Pastoral Hide & Seek: A Peek into AMERICAN BABYLON
You are a voyeur. But that's okay, because deep down, so is everyone else. The very nature of watching a movie is voyeurism of the safest variety. It's a helluva lot less creepy than hiding out in the bushes watching your neighbor surf the web in their dirty underwear. Plus, you get the chance to invest your attention into lives that are not your own, which is always exciting. Then again, peeping on others for dysfunctional thrills is not entirely healthy, either. So what happens when you've become a voyeur of your own life? Never making any moves and basically watching Rome burn while you can't even bother to pick up a fiddle. It is this sadness of the human condition gone soft that is examined to utter perfection in Roger Watkins' art film-in-a-porn film's clothing AMERICAN BABYLON.
The film centers on two heavily dysfunctional married couples in an anonymous, semi-rural small town. Barely alive, dull colored vegetation make up the landscape. Surviving out in the cold lands of Nowhereseville, America is Mary (Chelsea Blake) and Thomas (Michael Gaunt). Tom drives home, presumably from work, whistling in his car before coming home to an empty house and a note from his wife. Mary's gone off to her aerobics class, leaving him a glass of milk and a note stating that she will see him “after a time.” Meanwhile, his friend and next-door neighbor Robert (Bobby Astyr) begins watching a grainy black & white porn loop, beautifully titled “Teenage Pigmeat in Heat” on an old film projector. His dark eyes are rapt with attention while a luscious girl (the always lovely Taija Rae), wearing black safety goggles, black garters and nothing else waits to be penetrated by a blowtorch wielding man (George Payne), complete with full face face shield. It's like the sexiest horror film waiting to happen.
His viewing pleasure is soon interrupted by his young wife Joan (Tish Ambrose), whose attention & loved starved self starts to disrobe in front of the screen. Trying to entice her disgruntled husband, she begins to caress her breasts and masturbate while grainy porn imagery plays over her. Being a pure voyeur, this only irritates Robert to the point of him telling her to “Evaporate, Joan,” which she does looking alternately pissed and hurt. (Note: The film actually playing over Joan looks to be Watkins' earlier adult effort HER NAME WAS LISA. At one point, you can clearly make out Vanessa Del Rio's face. I have officially watched too many adult films, folks.)
Meanwhile, Thomas is busy reading the instructions on the back of a bottle of vitamins, noting that they are not for the “treatment of pernicious anemia,” and nodding his head with surefire smarts at this bit of info. He gets a phone call from Robert, interrupting his vitamin reverie, inviting him over to share the pleasure that is “Teenage Pigmeat in Heat.” He tries to decline, but being a passive soul, he is soon over there.
Great, raunchy 70's style guitar funk-rock plays while the “screen literally drips with guilt.” Robert, wearing a camouflage hoodie, points out how excited he thinks the girl on screen looks, saying that it's the “debasement” that is the turn on. At one point Robert asks him if he is enjoying it, with Thomas replying in classic manner, “I guess so.” Robert starts talking about how he was in love once. Back then, him and his love would listen to a song on the jukebox called, “Once Upon a Time.” (By the way, this is a real song. Originally released in 1962 and sung by such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Al Martino, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett and Vic Damone.
Here are some of the lyrics; Once upon a time a girl with moonlight in her eyes/ Put her hand in mine and said she loved me so/ But that was once upon a time very long ago/ Once upon a hill we sat beneath a willow tree/ Counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn/ But that was once upon a time, now the tree is gone.)
Before Robert can get too wistful, he bounces back with some amount of macho bravissimo, waves his hand and says “Fuck it. Let's have a beer.”
Mary soon comes back to a now empty house and becomes livid at the sight of the full, lonesome glass of milk. She talks to her self, calling Tom a “sonofabitch” for his hideous indiscretion. After disrobing to nothing but a pair of panties, she's still fuming. It doesn't stop her from going to their bedroom and masturbating as some more amazing, loud, crunchy psychedelic rock music plays. Her lined face bespeaks no happiness but her fingers enthusiastically start to do the walking. Tom wanders home and soon notices the open frantic pink display going on. He quickly takes his clothes off and dives into action. Soon the two of them start doing the dirty hula, with Tom having a very loud orgasm, spurting out the word “mother” in between breathy-moans. Oedipus complex a go-go. This is even more heightened by her telling him, “What good little boy you are.” Then in a moment during the so called afterglow, she asks him, displaying a rare moment of odd vulnerability, “Tom? Why didn't you drink your milk?” Cut to him drinking milk in the kitchen in his pj's, looking like the lost overgrown kid that his wife treats him like.
Next door, Joan wakes up to the sound of Robert loudly reciting Oscar Wilde's poem/song “The Harlot's House.”
