Mau Mau Sex Sex, a full-length feature documentary is a classic case of “It’s not how it looks.” At first pass, it appears to be a expose on the sexploitation industry. Nuff said. It turns out, however, that Mau Mau Sex Sex is a pleasantly disarming character study of two old men, Dave Friedman and Dan Sonney, who also happened to be purveyors of porn back in the day of the “nudie cutie” flicks.
“I was cloaking a profile of two old men with some sex and comedy. If I had not put those exploitation movies in it, do you think anybody would have watched this one?”
Mau Mau Sex Sex, a full-length feature documentary is a classic case of “It’s not how it looks.” At first pass, it appears to be a expose on the sexploitation industry. “Nuff said. It turns out, however, that Mau Mau Sex Sex is a pleasantly disarming character study of two old men, Dave Friedman and Dan Sonney, who also happened to be purveyors of porn back in the day of the “nudie cutie” flicks.
As producer/director Ted Bonnitt says, “I was cloaking a profile of two old men with some sex and comedy. If I had not put those exploitation movies in it, do you think anybody would have watched this one?”
You could say the Mau Mau Sex Sex story begins in a San Francisco dumpster where co-producer/writer Eddie Muller found a vast collection from the ‘grindhouse’ era; that is, posters and lobby cards advertising “Adults Only” movies of the 1930s. That discovery led to his first published book “Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of Adult-Only Cinema,” and next to a film collaboration with Bonnitt.
Muller, a writer and Film Noir czar, says “It’s so perfect when you think about it that the genesis of all of this was pulling stuff out of a dumpster, and finding this hidden subculture.” Eddie Muller does the lineup for the Castro and American Cinematheque Annual Noir Fests, and recently helped the Oakland Parkway Theater’s Noir Festival with its line-up. Muller’s latest book is called “The Art of Noir: Posters and Graphics from the Classic Film Noir Era.”
JR: Did you and Dave Friedman know each other from before Mau Mau Sex Sex (MMSS)?
Eddie Muller: Dave was a huge resource for “Grindhouse.” I read his book “Youth in Babylon” as part of my research and I interviewed Dave several times during the course of writing that book.
JR: Mau Mau Sex Sex is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the exploitation business, correct?
EM: It was Ted’s stroke of genius to tighten the focus and have it be about the relationship of these two guys. We made a good team because Ted kept that as his guiding principle. And because I had written “Grindhouse,” and was versed in the background, I was able to help weave all the historical stuff in and out and give it structure and context.
JR: When did meet you Ted Bonnit?
EM: Ted was interested in a book I had worked on about the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy theories. We had talked in general about the whole phenomena of conspiracy theories and how it applied to many things.
JR: Are conspiracies still a pet hobby of yours?
EM: I hate to tell you, but I think reality has outpaced the conspiracy theorists. We’re living in one giant conspiracy. There’s no way out. Nobody bats an eye anymore. This is really off the track, but when you stop and just think about what has transpired in the last five years or so, it’s mind-boggling. It turns normal people with normal questions into lunatic freaks when you say something like “that guy in the White House stole the election,” people might call you a crank. It is a conspiracy.
JR: We do have to live with stunning contradictions. How about Dan and Dave? It seems, on a more personal level, that they lived with a few glaring contradictions.
EM: Yes, Dan being a devout Catholic with all girls in his family, yet here he is in a business where everything in their life is paid for by the exploitation of women. We’re not there to excoriate. We want people to question it in themselves. We don’t want to point fingers. I’ll be quite honest with you. I don’t really know how I feel about it.
I met Margaret, Dan’s wife, and I do not know if she was fully aware of what Dan did for a living. It’s a different generation. In some respects, it’s a portrait of men and women of that generation. If she said “Well I don’t know how I feel about that,” then Dan’s answer would be “Well how do you feel about the food on the table?” That would be the end of the conversation. Dan was a bear in his younger days. He could just steamroll people. We’re making a movie about a guy like that who has mellowed out.
The thing about Dave that made him so fascinating was his relationship with Carole. That was a successful marriage. The other thing that was fascinating is that Carole and Dave were very different. Politically, they were 180 degrees opposed. Carole was a liberal, thinking woman. Dave is a real conservative republican. Carole was the nicest, most articulate, intelligent woman married to a sleaze-meister. Dave is a bright articulate guy, but Dave just knows what he likes. He likes being a bad boy. He knows what he can get away with, and he’ll do it.
