Heavy Petting is a hilarious and salacious exploration of the sexual mores of the 50’s as seen through the eyes of a generation that lived through the Sexual Revolution. Creative baby boomers including musician David Byrne, performance artist Spalding Gray, comedian Sandra Bernhard, radical activist Abbie Hoffman, and poet Allen Ginsberg candidly recall their sexual coming-f-age tales in intimate interviews. Joyously campy and refreshingly carefree, Heavy Petting blends humorous, unbelievable footage of unhelpful sex-ed films with classic snippets of The Wild One and Elvis’ hip gyrations, not to mention Bernhard talking about playing “doctor”, always observant Ginsberg on a disastrous encounter with a girl, and Byrne on the childhood myths of masturbation. Eternal mysteries such as the female orgasm, the universal appeal of Marilyn Monroe, and the rituals of high school are laid bare by this lovable group of characters.
Heavy Petting 7.5
eyelights: its editing. its structure.
eyesores: its limited amount of interview footage. its lack of insight.
“The sex impulse is like a fiery horse. Uncontrolled, it may be destructive and dangerous.”
‘Heavy Petting’ is a 1989 documentary that discusses the first sexual experiences of a series of people raised during the ’50s, including notable celebrities and pop icons such as David Byrne, Frances Fisher, Sandra Bernhard, Allen Ginsberg, Ann Magnuson, Spalding Gray, Josh Mostel, Laurie Anderson, John Oates, Abbie Hoffman, Jacki Ochs and William S. Burroughs.
It consists entirely of interview snippets cut together with bits of educational films and period motion pictures, including ‘The Blackboard Jungle’, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, ‘The Wild Angels’ and various Marilyn Monroe clips – all things that had a deep impact on the youth of that era, an era in which social mores and a lack of information left them in the dark about sex.
The 75-minute film in structured in such a way as to guide us through the early stages of sexual awareness all the way to the act itself: speaking of the participants’ innocence, first sensations, necking, attracting attention form the opposite sex, masturbation, dating, petting, going all the way, the fear of getting STDs (then called VDs) and even of getting pregnant.
It also discusses to some degree the influence that the Church had on morals at the time, how some Church leaders even dissuaded teens from going steady together in order to prevent them from going astray. And it broaches briefly the influence that the arrival of Rock and Roll music (and all the teenaged rebelliousness tied to it) had on their behaviour.
It’s a breezy and enjoyable documentary, but it’s a bit short on substance: most of it consists of the b&w archival footage, relegating the interview segments to the shadows. Further to that, the participants’ names were listed in order of appearance in the opening credits, but never again. So, unless you took notes, or already knew them, you had no idea who these people were.
When I first picked it up, some 8 years ago, I thought that it might be a little bit more titillating – especially with a title like that one. At the very least, I thought it would be fun to hear these celebrities take us on their own sexual journeys. However, my then-girlfriend and I were very disappointed with it; if anything, it gave off more of a nostalgic vibe.
Still, this time around I appreciated ‘Heavy Petting’ a lot more (ahem… you know what I mean). Having adjusted my expectations, I found it very entertaining, especially because of all the archival footage (some of which have been riffed by ‘MST3K‘). It’s not especially informative, but it certainly provides perspective on what it was like to discover sex in the ’50s.
And it may not be sexy, but it’s a trip down lovers’ lane that’s still worth taking.
Date of viewing: January 1, 2015