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Docurama presents
Heavy Petting (2006)

"Don't do a don't. Do do a do."
- advice from 1950s sex ed film

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 17, 2007

Stars: David Byrne, Paula Longendyke, Sandra Bernhard, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Ann Magnuson, Spalding Gray, Josh Mostel, Elizabeth Lahey, Duka, Zoe Tamerlaine, Marshall Turner, Wayne Jobson, Laurie Anderson, Judith Malina, Barry Bartkowski, John Oates, Abbie Hoffman, Jim Dyer, Jacki Ochs, Frederic Lahey, Frances Fisher, Sandi Sissel
Director: Obie Benz

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, brief nudity)
Run Time: 01h:14m:24s
Release Date: May 29, 2007
UPC: 767685984833
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-C+B- A-

DVD Review

Obie Benz's 1989 doc Heavy Petting looks at the unavoidable hormonal teenage explosion of lust and romance through the memories of a strange mixture of largely hipsters and arty fringe types, augmented by scenes from those comical educational "scare" films of the 1950s and 1960s. If you're an adult, you already went through it. If you're a parent of a teenager, you've endured it. The names and eras may change, but the mood swings, rogue experimentation and wanton lust are the common thread. The coming-of-age tales are identifiable no matter what generation is recalling them, with all the cloudy mysteries and confusion of sex sounding regrettably familiar.

The general subject is "the ruination of innocent girls" and "the insatiable curiosity of youth", served up by the likes of familiar alt-art-heroes (David Byrne, Laurie Anderson) as well some slightly less rebellious faces (Josh Mostel, John Oates) and a smattering of generational icons (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman). All in all, Benz employs 23 different people—some more well known than others—to act as thematic narrators, providing often embarrassing and humbling memories of their exploratory youth. Benz uses clips from an assortment of period educational films as connective links to the subject matter, and these once-serious-but-now-hilarious shorts are piled deep with campy acting and now awkward moments, such as the kindly track coach who asks his young team of boys "do you know what sperm is?"

My initial moderate beef with the Benz put this together was that he never identifies who's speaking until the closing credits, and though that's ultimately not essential to relating and identifying with the stories, I often found myself wondering if I was supposed to know who was who. I can pick out an Ann Magnuson or a Spalding Gray, but was it key that I know who Judith Malina or Jacki Ochs were? I realized quickly that even if I did, I didn't really know who they were anyhow, so why should it be a problem to listen to them speak. It was a minor distraction early on for me, but I soon found it mattered little. The stories are well told, and that's what's important.

The topics range from curfews to venereal disease to going steady, and though Heavy Petting runs just 74 minutes, there really isn't a great sense of any real direction in the flow of information. There isn't any sort of redemptive message or conclusion, just a series of loosely connected—yet comically tragic similar—bouts of social ineptitude on the path to sexual maturity. But the real answer is that there aren't any answers to be found, just the knowledge that the same dumb awkwardness that happened to me and you has happened to others, and no doubt will happen to generations to come. Sex is sort of the great equalizer, I guess.

And for all of the laughably dated educational films used by Benz, the sad part is that underneath all of bad acting and clean cut Americana the same old same old is going on today. That's where the funny comes from, whether it be sneaking out to see forbidden boyfriends, dangerous parties or the weight of peer pressure. Benz may not have a grand thesis here as much as a set of great stories, but this kind of truth never goes out of date. It's all here, and it's still here today. I have a 16-year-old daughter. I know of what I speak.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Though Benz's film has been released in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the frequent 1950s/1960s archival footage used understandably is not, so periodically there are vertical black bars on the edge of picture. Picture quality varies on the educational films, ranging from grainy to smeary, though that is clearly an issue with the source material as opposed to the transfer. Sadly the new interview segments don't look particularly strong, compounded a purposeful need to shoot the speakers in some kind of arty half shadow. The result are very soft edges and a fair amount of fine grain throughout, with fleshtones that frequently appear far too red.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo. Though voice quality on the interview segments is clear the only time there's really any punch or sense of depth is during the use of period music. Overall no major complaints on what is an unremarkable but serviceable mix. The educational films have a number of age-related problems audio wise, from mild hiss and crackle to some minor distortion.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
8 Documentaries
5 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Disc 1 carries the main feature, as well as a set of extended interviews. The clips feature Abbie Hoffman, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, David Byrne, Spalding Gray, Sandra Bernhard, Laurie Anderson, Barry Bartkowski and Zoe Tamerlaine serving up 113 minutes worth of personal anecdotes, some of which are better than the others. I'm permanently fascinated by Burroughs anti-social introversion, and the bits with Byrne and Anderson are understandably cool (though sadly the shortest of the lot).

Also on Disc 1 is a trailer for Heavy Petting, a text screen bio of director Obie Benz and the brief Making Of Heavy Petting (06m:35s), in which Benz chats fairly effusively about finding and selecting the educational film footage used.

Over on disc two is where the fun stuff is, and aside from a four-minute Director's Comments from Benz about the archival material it's all vintage weirdness. Ten unintentionally hilarious short films—which are featured in Heavy Petting in various pieces—that were meant to help explain away not just the uncontrollable hip-grinding ways of adolescence, but of girlie books and STDs, too. Marvel at the all-knowing track coach explaining to a group of boys all about the mysteries of life, or a young girl getting advice about you-know-what from her older sister. A VD outbreak ("it's just a pimple or something") doesn't just impact teens, but the military as well, and that means some dandy graphic footage just to help make a point.

The ten educational shorts are:
As Boys Grow... (16m:14s)
Molly Grows Up (14m:38s)
Dance, Little Children (25m:09s)
The Innocent Party (17m:27s)
In Defense of the Nation (10m:46s)
Easy to Get (21m:31s)
Know for Sure (12m:03s)
Perversion for Profit (30m:56s)
Printed Poison (25m:49s)
Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence (22m:52s)

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

It may kind of start and end without any real sense of direction or closure, but the blend of interesting and amusing anecdotes about discovering sex from a curious cross-section of people (David Byrne to William Burroughs) and the dated humor of the old educational film clips plays very well together. Plus, a second disc includes the full-length versions of the sex ed/anti-porn films used in the feature.

Highly recommended.


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