Dave might be offended that I’m saying this, but the dynamics of exploitation are really interesting to me. It’s a fine line. Let’s say you’re a young woman and you want to be in the movie business and you meet a guy like Dave Friedman and he says “Honey I’ll put you in the movies.” And then, you start shooting a movie and he says “OK take your top off.” They go through all that, and the woman might start thinking, “OK. Did that. It wasn’t horrible, the money’s good. People pay attention to me. Not a bad way to make a buck.” Now, the dynamic is virtually the same if you’re talking about a guy pulling a woman into prostitution. It’s the same, yet it’s totally different. Dave just operates on this whole other level where there’s a camera involved, as opposed to the direct exploitation as “OK, you go with him. I take the money.”Then, he’s just pimping, but with a camera, it’s different. It leaves you scratching your head.
JR: What if I approached him and said that I wanted to be in the movies, but instead of in front of the camera I wanted to work behind it?
EM: He’d say, “Can you tell one end of the camera from another and how much do you cost?” He wouldn’t have a problem with that at all.
JR: So you couldn’t say Dave was sexist, and more an opportunist. His opinion of women, on a personal level, must have been different because as we see in the film, his wife Carole is competent and intelligent.
EM: Carole could think circles around most people As it turned out, she was reaching the end of her life, and she did have some minor concerns about Dave’s place in the social/cultural history of the U.S. She would hate to think that he contributed to some of the moral decay that she saw afflicting our fine nation.
JR: Dave’s work seems very benign compared to many things these days.
EM: I always say that nothing you’ve seen in my book or MMSS remotely approaches the decadence and miserable quality of anything you’d see on MTV. I watched the MTV awards the other night and thought, “It’s over. This is like the dance of death on the grave of culture.” It’s fascinating the way the media plays into that. I’ll steer you toward Morris Berman’s book “The Twilight of American Culture.” It’s invigorating because he’s saying This culture is done.” He says there’s a role to play in being part of the underground, so that when everything falls, you can be sure the stuff worth keeping isn’t lost and buried.
JR: Would you put MMSS in the category of preserving culture in the “twilight of American culture”?
EM: (Laughs) If it has any subversive quality to it at all, it’s combating ageism in this society. I find older people infinitely more interesting than young people. On a viewer’s level, I find it interesting to see all this flesh contrasted with these two old guys struggling with the trials of the flesh themselves. I find it pretty poignant. You see the home movies of the guys in their prime. The message of the movie is very subtle. We didn’t want to bring in a sledgehammer. The point is to have 80 fun minutes. The thought- provoking part – well I’m not going to say it’s secondary, but clearly this is not a work of academia.
My way of thinking is I like to leave a little bit of something in people’s heads. You can’t really ask for a whole lot more than that. Generally, you accomplish that by being accessible, intelligent, and funny. It may not set their brains on fire, but it will stick with them. My credo that I work by is “Barroom not classroom.” People will listen if they feel that you’re telling a story in a barroom. The minute your story starts to sound like something in a classroom, they shut down. They really don’t want to hear it. My entire approach to everything is “We’re hanging out in a bar and I’m telling you story. Listen to this, I’m going to entertain you.” I believe they will remember that story where they will forget the one they heard in the classroom.
————–END OF EDDIE INTERVIEW———————————————–
JR: Saying “I like elders,” as you have, is almost a culturally subversive thing to say.
Ted Bonnitt: Well in a culture that worships youth like ours, it is a little unusual. But most cultures do at least honor the elderly. One of Dan’s great gifts is he had this great life and got to a point where he could look back on it. The charm of this was it was two old guys recalling their careers and we could illustrate it with footage to back it up. One of the reasons this country is as twisted as it is right now, is that it’s upside down. it’s letting inexperienced children rule the media. Where’s the balance and grounding right now?
JR: According to “The New York Times,” Dave Friedman said, with a “hint of disappointment,” that the film is more of a character study and less about the business. What do you think of Friedman being disappointed that it was a character study?
Ted Bonnitt: These guys aren’t terribly comfortable being examined. Dave is a showman. He likes to examine people. He doesn’t like to be examined. Through the process of making the movie, they never understood what the hell we were doing. When I was shooting footage of Dan around the house, he kept saying, “What the hell are you doing this for? Who the hell wants to see a goddamn old man?” I’d say “Dan, it’s the ultimate home movie. Don’t worry about it.” The reason we did that footage of him doing the laundry and the dishes was to show how one guy was the ultimate family man, and the other guy was the ultimate dog.
JR: What would you have done if Dan and Dave hadn’t been likeable characters?
TB: I would have moved on to another project. I met those guys before I saw any of their films. They did a tribute down at the New Art Theater here in LA for Dave in honor of Eddie’s book “Grindhouse.” And they screened She Freak. Like most of the movies, it was really a chore to get through.
