Heavy Petting

Institute History


Heavy Petting is a comedy about teenage passion during America’s past. Through archival footage, we glimpse the growing up of America at midcentury. In addition, individuals as diverse as musicians David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, comedienne Sandra Bernhard, and writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg talk in revealing, often-funny ways about their own teenage sexual experiences.

Using both obscure and familiar sources—newsreels, an educational and feature films of the 1950s—Obie Benz shows kids being preached to by parents, terrified by anti-Communists, courted by advertisers and tormented by people. It was a generation of youth caught between the last gasp Victorian self-restraint and the dawning of a new sexual expression and identity.

Heavy Petting also immerses us in the culture of the fifties. The archival images that Benz and his editors select throw switch in our minds: we see the clothes, the cars, the appliances; we hear the slang, the songs, the news reports. Little boys are pushed into boxing rings, little girls into beauty contests. Teachers deliver stiff lectures on “How Much Affection?” and warn against “Perversion For Profit” while the very next minute, newsreels document the “best legs” contest, with masked women in skirts billowing waist high.

Ultimately Heavy Petting reveals that sex in the fifties was used to sell, and teens were encouraged to buy—everything but the idea of sex itself. The “witnesses” in the film recall their confusion and frustrations. Sometimes they rebelled. Oftentimes they blundered. But all survived the trials of puppy love intact.

— Tony Safford

Screening Details

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