When Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint appeared in 1969, sending the intelligentsia into exegetical panic over masturbation and self-loathing, Roth remarked that his book was at present an event, but in time would be a novel. It did not take long; the author of the far more subversive Sabbath’s Theater is or ought to be on track for the Nobel. Yet it’s taken 35 years for the other cultural-sexual sensation of 1969 (one that originated in Sweden two years earlier) to achieve even the possibility of reassessment. Perhaps no other film in cinema history sparked so much critical and popular mayhem as Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious––Yellow, only to be consigned to nearly instantaneous oblivion.
After its initial, highly lucrative, court-delayed release, the 1967 Swedish film was rarely screened, and the video revolution passed it by. The only available prints were washed out, with frequently unreadable and censored pale-white subtitles. Only the title retained a lasting fame, often parodied by headline writers. Hardly anyone, including reviewers, bothered to see its companion piece, I Am Curious––Blue, during its fleeting stateside appearance. Blue lacked the publicity bonanza of bluenose interference. Yellow had been seized by U.S. Customs, guaranteeing not only a trial (could a film widely admired in Europe bring about moral collapse in the United States?), but also zealous highbrow support and palpitating pietistic outrage. Thus Norman Mailer proclaimed Yellow “one of the most important pictures I have ever seen in my life,” while Rex Reed called it “vile and disgusting,” “a dirty movie,” “crud,” and “as good for you as drinking furniture polish.” He derided Sjöman as “a very sick Swede with an overwhelming ego and a fondness for photographing pubic hair.”
Well, which do you think sold more tickets—Mailer’s endorsement or the remark about pubic hair? When the crowds actually saw the picture, however, they felt cheated; pubic hair was in short supply, the sex was unerotic, and the running time mostly given over to a droll, Brechtian-Pirandellian, mock-vérité exploration of the chasm between the political and the personal. Not that it wasn’t shocking in its day. I was twenty-one when I saw it with my father, who took it in stride until that notorious moment when Lena kisses her lover’s flaccid penis, at which point he observed with dismayed awe, “They used to arrest you if you had something like that in your home.” (In some states, they arrested you for doing it in your home, but that’s another story.) Since male genitals are still banned from Hollywood movies, you can imagine the anxiety raised by actor Börje Ahlstedt’s member, the only appendage of its kind seen on America’s big screens as of 1969.
Yet within a year or two, suburban theaters routinely programmed nudity-filled potboilers about nurses and stewardesses, soon to be followed by Deep Throat. Never again would audiences have to put up with socially redeeming values in the pursuit of pornography. Yellow triggered the sea-change that resulted, ironically, in the subsequent indifference towards Blue. It altered the American moviegoing experience, pointing the way to a post-code cinema.
In that sense, it served as a fitting finale for a decade that began with Psycho, which opened the portals to slasher violence while crossing a new frontier of intimacy—the opening shot of half-dressed Janet Leigh at a seedy midday tryst, the flushing toilet, the voyeurism. Thanks to Hitchcock, movie theaters were no longer safe or, for that matter, informal; by insisting that audiences not be allowed entry once the picture started, he ended the walk-in-any-time habits of a generation. Psycho was the first Hollywood film in decades that parents forbade their children to see. If Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley” (as Raymond Chandler observed), Hitchcock relocated horror from Transylvania to the mind of Mother’s little helper. The major taboo he left in place concerned casual sex and nudity. Hitchcock later told Truffaut that he wished he had had Leigh play her first scene topless—as if he could have gotten away with it. After Yellow, he could and did, removing Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s bra (or rather that of her body double) in 1972’s Frenzy.
Yellow had changed everything. If its distributors were the first to bring nudity and coupling to middle America, they were the last to get away with charging premium prices. Female nudity and the occasional male rear end became so much a custom of modern cinema that it’s difficult to name more than a handful of American actresses who achieved stardom in the ’70s without undressing for the camera. But Yellow’s influence was not exclusively sexual. In his use of documentary techniques, hand-held cameras, and the interpolated footage of “real” events—involving Martin Luther King, Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Swedish politician Olof Palme, and nameless citizens—Sjöman, a protégé of Ingmar Bergman (he assisted him on Winter Light and acted in Shame), let loose a welter of films that blurred reality, surreality, and unreality. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, which also opened in 1969, incorporated footage of the 1968 Chicago riots, a blending that John Simon noted, “does not jell so smoothly as in I Am Curious.” In Belgrade, Dusan Makavejev, who had begun directing two years after Sjöman first fell afoul of Swedish censors with 491 (1964), worked along similar lines. But only after Yellow did Makavejev begin to examine liberated (explicit) sexuality as a basis for politics in WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).
