I Am Curious—Yellow (Jag är nyfiken—en film i gult)

I Am Curious—Yellow (Jag är nyfiken—en film i gult)
Director: Vilgot Sjöman
Screenplay: Vilgot Sjöman
Stars: Lena Nyman (Lena), Vilgot Sjöman (Vilgot Sjöman), Börje Ahlstedt (Börje, Lena's boyfriend), Peter Lindgren (Lena's Father), Chris Wahlström (Rune's Woman), Marie Göranzon (Marie, Börje's mistress), Magnus Nilsson (Magnus, Lena's school friend), Ulla Lyttkens (Ulla, Lena's friend)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: Sweden
I Am Curious—Blue (Jag är nyfiken—en film i blått )
Director: Vilgot Sjöman
Screenplay: Vilgot Sjöman
Stars: Lena Nyman (Lena), Vilgot Sjöman (Vilgot Sjöman), Börje Ahlstedt (Börje, Lena's boyfriend), Peter Lindgren (Lena's Father), Chris Wahlström (Rune's Woman), Marie Göranzon (Marie, Börje's mistress), Magnus Nilsson (Magnus, Lena's school friend), Ulla Lyttkens (Ulla, Lena's friend)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1968
Country: Sweden
I Am Curious DVD Cover
I Am Curious—YellowI Am Curious—Yellow would mostly likely be a forgotten movie—left somewhere in the multitudinous ranks of 1960s experimental avant-garde films that mix sex and politics—if the U.S. Customs Office hadn’t seized the first copy being imported by its distributor, Grove Press, into the United States in 1968.

In its misguided attempt to protect decent American citizens from Swedish obscenity, the government touched off a firestorm that caused I Am Curious—Yellow to become one the final straws that helped pull American cinema out from under years of prior restraint by the Production Code, the film industry’s long-since-outdated form of self-imposed censorship that had dictated the content of American films since the mid-1930s. Several court cases later, I Am Curious—Yellow was allowed to play in U.S. theaters, and, despite picketing and mixed reviews, it did $20 million worth of business from moviegoers dying to see on the silver screen what their counterparts in Europe had been seeing for years: bare skin and simulated copulation, all in the name of art.

I’m sure that back in the late ’60s when moviegoers flocked to the few theaters that were brave enough to show such a film, their minds were running away with dirty notions of what they might see. And some of them may have been duly shocked at what they saw . . . 40 minutes into the film.

Despite its raunchy reputation as the film that paved the way for everything from Last Tango in Paris (1972) to Showgirls (1995), I Am Curious—Yellow is a surprisingly dull affair. In fact, it often borders on trite silliness when it isn’t being overbearingly pretentious. It's more political than sexual, and the majority of the film is given over to endless ranting, meandering storylines, and journalistic-style interviews about the political climate in Sweden in the late ’60s. It is clear from the final product that there was no finished script in use while the film was shot, which gives it a sense of immediacy, but also one of sometimes tortured obliqueness.

The 22-year-old heroine of the story is Lena (Lena Nyman), an aspiring sociologist who is trying to get herself situated in a constantly changing world. She is insatiably curious about everything (although her leftist political outlook is already firmly entrenched), and she collects information in huge boxes organized alphabetically. The first 40 minutes of the film deal primarily with her interviewing people on the streets about their opinions on whether or not Sweden has a class structure, if women have the same job opportunities as men, and so on and so forth. It’s vaguely interesting for the first 10 minutes, but one can only watch so many man-on-the-street interviews involving the same questions before its gets tiresome.

However, that repetition makes the film’s politics stick with you, even more than the sexual imagery. A scene showing a man trying to explain why a doctor should make more money than a dishwasher, a group of Swedish youth in the streets protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam, footage of Dr. Martin Luther King explaining the tenets of nonviolence—in the end, these are the things we remember from the film. Unfortunately, though, they’re fractured moments that don’t always cohere with the film’s other material. It’s too shapeless and loose, and it’s easy for one’s attention to drift until the screen is once again filled with the infamous sexual interludes, which strike your attention not because of their heated eroticism (only a true bluenose could describe the sex here as arousing), but because of their honesty. The sex scenes in I Am Curious—Yellow are awkward, sometimes funny, but always genuine in a clumsy, pants-around-your-ankles kind of way.

The director, Vilgot Sjöman, started off in Swedish theater and moved on to cinema in the early 1960s. He directed I Am Curious—Yellow as a sort of cinema-verite mock documentary, casting himself as the director of the movie-within-a-movie and having all the actors use their real names. Although he began with modest intentions, he ended up shooting massive amounts of footage, the excess of which he edited into a second film that was released a year later as I Am Curious—Blue (yellow and blue being the colors of the Swedish flag).

