On a recent episode of Mad Men, set in 1969, Jon Hamm’s jaundiced and perpetually cool ad exec Don Draper mentioned seeing a movie called I Am Curious Yellow, and he cheekily claimed to have been “scandalized” by the ”dirty movie.” Even for a series stuffed to the brim with period detail, this mention probably struck most viewers under 60 as arcane, and probably sent them scrambling to the Wiki page for clarity.
So just what the heck was all the fuss about? Originally released in 1967, I Am Curious Yellow is one those cultural artifacts that are more referenced than seen anymore and nearly fifty years later it’s become a true curiosity. While the title was once a synonym for smut, the reality on screen is a far cry from salacious: A pair of lumpy, radical documentarians carry on a tepid affair in-between taping man-on-the-street interviews about the class struggle in Sweden. It was shot in grungy black-and-white, and framed by the era’s “kitchen sink” realism, and with matter-of-fact nudity, including a flaccid penis, presented with zero glamour.
Still, the movie caused a commotion in ’68 when customs agents seized the prints in New York, generating must-see buzz for a flick that otherwise would have faded into art-house obscurity. The hot ticket sales and gallons of ink spilt over this little import would set the stage for the “legitimate” porn fad of the next few years, which found well-heeled suburban couples lining up to watch smutty titles like Deep Throat in downtown movie theaters.
For all its hype and impact, the critical response to Yellow has always been pretty muddled at best. Roger Ebert was hilariously blunt in his assessment: “Two hours of this movie will drive thoughts of sex out of your mind for weeks. See the picture and buy twin beds.” There is a companion piece, labeled “Blue” (both named for the color of the Swedish flag), but it never enjoyed the infamy of its predecessor. Fifty years ago, when porn wasn’t always at our fingertips, the sexual content here was groundbreaking, but now it mostly serves as a fascinating snapshot of a more raw, innocent but maybe a lot more honest time.