Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)

Then Another visit to the vast selection of off air VHS at Leeds Met University, I watched this in 1996 as a treat during a break from writing my final year dissertation (a potted history of art censorship). Never someone to worry about being embarrassed about anything (at least not in public) I watched Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) in one of the number of the library's public video players and monitors. I wonder now if anyone stopped to look at the various images that were flashing across the screen and how I managed to get through without being thrown out for laughing too hard.

Now Woody’s third film is continuance of his scattershot approach to comedy, that in fact its far more focused than either of the first two as throughout he meticulously parodies a range of film styles from a Zefrelli Shakespeare to a Bertolluci Italian melodrama through to a Cormen horror before topping it off with Kubrick ejaculating (or whatever). The director was inspired to make the film when snuggling up to Diane Keaton in bed watching late night television and saw Dr. David Reuben’s seminal work being discussed on a talk show. Though Elliott Gould had already bought the rights he wasn’t doing much with them and an arrangement was made.

Like Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, Sex (for want of a shorter version of the title) is a gonzo adaptation of this non-fiction title, Allen presenting a series of sketches investigating questions about human procreation. The various elements are listed at the wikipedia so it seems pointless to reproduce them here (otherwise Tim Berners-Lee wasted his time) but suffice to say that only some of the main topics are covered and they’re all from the male perspective. Germaine Greer would not approve. That said the men that do appear in the film are all perverts so perhaps some kind of balance in maintained.

Some of the humour has dissipated because what was shocking in the early seventies, such as a respectable Doctor shacking up with a sheep, seems tame in comparison to what we’ve since been exposed to. Not least five minutes on Chatroullette. What’s My Perversion? might at some point have been biting satire, but now it looks like the forerunner to a post-pub gameshow on one of the commercial tv stations. Other sections have simply dated due to the epic sweep of society’s changing attitudes. Now that Eddie Izzard has brought transvestism into the mainstream, can we still laugh at the hidden peccadillos of a white middle class man meeting the parents of his daughter’s husband found rifling through the matriarch’s closet?

It’s the sections that do reference other films that have dated less, especially those which rely on vivid, surprising images, like Woody being chased through a field by a giant mammary, trying to break into Lynn Redgave’s chastity belt (Lynn Redgrave’s chastity belt!) with a spear, or dressed as a sperm going into battle with a fallopian tube (not to mention, admittedly Gene Wilder in bed with a sheep). They’re all adaptations of the thread which runs through all of these early films of bringing the kind of silent clown figure into a more contemporary setting, the fixed character, in this case a New York Jew appearing in a range of settings, the comedy of juxtaposition. Allen’s trick is that he knew went to stop and try something new.

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