Tropic of Cancer (1970) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The author Henry Miller had a rare combination of professions: he was a pornographer and a sensitive poet. He is the modern Catullus, in that his poetic prose avoids romance and "lovemaking" in order to examine the joys of flat-out fucking. In order to appreciate Miller's style, it is essential to get a feel for the extraordinary juxtaposition of elegant, heartfelt prose with profane subject matter. That can sometimes work brilliantly on paper, but it's just not easy to capture all of that in a film. The sexy part is fairly easy, but mixing it with the sensitive observations is no small hurdle to leap. This movie had difficulty synthesizing this sense of sacred and profane in harmony. The film tried to evoke its literary roots, now with a Rip Torn voice-over consisting of Miller's actual prose, then with some poetic shots of the beauty of Paris, but it never really seemed to succeed.

A second great weakness of the film is that the script could never find anything to focus on. The story we see is a string of vignettes, and the separate episodes don't really seem to lead anywhere. Many scenes seem to concentrate on minor characters for much too long, and without apparent purpose. A picaresque effort like this can succeed, but it has to draw its impact from great individual scenes and the charm of characterization. This film has some of that, but not enough to make it really involving. The whole project gives off a vibe that somebody said "let's make a film of Tropic of Cancer" without actually feeling any passion for why they wanted to do that.

The late 60s and early 70s were a time when filmmakers were casting off their yokes and flexing their muscles in terms of explicit sexuality, and this film was one of the most daring American films of the era. There is no penetration, nor even any penises to be seen, but the film supplies plenty of female frontal nudity, is fairly explicit in the sexual scenes, and is extremely explicit in its use of language. That was crazy stuff in 1970. Today, even 35 years after this film was made, it is rare to hear the word "cunt" in an American film, but you'll hear it repeated frequently and rhapsodically in Tropic of Cancer. It is also shocking to see Ellen Burstyn in such a flagrant display of nudity. I suppose you know that she has been nominated for six Oscars, winning one for Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More. All of those more modest roles came after her total frontal nudity in this movie.  She also did some topless nudity later in her career, in The Ambassador and The King of Marvin Gardens, but she would never again show her pubes after Tropic of Cancer. It's too bad she got so conservative, because she looks mighty good naked! You younger guys who saw her in Requiem for a Dream probably can't imagine just how damned sexy she once was.

Tropic of Cancer is not a very good movie, and it is not very good Henry Miller, but you can watch this film and not feel you've wasted your time. It has value as a historical curio, some of the locales are accurately evocative, and Rip Torn is reasonably credible (and surprisingly handsome!) in the lead.

No DVD info

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  • Ellen Burstyn - full frontal nudity
  • Magali Noel - topless
  • Stefanie Steafel - topless
  • Various extras and minor characters - full frontal nudity

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C-. It has to be the world's most boring sex movie, but it offers sporadic pleasures that may be of interest to you.

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