Influence aside, Yellow and Blue—named for the colors of the Swedish flag, and mostly filmed together (a few scenes in Blue postdate completion of Yellow)—merit reconsideration. To paraphrase Roth, they are now merely movies, and as such hold a particular fascination for what they say about the 1960s. Along with Antonioni’s much-reviled Zabriskie Point, they offer a more honest and recognizable depiction of that era than the glossily sentimentalized Alice’s Restaurant or the indulgently romanticized Easy Rider. Much of I Am Curious’ strength and charm derive from Lena Nyman’s brave performance. Nyman is now known to American audiences, if at all, for her superb performance as Liv Ullman’s debilitated sister in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978)—a role in which Sjöman’s heroine is virtually unrecognizable. Her Lena was so convincing that “fan mail,” as sampled in Blue, consisted of death threats and insults. By engaging in the faux-sex of I Am Curious, Nyman had crossed a line, and was perceived not as an actress, but as a “whore.” (This dilemma is familiar to Philip Roth’s admirers.) Yet her Lena is funny, touching, and genuine, never more vulnerable than in the couplings she engages in or—as with Blue’s remarkably non-neurotic lesbian episode—witnesses.
The press was hardly gallant. “She seems to me porky and stolid and only sulkily interesting from time to time,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann. Yet her ordinariness is clearly the point; Lena is no movie goddess, not a role for Catherine Deneuve or Faye Dunaway. She’s the girl we all remember from college: sincere, self-absorbed, naive, secretive, bold, confused. Her sex scenes haven’t dated because they lacked self-consciousness in the first place. Neither she nor Sjöman are out to seduce the viewer. Simon, who along with Kauffmann and Mailer, testified on the film’s behalf, noted that the sex is never erotic because Lena and Borje are not “particularly attractive,” but recognized that Lena’s “liveliness is almost as good as loveliness.” He also observed that the potential for eroticism is undermined by the profusion of “humorous or unglamorous details.” Those details heighten a reality that exists in opposition to Lena’s imagined interviews with famous persons, not to mention her fantasy of doing a Lorena Bobbitt on her faithless lover.
With her short round body and pendulous breasts, Lena Nyman the character is a young woman whose looks are yet another obstacle (she faces many) to happiness, one that Lena Nyman the actress was willing to amplify by playing some of the nude scenes comically. Sjöman, who appears as a semblance of himself as Lena’s director and soon-to-be-cashiered lover, constantly bullies her about her weight, an issue that helps set up the marvelous episode at the retreat—a harbinger of New Age charlatanism. The entire cast is convincing. Sjöman spares himself little, growing increasingly crabby and dictatorial; Ahlstedt is unctuous and violent as Lena’s lover and imperious as the actor playing Lena’s lover (and stealing her from Sjöman); Bim Warne, Gunnel Broström, and Sonja Lindgren incarnate women Lena encounters during Blue, which, unlike Yellow, is structured as an odyssey. Most haunting is Peter Lindgren as Lena’s hapless father, Rune, who retreated from the Spanish Civil War, much to his and Lena’s shame. It should be noted that in 1968, when Blue debuted, Scandinavian audiences recognized the woman Lena greets in the last scene as Gudrun Östbye, the actress Sjöman says he has hired to portray Lena’s absentee mother—an important point, likely to be lost today.
Sjöman himself was lost to American audiences, his subsequent films never distributed here; now 78 (he was born in 1924), he is working on a novel. During his fifteen minutes in the crosshairs of international furor, he explained his intertwining films as studies of violence, as attempts to depict candid sexuality. Yet contemporary audiences are bound to view his work differently. Lena’s sexual adventures are depicted with refreshing, often droll bluntness, but the paradoxical structure now seems far more significant than it did when Yellow was on trial. I Am Curious belongs to the genre of films about filming—it’s a benign answer to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom that makes its own circuitous claims. Vilgot Sjöman and crew are following Lena around Stockholm as she asks people about politics. Yet whenever the story reaches dramatic pitch, he interrupts with a direction, usually captious, reminding us that his performers perform for him. But who is filming Vilgot? And who is filming Lena and Börje when they go off together, leaving Vilgot to mope in frustration?
The two films begin and end with self-advertisements as well as clichéd slogans, most of them tacked on walls by Lena, all of which suggests a filmmaker’s lark. Yet the narrative also suggests a core of dread; Yellow begins with Lena and Vilgot in an elevator and ends with Lena and Börje in an elevator. The director, the man ostensibly in charge, has directed himself out of the picture and out of Lena’s life. His portrait of honest sexuality is played in a setting of distrust—every sexual relationship we see involves betrayal. Nowhere is the frustration experienced by all the principals more acute than in Yellow’s startling climax—a scene that was ignored in 1969. When Lena sees that her room has been violated, she tears it apart with a fury reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane. Then, in picador fashion, she thrusts knives into the eyes of the despised Franco, whose poster dominates her room. Like the dead eye on the bathroom floor in Psycho, the blinded Franco incarnates an assault on vision. I Am Curious is about looking without seeing—a failing that may also help to explain its curious neglect for more than three decades.
Gary Giddins is the author of Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams and Visions of Jazz.