CAPSULE: APHRODISIAC! THE SEXUAL SECRET OF MARIJUANA (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Dennis Van Zak

FEATURING: John Holmes, Billy Curtis, and anonymous hippies

PLOT: A pro-pot documentary touting the aphrodisiacal properties of the titular herb, with brief

Still from Aphrodisiac!: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana (1971)

hardcore sex scenes to illustrate its key thesis.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s an absurd, exploitative historical oddity that’s worth noting, but it’s not nearly odd/hilarious enough to crack the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: Aphrodisiac! The Sexual Secret of Marijuana is an example of a type of film of enormous importance in the history of film censorship.  (Yeah, that’s why we wanted to check it out…)  In the years before Deep Throat (1972) beat the censors in court, would-be pornographers were trying to stay on the good side of the Roth obscenity test, which concluded that a work could discuss and arguably depict sex if it was not “utterly without socially redeeming importance” and so long as “the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole” did not “appeal to the prurient interest.”  A few sleaze sellers pounced on the documentary format as a promising way to provide “socially redeeming importance” while avoiding appealing “to the prurient interest” (at least, “as a whole”).  They released daring films with titles like Man & Wife: An Educational Film for Married Adults (1969), Pornography in Denmark (1970), and Sexual Liberty Now (1971) that included some hardcore sex scenes amidst the “serious” (i.e., seriously boring) discussion of social issues.  Aphrodisiac! falls into this brief tradition, but it’s extra-shameless in its willingness to meld sexploitation with drugsploitation while wrapping the whole thing in a semi-sincere wrapper of social relevance.  Aphrodisiac! bounces back and forth between documentary nuggets, obviously fake “man in the street” interviews, and graphic illustrations of cannabis’ connubial powers.  As a documentary the film is far from incisive, but really not as shoddy and misleading as you might have expected: prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger’s central role in influencing public opinion against the “killer drug” is highlighted, as is New York City mayor Fiorella La Guardia’s much-ignored 1939 study concluding that marijuana posed little threat to public health.  We also learn (correctly) that George Washington grew hemp (we even see black and white footage of the Father of the Country!) and that Indians harvested hashish by driving naked men through the ganja fields and scraping resin off their sweaty bodies (an idea that’s both dubious and disgusting).  The documentarians also throw in some statistics of questionable value (between 7 and 85 percent of soldiers in Vietnam used marijuana!)  For extra authenticity, some of the dialogue appears to have been written while the screenwriter was actually stoned (a “scientific researcher” advises, “if you’ve heard pot turns you into a junkie your entire life, you can’t expect to dig it your first time out,” while later the narrator reassures us that “marijuana contains no evidence of carcinogens, which is suspected of causing cancer.”)  The street interviews are amusingly edited so that background bystanders materialize and disappear.  One of the “random” street interviewees is character actor Billy Curtis (Terror of Tiny Town, Hellzapoppin’, and a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz).  A pedestrian in a three-piece suit actually reaches out and pinches his cheek as he passes by, but like a true pro Billy presses on with his answer without acknowledging it!

While these documentary moments provoke a mix of chuckles and eye-rolls, it’s the sex scenes that are meant to be the main attraction here.  The scenarios are even more absurd than the pro-pot factoids.  Weed’s erotic advantage over booze is demonstrated in a scene where a drunken guy can’t get it up when stimulated by a chick who’s high enough to cheat on her hubby.  A female writer meets a guy at a “marijuana party” and is inspired to poetize, “when his lips touched me I felt a sudden burning sensation in my vagina”—a line that’s destined to turn up either in her next romance novel or her next ad for yeast infection medication.  We also watch a bunch of people get naked and roll around at a therapeutic love-in, and two college students protesting for different causes who are brought together by the power of pot.  John Holmes plays a businessman whose secretary turns him on in more ways than one; marijuana not only solves his premature ejaculation problem, it also gives him psychological insight: “I had always used my penis as a club to beat women into submission… here, with this girl, I would make up for all the ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ beatings I had jumped on women since I lost my cherry at the age of 11.”  One man cures his wife of frigidity by secretly dosing his honey with hash brownies at their anniversary dinner.  This is an excellent technique for any man to follow if he wants to assure the divorce papers are filed as expeditiously as possible.  Contemporary porn devotees won’t find much that’s familiar here: the penetration scenes generally last for less than a minute, there are no “money shots,” and the performers actually seem to like one another.  As for eroticism, well—if you desire to see unwashed hippie genitalia, this will be your film of choice.  At present, it’s probably the dirtiest film you can actually buy on amazon.com.

Aphrodisiac! defies recommendation.  It’s a movie that’s more interesting to read about than to watch.  Thanks to the historical accidents surrounding its creation, it’s odd as hell.  But, although it’s intermittently inadvertently funny, it’s really not entertaining.  The documentary and pornography elements are constantly at war, insuring that the movie can’t be taken seriously either as information or as stimulation.  Its place in film history isn’t based on its quality but on its anti-censorship pedigree.  Yes, today our precious freedom to watch pornography free of plot and socially redeeming content rests largely on the sacrifices made by the incompetent smut-peddlers behind Aphrodisiac! The Sexual Secret of Marijuana.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…purports to be a look into the weird, wild world of weed and its link to whacked-out wubmaking (forgive me, but I was striving for alliteration). Instead, it’s … er, well, it’s quite something else.”–Rod Lott, The Oklahoma Gazette (DVD)

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