Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lust, Mad Love & Dirty Talk: Nelson Lyon's The Telephone Book

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, there was something very special and weird in the cinematic waters. Underground cinema, thanks to mavericks like Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, the Kuchar Brothers and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, Kenneth Anger, was in a golden age and opened the gates up for more filmmakers to experiment. Throwing rocks at the windows of the mainstream, the seeds planted started to bloom. That said, there was no other film that quite blended the worlds of the art underground, traditional narrative, the irreverent spirit and juvenile sexual humor quite like Nelson Lyon's “The Telephone Book.”

Made in 1971, “The Telephone Book” is the type of film that you are never fully prepared for. It doesn't matter what you may have read about it, you will never truly understand what kind of ride you will be in for until you actually sit down and let the images unfurl in front of you. Even then, after the last frame is finished, you will be sitting there, possibly scratching your coconut head, wondering “what the hell did I just watch?” Of course, these are all positive attributes leading up to the fact that there is nothing quite like this film.

The center of this experimental whirlpool is Alice (Sarah Kennedy.) A blonde gamine with a spartan apartment wallpapered floor to ceiling with repeated images of human coupling. She does her morning stretches and listens to “dial-a-prayer” on the radio. Life is a series of weirdly sexualised but rarely sensual vignettes for Alice, with the apex being a chance phone call from the master of dirty phone calls. The velvet voice caller whirls Alice's universe, leading her on a wild goose chase for the elusive Mr. Smith (Mr. Mad from “Tennessee Tuxedo” himself, Norman Rose). Down the rabbit hole Alice goes, running into a ridiculous stag film star by the name of Har Poon (veteran character actor Barry Morse), a thwarted flasher/bargain basement psychiatrist (Roger C. Carmel, best known for his turn as Harry Mudd on “Star Trek”) and a creepy housefrau with sapphic intentions (Jan Farrand), all in the quest to find her dream obscene talker.

 “The Telephone Book” is one kinetic comic book of a film. Not in the sense of the superhero “Zap! POW!” splendor, but more in the sense of vignette pacing and colorful characters. Like a doll eyed version of Candide, Alice is basically this ethereal girl chasing after the one man that's reached out to her and her dysfunctional id. Everything is played out so light, but with all of these strangely dark underpinnings. When Alice's friend (a pre-fame Jill Clayburgh), who goes unnamed and wears an eye mask throughout most of the film, asks her why can't Alice try to find her dream man at home via her own telephone, our heroine reveals that if she spends too much time at home, she fears that she will kill herself. Even after she meets her dream man, there are precise barriers that will prevent them from ever having a non-payphone based union. Then there is the question that is never really posed after the two have an all night phone fest in the absolute most bonkers section of the movie. The film, which up to that point has been in black & white suddenly switches to color, which is then criss-crossed with Len Glasser's crudely striking pornographic animation. The question, for me, is what is left? Presumably, Mr. Smith will keep tantalizing random women with his absurdest erotic phone calls, but what about Alice? 


Will she keep chasing Mr. Smith or will the all nighter sonic eros-fest do her in? That's the problem when you reach the mountain is that you either have to find a new mountain or fall to the ground. “The Telephone Book” is such a good film that stubbornly refuses to make any of this easy for you, which is eternally an aces move. The way the film is edited is one hair away from feeling like a Burroughsian cut-up. At different intervals, documentary style interviews come up, talking to an assortment of reformed obscene phone callers. My personal favorite is the gentleman whose new kind of kicks involves farting down an deserted alley. Hey, at least it won't get you arrested! 

Early on, Warhol Factory Superstar/cult writer, the inimitable Ondine pops up behind a desk, serving as what could only be described as the loosest definition of a Greek chorus ever. His segments are not very long and sparse, which is too bad since Ondine was an incredibly compelling personality. Speaking of fabulous Warhol related figures, Ultra Violet shows up as a whip wielding tigress at Har Poon's studio, looking sexier than any of the nude girls there in her shiny black clothes and surly expression. Rounding out the 6th degrees of Andy is go-go dancer Geri Miller, who was also in Paul Morrissey's “Trash.” Geri does her famous dance starkers for Mr. Poon's amusement, shimmying like both her rent and life depend on it. The ultimate Warholian move unfortunately is lost, with there originally being intermission footage of the man himself munching on popcorn.


Nelson Lyon created something really unique with “The Telephone Book.” Drenched in neurotic human sexuality but always a little too wry and caustic to ever be erotic, this is a film that straddles a line of being richly late 60's/early 70's and yet, due to its very own insane structure, is inadvertently timeless. Being sadly obscure for years, thanks to the continually stellar work of the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome, we now have this film looking gorgeous and available both on DVD and Blu Ray. 

Visually striking in ways you could not even dream of, such as the unforgettable sight of a youngish and aroused William Hickey, and the attitude of a thumb delightfully up the nose towards the status quo, “The Telephone Book is a subterranean gem.


  1. The Telephone Book was one of my ten or so favorite releases on home video this year. I simply loved the humor, the cast and Lyon's creativity. Having one of my favorite writers comment on it, as well as educate the reader with an appreciation for the actors involved, is a treat and worth sharing with future admirers of good cinema. Vinegar Syndrome should very grateful to have both a receptive viewer and a talented writer reviewing titles from their impressive catalog.

    1. David, I am intensely grateful for your wonderful support and fantastic words. Especially coming from one of the finest film writers out there right now! Thank you and yes, this film is truly something else to behold and bless it for being like that.

  2. There was something that happened in pop culture between 1967 and 1973 that never really survived outside that bubble, wasn't there? I've heard it said it was the acid, but I don't know that i believe that. There were just wild ideas and experimentation in the air...

    I've never seen this, or even heard of it, which is sort of strange. Good to see it's seeing the light of day again.

    1. Katy, I can see that and to be honest, I think we are so overdue another positive cultural revolution.