I like elders and Dave was very amusing. Then I read his book “A Youth in Babylon,” and it was hilarious. I come from a radio background. I’ve been doing producing, and hosting a comedy show in NY for 10 years The comedy show I did in New York was on a Pacifica station. It was a character improv show and I was the host, and played an unscrupulous talent agent “Bernie Fleshkin, agent to the stars.” It was sort of a situational, surrealist, political comedy show. Bernie basically handled anybody whose phone number he could get a hold of. I did the character for about 15 years, and he was a scam artist.
I put Bernie behind me when I moved to LA. I’d been out here a few months, when I met Dave, read his book, and I realized Dave’s book was written by Bernie. Not only did Bernie exist in reality, but he was far more funny and more imaginative than anything I could have thought of. Because I did Bernie for something like 500 shows, I knew Dave’s beats.
I went down to Alabama where Dave lived, met his wife, to you know, present myself. Dave liked my journalism credentials and we got along, so he agreed to do the movie, even though they’d done a million of them, but he was into it.
I knew I had to meet Dan, but from Dave’s book, his business partner Dan seemed like a really nasty son of a bitch. I was really scared to meet him. I knew he was in LA somewhere, I just didn’t know where.
A few months after I went to Alabama, a very dear friend of mine from radio back east had moved out west and lived 3 blocks down from me called me up and said “Hey you know that guy you went to meet in Alabama, in the exploitation business? Well, my landlord was in that business. His name’s Dan Sonney.” I said, “Dan Sonney’s your landlord?” She said “Yes, and I told him about you, he lives down the street and he wants to meet you.” He found me. I walked down my street, knocked on the door, and Dan was waiting for me.
I immediately fell in love with him. He was just like the grandfather I don’t have anymore. He was so cool. Where you going to meet an 86 year old guy who’s funny and cool? And he was a rascal. I just loved him.
We became very dear friends in the last couple of years. We played cards every week. He went out owing me about $25. About two weeks before he died, I said “Well, damn what if I get ahead here?” He said, “give it to my wife.” He was the luckiest guy. He always got what he wanted.
Once I had the two guys, it was like “oh man I gotta do this.” They were quintessentially the odd couple. Then I was really on the spot. I had it, and then I had to figure out how to shoot it. It was another year before I figured out how to shoot it with DV cams finally emerging and taking a chance against everybody’s advice, to shoot with it. Nobody was doing it yet. And that’s how I did it in 1998.
I went ahead and took a shot, and did it before I negotiated the rights to the films. I thought if I got held up on the movies, I could get them on camera, and become friends with them, and then say “look guys, I need a deal. There’s no money in this business. I’m not NBC.” It was all serendipity. It was all “Just believe, just go for it, give it a shot,” and it all worked out.
JR: It’s good to be the first, isn’t it?
TB: If we look at ourselves like, I wouldn’t say as Lewis and Clark, but like pioneers in the covered wagon stage, there’s still no IHOPS out there. So when you get there, it’s cold lonely and you’re hungry and you have to start everything on your own. That worked against us in many respects, but at the same time we benefited. There’s always perks associated with being first. On balance, I’m very happy with how things are going. The Greencine VOD is another example of trying something new.
Part of the idea of this project was it’s a first movie. We’re not doing it for the money. We’re not going to take on anything we can’t afford to lose, and it’s all about experimentation and having fun with it. And we’re not getting uptight over money. That design has held up well, and it’s still a pleasure.
JR: But what if Dave Freidman and Dan Sonny had, in fact wanted to be taken seriously as filmmakers?
TB: I did the movie because they were funny. They were refreshingly unpretentious filmmakers. Since my forte is comedy and I did a documentary because of the limited technology and funding I had, I thought the early DV technology was much better suited for nonfiction programming, still do. But I really wanted to make a comedy, so what the piece is really is a radio piece, an audio piece. It’s really tightly edited to their comedy. Because I now that character from Bernie. I knew how to cut to time their beats. Instead of having a voice over or a serious UCLA professor telling us what we should know, the approach was to use music to drive it without a narrator, and then have Frank Henenlotter (director of cult classics Basket Case and Frankenhooker.) who knows more about these movies than anyone else, but still keeps it safe for the audience, and has fun with them, was perfect.
The guys aren’t going to talk about their movies. That’s the whole point. They’re not going to reflect on disappointment, or reflect on their movies either. They’re not going to go there. Dave talked a little bit about it, he said ‘I’m not ashamed of anything I did. I wouldn’t apologize to anybody.’ That was defensive. He was talking about the totality of his career. He was the one who called me on the phone about “The Pickup.” He said ‘get a copy. I’m in it, and he’s getting a blow job in this movie, and I was thinking ‘wow. I guess it’s OK to use this.’ As he says, he was one of the founding fathers of the sexual revolution. He likes to brag that he used to call Hefner at Esquire when Hefner worked as a writer over there.