They took each other by the hand, And danced a stately saraband; Their laughter echoed thin and shrill. Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed A phantom lover to her breast, Sometimes they seemed to try to sing. Sometimes a horrible marionette Came out, and smoked its cigarette Upon the steps like a live thing. Then, turning to my love, I said, "The dead are dancing with the dead, The dust is whirling with the dust." But she--she heard the violin, And left my side, and entered in: Love passed into the house of Lust. She finds him wearing a plaid robe and blue motorcycle helmet. The poem offers some foreshadowing, as Joan ends up calling Tom in the middle of the night, playing with herself and waking him up. The path of inter-marital deceit is quickly set up with Tom lying to Mary about the “work call.” Joan orders him to meet her at a local scuzzy joint called Danny's House of Beer & Pizza. (How perfectly dumpy small town America is that?)
Being a good little boy, Tom dutifully shows up there at 2pm per Joan's instructions, muttering to himself, “What am I getting myself into?” He soon finds out as Joan greets him with “You strike me as the kind of guy who is good at taking orders.” Reading him too well and yet not well enough, he just replies “Yeah, I guess so. That's what my wife thinks so anyways.” He even repeats himself twice, making Joan briefly flinch.
Deciding to change the mood quickly, she tells Tom to follow her to the bathroom, conveniently dropping the tidbit that she is not wearing any panties. Being the anti-Don Juan, his response is a confused “Watch you pee?” Joan's a horny and desperate trooper and still goes to the bathroom, which he shortly follows, still lost but ever obedient. She almost stops it after he worries about them being discovered, but ultimately soldiers on with the awkward infidelity. He tries to touch her sweetly, making her quickly snapping at him, “No time for that!” There's less lust and more empty compulsion in her voice.
Fellatio begins, even after Tom starts stuttering about “this isn't the time or place for this,” but nothing is going to deter Joan at this point. He ends up finishing on her face, with her halfheartedly wiping it off and looking disgusted. He just looks eternally dazed and now damaged, weakly speaking, “Gee Joan that was swell. Love to do it again sometime.” In a smart ass tone, she replies “Can't hardly wait,” but the rabbit hole has fully commenced now ladies and gents.
Robert and Tom are back in the projection room with the latter nervously handling a trophy while the former fidgets with an old radio. Fuzzy religious talk crackles in about the light and joy of the Lord. Robert, all the while still wearing a hoodie and his helmet, now sans face guard, starts laughing about radio preachers and how they are all suffering from “major guilt complexes.”
Speaking of which, it's just the right time for a new porn loop to start rolling, complete with an upside-down countdown track while the radio preacher drones on about the hollowness of marriage. The title of the film in question by the way? “Butt Girls in Bondage,” featuring credits typed on a piece of paper that is visibly tacked up on a wall.
Joan saunters in, delighting Robert who exclaims “My best friend and my best wife finally taking an interest in my one true passion.” Like the one before it, this one is shot in grainy B&W, though decidingly lacking the artful, near horror-movie esque camera angles. That said, the opening shot is a of a dirty looking toilet, just to let you know we're watching sleaze-o-rama, making Robert opine “Ah the toilet. One of my favorites.”
Robert continues offering some great color commentary, like when the blonde onscreen pulls up her skintight dress to reveal no underwear, which he notes how it must feel “airy.” All the while, Joan starts to boldly jack Tom off.
We thankfully don't see the Buttgirl in question urinate, but do hear the sound of fluid and Robert commenting that “They should have gotten tighter on that one. That would have been classic.” Yes pee is classic, well at least in the grimy loop underworld of the 1980's. (Remember kids this is pre-internet.)
The hand job fiasco rolls on with Joan looking at the screen and never once at Tom, not even a stolen glance. Robert's staring at the screen as well, in rapt and delirious fascination. Joan finishes Tom, who quickly zips up, with his best friend never being aware (at least in a manner that he acknowledges it) of the infidelity that occurred literally within inches from him. To commemorate the occasion, Robert takes a Polaroid picture of Joan and Tom all the while “Jesus Loves the Little Children” plays. Holy shit folks this is why Roger Watkins was a genius. This alone solidifies my love for his work, but I digress.
Tom gets another middle in the night call from Joan, this time simply instructing him to be at her house at 2pm tomorrow.
Traipsing over there to the old gospel song “Church In the Wildwood” like a giddy little boy, complete with an empty cup (for sugar of course), Tom knocks on the door only to find it unlocked. He enters in the house after hearing a female voice yell out “It's open.” Instead of Joan, he finds a pouty, borderline surly vamp (Taija Rae) lounging on the sofa, clad in black, thigh-high nylons, a plaid coat, huge blue scarf, a black beret and smoking a cigarette via a long, thin cigarette holder.
