Return of Peter Berlin
A year ago, we were presented with a documentary on "Deep Throat," the pornographic shocker of 1972. This was probably only the third pornographic film to achieve general release. The times were indeed a-changin’—rapidly. Despite minimal production values and an absurd premise (the heroine’s clitoris was in her throat) "Deep Throat" may have grossed as much as 100 million dollars. The film was a landmark in another way. It conveyed to a mass audience that oral sex was more than merely foreplay. Conventional morality barred such activity completely. The most that the "advanced" marriage manuals of the time would concede was that fellatio and cunnilingus were merely foreplay, justifiable only to prime the main event--penis-in-vagina intercourse. Now viewers were presented with the new idea (scarcely new in practice, it just wasn’t discussed in public) that oral behavior could constitute a self-sufficient mode of sexual expression.
Now comes "That Man: Peter Berlin," a documentary film that opened in New York on Friday January 13. Any gay man who was an adult in the 1970s will vividly recall the mesmerizing figure of Peter Berlin. With his boyish face, highly sculpted pecs, and above all the tight-fitting pants that outlined his butt, he was an icon of the period. There were frequent sitings on the streets of San Francisco, his adopted home town. Berlin was an authentic living sculpture, much more so than those odious phonies, Gilbert and George.
Peter Berlin was born to a well-connected family in Germany ca. 1943. He first took the nom de porno of Peter Burian; then, when someone else with the surname of Burian complained, he changed it to Berlin. When one thinks about it, there is an odd trio of notable figures with that name: Irving, Isaiah, and Peter. But I digress.
As is common in the genre, Peter Berlin never made any significant money from his two main porno films. Today in his San Francisco apartment, where he was interviewed by the filmmakers, Berlin is surrounded by images of himself. To say that he is narcissistic would be an understatement. He still looks good, though. Over the years he declined to engage in anal sex, and didn’t care much for kissing either. Some, resorting to the vernacular, would say that he was a cockteaser, but that would be unfair. Peter Berlin was a self-fashioned artifact, to be appreciated as an image of sexuality, not its material enactment. A safe-sexer, Berlin did not get HIV/AIDS. He doesn’t seem to have turned tricks, at least not in the usual way. How did he make a living all those years? That is one point the film does not explain.
Peter Berlin was very different from other famed gay-male porno figures such as Casey Donovan and Joey Stefano, now deceased. But that was part of the story of the era; it was richer and more varied than one usually imagines.
In fact the seventies was a time of incredible energy, daring, and (taken in the main) durability. It erased the previous era and paved the way for the age we now live in.
[A friend notes that the sexual revolution began in America in the sixties. Fair enough. Yet it was not until the seventies that the phenomenon reached a critical mass. This is particularly true in such popular arts as film, where the process of dismantling censorship (and taboos that had long been informally observed), took some years. In the sixties the sexual revolution might have been regarded as a fluke, part of the general turbulence of the civil-rights and antiwar years. Many of us expected that it would not last. But instead of receding the new freedoms advanced.]