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The Controversy of <em>I Am Curious</em>

The Controversy of I Am Curious

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Feature by: Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 17 July 2004

Related articles:

reviews: I Am Curious – Blue

reviews: I Am Curious – Yellow

Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (released in two parts, Yellow and Blue, 1969 and 1970) primarily concerns a liberal woman, Lena, and her thorough solicitation of the Swedish public. Her political agenda involves numerous ploys: if the public perceives a class system in Swedish society, if Martin Luther King’s suggestion of nonviolence may be employed by the military, if hypocrisy founds Catholic marriage, and many, many others.

I am Curious was popular upon its release in its native country forits reactionary political view. Yellow was seen by a US book publisher and licensed for distribution. Upon its entry to this country, US customs officials seized the film and barred it from being seen — no action in cinema’s history has done more to secure the controversy of a single film. In this case, Yellow’s seizure was an attack married to persistent correlation; namely, ratings leniency and sexual responsibility in film.

The film’s depiction of sex was ground for charges of obscenity. There is a particularly liable scene in the final third of Yellow that has a pair involved in a post-coital caressing of each other’s genitals. Lena (the most participatory female), however young and experienced, is rotund and only distantly attractive. Nonetheless, Yellow contains numerous sexual acts, however frankly depicted and unerotic.

It must be stated, in defense of the film, that its sexuality is a component of its larger thematic aims. Lena’s sex is necessary, if not responsible, for her establishment as a woman equipped with radical intentions — it is expected, by this measure, that her romantic lifestyle echoes her politics; both are liberal and active.

In trial the film tempted many to its defense: film critics Stanley Kauffmann and John Simon, author Norman Mailer, a psychiatry professor and a church minister. There have been other high-profile entertainment trials, yet the case for I Am Curious – Yellow was the first and most important to discern the social relevance and responsibility of film.

Yellow progressed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The initial decision was split though the film ultimately won, and was seen to fit “within the ambit of intellectual effort that the First Amendment was designed to protect.”

In result the film became a minor novelty phenomenon (its domestic gross was over eight million — over eighty times what it cost to distribute). I Am Curious ushered in a decade in which the sexual boundaries of film were further expunged. Its legal success inspires another thought: that of sexual responsibility. The following decade found the marketable popularity of both pornography and films with explicit sex in service to narrative themes. I Am Curious – Yellow was the first.

Criterion’s I Am Curious boxed set presents both films in enormously improved transfers (my first viewing of Yellow was on VHS with unreadable subtitles, and this set’s presentation redeemed what attention I lacked in my first viewing).

Both Gary Giddens’ liner essay and John Lahr’s interview with Sjöman laud the film’s politics, though the material of most interest involves the film’s legal history. The Battle for I Am Curious – Yellow is a brief yet informative video essay that discusses the history of controversy in Yellow’s distributor, Grove Press, to the film’s ensuing trial. The set also includes excerpted testimonies from the film’s Supreme Court trial.

Sjöman’s comments on both films are sparse and informative. He reads from I Was Curious: Diary of the Making of a Film and focuses on his political goals and his reluctance to film traditional sex scenes.

In short, I found the films’ histories to be of most interest, and this set — even by Criterion’s stalwart standards — contains an effective and relevant assemblage of supplementary material.

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