“Hello there. I’d like to talk to you, very seriously for a moment, about your beautiful tits.”
That’s the first thing we hear from the lips of the obscene phone caller played to perfection by acclaimed voice actor Norman Rose. Spoken to blonde, squeaky-voiced Alice (Sarah Kennedy), his deep-throated and increasingly absurd come-ons serve as a catalyst for the young woman to embark on a quest to find him, spurred after he says that his name is John Smith, and that he’s in the book.
The book, of course, is THE TELEPHONE BOOK of the title, one of the most fascinatingly unique independent sexploitation films ever made as Alice ventures out of her minimalist apartment wallpapered in pornographic film stills in search of him, accepting invitations of any John Smith in the book that will offer them. Along the way, she meets up with a stag filmmaker in Groucho glasses (Barry Morse) holding an orgy (and featuring Ultra Violet with a whip), a psychiatrist who pays her out for a story about a man (William Hickey) with an incurable erection, and a frenzied lesbian, before finally finding the man who so entranced her with his dulcet tones.
It’s then that the show becomes almost entirely Rose’s, who relates his life story while half of his face is hidden by a pig mask, making his intoxicatingly deadpan line readings all the more compelling. The film then climaxes with an insane animated sequence of pornography, as giant vaginas devour entire buildings in a spastic freak-out that would give Vince Collins a run for his money.
Interspersed with Alice’s adventures are a series of confessionals from various former obscene phone callers, introduced by a man behind a desk containing a nude person of undetermined gender. Future “Gimme a Break” star Dolph Sweet talks about “dickalick,” an older business man remembers sticking his hand into pea soup in order to make naughty comments to nuns, and, not to be sexist, a middle-aged woman talks about her own proclivities with as much enthusiasm as the gents.
With the conceit of the now-impossible-to-make obscene phone call and the idea that the film is supposed to be “shocking,” 1971’s THE TELEPHONE BOOK could be seen as a definitive product of its time and no more than a cultural curiosity. But THE TELEPHONE BOOK is not of its time due to the technological limitations or cultural taboos it expresses, but due to the genuinely anarchic spirit in the humor presented. Presented as though writer/director Nelson Lyon doesn’t want to make a sexploitation movie with subversive humor as he does use sexploitation tropes as a way to play with absurdist images and dialogue, THE TELEPHONE BOOK is a ridiculously enigmatic flick that defies any easy description and seems just fine with keeping it that way.
Some of the bits go on for too long – the animated sequence in particular grows a little tiresome by the third minute. Thankfully, inventive production design and the energetic performances are more than enough to keep things watchable even in the slower moments. Sarah Kennedy in particular is a revelation – her uninhibited embracing of the material has been compared to Goldie Hawn, but to me she resembled a blonde version of a character Louisa Moritz would play in a ‘80s sex comedy. Contrasted with Rose’s purely vocal acting delivered with his tongue planted so deeply into his cheek you’re surprised he doesn’t start bleeding, THE TELEPHONE BOOK has a look and feel all its own, and cult film fans should have no problem finding something to devour.
Seriously, look at these screenshots. If these don’t intrigue you, you may want to just go home and stream TWILIGHT or something.
The only film of Nelson Lyon, best known as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” THE TELEPHONE BOOK has been skirting around the edges of the grey market for years, cultivating minor cult status as a genuine curiosity despite having never been released to home video in the United States, a reputation Vinegar Syndrome hopes to elevate with their Blu-Ray release of the title. It’s a reputation that the film rightfully deserves. THE TELEPHONE BOOK is an absurdist classic, and one that genuinely warrants a much larger audience than it has previously received. While certainly not for all tastes, anyone who was blown away by the discovery of Vera Chytilová’s DAISIES or Criterion’s releases of the films of William Klein or Robert Downey should feel right at home in embracing the mirthful oddness at play.
Vinegar’s treatment of the film is a revelation, a transfer from a 35mm print that brings the excellent B&W cinematography to new appreciation. Besides two trailers (one a re-release trailer bearing the title HOT NUMBER), radio spots and a still gallery, the disc also includes a commentary track from producer Merv Bloch, moderated by Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin. While it’s a shame that director Lyon passed away in 2012 and was not part of this release, Bloch has a fair share of interesting stories about the making of the film (like Andy Warhol’s involvement) and there’s very little dead time. The sole issue with the commentary is that Rubin doesn’t necessarily talk to Bloch about the scene they’re watching, instead asking general questions about the film’s production and trailers Bloch created for other films, resulting in the glossing over of some potentially interesting moments on film.
Honestly, I can’t recommend THE TELEPHONE BOOK enough. It’s not a perfect film, and I’d only be guessing if I tried to figure out exactly what Lyons was trying to do and whether or not it was done “successfully,” but it sure is an amazing experience. I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it — the films I mentioned above are about as good of comparisons I can come up with. Vinegar Syndrome deserves tremendous accolades for finally giving this film the treatment it deserves, and one can only hope that it will now find the audience it’s been unjustly deprived of for decades.
– Paul Freitag-Fey
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