like tragedy of manners was going to be ‘In The Pink’. Was I interested in helping out as a production assistant?
As befitting an emerging young hyphenate, film director-brothel publicist Marc Slater specialized in unknowns. And the sexual personae he had rounded up for In The Pink were destined to remain that way.
For his talent, Slater had scoured downtown’s loose constellation of pre-punk nightspots, coming up with a platinum-blond waitress from Max’s Kansas City and a narcoleptic coat-check girl from Club 82. Also there was first-timer Lynn Leibowitz, a delicate-boned graduate student at Columbia University, who had answered Slater’s ad in The Soho Weekly News. All three of the women came equipped with boyfriend-like attachments.
The set was on lower Fifth Avenue in an un-renovated loft accessed by an ancient, cage-style lift.
Lynn Leibowitz’s boyfriend Brad, a pleasant-enough fellow with a penis only slightly more average than my own, had, anticipating the twin possibilities of stage fright and performance anxiety, abstained from sex for a week, in hopes of producing a memorable money shot. What happened instead was that Brad, no sooner than Slater called “Action!” let fly a pearlescent gout of erectoplasm across his girlfriend’s back.
The director’s annoyance was unmistakable. Orgasms were time, and time was money. And money was life. And life was art.
As I handed Lynn a towel, our eyes met briefly and I reflected on her resemblance to practically every female I’d ever bedded or lusted after in college. While I rolled out the props for the next scene, starring the Max’s waitress and her bisexual boyfriend, I noticed that Lynn was watching me as she wiped Brad’s exudate from her body.
Slater brought on the waitress from Max’s, who by any measure was a succulent specimen of post-modern femininity, and her boytoy with the veiny appendage. By the time this twosome had finished their obligatory fucky-wucky, and Slater’s camera had reeled in a successful money shot, Brad, who had been intently observing from the side, was ready to try again.
Offstage went the divan and the shoji screen, out came the Turkish rug. Brad trotted over with the mannered athleticism of a star athlete being brought into play. He joined Lynn on the rug.
“Places everyone…” directed Slater.
“Camera rolling. Speed… ACTION!”
Brad, clearly nervous in the service, popped his wad almost immediately.
A sepulchral silence descended on the set.
Slater came over to where I stood. I realized that I was still holding Lynn’s towel.
“I need you for the money shot”, he said, almost pleadingly.
“But… they’re a couple”, I answered, not wanting to appear too eager.
“Bollocks”, sneered Slater. “On my set, there’s no such thing as a couple. Now get your ass out there.”
Clearly this guy was a chip off the old Kowalski.
Tossing aside teeshirt, jeans and sneakers, I joined Lynn Leibowitz on the rug.
Up close, she was truly the kind of woman who drove undergraduates to slit their wrists, with that downy navel-to-pudendum meridian of hair so highly prized back then in the groves of academe. Moreover, there was a tenderness, an ingenuousness to Lynn that was altogether lacking with Terri, who had vanished after our New Loops scene without so much as a goodbye.
“Here”, urged Lynn, “let me blow you.”
As her hand and lips worked me over, and I was just beginning to slip into the now-familiar porno trance, I overheard one of Slater’s assistant’s say in a hoarse whisper, “I swear this guy could be the Elliot Gould of porn!”
With the microphone boom dangling intrusively over our heads like a swollen sprig of heat-seeking mistletoe, Lynn and I were put through various stations of the carnal cross.
I was just beginning to forget that we weren’t alone when I felt the rising sap. Evidently, it showed in my expression, because the camera dollied in as I extruded a ropy spume of jizz.
“That’s the money, honey”, announced the director. “Break for lunch.”
Lynn scampered off to her boyfriend. The dampness of her most intimate sexuality still lingered upon my flesh. I did not shower that night. The next morning, ripe with the memory of this woman, I found myself desirous of more. I rang her up. Apparently, she had given the matter some thought.
“I enjoyed fucking you the other day”, she said carefully. “But my heart belongs to Brad.”
“I thought we had something special going…”
“We did”, she replied. “And my advice to you now is – forget it ever happened.”
Thirty years later, I’m still trying.
In the meantime, there was the matter of Lech Kowalski’s world premiere at The Capital Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, a gilt-edged deco ruin from a vanished era. The mafia, abhorring vacuum, was milking the Capitol’s cash-cow possibilities as a porno cinema that booked national rock-n-roll acts on weekends.
Up on the theatre’s marquee, in lopsided letters, was the caption: “World Premiere Tonight: NEW LOOPS!” At street level, however, it seemed business as usual: a trickle of lonely males, a subclinical category once euphemistically known as ‘the raincoat brigade’ spanning the generations from pimpled adolescents to crusty old dukes.
A chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up to the curb, and out stepped ‘New Loops’ ‘stars’, including second-tier smut siren Darby Lloyd Rains and professional erotomorph Marc ‘Mr. 10 ½’ Stevens. There was no Hollywood-style fete to greet them, nor a single member of the press.
In the theatre’s lobby, Lech, weighted down by one of the very early video PortaPaks, recorded the entire spectacle as the Capitol’s luckless porn patrons dove for cover.
Cautiously, we took our seats in the vast, nearly empty, rank-smelling auditorium. The lights went down, and Lech Kowalski’s disquieting homage to anti-sexuality rolled: a grainy glandular gumbo accompanied by a deafening sound mix of shouts and groans.
Before long, scattered members of the audience were stamping their feet and shouting indignantly for their money back. Someone launched a carton of popcorn at the screen. A soda can followed.
I heard someone shout, “Find new actors!” and realized they were referring to me.
When the lights came up 55 minutes later in the near-empty auditorium, I noticed that the movie’s other cast members had already slipped away under cover of darkness.
And providentially – because of my onscreen garnish of ketchup – no one recognized me as I furtively exited the world’s first, and only, screening of ‘New Loops’.