Analyzing the documentary A Labor of Love is a tricky business. Brief but focused and interesting, it’s a movie about movies, tracking production of a low-budget indie called The Last Affair that was made in Chicago, and the documentarians capture elements of artistic obstacles, cast misbehavior, financial pressure, sudden production problems, and the tedium of creating films one camera angle at a time. None of that, however, suggests the film’s main hook and the reason why it’s so complicated to discuss. Prior to principal photography on The Last Affair, backers told director Henri Charr to include hardcore sex scenes or else kiss his budget goodbye—so by the time documentarians Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman began filming life on the set of The Last Affair, they had become journalists tracking the creation of pornography.
This turn of events created two problems, both intermingled with aesthetic and social considerations. Firstly, because A Labor of Love concerns a “real” movie that morphed into porn, A Labor of Love isn’t truly a documentary about the “porn chic” movement that thrived during the early ’70s. There’s a big difference between this film’s squirm-inducing scenes of uninhibited men and women screwing on camera and, say, fly-on-the-wall coverage of professional adult-film stars grinding away on a soundstage in Southern California. A Labor of Love illustrates the surreal working conditions of porn sets without saying anything about the porn industry. Secondly, the documentarians cross enough lines of decorum and good taste to become pornographers themselves. During its theatrical release, A Labor of Love carried an X-rating because it features countless closeups of female genitalia, as well as male-gaze favorites including female masturbation and attractive women receiving oral sex. Yet there’s barely more than a fleeting glimpse of male frontal nudity, suggesting the documentarians felt the true value of their work wasn’t satisfying intellectual curiosity, but rather inspiring hard-ons.
The most frustrating thing about A Labor of Love is that it’s made well. The on-set footage is steady and vivid, no easy feat given all the chaos and varying lighting patterns of an active film set, and the sit-down interviews are revelatory, with Charr discussing his anguish about the porn requirements and actresses sharing regret after filming exploitive scenes. Parsing the respectable documentary buried inside the skin show, the best moments involve a hopped-up stud failing to rouse—necessitating the use of a stand-in—and the use of liquid soap to create a skeevy cinematic illusion. Although A Labor of Love lacks all sorts of important context, including postmortem interviews exploring what happened with The Last Affair, it conveys some truth, as when a crew member remarks that filming coitus is like making an industrial film, all numbing repetition. Heavy on the labor, light on the love.
A Labor of Love: FUNKY