The Telephone Book
Warhol. Cassevetes. Avildsen. These are the names of some of the biggest New York underground filmmakers. Their films would defy the definition of cinema, of narrative, of art. And thus was born art house cinema, inspired in part by the French New Wave of filmmaking. Wherein the French were a bit more cerebral in their dream-like composure the New York underground was gritty, grainy, and brimming with frank sexuality. But outside these big names there were the smaller guys, and one such film by a first-time director by the name of Nelson Lyon would open to dismal reviews and walkouts because of it's nature to play with the often shocking and perverse experience of the obscene phone call. Opening on October 3rd, 1971 opposite Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Nelson Lyon's The Telephone Book vanished after audiences hung up on it, but Vinegar Syndrome has managed to call back this misjudged time capsule but let's see if it's worth listening to the voice on the other end of the receiver.
Alice (Sarah Kennedy, The Working Girls), a bubbly helium-voiced 18-year-old, lives in a small New York apartment covered in pornographic wallpaper, a giant plastic tit above her bed, and an American flag bedspread. She enjoys stretching in the nude and reading dirty books. But after she receives a phone call her life changes drastically. On the other end of the line is the distinct and focused voice of an obscene phone caller (Norman Rose) who's way with words manages to melt Alice's heart. Instead of reacting repulsed, she poses the question of how she can meet him. His response: “My name is John Smith. And I'm in the book. I'll be waiting, Try to find me.” His only other clue: that he's in Manhattan. After calling up her friend (Jill Clayburgh), a women in bed wearing an eye-mask while she performs tasks like loading a revolver, Alice asks if she can use her phone because if she remains in her apartment she might start trying to kill herself. But her friend refuses so thus begins Alice's journey as she goes through the John Smiths in Manhattan in the telephone book.
Her first call appears successful and so she winds up in the loft studio of a John Smith who happens to be a stag film director (Barry Morse, Asylum) who's working on a new film, a comeback of sorts, but he mentions he goes under the name “Har Poon” in the business. Here he's auditioning numerous nude girls for the film as they dog-pile on top of him in what he calls “Position 72” and asks Alice to join in. So she ends up taking her jacket off, nude underneath, and takes hold of his right leg. But then the phone rings as Har Poon is explaining his vision and his views, and after realizing the call is not for him he passes the phone off to Alice wherein she is told by the real Mr. Smith that this John Smith is an impostor and she's got the wrong one. So Alice, unsatisfied, is once again on the hunt through the streets of New York to find the right Mr. Smith, “the world's greatest obscene phone caller.”
Alice's journey finds her encountering a train flasher/analyst (Roger C. Carmel, The Munsters) who has the tables turned on him, who also manages to take Alice out for coffee where she then exchanges a tale of how she helped out a man with the curse of a constant erection (William Hickey, Puppet Master) in exchange for quarters for the phone booth. But then she's mugged, left quarter-less, and gets picked up by a lesbian (Jan Farrand) who lets her use her phone in exchange for some vibrator play. After finally convincing Mr. Smith to come over Alice meets her obscene phone caller back at her tiny apartment and when he finally arrives he is wearing a pig mask to obscure his identity further. Yet still the game of cat and mouse continues as Pig Man, or Mr. Smith, coyly plays word games with Alice as he tells her his personal story while she tries to seduce him. Can Alice finally reach orgasmic bliss and convince her infatuation to, in the vernacular, fuck her? Or is Mr. Smith just all talk, regardless of the fact that he could seduce the President and his family over the phone?
Nelson Lyon's The Telephone Book is an experimental art film seemingly influenced by the works of Jean-Luc Godard and Andy Warhol, yet a unique product of New York's underground film scene at the time. Featuring inventive editing, playful use of subtitles in certain scenes, and a guerrilla shooting style it's a rich feast of sexy obsceneness. Lyon's only ended up directing this one film, but would go on to write for Saturday Night Live in the early '80s although his career was halted after he was associated with the events of the 3-day drug binge that killed John Belushi. While the film was in fact rated X this was before the X-rating was strictly being referred to or slapped on hardcore pornography, and is a fairly tame but fun examination of sex, sexuality, and fetish. Filled with many witty dialogues and jokes, The Telephone Book is a rather charming and brilliantly rendered comedy who's characters are free-spirits, perverts, and are all trying to free their sexual desires. Sarah Kennedy plays her role of Alice with a sheer, fun, and fairy tale-esque innocence that harkens her journey through this strange Wonderland of perverse delights. Veteran voice actor Norman Rose, who's voice was often referred to “the voice of God” in the advertising industry, is a great contrast to Kennedy's Betty Boop-like free spirit.