JR: There is historical significance here with the Legion of Decency, for instance.
TB: There is a serious side to some of their repercussions of what they did. They pushed the First Amendment, and laid the groundwork for mass media like no one else. The studios those days kowtowed to the Hayes Code. And the day the Hayes Code was enacted was the day exploitation was born, and these guys blazed the trail. So they fought the good fight, in their minds. With every publicity kit and release, they had lawyers prepare packages to send to theaters to prepare for any legal intervention, like police busts. They don’t talk about that stuff, and we could have gone there, but it’s not funny.
And this was never intended to be a comprehensive look at the exploitation genre. I was cloaking a profile of two old men with some sex and comedy. If I had not put those movies in it, do you think anybody would have watched this one?
JR: What are the signifiers of the exploitation genre?
TB: These guys broke the nudity barrier with the nudist camp films also called ‘volleyball epics,’ for obvious reasons. When they got tired they went to more exposition in the “nudie cuties. These were basically adult pictures for children: “I’ll turn into a frog so I can see the girl undress.” Then they shifted really weirdly from nudie cuties to the roughish. Then things went explicit and hardcore, which they dabbled in briefly and then they gave it up.
JR: Did they talk about why they gave it up?
TB: As Dave explained it in the movie, his wrap on it was, ‘we’re carnie guys. We promise and don’t deliver. We give you the sizzle not the steak. The minute you raise the curtain you give away the third act, and what’s the fun in that?” Plus, they were getting old. And video production was coming around. It was too much for them. They were used to shooting grinders and shipping prints to theaters. They didn’t know anything about this home video. They were tired. They were done. They had the money they needed. Hardcore was an entirely different revolution, with different younger players. It’s like me at my age trying to hang out with rappers.
JR: Dave said their work brought down barriers. Do you think he meant this in earnest, or was it just a good marketing angle?
TB: Dave is the ultimate carnie. He’ll come up with a line of bullshit before he comes up with the idea itself. That’s why he said he’d write the trailers and posters before he wrote the scripts. Dan would say, ‘boy if Dave doesn’t know the answer, he’ll make one up and it’ll be better.’ But Dave is proud of what he’s done, and he ought to be. He was a pioneer. He is regarded by many people as A Great. I’m glad he’s happy about his life.
JR: You’ve said this is a wonderful time for anyone to be making movies. Do you really want to see more people making films?
TB: To me, it raises the bar. It doesn’t lower the bar. If more people can make them, they’re going to have to be better. Everybody should be able to exercise freedom of expression, if they want to. Think of all the people who weren’t able to get near any kind of equipment to tell a story. I think it’s wonderful that technology is being democratized through shrinking costs. When the I Mac came out with DV Cam and final cut pro, I was thinking I wished I was 16 again. I was shooting and trying to do sound on super 8. If there’s a will there’s a way. And that was one of the things for us we heard was ‘you can make it on your own, but you’re not going to get into the theater system.’ Well, we stayed out of the theater system because we couldn’t get a fair deal. We had distribution offers. I turned them all down because they were going to rip me off because they thought I had no leverage. I used to work in a theater so I wasn’t intimidated by what it took to get into a theater. I knew half of the distributors who were interested in me weren’t big enough to do anything with it anyway. They would’ve taken a quick hit and sold off the video, and I never would have seen a dime, and probably it would never have seen the light of day.
But then, each successive year over the four year period, that I was shooting editing, then posting it, distribution it, were major technological leaps. Not the least of which was the advent of these low cost LCD video projectors, which were totally portable. So I self distributed it in the same style that Dan and Dave did with new toys. I’d mail this 15 lb projector to the theater that filled up the big screen, and told the theater to bring in their DVD player from home. That’s how we played all the major theaters, got all the major reviews. It was a road show slight of hand. If others can do it, I can do it. That was the spirit of experimentation that really paid off for us. All I really wanted to do was to play the 15-20 top American cities to get my reviews for the box art for the video.
JR: This film was shot in 5-7 partial days?
TB: Over three months, yes, in 5-7 partial days. It was a very efficient process. And we had to do that because Dan and Dave’s batteries would run out. Dan needed to go back and take a nap. But they’re showmen, so they were ready to go and they were a lot of fun to work with. There’s one shoot in the car where we drove for three hours. It was early on in the project, so the camera didn’t have any accessories. I had to jerry rig a wide-angle lens. That scene came out great. We were just lucky.
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