The Complete Rubdown : Matching the Masseuses (1990-2004)

Frequently accoladed by crossover adult movie repertories as the perfect pick to nudge your significant other from simulation to penetration, it almost seems unfair to rigidly confine former performer Paul Thomas' groundbreaking Masseuse to the porno genre, even though containing elements which inevitably place it in that category. For many, this flick will be judged as too soft on sex, basically just two people in one extended encounter, spread out over four explicit scenes. Other characters are represented only peripherally to the central relationship growing between virginal 28-year old librarian Jim Mitchell (Randy Spears) and the sympathetic masseuse he frequents, Barbara (Hyapatia Lee), their subtle shifts in dynamics beautifully conveyed through the insightful writing from Mark Haggard, best known for co-directing (with Bruce Kimmel) his closest to mainstream movie : the silly yet highly enjoyable The First Nudie Musical.  Haggard had helmed close to 'core classics The All-American Girl and its sequel of sorts The All-American Woman for mythical Manuel S. Conde in the early '70s as an attempt to emulate the extraordinary box office bonanza Radley Metzger's Audubon Films had scored with Mac Ahlberg's I, a Woman cycle.  Still, it is undoubtedly Haggard's profoundly personal 1971 The Love Garden, where a playboy unintentionally disrupts a lesbian couple's romantic bliss, that plays closest to the intimate minimalism that marks The Masseuse. Coupled with towering career performances from both leads, who would be re-teamed on several occasions (perhaps most memorably in Centerfold, arguably Bud Lee's ace adult achievement), the original Masseuse makes for a perfectly realized gem, easily one of the finest features to come out of the late '80s/early '90s period, representing a particularly barren wasteland for the American adult industry. The 2004 remake retains the original's director yet streamlines the story into a more conventional format as more than two people are allowed to make the beast with two backs. Reshuffling character motivations to suit his new stars while also retaining Haggard's intentions in chrysalis form, PT offered an intriguing twist on familiar material by shedding new light on larger than life porno queen Jenna Jameson who has never been better.

Presumably a great many people acquired the first movie on DVD as an extra to the updated rendition so, regrettably, they might not see it as more than a bare bones rough sketch. Both movies kick off identically with its male protagonist (sharing name with the levelheaded half of San Francisco's illustrious sex industry siblings) stuck in a dead end job, looking to the personal ads for a way out. While crushing co-worker Amy (nicely played by Spears' then real life spouse Danielle Rogers) attempts to get him to ask her out on a date, his debilitating shyness keeps him from acting on what's obviously a mutual attraction. One of the most accomplished actors ever in adult, Spears has to overcome the additional handicap of being almost ridiculously handsome (think gay porn level), making it seem most unlikely that some enterprising female wouldn't have taken initiative by now but he makes viewers buy into the premise through sheer thespian talent. Faced with the comparatively less daunting role of a worldweary masseuse with a few restless skeletons of her own in the closet, luscious Lee (already something of a veteran, having made her dirty movie debut back in 1983 with Bob Chinn's starstudded The Young Like It Hot) miraculously matches him every step of the way, their sizzling chemistry absolutely essential for the story to work. Obtaining a genital shaving, manual and oral relief on separate visits, Jim ultimately asks Barbara to come to his house, at which point the narrative diverges most substantially from the new millennium version. Initially acquiescing to his request of tying her up, Barbara has a panic attack at the last moment, a considerably more realistic reaction than Jenna's quiet done it all acceptance of the subsequent and admittedly eye-popping B&D session, which still managed to come across as being in character because of the (off-screen) person involved. There are a few unexpected twists, even if you have already watched the remake, until the film reaches its wistful ending that seemed abrupt the first time but has grown consistently more resonant whenever revisited.

Chances are, if you have been watching porn for as long and in such ill-advised quantities as I have, that you have pretty much seen every sexual variation known to man and then some. However, when was the last time that you could honestly say you saw two people making love and not have it sound like a euphemism demanded by polite society ? Now I'm not talking about stereotyped fireplace 'n' candles romantic encounters since those are about a dime a dozen but a man and a woman (or two guys or two gals, equal opportunity obliging) pleasuring each other the way we supposedly all do in real life with talking, laughing and awkward moments along the way kept intact. In that respect, this is indeed a perfect starter film for couples to enjoy but good luck trying to find others just like it.  In part out of economic necessity, resources having dwindled down to a shadow of their former selves since the industry's heyday when movies still received amply attended theatrical screenings, PT had to work with a small technical crew who make up in talent for what they lack in number. Not that this type of intimate endeavor should warrant or could even sustain the more "important" approach that throwing more money at it might have generated. Cinematographer Jack Remy favors uncluttered, deceptively simple compositions with flattering diffuse lighting, edited together by Michael Zen with a Swiss watchmaker's precision that could hardly be any less ostentatious. Best of all is Michaelangelo's eerie tinkling soundtrack, one of the best ever in porn and wisely carried over in its entirety for the remake. As a gifted singer and composer himself who famously played Peter in Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar and wrote several superb songs for adult movies including Bob Chinn's Let's Get Physical and Jeff Fairbanks' Fantasyworld, PT knows the importance of scoring sex appropriately for maximum an impact, an underrated art of which he delivers a virtual textbook example.

