“People take my picture every day. So my picture’s been taken millions of times. And every time they take my picture there’s a little less of me left. So what will be left of me at the end?” — Polly, Who Are You Polly Maggoo?
“I jerk off twice a week with a large pink vibrator. Sometimes I play with frisky animals… I like to read dirty books” — Alice, The Telephone Book.
Two films, decades, cities. Who are you Polly Maggoo? and The Telephone Book may be separated by oceans (Paris/New York), cultures (‘60s French bourgeois chic versus American post-Summer of Love cynicism) and years (1966/1971) but, while not immediately obvious, they do share a common bond when it comes to their connection to fairy tales. The story of a woman swallowed up by the fashion industry in contrast to another involving the search for the world’s best obscene phone caller couldn’t seem any further apart in context when taken on surface value. Granted, the films share similarity in their black and white hyper stylised mise en scene. Both tell their tales in a series of vignettes in lieu of a conventional narrative structure. But if you strip away all the shiny baubles, and each film offers a delicious feast when it comes their consecutive visual approaches, at the heart of it all is the same story: a woman embarks on the quest to find her Prince Charming. For Polly it’s a Prince in a faraway castle who is obsessed with her image in fashion magazines. Alice just wants to meet the man who gave her the best dirty phone call she ever heard in her life. And through the process of searching for men, or in the case of The Telephone Book’s Alice, the perfect orgasm too, Polly and Alice try and escape the emptiness of a lonely existence on a filmic landscape driven by social satire.
It is interesting that the cases of directors William Klein (Who Are You Polly Maggoo?) and Nelson Lyon (The Telephone Book) are similar, in that neither came from a traditional filmmaking background. Klein was a painter and photographer, who found his way into the world of fashion photography, and then later into film. He had previously worked on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1956) although he didn’t receive a credit. Lyon, mostly remembered for the role he played, and the testimony he gave, concerning actor John Belushi’s death by overdose, only made one feature film. Lyon worked throughout the seventies writing scripts for Saturday Night Live, before moving into making trailers later on in his career. Klein made three full-length features — Who Are You Polly Maggoo?, Mr Freedom (1969) and The Model Couple (1977) — but also worked extensively in documentaries and shorts. In the case of Who Are You Polly Maggoo? and The Telephone Book, and this is a big part of what makes them so wildly provocative, fresh and stimulating, the directors use their unconventional roots to bring in a dizzying mix of styles; faux documentary and cinéma vérité combined with elements of high art, surrealism, absurdism and pop cultural aesthetic.
Who Are You Polly Maggoo? starts with that very question; exactly who is Polly? We know, from the opening frames, she is a model, a very successful one, but very little other information is given. She is introduced at a fashion show in a concrete bunker, were a group of female spectators are crushed into stalls to watch a parade of “Women for the Atomic Age”. What this amounts to is models stuffed into various geometric shaped costumes fashioned from sheet metal by a designer whose main tool is a crude pair of pliers. The surfaces are smooth, shiny and flawless, but the edges are sharp, which is something one of the models discovers, as she is fitted with an outfit and her arm brushes across the metal causing it to bleed. It is a fleeting moment, but speaks volumes about the fashion industry, the beauty myth and expectations put on women to strive for perfection, even if it means exposing themselves to physical harm to achieve impossible standards. Klein uses the fairy tale as a metaphor to satirically poke at celebrity culture, the media and the fashion industry. References to Cinderella keep the fairly free flowing narrative on course, and at one point a direct analogy is made between one of the traditional folklore references, where the Step Sister cuts off her toes in order to make the Prince’s slipper fit, and the pressure to self harm involved in keeping up with beauty standards. Woman are ready to mutilate themselves to find their Prince Charming. Polly is no different.
Klein’s choice to cast one of the most enchanting figures on the sixties modelling circuit, Dorothy McGowan, combined with his own experience working for the French Vogue, lends weight to the film. Even though it rolls on in fairly absurdist terms there is something that feels genuine and grounded in reality even though the nonsense reaches sublime levels at times. Shortly after leaving the fashion show we see Polly walking home across the city. A strange man sneaks up behind her and cuts off a piece of her hair, as his face lights up in orgasmic appreciation and Polly is somehow oblivious. Another creep accosts her, and follows her demanding to know if she is a model because she is afraid of men. On arriving back at her apartment she is informed by the woman at the desk that a television crew are waiting for her upstairs. Polly is apparently unphased by the fact her room is packed with people with cameras and microphones. She is introduced to the documentary maker, Grégoire (Jean Rochefort), where he explains he is making a film for television. From this point on she is bombarded with questions, covering everything from her private life to political persuasions, and even a strange psychological assessment which involves her disclosing whom she would rather sleep with from a list of key cultural and political figures. Never once does she seem irritated by this, instead she poses for the camera and seems happy to do so.
