In 1971, Nelson Lyon put out The Telephone Book. Rated X, it didn’t get any of the recognition that it probably deserved for the time period; part comedy, part story of sexual awakening, the film is an indefatigable wealth of strange artistic experimentation and eroticism. Unfortunately, it was mostly lost on the masses at the time, despite sporting a popular cast including a young William Hickey and Barry Morse. Perhaps the subject matter was too unappealing to the general public – its X rating is mostly due to the dialogue rather than any explicit sexual acts.
Vinegar Syndrome was kind enough to re-release The Telephone Book on Blu-Ray, preserving a film that would probably be lost to history. The film, shot in contrast black-and-white to highlight the beauty of the human body, begins adventurously enough with a phone call made to the naif Alice (Sarah Kennedy). It’s clear she’s been searching for something a bit more exciting in her sexual experiences (she has porno wallpaper, if that gives you enough of a clue), so when she gets the mysterious sex call from a man known only as Mr. Smith (Norman Rose), she’s intrigued enough to attempt to find him by looking through the phone book and contacting various Mr. Smiths.
It’s not as easy as she thinks, though. She finds herself participating in an orgy film with the flagging porn star Har Poon (Morse), then getting roped into defining the greatest sexual experience of her life to a stranger who likes to jiggle his coin belt around (Roger C. Carmel), and finally getting teased by a woman with multiple vibrators before ultimately finding the correct Mr. Smith. He wears a pig mask over half of his face and comes clean about why he feels the need to make obscene phone calls in the first place.
The Telephone Book, despite what sounds like the makings of a hardcore porno, really isn’t all that explicit. There’s quite a bit of nudity, mostly in an artistic sense (it’s difficult to think of Alice as anything other than a naive girl with a sense that there’s more to life than boring sex), and a couple of scenes of simulated sex meant more for comedy than anything else; otherwise, though, The Telephone Book is focused more on satirically attacking close-minded individuals who find fetishes other than the missionary position a lurid and seedy prospect. Lyon directs and structures the film loosely; it often alternates between Alice’s search and filmed interviews with other obscene callers where they describe what got them into the act in the first place.
All of them describe being normalized by society after understanding what they had previously done was wrong; however, Lyon’s script emphasizes that they really aren’t any more “normal” than they used to be – they’re just repressing their sexuality in different ways. The Telephone Book is really a full-length feature meant to describe sexual awakenings and to show that others’ definitions of intercourse don’t have to match our own.
Indeed, the people Alice meets on her journey to find Mr. Smith have been so marginalized attempting to hide their sexuality that they begin to act out in even more obscene ways, leading to what could be, if this wasn’t a comedy but a drama, some seriously dangerous situations. It’s all presented in an over-the-top way that comes to a climax (pun intended) at the end of the film as Alice has one grandiose orgasm she’ll never forget, all depicted by a ten-minute montage of various surreal drawings of tongues and vaginae and a soundtrack that sounds like it was composed by the noise band Smegma.
It’s not a perfect film, and those who don’t like experimental or artistic representations in film may not enjoy The Telephone Book. But it’s quite a subversive film that speaks as much to today’s repressed ideas of sexuality as it did in 1971, and it’s well represented by Vinegar Syndrome in a two-disc Blu-Ray set with audio commentary, stills, trailers, and more. If you haven’t caught the film yet, make sure you make the attempt.