Directors: Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman
Vinegar Syndrome

The title of Vinegar Syndrome’s latest release A LABOR OF LOVE could indeed describe much of their output, and the film itself is the kind of loving treatment we have come to expect from this exciting label.

Roundabout 1975, director Henri Charbakshi mounted his first feature film THE LAST AFFAIR, the story of a woman (Debbie Dan) pushed into a number of sexual encounters at a male brothel by her sterile husband (Ron Dean, THE BIG SCORE) in the interest of finding the perfect man to father their child. The film’s backers insisted that the film’s sex scenes not only be plentiful, but also hardcore in order to make their money back (not an unreasonable request for a low budget film being sold as a “combination of Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman”). What they’ve really got is a recipe for disaster with the combination of a director whose fascination with prostitutes in his previous short films never extended to directing a sex scene, overworked and inexperienced crew, wannabe starlets who want to cast aside their hang-ups in the service of art or professionalism (menstrual cycles be damned), and male talent who can’t rise to the occasion through lack of chemistry (or too much in one case).

We actually learn very little about the film THE LAST AFFAIR beyond the basic plot since documentarians Robert Flaxman (who also produced, edited, and photographed) and Daniel Goldman (who produced, edited, and recorded the sound) focus mainly on the shooting of the sex scenes; and yet, it does manage to present sympathetic portraits of a cast of characters who at first seem like contemptible stereotypes on the fringes of low-budget cinema. Star Debbie Dan wants to be a professional actress and “rise above” her provincial attitudes towards sex. As the shoot progresses, her pretentiousness is revealed to be more of a front and her demands seem like less the behavior of an entitled diva than someone who simply wants to get it over with (afterwards, she feels dehumanized but she seems to attribute it partially to her own lack of professionalism in the talking head interview). Marigray Jobes – who plays a repressed client who picks a man dressed as a monk as her partner – admits that she was “dumb enough” to think that she could make something artistic out of her role (she was murdered the same year at the age of twenty-three), while another actress reticence to talk about her scene which had been scaled back because she fell in love between the time after she agreed to do the film (Len Oswald is far more eloquent in explaining his much younger co-star’s change of heart). Particularly memorable is "gladiator" Jerry Goodman who attributes his inability to perform to a lack of chemistry with the leading lady. He's an easy target for ridicule but he is just as inexperienced performing in front of a camera as the actresses (doesn't make it any less amusing, though). The only people who truly come across sympathetically in the documentary are the second performer who couldn’t get it up (“it happens to everyone now and then”) and the ones who got involved on a lark: Len Oswald (listed in IMDb’s credits for the film as “Dirty old man with a foot fetish” suggesting his scenes were reshot since his scene documented here has him indulging in a different fetish) and the young man who arranged for his parents’ mansion to be used as the brothel set (and ended up being recruited as a “stunt double” for the two male actors in the film’s two major sex setpieces). Dean is more of a presence here than a performer and is not interviewed.

As the film’s postscript informs us, THE LAST AFFAIR wound up being recut, reshot, and released as an R-rated film (it played a few days in a theater that the production bought out); and it apparently tanked if Roger Ebert’s review is anything to go by – although he gave a thumbs up to the documentary (which came out before the film) – and, for most of us, his review not only provides us with useful plot details not apparent here (the husband is a drag racer, character actor Jack Wallace [BOOGIE NIGHTS] plays his confidante, Betty Thomas [TV’s HILL STREET BLUES] plays a client of the male brothel, and Del Close [THE BLOB] its proprietor) as well as some indication of Charbakshi’s direction: “Great long stretches of the film are given over to the characters driving in the rain, and walking in the dark, and walking on the beach and, incredibly, even walking over the crest of a hill in a procession I'm afraid must have been inspired by Bergman's ‘The Seventh Seal’.” In onset footage and a series of talking heads, Charbakshi’s director is well in over his head and trying to put up a good show; but he can only blame his backers and his inexperienced actors for so much. In the end, he is understandably put off from directing sex films yet he does not seem to recognize the part his own indecisiveness and dismissiveness played in the production conflicts. Charbakshi would not direct another film until 1983 with DON’T EAT THE BABIES, which would only receive scant distribution before being heavily recut and reshot by producer Mardi Rustam and released on video in 1987 as ISLAND FURY (he would work as an editor on the Rustam-produced murky slasher EVILS OF THE NIGHT). In the nineties, however, Charbakshi suddenly became prolific in the DTV market and is still working today.

Vinegar Syndrome’s dual-layer disc features a vibrantly colorful and gorgeously grainy progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. The 16mm source element is free of any major damage and the image appears to be free of any overt digital manipulation. Flaxman had to adjust his exposure around the set lighting and often adjusts the iris while the camera is running, but the grain is pin-sharp even when the image is unfocused. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is crisp and clear (unlike the crew in the film, it appears that Flaxman and Goldman blimped their camera).

Co-director Robert Flaxman is on hand for a Q&A (36:32) at a recent screening of the film. Flaxman – who was one of the few people making films in Chicago at the time (he also reveals that he edited Herschell Gordon Lewis’ SUBURBAN ROULETTE) – says that he became associated with THE LAST AFFAIR through the film’s cinematographer Robin Ruthledge. He found the angle of the beginning filmmakers being forced to insert sex scenes into their script intriguing. He describes building a relationship with the cast and crew of the film being documented, and how some found the interviews cathartic. He reveals that pretty much everyone involved in the film from the start stayed on after it became an X-rated project, remarking on the bravado of the young filmmakers in the pre-HIV part of the sexual revolution. He lists Robert Altman and Gilo Pontecorvo (THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) among his influences and also talks about the influence of his work on TV commercials on the shooting of the documentary. Discussing the screening of the film, he reveals that Charbakshi was one of the few who did not like the film (which probably explains why he wasn’t sought out to comment here). Flaxman did not follow up on the reshoot and reediting of the film, and he never saw the finished film and recommends those interested to the aforementioned Ebert review. It’s a humorous session with plenty of anecdotes and background information (and Flaxman isn’t afraid to get technical when someone asks a technically-oriented question). The feature THE LAST AFFAIR was probably always unlikely as an extra (and the XXX bits are almost certainly lost), but a Cinefamily audience track (not unlike "The Vine Theater Experience" track on Grindhouse Releasing's PIECES) might have been a fun extra since the audience in the Q&A seems in good spirits while not overly boisterous. The film’s trailer (1:27) closes out the disc. (Eric Cotenas)