Monday, February 9, 2009

The Telephone Book (1971)

My first reaction to reading Watchmen (after the first movie trailer, like a big poseur) was: "How come nobody told me this was the best comic ever?!?!"

I had a similar reaction during the end credits of The Telephone Book, but I can't stay mad at the myself or the universe, because very few members of said universe have even heard of the film, let alone tracked down a copy. There is a severe dearth of information floating around online; most of what I have managed to glean comes from the cast members' surprisingly long IMDB pages. (Despite the flick's obscurity, it is very probable that at least one of the actors will seem vaguely familiar to you.) The writer/director, Nelson Lyon, is particularly mysterious; all I know is that he was a writer on the '81-82 season of SNL, and that he was one of the people consuming epic amounts of cocaine with John Belushi on the night of his death. Other than that, it is as though The Telephone Book was created in a vacuum (or was at least dropped from the heavens by magical pixies/extraterrestrials).

Normally I make no bones about spoilers, but after seeing this film with no foreknowledge other than the tagline/premise, half the fun was wondering what the hell the movie was going to do next. So if you take my word for its awesomeness, and feel like there is a strong chance you might track down your own copy, then read ahead with caution. Not that the "plot" is full of twists and turns, or even makes much in the way of sense; it just adds another couple layers of weird to the proceedings. By the midway point, the director could have started splicing in footage of the Nuremberg trials reenacted with Martians and I wouldn't have been surprised.

The opening quickly establishes a style and mood somewhere between Soviet Montage and a 16mm student film, (minimal camera movement, clever editing) as a young woman rolls around on an American flag bedspread in a loft apartment wallpapered with pornography. The bubbly, helium-voiced Alice (Sarah Kennedy) could quite possibly be the physical embodiment of cuteness, especially while wearing the world's largest goggles and little else.

Her idleness is interrupted by a call from John Smith, a self proclaimed master of the obscene telephone call, who seduces her with smooth talk of unorthodox applications for hot fudge sundaes. The audience (to protect our fragile minds) is spared full exposure to his call through the careful use of sound editing and subtitles, but Alice is so enamored that, when he calls back later, she demands to see him in person. While reluctant, the mysterious, trenchcoated figure eventually agrees to meet in the flesh, provided she can track him down... in the book.

Thus begins a manic quest to call every John Smith in the phone book. But before Alice can begin, the film is interrupted by "interview" footage from an ex-obscene phone caller. These confessional monologues are peppered throughout the entire picture, often in places too inappropriate to have been randomly chosen. They shred the pacing of the story for some decent laughs, and are possibly meant to satirize the clunky pseudo-documentary style of Mondo and sexploitation films.

These segments are joined by a creepy pitchman/narrator with a naked person on his desk, and, near the end of the film, a bald police officer explaining new obscene-phone-call thwarting tactics. (This fellow, according to IMDB, is the fat zombie who causes the destruction of NY in Zombi 2. Awesome.)

The interruptions bring all sorts of new and different kinds of strange to the film, but nothing can compare to the following pipe smoking gentleman, who deadpans the most bizarre non-sequiturs imaginable:

Back in The Telephone Book proper, Alice meets a variety of odd and perverse New Yorkers. The first John Smith to take credit for the dirty calls, turns out to be stag film actor Har Poon (the recently deceased Barry Morse), who is in the middle of auditions for his latest opus. Alice looks on with amusement as Poon calls forth a small army of naked women to perform "position 72."

On the subway, Alice is accosted by a perverted exhibitionist, but ends up driving him away with her superior trenchcoat opening skills. The man turns out to be a cynical psychoanalyst, who takes a keen interest in providing her with all the nickels she'll ever need for the payphone. Played by Star Trek spacepimp and mustache olympian, Roger C. Carmel, the analyst rubs a coin changer suggestively as he attempts to elicit dirty talk from the squeaky blonde.

Seriously, that 'stache can probably bench more than I can.

She complies by regaling him with the story of her "best fuck," which was an attempt to rescue a man (William Hickey, the crotchety geezer from... nearly everything) too embarrassed over a rare case of gigantic, unending morning wood to get out of bed.

After the story reaches its inevitable conclusion, the analyst "showers" her with coins. Alice makes her exit and is swiftly mugged, then taken in by a middle-aged woman with a pram. Naturally, this can only lead to further adult situations.

Eventually making it back to her obscenely wallpapered loft, Alice is greeted by a mysterious figure wearing a
Papier-mâché pig mask. This is John Smith, who, in between being incredibly creepy, bursts forth with strange monologues about how he came to be the world's greatest obscene phone caller.

