Visions of Clair (1977)

At first glance an unholy hybrid of grind-house thrills with art-house frills, Visions of Clair bears the dubious distinction of being the sole skin flick handled by erstwhile adult industry giant Cal Vista to actually lose money, following its disastrous theatrical run with a hermetic second life on VHS. All hail VCX then, fully redeeming their spotty track record by resurrecting this tough title, a hard sell from the get-go, as part of their Cal Vista Classics DVD distribution line, albeit sourced from a battered if mercifully complete film print with precious little evidence of "digital remastering".  I learned of the movie's existence through late adult authority Jim Holliday's 1986 tome "Only the Best" (inspiring a popular series of classic compilation tapes for publisher...Cal Vista !) in which he notoriously dismissed it as "cheater cryptic", apparently portentous yet ultimately devoid of meaning. Finally seeing it, a quarter of a century down the line, I would say Holliday was selling the film short. Dauntingly abstruse and more akin in style to underground than average adult cinema, the surprisingly sophisticated Clair clearly rewards multiple viewings, revealing its subtext only if one is willing to allow outside elements into the fray. It qualifies as the career pinnacle for filmmaker Zachary Youngblood, sort of a minor league Michael Zen straddling both straight and gay sides of the sex industry. More conventionally inclined fornication film fans might settle for Hot Teenage Assets, the jaunty joint venture he co-crafted with Daemian Lee of Baby Love & Beau obscurity.

Plot, such as it is, goes like follows. Blatantly disregarding the spelling the title suggests, "Claire" Vandermeer (Annette Haven) sits in silent perfection before struggling artist Ron (John Rolling, a minor league stud best remembered for his sensational threesome with equally elusive Christine Kelly and Sandi Pinney in Richard Kanter's unsung Untamed) whose frustration mounts as he's unable to capture his subject on canvas. He berates her beauty as being shallow and unattainable to the likes of him. Using her body as a peace offering, she proves him wrong, as the film's first burst of music (opening credits play out in complete quiet) kicks in, Beethoven's haunting 7th symphony utilized to such unforgettable effect in Tarsem Singh's phenomenal The Fall a few years back. Post coitus, they are joined by Ron's girlfriend Daphne (Haven's real life live in lover at the time, Bonnie Holiday), awkwardly making Claire's acquaintance.  Flash forward four years. Claire and Daphne are living together on the magnificent Vandermeer estate. Ron has apparently died, a fact Daphne fitfully "forgets" and Claire assures was "an accident". Another artist, Roahn (one shot Susan Bates), has been commissioned to paint a picture of both women and a third female figure (herself ?), representing Claire as a goddess - naturally - emerging from a large vaginal shape and carrying an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, with Daphne her doting priestess. The latter's apprehensive of Roahn whom she considers a contender for Claire's companionship. Meeting an antiques dealer in town for the acquisition of an ancient artifact, an Egyptian gold necklace she will bestow upon Daphne, Claire's deal is rudely interrupted by Roahn with motor-mouth David (Jay Gamble) in tow. Claiming to be a childhood friend of hers, who knew her "back when", David proves powerless in light of Claire's frosty reserve as she barely acknowledges his presence. Tellingly, he will subsequently fail to "rise to the occasion" in his attempt to make love to Roahn after she has passed out during their dinner date ! The past holds no power to hurt, is literally impotent, as David disappears from the story.

Retreating into isolation, the three women conjure up unbridled visions of carnal excess with Claire as its still (to the brink of non-participation) center, anonymous bodies flailing furiously, extreme close-ups effectively rendering them abstract. Narrative dissolves as obsession careens out of control. But exactly whose obsession are we dealing with here ? Claire's narcissistic self-absorption or Roahn's conflicted sexuality, with the ever servile Daphne acting as a conduit for consummation ? Surely, it can be no coincidence that Ron and Roahn are similar not just in name but physical appearance as well and that the female version supplants the male who has "died" in a way no one seems to recall. By extension, Ron/Roahn serves as cinematic alter ego for Youngblood whose bisexuality may have equally divided him. That the female side ultimately wins out - not just with this character but also in a society made up exclusively of women by film's end - must not be reduced to mere homosexual wishful thinking however. Many mythologies employ female imagery to symbolize life, growth and evolution with their male counterparts reserved for death, war and destruction. Roahn's dagger dance at the climax, super-imposed over Claire and Daphne's lovemaking, represents the clash between both irreconcilable extremes, Roahn dramatically damaging her/his body as passion mounts. Visual composition marks her/him as an outsider. Quite possibly, Claire never really existed in the first place and the visions (note the term's religious connotations) were but Ron/Roahn's projections of unattainable perfection, borne out of an unruly psyche. The disappearance of Roahn's self-inflicted stigmata signifies an acceptance of self, Youngblood's cinematic equivalent of "coming out" ?

Directed and written by Zachary Youngblood (a/k/a Zachary Strong).  Produced by Thomas W. Erp for Canard Films.  Photographed by James Stark.  Music by Ohm's Law.  Starring Annette Haven (Claire Vandermeer), Bonnie Holiday (Daphne), John Rolling (Ron), Susan Bates (Roahn), Jay Gamble (David), Richard Pleasence (Art Dealer), Sharon Thorpe, Michael Morrison and Veronica Taylor.  Running time : 72 minutes.