The girl, Denise, is a “friend of the family” and replies when Tom asks where Robert is, “Robert's at the movies. Robert is ALWAYS at the movies.” The music stops after Joan hollers to Tom to “Come on up!” He finds her in the bedroom, masturbating with a cheap, flesh colored dildo. She orders him to strip, which he does all too eagerly. She starts to go down on him, while edging the ridiculous looking dingus near his ass, which he persistently swats away.
Enter Denise, who is revealing the lack of underwear of any kind but is sporting a strap-on phallus. (Imitation anyone?) Wasting no time, she orders him to oil her “cock,” which he dutifully does, eying it with fascination and a little bit of fear.
Suddenly, clad in Denise's clothes sans stockings and dildo, Tom sits back watching the girls go to town while he plays with himself and watches. Just as well, since even when he participates, he is always watching. Just as the action starts to wind down, a completely oblivious Robert stumbles in, wearing a black trash bag and looking for his crash helmet. He is apparently blind to the weird sex trip going on right in front of him. Tom's very visibly shook up by this muttering “Jesus Christ” while Joan just looks on with a slight sense of sadness. She has the face of someone who has grown very cynical and used to it all.
A big storm hits and Robert calls Tom around midnight. A veritable Chinese Army of trophies surround them. Robert asks him, “Do you know what your wife is doing right now?” Cut to Mary sitting along in their 70's glimmer ball of doom wallpapered bedroom, watching TV. We never see the screen, but hear the sounds of shows ranging from Howdy Doody to the newscast announcing Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting. She looks tired, haggard and like a black cloud of depressive insanity has set in. A mood that is only even more confirmed when she shoots the TV with a huge shotgun. The screen goes black and then back to our boys.
“Ever had an affair Thomas?” Thomas looks instantly guilty but tries to ah shucks his way out of it by faking a “You must be kidding? I've been true to my wife.” Robert then confesses to an affair with someone Tom doesn't know but thinks he does. This naturally makes him curious and then Robert begins his flashback, which is shot in a style akin to his precious loops, and starts it off with “Mary was out...” Naturally Tom's too engrossed in the sordidness of Robert's sexual slip up to really notice that his wife's NAME was just mentioned.
His story starts with him out vacuuming when he ends up finding a strange but attractive brunette in his shower. If that wasn't enough, in addition to that, there's a naked blonde on his bed with a vibrator who is then joined by the brunette. They fool around and then that's about it. Robert's “affair” was not only mere voyeurism but it was a lie to boot. His response to Tom? “It's human nature to lie.”
Robert's now dressed up like Denise and laughing. There's a brief shot of him in grainy B&W, looking like a Shakespearean ghost. Thomas is bothered with the disturbia that is his life, continuing when he gets home to an on-edge Mary and the shattered dead body of their TV set. When he asks what happened to the TV, her response is simply, “It pissed me off, so I killed it.” Run Thomas run!
The daytime hits and Robert is now outside the uncharmingly dingy Danny's House of Beer and Pizza, muttering to himself “Now what am I getting myself into?” It's a near mirror of the earlier scene with his wife and bets friend, but waiting for him inside is Thomas. Tom starts pleadingly asks him if the jukebox story from the beginning was true. What hope is there for love in this beige, dreary, cynical world?
Tom confesses to him that “...lately I've been feeling different.” Robert, ever the sage, straight up tells him “You're like a little kid who falls asleep and wakes someday to find that he's an old man.” Then one of the last spoken lines in the film is uttered. “Let's just sit here for a time.” The “la ronde” effect is complete with the final loop, entitled “Menopausal Males in Bondage.” It's credited as “a film by Robert and Thomas.” Instead of another sleazy yet gutter-art level porn loop, it's a well edited montage of everything we have just witnessed with key images sticking out like a shot of Joan looking she is about to cry. Inter cut throughout all of this is repeated shots of Robert and Thomas watching the whole thing. Watching their lives like a viewer, like a voyeur, like a viewer-voyeur.
The montage end scene is with the “sisters,” being the two girls in Robert's phony adultery story. As the camera pans away from them, you briefly see a shadowy male figure, who is clearly not Robert or Thomas, squatting down on the floor right before a hand cover the lens.
Cut back to Robert and Thomas back at the sad little diner. Robert admits the jukebox story was true, as “America the Brave” begins to play. A painting of Lincoln pops up as the sound of heavy wind comes in and the movie ends.
AMERICAN BABYLON is like a melancholy punch to your psyche. I can only imagine the confusion and possible anger to the average porn-hound renting this bad boy back in the day. Misleading cover art did not help matters, with a 80's style pin-up photo of co-star Taija Rae in a thin white tank top, red panties and matching legwarmers. Even worse is the tag line, “Where anything can happen!” Technically true but a horny, poon-starved renter is thinking oil wrestling lesbian orgies, not a borderline surrealistic character study. But their loss is most certainly our gain with this exceptional film, which certainly deserved better than the back-room gutter.