The Telephone Book, aside from its main narrative, is also split up with various monologues from other obscene phone callers who voice their experiences directly to the viewer. These confessions, in parts improvised and some far more over the top than others, provide some shocking revelations that induce laughter and add to the absurd fun the movie offers. Aside from William Hickey and Jill Clayburgh, the film also features small roles for many other recognizable talents such as Captain Haggarty, here under the name Arthur Haggarty, who went on to playing the fat boat zombie in Lucio Fulci's Zombie and also features Andy Warhol regulars Ondine and Ultra Violet, who has her insanely long tongue on display at one point. Andy Warhol himself was actually in the film but his scene, a staged joke of him eating popcorn during an “Intermission” break, was cut before its theatrical release and unfortunately remains lost to this day. The Telephone Book also features an interesting animated sequence in the crude style of Robert Crumb that actually predates Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat, so it is technically the first X-rated animated film!
Vinegar Syndrome's presentation of The Telephone Book is a treat for the eyes. Scanned in 2K from a 35mm archival release print and presented in its 1:85.1 aspect ratio this is the most complete version as the only previous release, out of Germany and taken from a BFI print, was actually missing one scene. Leon Perera's stark high contrast black and white photography is filled with natural film grain and the restored scan leaves the film's minor scratches, print wear, and dust in tact. Black levels are strong and white levels are perfectly balanced and never blown out. The Telephone Book's underground style, storytelling, and editing look fantastic in motion and details are sharp and crisp. You can easily make out the details of the hen's tooth pattern on Mr. Smith's suit jacket and even see the flakes of dandruff on the shoulders of Ondine playing the narrator. The animated sequence bear the end is colourful and robust and the final scenes of the film, also shot in colour, are also beautifully rendered. Another fantastic HD transfer from Vinegar Syndrome!
The Telephone Book is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, but it's clean and clear. Since this is a low-budget art film from the early 1970s New York underground it could potentially be worse for the wear, but dialogue is audible, sound effects balanced, and the score from composer Nate Sassover a nice compliment to the goings-on throughout the film. The Telephone Book also opens with a number from 1941 called “Something to Remember Me By” sung by Vera Lynn, and of course contains all the analogue pop and hiss of the original recording. Also featured is an audio commentary track, also in Dolby Digital 2.0.
Vinegar Syndrome provides an audio commentary with The Telephone Book's producer Merv Bloch (credited on the film under Merwin Bloch) and moderated by Vinegar Syndrome's Joe Rubin. This commentary is an enlightening and often fascination history of Merv Bloch's career, seeing as he only produced this one feature film because it flopped when it opened theatrically. But Merv is still a big name in showbiz as his primary career was in creative advertising. Born as fan of radio growing up, Merv got his taste for film when a movie was being shot in the apartment building he lived in. The film? Stanley Kubrick's second feature Killer's Kiss. Bloch would go on to leading and creating the ad campaigns for such films as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, bringing his chance meeting full circle, and Roman Polanski's Chinatown and The Tenant to which he cut the trailer. The commentary provides tidbits into the making of The Telephone Book, and one particularly interested anecdote revealed is how the budget of The Telephone Book was cocaine-free, where Merv mentions that most film productions at that time actually included a “petty cash” expenditure in their budgets that was used primarily for cocaine! Also included are two trailers, the original theatrical trailer and the reissue trailer for when Avco-Embassy picked up the film but had Allan Shackleton of Snuff infamy release it re-titled Hot Number. Rounding out the special features are some radio spots and a stills gallery which actually contains a few shots of Andy Warhol with his popcorn in the lost “Intermission” sequence!
The Telephone Book is a funny, witty, sexy, and wacky adventure through the streets of New York as we venture on a journey to orgasmic bliss. Don't let it's original X-rating fool you, this is not pornographic or sexually explicit, but rather a light romp into a Fellini-esque approach towards the fetishism of conversation and the merry prank of the obscene phone call and finding what satisfies you. Nelson Lyon, a real film talent who unfortunately was pretty much blacklisted after the Belushi incident, gives cinema lovers and cult film audiences an underground treat that after being led into obscurity for 40 years can now find its audience and get the appreciation it deserves. Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray/DVD combo release is an outstanding overall presentation at a good price and provides enough insight into the story behind this unsung gem that fans of cinema which goes against the grain should not pass up. So don't just flip through this Telephone Book, but give it a ring as it really is a hot number!
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