Polly’s Prince Charming is Igor (Sami Frey). He has little to say, but appears at key moments, most of the time in his bizarre home, a mix of a classic Gothic cathedral, with huge photo montages of himself and the rest of the Royal Family on the walls. The centre of the room is packed with modern gadgets, furniture, technology and photos of Polly. The Prince, so lovesick from these images, despatches a pair of comedy sidekick private detectives to spy on her and collect personal items, in order that he might objectify Polly further. But then, Polly is really no different to Igor. It becomes apparent she is in “love” with her Prince because of what he represents in abstract terms; he could just as well be one of The Beatles, her previous obsession — Klein uses stills from McGowan’s true story when she was “spotted” by a model agency screaming in the midst of teenybopper Beatlemaniacs, to illustrate this point. Polly’s object of desire is exactly that, an object. She isn’t interested in the mundane reality of relationships. And she certainly isn’t interested in Grégoire, perhaps her only shot at something real, not until she fantasises he is a Prince too.
The “sublime levels of nonsense” I referred to earlier are found in their most explicit form in the series of sequences where the Prince and Polly fantasise about each other. Polly dreams the Prince thunders in on a white horse to claim her, before she is dropped at a house in the middle of nowhere to take dinner (Calf’s head) with Grégoire and his family, and she sits opposite her own image on a television screen which has been given pride of place at the dinner table — there are many moments of cross-cultural humour involved in the film, this scene being a case in point, where members of the dinner party make fun of how unsophisticated Americans are; in an earlier scene Polly recounts advice given to her from her aunt to take toilet paper with her to France, as the French don’t use it. At another point in the narrative Polly and Igor are reunited and portrayed in a cut and paste animation where they fly off across the city. Meanwhile the Prince conjures up Polly and puts her in a series of costumes where they act out scenes together: a majorette from a brass band (too annoying, this Polly asks too many silly questions), tied up, while dressed in skimpy underwear, to a church organ and left to scream (this one seems to bring the Prince particular delight), as Shirley Temple, complete with curls and a baby doll dress, performing a tap dance and miming to Temple’s Animal Crackers in My Soup. Finally Polly and Igor become Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, waltzing across the room together like something from the Hollywood’s Golden Age. But then Polly’s every day life is hardly grounded in realism either, making it difficult to distinguish what is real or imagined. Key moments take her to pose for a photoshoot on a statue on top of a windswept building, or into cemeteries where she is clad out in costumes which look fit for an expressionist horror film. The fact that Polly decorates her apartment with photos of herself and wears a t-shirt with her name emblazoned across the front further cements the idea that she lives in a self created artificial bubble and refuses to allow reality to penetrate her inner sanctum. It doesn’t matter how many questions Grégoire fires at her, she won’t allow him to understand the truth. Only flashes of the “buck toothed, freckled, ugly” girl she sees herself as come through, in a rare moment of vulnerability where she is shown completely without makeup, during a shower scene. Although it’s fair to say, even without makeup, Polly is nothing less than beguiling and the ridiculousness of her thinking otherwise just further supports how cruel the beauty industry is.
In one of the few moments where reality breaks through the shallow facade, Grégoire declares, “I love you, I always have. Let’s stop acting”. Only she can’t. Polly never stops. She may be Queen for a day, everything could turn into a pumpkin when the clocks strikes midnight. But Polly can stop that clock, if she refuses to stop dreaming, if she refuses to answer the question: Who Are You Polly Magoo?
The Telephone Book’s Alice isn’t really interested in fame or fortune; beyond getting enough cash to call all the John Smiths in the Manhattan area so she can find “the one John Smith who gave her the best, the sweetest, the cutest, the most beautiful dirty phone call in the whole world”. Although Lyons uses Alice in Wonderland as the backdrop of sorts, the connection to Cinderella still fits. It is worth mentioning Klein also had an affiliation to Alice too, declaring in an interview when asked about actress McGowan: “She was a tough little Irish girl from Brooklyn. Learned French and then learned her lines. She was like Alice in Wonderland in Paris, they loved her, but she wanted Hollywood”.
Taking her name from Lewis Carroll’s surreal adventure, Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is a bubbly, sweet, sexually liberated girl from Manhattan, who spends her days roaming her apartment, bored. It is a shallow existence though, and she is swamped by loneliness. Even her pornography based wallpaper isn’t enough to lift her spirits. Her closest friend “Eye Mask” (Jill Clayburgh) is a woman who apparently spends the day in bed, with lovers, or alone and contemplating suicide (at one point she chats casually on the phone, whilst loading a gun) and Alice seems to have very little connection to the physical world, except through the use of the phone. That is until one day, when she is interrupted by an obscene phone call so wonderful she instantly falls in love with the caller. It becomes her mission to find the man who will only identify himself as “John Smith” (Norman “The Voice of God” Rose). In a reversal of Cinderella and the Prince with the glass slipper, Alice is left with only one clue, a name, and a telephone book. She must try on many voices to find the one that fits her very own Prince Charming.