The cast could not be any better, with Watkins casting the dream team of Michael Gaunt and Bobby Astyr. In a more just world, both guys would be famous character actors and they have the chops to prove it. Gaunt's unique physical presence with his lanky body and almost kewpie doll mouth already makes him stand out, but it is the intelligence and total ease he brings to any role he does that makes him so memorable. His Thomas truly is a little boy lost who has woken up to find half of his life already gone. This tragedy of lost time and aimless compliance on his part is haunting. As much of a voyeur as Robert is, his obsession is what insulates him. Perhaps at the cost of his sanity, but like a lot of mentally ill people who are smart, there is still a pure strain of wisdom. There's enough little signs too that indicate that he is in on the whole thing. Is Robert the chess master or just a mixed-up obsessive?
Speaking of Robert, Bobby Astyr is phenomenal here. One of the best of the underrated actors in the adult world comparable both in terms of build and talent with say non-adult film actor Joel Grey, he nails it every which way but loose here. He's able to bring the dysfunctional sage aspect of this character perfectly. Robert's more than likely mentally ill but yet can see things more clearly than anyone else in the film. It's such a classic literature move to make.
With Robert there is of course Tish Ambrose's Joan, whose quest for sexual satisfaction is like a ghost miming to the living. Ambrose, a talented actress who went beyond the your prototypical sex-bomb-baby pinup in the 80's adult work, both in terms of looks and talent. You truly feel bad for Joan, who is yet another character imprisoned by bad decisions and internal dysfunctional. At the same time, like Thomas before her, she seems oblivious to the idea of getting out and actually moving. Not just locale wise but getting your whole life back into motion. It's telling that the only time you ever actually see Joan halfway enjoy herself is when she is with Denise. Certainly not by herself or with Thomas.
While she's given the least amount of time, next to Taija Rae's Denise, Chelsea Blake as Mary is notable as the rural-suburban dark horse in the mix. If anyone has the potential to go postal and murder the whole cast, it is her. It's interesting to note that her and Thomas are childless and while the issue is never brought up in the film, the weird incestuous tone between them as a couple is possibly due to her foisting any mommy energy onto her husband. Which is pretty fucking creepy and even worse how Thomas submissively goes along with it, like he does everything else. He is almost a classic sub always looking for a Domme to lead him and make his decisions, whether it is his wife/mommy Mary, his sexual-cypher mistress Joan or his best friend Robert.
Amidst all of the brilliant psycho-character-drama we get in AMERICAN BABYLON, you also get the loops themselves. While filmed in the style of a really gritty, sleazegrinder, underground loop circa early-mid 80's, ironically they are already miles ahead of any “real” porno loop out there. Part of this is that I honestly think that Watkins was truly incapable of making anything that was either mediocre or boring. Loops in general are the meat & potatoes of the porn world featuring pretty much straight up sex. No time for plot, dialogue or exposition, cut through the cat & mouse chase and get right to the beef. If nothing but fucking is what you want, then look no further my horny, non discriminating world.
The loops in the AMERICAN BABYLON however, especially the first one, are like mini-underground art films. There's an emphasis on camera angles highlighting the mood, which at times feels like it is this close to turning sinister, with the often partially obscured faces of the participants doubly emphasizing this. All this rather than say the more typical meat-market approach. (And really does one need to see every pore in someone's taint?) Another talent of Watkins is the use of music and audio. Being a musician as well as a filmmaker, his instincts for when to pull back on the audio and when to have it as prominent as one of the characters was extremely strong. In addition to the aforementioned old gospel hymn “Church in the Wildwood,” there's also the berserk-70's sleaze rock meets Bloodrock which is used in the first loop and then Tom and Mary's intense, Oedipal gone hayseed coupling. But if anything aural wise could overshadow the great music, it is the use of audio alone. In particular the pop-culture sonic collage work that pops up at first with Robert listening the radio and then later on with Mary, inspiring her to pull a Elvis-on-pills to their TV set. On top of all of that though is the sound of a strong and lonely, wayward wind that pops up intermittently and is the very last sound you hear as the film ends.
AMERICAN BABYLON is one amazing, melancholy and food for thought art film made by one intensely underrated rough-hewn genius filmmaker. It is one part Shakespearean/Greek tragedy minus the bloodshed but plus the malaise of the modern-day American that becomes trapped by the day-to-day decorum of life. If there is any message to gleam from this movie is that the worst kind of prison is one that is put on the self. The prison of the subconscious defeat and submission and a lack of not only self-awareness and of everything and one around you. Freedom is rebelling but you gotta smart about it.
This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Art Decades, a lush and wonderful eclectic magazine that was short lived but undeniable in its charm.