I Am Curious—Blue is an entirely separate film from Yellow. Although it tells roughly the same kind of story with the same characters, it shifts its political emphases (for instance, while the Swedish monarchy is one of the prime targets for ridicule in Yellow, Blue focuses on the state church). Blue is also more self-referential, particularly in a sequence that depicts some deeply disturbing “fan letters” that accuse Lena Nyman of being a “whore” for her performance in Yellow. I Am Curious—Blue is not nearly as well known, though, because by the time it reached U.S. shores, the battle for I Am Curious—Yellow was over and the industry had been changed forever. By 1969, the X-rated Midnight Cowboy was being awarded Best Picture at the Oscars and hard-core porn was beginning to gain the mainstream acceptance that would lead to the film’s industry’s brief flirtation with “porno chic” in the early ’70s.

In both films, Sjöman used black and white photography with mostly handheld cameras, and the rough editing and sound is most likely done on purpose to give it a more immediate, documentary quality. But, that doesn’t stop the style from being distracting because there seems to be little reason why this particular story should be shot as a documentary. Oftentimes the action will stop in the middle of scene, and Sjöman will walk on-camera and begin coaching the actors about their lines. It’s a brash attempt at violating the diegesis, but it accomplishes little other than declaring the film’s artsy self-consciousness.

While I Am Curious—Yellow and its counterpart I Am Curious—Blue certainly represent an important moment in world cinema, both films have mellowed with age and are now merely curiosity pieces, rather than controversial explorations of politics and sex. I have no doubt that the MPAA would slap both films with an NC-17 rating if they were ever re-released into U.S. theaters (there’s far too much male frontal nudity), but despite their intrinsically biting nature, both films still feels droll and creaky when seen today.

I Am Curious Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Box Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Subtitles Swedish
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateMarch 11, 2003

1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
Gary Giddins gets it exactly right in the liner notes of this release when he writes about I Am Curious—Yellow’s previous availability: “The only available prints were washed out, with frequently unreadable and censored pale-white subtitles.” Having only seen the film once before on an aged video copy that gave me the impression of a cheap, grainy little film, I was startled and pleasantly surprised to see just how beautiful it looks in Criterion’s new high-definition transfer, which was made from new 35mm prints struck from the original negative and then digitally cleaned up with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Clear, sharp, and with excellent contrast and detail that maintains the image’s inherent grain structure, both films look great.

Swedish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Both films’ monaural soundtracks were mastered at 24-bit from 35mm optical track prints and restored with audio restoration tools. The resulting soundtracks are clean and generally hiss-free, although they both display the expected aural limitations of the equipment used..

Video introduction by director Vilgot Sjöman
In this six-minute video introduction shot in the spring of 2002, director Vilgot Sjöman discusses his career, the impact of I Am Curious, and his reasons for making it. Presented in 1.33:1.

Director’s diary
This is an audio commentary in which Sjöman offers his thoughts and reflections on selected scenes in both I Am Curious—Yellow and I Am Curious—Blue. The commentary is interesting to listen to, but it’s not spontaneous or in the moment; rather, it is mostly read from the text of I Was Curious: Diary of the Making of a Film, one of several books published in 1968 by Grove Press to cash in on the film’s notoriety.

Video interview with publisher Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia
This is a 12-minute conversation between Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, who was responsible for importing I Am Curious—Yellow into the U.S., and attorney Edward de Grazia, who successfully defended the film on appeal. Rosset discusses how he discovered the film and the economic impact it had on the U.S. film market, while de Grazia talks about the legal strategies he used. Presented in 1.33:1.

“The Battle for I Am Curious—Yellow” video essay
Narrated by film historian Peter Cowie, this well-done, but too-brief 8-minute video essay explains the history of Grove Press and its importation and the subsequent trials of I Am Curious—Yellow, as well as the lasting influence the film has had on the art world. It features numerous photographs of the principles involved, as well as newspaper clippings and book covers. Presented in 1.33:1.

Trial transcripts
Included here are excerpts of testimony from the well-publicized trial in May 1968 to determine whether or not I Am Curious—Yellow was legally obscene. Includes testimony from film critics Stanley Kauffmann and John Simon, Revs. Howard Moody and Dan M. Potter, Professor of Psychiatry Tom Levin, novelist Norman Mailer, and director Vilgot Sjöman. Presented in 1.33:1.

Theatrical trailer with an introduction by Sjöman
This is an amusingly odd trailer for I Am Curious—Yellow Sjöman shot himself. It was ultimately never used in any marketing campaign, so this is the first time anyone has seen it. Presented in 1.33:1.

Excerpts from Vilgot Sjöman’s Self-Portrait ’92
This self-reflexive, autobiographical documentary was made for Swedish television in 1992. Sjöman himself selected and edited the 18 minutes of excerpts included here. Although it offers some insight into Sjöman as a filmmaker and a person, it mainly underscores how much he loves to see himself on-screen. Presented in 1.33:1.

Deleted scene with an introduction by Sjöman
Considering that he shot and edited enough footage to make two separate features, one wouldn’t think there would be any deleted scenes left over. In this four-and-a-half minute scene deleted from Blue because Sjöman couldn’t “make it work,” Lena “abolishes” the state church by marching in and disrobing the archbishop while delivering a diatribe about all the damage the church has done over the years. Presented in 1.33:1.

Essay by critic Gary Giddins

Reprinted excerpts from a 1968 interview with Sjöman

Copyright © 1998, 2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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