With the exception of the "documentary" segments, the film becomes even more formally experimental at this point. Smith, appropriately played by the voice of Juan Valdez, Norman Rose, floats in rotating bubbles and stares at optically printed buttocks. He explains his straitlaced former life, his brief, paradigm shifting stint at NASA, and how he went from his first, crude dirty call, to being able to seduce random octogenarians in mere minutes. His tale is not unlike that of the confessing callers, but is told in the soothing baritone of a professional voice actor and with a certain megalomaniacal glee that quickly alternates between charming and scary.

Unwilling or unable to fulfill Alice's request physically perform the actions described in his calls, Smith takes her to a pair of side-by-side phone booths wherein he performs the greatest obscene phone call known to man. A call so powerful that it can only be visualized through a montage of crude, dirty, and bizarre cartoons.

If you can overlook the often crude production values and the atrocious quality of the bootlegs floating around (the 4:3 aspect ratio was clearly cropped from something wider), The Telephone Book is a film that has to be seen to be truly believed. While its (literally) X-rated nudity and frank discussion of sexuality are hardly shocking in the 21st century, the offbeat humor and profound strangeness seem amplified by the decades. Beyond that, there seems to be a very intelligent undercurrent to the madcap randomness.

Alice, despite her frank attitudes and voracious sexual appetites, exudes good natured innocence and naivete. She is completely comfortable with and confident in who she is and what gets her rocks off. By contrast, her various... er... suitors all lack any similar brand of unselfconsciousness. Unable to reconcile their inner desires with their "square" outward appearances, the other characters repress themselves until they snap and/or find an outlet: either Alice, making dirty phone calls, or making dirty phone calls to Alice.

This is not to imply that Alice is by any means perfect. (She's no "magical nympho") Before Smith's first call, we see her huddled in the corner of her apartment, listening to a dial-a-prayer recording. Later, when imploring a friend to let her come over to use the phone, she explains that she doesn't want to go home because staying there too long makes her want to kill herself, which "totally bums her out." Boredom, it seems, is the pixie's fatal weakness. Perhaps the film is trying to make a point about how the telephone depersonalizes human relationships. ("How quaint" scoffs the Twitter addicts.) Or, maybe this is supposed to be the downside of sexual liberation; that's certainly a murky enough message for post '60s Manhattan.

It is a real shame that a movie as fun and unique as The Telephone Book must languish in an obscurity so great that I had never even heard of it before the screening, but at least comfort can be taken in the fact that there are still some diamonds in the rough to be uncovered in the world of cult movies.


  1. ...and I didn't even get to the WW2 stock footage section.

  2. Even though I have some reservations about shedding light on this film whose obscurity is part of its charm, your treatment of it is eloquent and insightful. In a void of other info on this gem, it's good to hear well deserved words of praise. Dick-a-lick!

  3. I suppose you want your copy back, then?

    It turns out that the reason the trailer won't play is that the disc was improperly mastered. It pops up after the end credits, however.

    Also, the erection guy was the exact guy you were thinking of. (I'm pretty sure) He was nominated for an Oscar as a mafia don, was the uncle in Christmas Vacation, and was the same old man in that episode of the Outer Limits (or was it Twilight Zone) that I kept talking about.

  4. The only place I know of that is selling bootlegs is here but I can't vouch for their reputability.

    A friend loaned me his copy, but I'll try and figure out where he got it. Check back for an update in a couple days.

    If their was enough interest I could make a torrent of the DVD-R (I don't think the filmmakers or MPAA would mind) but I don't really have the bandwidth to seed.

  5. *Begs for a torrent*

    I've been looking for this movie, everywhere!

  6. im also begging for a torrent

  7. Please make a torrent !!!

  8. This film exists in Germany. from a company called "Hello film". Its in a wonderful box, with a poster, post cards, booklet. The DVD has a commentary track also. came out in the spring of 2009....


  10. Yes. Please can you make a torrent?
    Been searching for this movie for a very long time.

  11. Dude! Did you ever make a torrent?

  12. Nothing yet (judging from the removed video that I still haven't replaced, I'm a total slacker) but since the people doing an "official" release are nigh impossible to track down, there is still hope for the near future.

  13. There's a lot of stuff about Nelson Lyon in the book "Mr. Mike" about SNL/National Lampoon legend Michael O'Donoghue. They were very close friends and wrote some unproduced screenplays together.

  14. This was always my favorite X-rated movie--very creative--very erotic. I have and continue to enjoy a DVD of it.

  15. thanks for not sharing your dvd, anonymus 19.01.