Each week we spotlight one film in the collection. This week its Dick Fontaine's THREADS OF MAN.
Although the period of around 1965 to 1981 probably saw the greatest amount of creative diversity in cinema history, the years 1968-1973 were truly the epicenter of that incredible era, marked by the laxest censorship laws throughout the 20th century, and the proliferation of smaller, easier to operate cameras, and a great widening of 16mm color film stock varieties.
It was at this time when filmmakers from all walks of life saw opportunities to create bigger, better, and more unique works for less money than ever before.
Dick Fontaine was one such auteur. A former actor who, in the 1940s and 50s, after two failed marriages, came to Hollywood and made a name for himself as one of the premier makers of 'beefcake' films. Essentially a Bob Mizer lite, with much stronger artistic sensibilities, Fontaine considered himself a filmmaker who happened to specialize in photographing muscular men in 'posing straps.'
He detested implications that his work was at all 'pornographic' although he acknowledged the titillation that some viewers inevitably gained from viewing his shorts. Still, the relative care and attention he put into his films showed through, gaining him a reputation as the most cinematic of the beefcake filmmakers.
As the 60s arrived, Fontaine began growing tired of repetitively shooting the same faux Greek columns over and over. He began experimenting with integrating light narratives into his still silent and barely ten minute long creations. His attempts to better his work did not go unnoticed and his reputation continued to grow.
By the mid 60s, his 'story films' were the norm and he quickly found himself facing another challenge: breaking the sound barrier, something which his contemporaries laughed off as a waste of resources. Still, Fontaine felt that, with the advent of theaters like LA's Park Theatre, it was only reasonable to elevate his work to a point where someone would consider paying money to see it on the big screen.
His early sound creations were focused primarily on the antics of a sleazy drag queen who went by 'Gloria Holden.' Holden starred in a number of Fontaine's shorts from the late 60s, such as his Laugh-In parody, Nude In (1968), and the ridiculously campy ode to Doris Wishman's Nude On the Moon, Voyage to a Nude Planet (1968).
Fontaine had already explored space travel by way of the California desert with his early 1968 film, Nude In Space, but his later Holden shorts offset the by definition absurd connotations of naked men in helmets and nothing else by the integration of more overt comedy.
As Fontaine became more comfortable making 'real movies,' his plots became increasingly bizarre, such as in the case of his 1969 effort, The Chocolate Crotch Trip, which in its 20 minute runtime managed to involve kidnapping, ancient Egyptian-esque desert dwellers, and killer ants!
Still, Fontaine wasn't feeling artistically fulfilled. Sure, it was fun making short sex comedies with the odd relationship drama thrown in for good measure, but he still didn't have what he truly craved under his belt: a full length feature.
So, with the funds he'd saved, he set about making his first film to run over 60 minutes: Happy Birthday Davy. Its simple story, of a young man coming to terms with his sexual desires, was played for nuanced realism rather than camp or comedy. He cast disgraced Disney child star Tom Kirk (Ride the Hot Wind) in a supporting role and made sure the film was reviewed in mainstream publications. He even got it screened at Cannes where it received an audience award.
Although success and critical recognition were important, Fontaine saw them less as a means of getting trophies than a way to further divorce himself from the increasingly explicit films which were coming into vogue. He had no interest in hardcore, although he did finance a hardcore experimental film directed by his then protégé and collaborator Chuck Roy, who ran a male burlesque troupe and had co-starred in Davy, called Earthchild.
It was on this particular production that he met Ann Noble and her husband Stephen Lester. They were a middle aged couple from England. Both were actors who had managed to integrate themselves into Pat Rocco's SPREE drama society, appearing in and even occasionally writing and directing performances.
Although she may have had previous roles, outside of Earthchild, Noble's earliest known screen performance was playing a young Don Johnson's mother in a the 1971 filipino (though shot in LA) film Lollipops & Roses, a starring vehicle for Tagalog music star Nora Anour, where her voice was dubbed by another thickly accented woman.
Noble, along with Lester, would go on to appear in Ted Mikels horror favorite, The Corpse Grinders, in addition to Pat Rocco associated hardcore films like Hollywood Cowboy.
Somewhere along the way, she had also written a play called 'Stripped Naked,' which Fontaine offered to direct for her. They enjoyed the collaboration and decided to make another film together, this time something much less sexually driven. The result was 1971's The Threads of Man, a sweet and almost theatrical story of an elderly tailor (Lester) reminiscing about youth before his own death.
