Without a doubt, A Labor of Love was the most uncomfortable film that I saw at the Wisconsin Film Fest, and sandwiched as I was between two older people that I did not know, it was one of the most uncomfortable screenings I’ve sat through ever. You’ll soon see why.
A Labor of Love is a recently rediscovered 1976 documentary about the making of a low-budget art film in Chicago, The Last Affair. A few weeks before shooting of The Last Affair was set to commence, the financial backers informed the director that they would pull their funding unless the film was changed to include hardcore sex scenes. Initially, they wanted these sex scenes to comprise sixty percent of the film, but the director, Henri Charbakshi* convinced them to settle for twenty percent. And thus began the grand project of essentially converting the film into a porno, using the same director, actors, and crew, all of whom were utterly unskilled and inexperienced at this particular art form. A local film director, Robert Flaxman, heard about the situation and decided to film the making-of documentary that became A Labor of Love.
The first thing that I am compelled to tell you about the film is that it is graphic. Like, fully graphic. It is not entirely clear to me why the filmmakers chose to make the documentary quite so explicit, as they could easily have filmed the “acting” from angles that would have made it quite clear what they were doing, without actually showing full-screen shots of genitalia. During a Q&A with the filmmakers after the screening, Flaxman spoke indignantly about having to re-edit the film for an R-rating for admission into west coast film festivals, and referred to the process as censorship. Clearly he felt some need to be as comprehensive as possible with this film, but I feel that not much would have been lost had the film been slightly more comfortable to view in a dark room full of strangers.
That said, once the more squeamish among us walked out (as several audience members did during the first sex scene), the rest of us settled in to enjoy the humor, because there really is a hilarious true story here. The characters are all colorful and fascinating, and each person seems to have a completely different worldview as it pertains to sex. There were all of the comical roadblocks that you would expect in a situation like this, including the male actors being unable to perform on camera, and the director being forced to bring in a ringer to provide the close-up shots. Beyond the comedy of errors, we also see the inherent humanity of such a project, and get a rare glimpse into the raw emotions that surround our sexual identities. (And let’s be honest, the hairstyles and mustaches alone were pretty entertaining.)
The one thing that I will say is that the film seemed to have been edited fairly hastily. Many of the scenes did not seem to flow together well, and the movie as a whole seemed to end fairly abruptly. It seemed to me like there was more emphasis placed on simply documenting the situation than on creating a separate work of documentary cinema that could stand on its own.
That said, there is plenty to enjoy here. It is unfortunate that I can only recommend the film to people prepared for fully graphic hardcore sex scenes, because much of the comedy here is gold and could potentially be enjoyable and accessible to a much broader audience. Based on the description of the film, I was expecting it to be risque. Had I known exactly what I was in for, I probably would not have bought tickets, though ultimately I think I’m glad I did. Proceed at your own risk.
*Name updated by request.