1.04.2012

"Susie Bright's Erotic Screen": Uncovering the history of cinema's most maligned genre

Of all the writing that’s been done on pornography, few people are as successful in discussing its political implications alongside its cinematic properties as Susie Bright (Linda Williams is the other obvious example).  A feminist activist, pornography connoisseur, and self-proclaimed “film nerd,” Susie approaches sex on film with passion, intelligence, and eminent sanity.  The first of two volumes of her collected reviews, interviews, and essays, The Erotic Screen: The Golden Hardcore and Shimmering Dyke-Core, is newly available as an e-book from Smashwords.com.  With a few notable exceptions, such as a 1995 essay on the on-going debates over porn among feminists, the pieces are short, and if there’s anything to complain about regarding this collection, it’s simply that the brevity of its contents leaves us wanting more—Susie in long-form.  (Most of the pieces collected here ran as a column for Penthouse Forum in the late 1980s, in which she alerted readers to new and notable adult videos.)


Susie’s work is fascinating because it confronts so many of the prevailing assumptions about and attitudes toward erotic material—that it belongs exclusively to men, is uniformly hostile or unappealing to women, and is a source of shame and embarrassment.  Over and over again, Susie insists on pornography’s aesthetic and political value and the responsibility it owes to women in acknowledging female sexual desire and fantasy.  She’s merciless—and very funny—in interrogating porn clichés like the male money shot, which she calls “the thing I am most bored with in adult videos,” and in calling for more explicit representations of female pleasure; one of her criteria for a superior porn film, reiterated several times throughout the collection, is that “the woman comes.”  She also routinely criticizes images of so-called lesbian sex characterized by “prim breast-patting and actresses licking each other like postage stamps,” in which “no one ever loses control, and femininity is distilled into refinement—a perfectly smooth, glassy surface.  Hand me the hammer.” 

This collection gives us a valuable snapshot of the porn industry in the late 80s, when the funny, cleverly devised porn classics of the 1970s had largely given way to mass-produced, by-the-numbers video schlock.  When Susie describes a visit to the set of two John Leslie videos, it’s clear that she’s nostalgic for the auteur-driven days of Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger, two filmmakers she repeatedly lauds (interestingly, in discussing the porn canon she dismisses Deep Throat as “a stupid card trick” and “a terrible movie by which to judge your erotic appetite”).  She also understands pornography’s place within cinema history as an underground, avant-garde genre—a form of psychotronia.  “The hardcore era that began in the late 60s is now be understood as part of the wave of independent films that broke away from the Hollywood studio system,” she writes in the introduction.  “The erotic filmmakers were pioneers in the same league as the “spaghetti western” directors or the producers of clumsy horror and sci-fi flicks.”  Susie is one of the few people willing to write pornography back into the history of the movies.          

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