Although the film was only 40 minutes in length, Fontaine gave it much fanfare in the trades and opened it taking out large ads in The Advocate. While the film had homosexual themes, it also contained a high amount of female nudity, courtesy of early sexploitation starlet, Jane Tsantes.
Perhaps one of the most lingering mysteries surrounding Fontaine is his own sexuality. Despite obviously and knowingly making films directed at the 'all male' market, Fontaine kept his sex life and related preferences out of the tabloids, decidedly unlike his primary competitor, Bob Mizer whose frequent liaisons with his young models saw him stand trial for both pimping and sodomy numerous times. But Fontaine was a filmmaker and one who, despite the content of many of his films, appeared to take an almost asexual attitude surrounding his work. It's perhaps notable that after the failure of his second marriage in the mid 50s that he remained a lifelong bachelor.
If Threads of Man was a test case for making films less about sex than characters who happen to be sexual, his follow-up with Noble, Sins of Rachel, based on her own screenplay, was an attempt to prove a perhaps overly ambitious theory that the quality of his filmmaking alone could sell a movie, without the need for writhing bodies of either gender.
Rachel was an epic for a filmmaker who just ten years earlier had never even shot synch sound. A complex, character driven murder mystery with a large cast and a budget greater than all of his previous endeavors. Like Threads, Rachel dealt with death, secrets, and the agony of lost youth. But with only mild allusions of sexual sleaze and violence only a couple steps removed from what turned up on TV, Sins of Rachel was also a flop. The MPAA gave it a PG, essentially a death rating for a no-pedigree drive-in film c. 1972. It was also long, running nearly 110 min in its original cut.
When the Box office reports came back, Fontaine scrambled to reinvent it to become more marketable. Inserting a slightly saucier outtake here and there, and shearing off nearly 20 min from the runtime, the film was resubmitted and got an R. The re-issue was only marginally more profitable, but, for the first time in his career, Fontaine felt like he had finally escaped from the grasp of sexploitation. It was a good feeling.
To make things even better, Lou Elson, an independent producer in New York, offered to partner with Fontaine to co-produce a series of general release drive in films that Fontaine would direct. The first was to be titled 'In Search of a Hero,' written by occasional actor and journalist Gerald Strickland, and was to be followed up by 'The Curse of the Medusa,' from a screenplay by Larry Neilsen, who had started as the title role in Davy.
The productions never got off the ground and Richard Fontaine, along with Ann Noble, Stephen Lester, and Chuck Roy drifted out of the collective consciousness of the LA film scene.
What Fontaine did with himself from around 1973 until his death in the early 2000s remains mostly a mystery. Could he, perhaps, have dabbled in the world of hardcore cinema he so desperately wanted to avoid? A slight amount of evidence exists to imply just that. In the early 90s, when Fontaine issued VHS copies of a number of his films, a film on the final tape in the series, titled Zig Zag, emerged as a curiously re-cut version of an obscure, c. late 1974/early 1975 film actually titled 10:30 PM Monday. This experimental in tone, evoking Wakefield Poole's Bijou, S&M themed hardcore art film was produced by the mysterious 'Taylor Benson' (credited in ads for this film as 'Bronson') and directed by 'Severin,' likely the equally mysterious 'Lucas Severin.'
Its presence on a Fontaine sanctioned VHS, sans credits and relieved of all of its hardcore sex (rendering it a 35 minute short rather than its 65 minute original length), begs the question: could Fontaine have reinvented himself as Benson? Severin? Both?
While 'Benson' himself has one known directing credit, The Sins of Johnny X, a sentimental relationship drama that has some mild similarities with Fontaine's artistic ideals, the remaining Benson credits are all for producing, mostly films directed by Steve Scott (Trashy Lady) though one 1979 feature, Bad Bad Boys was directed by Tom Desimone. To make matters more confusing, DeSimone claims to have self financed it and says he has no idea who Benson is.
Now, decades since Dick Fontaine made his entrance to the film business, much of his narrative work remains sadly unavailable with their negatives long vanished and prints surviving of only a small percentage. Still, what does survive resonates strongly with the ambition Fontaine so strongly strived for. It's a body of work like none of his contemporaries and that's just the way he wanted it.