Perhaps mirroring to some extent the creative drought plaguing mainstream Hollywood, the jizz bizz seemingly sought to remake several of its greatest hits once the Y2K hullabaloo had died down. Paradoxically to what you might expect, their attempts proved considerably more successful than those of their "real world" counterpart, possibly due to the key involvement of talented thespian turned fornication filmmaker PT who crafted perfectly honorable recreations of Debbie Does Dallas, The Devil in Miss Jones, Deep Throat (admittedly retaining little beyond the central conceit for his 2009 Throat : a Cautionary Tale) as well as his own Masseuse, which he had incidentally already expanded into a lucrative franchise for Vivid with award-accumulating second and third instalments. The original had proved a daring experiment at the time and as such certainly didn't please everyone. Basically a single sex scene evolving over the course of an entire movie, the film narrowed its focus to a minimalist degree by including non-sex supporting characters for narrative purposes only. While this approach brought plaudits from fans worn down by formula, to a great many other it just wasn't porn anymore.

Tellingly, for his revised version, PT has "opened up" the condensed source material, retaining the original Haggard script almost entirely with additional scenes courtesy of talented scribe Dean Nash who wrote his instant classics Bad Wives and Fade to Black but allowing his characters to "see other people" as it were. Inevitably resulting in a more conventional carnal cinema format, the expanded script fortunately also succeeds in shifting nuance so it doesn't feel at all like a dumbed down rendition of a daring original. The basic situation stays the same. Lonely male virgin Jim (Justin Sterling), alleviating long office hours with an addiction to Internet porn, goes to visit a massage parlor in the seedier side of town. He's welcomed by sympathetic receptionist Tina Tyler, in a characteristically terrific turn, who casually informs him of all the possibilities and their prices before he settles on Barbara (Jenna Jameson) who just happens to be free. A match made in Heaven, or maybe it's the other place, and the two of them get to know one another over a series of professional encounters, Barbara bending her no touching policy to include manual then oral relief and eventually accepting Jim's invitation to visit his home. As in the original, he has a considerable collection of S&M paraphernalia but while this initially scared off his reluctant lady love, this time she embraces it wholeheartedly. This provides the quintessential breaking point between both movies, where the remake diverges dramatically and takes on a radically different identity of its own. While Barbara's intentions were primarily monetary yet basically benign in the original, her motivations prove far more sinister and harder to fathom on this occasion. Ironically, Vivid commissioned this "update" for its extremely bankable contract star and her heavily publicized real life paramour. Thomas tweaks the narrative to such an extent that Barbara might be viewed as its villain, milking Jim's dependence for all it's worth, having him wait by the phone for calls that never come. He also offers a clever twist on the presence of a baby in her "private" life, which seemed like a flubbed scene at first ("revealing" the bundled up tot as a toy doll, partially referencing Hyapatia's post closing credits public service announcement revelation) but presumably was no such thing once you think about it.

A potentially superfluous subplot has office co-worker Maya Devine (who took center stage in Michael Raven's endearing Women on Top) coming on to an increasingly distant Jim with buddy Evan Stone (about a million miles removed from his Fabio-like brooding hunk in Veronica Hart's superlative Ginger Lynn showcase Taken) stepping in to literally fill the void ! An obvious side effect of expansion, this temporary distraction from the central coupling could have been disastrous if both parts hadn't been played so sympathetically, resulting in an (albeit minor) audience investment wanting to see them get together as well. Savanna Samson, the impressive "New" Miss Jones, is wasted dramatically though put to good use sexually as Barbara's friend and colleague hired to "put on a show" for our out of his league anti-hero. Interestingly, Thomas has spun a few downright subversive variations on the film's central coupling while still delivering the tabloid-inspired star vehicle the production company was clamoring for, making its more "conventional" appearance merely skin deep. While neither Jenna nor Justin possesses the versatility of their illustrious predecessors, both fit the bill visually (Sterling making a more convincing nerd than matinee idol Spears, for instance) and show a good grasp of character that outdoes most of their previous work. It goes without saying that they have incredible chemistry, perhaps even a little too strong at the outset when they're supposed to be perfect strangers feeling each outer out, adding another jagged wrinkle to an increasingly distorted reflection rather than remake, stirring in the performers' public personae to enrich and customize their screen characters.

The Masseuse (1990)
Directed by Paul Thomas. Written by Mark Haggard. Produced by Thomas for Vivid Entertainment. Photographed by Jack Remy. Music by Michaelangelo. Edited by Michael Zen. Starring Hyapatia Lee (Barbara), Randy Spears (Jim Mitchell), Danielle Rogers (Jamie), Porsche Lynn (Massage Parlor Receptionist), Paul Thomas (Jack), Viper & Bud Lee. Running time : 85 minutes.

The Masseuse (2004)
Directed by Paul Thomas. Written by Dean Nash & Mark Haggard. Produced by Shylar Cobi for Vivid Entertainment. Photographed by Jane Waters & Guillermo Brown. Music by Michaelangelo. Edited by Sonny Malone. Starring Jenna Jameson (Barbara), Justin Sterling (Jim Mitchell), Savanna Samson (Helen), Maya Devine (as Wendy Devine) (Amy), Evan Stone (Brad), Tina Tyler (Massage Parlor Receptionist), Mandy Bright, Frank Gun, Rob & Rachel Rotten. Running time : 92 minutes.

Star of stage and screen in various stages of undress, Paul Thomas got a second wind as a filmmaker of surprising sensitivity and imagination as the millennium drew to a close