Even though the story belongs to Alice we get to find out a lot about her potential Prince Charmings along the way. In a world saturated with sex, the pressure to perform, twinned with the lack of opportunity for real, meaningful connection, takes a toll of both sexes. Coming out in the midst of porno chic, Lyons seems to have a lot to say about male virility, using the backdrop of dirty phone calls, stag film shoots, and the sharing of sexual experiences, to highlight male insecurity of the age. Everyone wants sex, but conversely, everyone is bored with fucking. In a climate where sex is a commodity, and sexual freedom is at an all time high, it would seem you really can get too much of a good thing. Lyon’s capacity for satire takes a dual pronged assault on the Golden Age of Porn values, and conservative morality. Not once does he miss a beat when it comes to layering on the bawdy comedy either.
During Alice’s journey to find her Prince she kisses a few frogs along the way, and we get to hear a little about their stories too. There is the particularly hilarious Har Poon (Barry Morse) for example, aging, and desperate to prove he is still one of the leading names in the stag film industry. Splayed out on a bed, he allows his body to be drowned in the flesh of nubile young women as part of a choreographed orgy. The fact he wears a comedy Groucho Marx nose, glasses and moustache to mask his face, highlights how ridiculous the entire spectacle is. Yet, Har Poon continues with the facade, orchestrating the movement above him by issuing commands with military precision. All this while Warhol Superstar Ultra Violet stands whipping the air with a lash in the corner. Lyons includes three Superstars in his picture — Ultra Violet, Ondine and Geri Miller, the latter gets to really shake her stuff during the orgy, and Lyons was a frequent visitor to the infamous “Factory” at the time (as well as hanging out with other key cultural figures such a William Burroughs). As the girls writhe ecstasy, and submit to Har Poon’s instruction with a certain amount of enthusiasm, it all feels a bit fake and no one appears to be having much of a good time.
Then there is The Analyst (Roger C. Carmel), a man who attempts to flash at Alice while on a subway ride. Only to find he has bitten off more than he can chew when Alice counters him and embarks on her own, far more spirited, stripteaze. After chasing him down the street, Alice convinces him to give her change for the phone so that she may continue her quest. His terms: she must talk dirty to him. During one of the funniest scenes in the entire film, Alice and The Analyst have an infuriating exchange, whereby he demands he tell her the dirtiest word she knows, “sidewalk”, draws a picture of a penis which she describes as looking like “The State of Marilyn”, before screaming at her to tell him about the best fuck she ever had. Onlookers in the cafe they are sat in barely bat an eyelid. Alice divulges a tale about a man (William Hickey) suffering with priapism, who can get no relief from his constant erection, until he meets her.
Lyons intersects Alice on her adventure with little stories within the stories which tell us a lot about the men around her. In another interlude, we meet a man who confesses to making dirty phone calls to nuns, for an entire decade — an activity he has now ceased since making a lot of money and realising the world will end, thanks to little green men, in less than a year. He has targeted religious figures, not because of the obvious connotations of blasphemy, and the thrill it might provide, but because “nuns are good listeners”. This again injects this idea of loneliness into the foundation of the plot, a theme mirrored in Alice’s own motivation to find her Prince.
When John Smith finally makes his entrance, he does so with his face obscured by a pig mask. They talk. He tells her all about the other women he has called. Older women, teenagers and school girls, thousands upon thousands. His motivation stems as a result of him having suffered a trauma, but then being able to reconnect with his masculinity when he discovers he has a certain skill for knowing what women need. There’s just one snag though, he can’t actually sleep with them. He’s impotent. Not that this bothers Alice, no one has ever given her a connection like John Smith has given her. The pair consummate their relationship via phone call, as they stand in telephone boxes side by side, while reality departs into a psychedelic animation (at the beginning of which several erect penises shrink at the sight of a boastful vagina mocking them with crude laughter, before the scene completely loses itself into orgasmic territory).
In many ways, even though neither relationship is consummated physically, both heroines do get to realise their dream. Polly is able to hold on the “idea” of her Prince as she chases his shadow in a crowd of cheering fans. Alice might not be able to touch her Prince, but she achieves a much deeper connection than purely fucking, through the telephone line and the raw emotional intimacy it allows. Although the differences between the two films might seem poles apart, the messages are similar. For Klein, the burgeoning media age, and celebrity culture, provides escapism into a fantasy world where people no longer need physical intimacy, or reality. Everything is a facade. Lyons draws similar conclusions from the themes of sexual liberation and the rise of pornography. Sexual intimacy ceases to have meaning where it is reduced to a commodity, or becomes too abundant. In a way, both directors were years ahead of their time. If we look at today’s climate of starving supermodels, the prevalence of eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and a generation brought up on a staple diet of reality television (where television and film stars are the new royalty, and are idolised as such) Klein’s warning remains painfully relevant. Likewise, the rise of internet relationships, the access to pornography and sex which freedom on the internet brings, the lack of physical (or meaningful) connection Lyons laid out in his film, is never more true than today.