The pornographic canon: "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973)

Ordinary people: Georgina Spelvin as the star of The Devil in Miss Jones.

Is the ability to sexually arouse the spectator a pre-condition of pornography?  It’s a question I began thinking about while watching Behind the Green Door, which I found fascinating but largely un-sexy.  The Devil in Miss Jones (dir. Gerard Damiano, 1973) provoked much the same response for me.  It may be, of course, that the mostly hetero sex in both of these films isn’t much to my taste.  But I’d like to propose that the popularity and success of a film like The Devil in Miss Jones does not rest solely on its power to get audiences off.  In his attempt to integrate elements of narrative cinema into his hard-core sex films, Damiano seems to have made a film in which sexual arousal comes to feel beside the point.

The Films of 2013: Stories We Tell

“Why would anyone be interested in hearing the story of our family?” one of actor-director Sarah Polley’s sisters asks near the beginning of her latest film, Stories We Tell, which I had the good fortune to catch at this year's Boston Independent Film Festival.  But this enigmatic and highly entertaining documentary portrait of Polley’s parents arrives at insights about the unknowability of truth and about the desire for narrative coherence that lend a profundity to what might otherwise have become an exercise in navel-gazing.  It joins Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) in the tradition of documentary films about seemingly ordinary families and the secrets they keep. 


The pornographic canon: "Behind the Green Door" (1972)

Marilyn Chambers at the center of a ritualistic sex performance in Behind the Green Door.

Earlier this week I proposed that we might make distinctions between different types of hard-core pornographies on the basis of tone.  Just as the rollicking bawdiness of Fanny Hill takes place worlds away from the spare, nihilistic horrors of Histoire de l’oeil, the basically comic approach to hard-core sex that we find in Deep Throat should be distinguished from attempts by films like Behind the Green Door (dir. Artie and Jim Mitchell, 1972) to explore the ritualism and mysteriousness of sex.  Even seen today, alongside the twenty-first century's glut of explicit online pornography, Behind the Green Door is a powerful film, creepy and bizarre.  It’s shocking, not because it’s necessarily any more graphic than what we’re likely to see online (if anything, it’s comparatively restrained) but rather because it’s so conceptually ambitious.  (I challenge readers to come up with any other hard-core film in which clowns and mimes figure prominently.)   


The pornographic canon: "Deep Throat" (1972)

Sex is comedy: Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems in Deep Throat.

It’s becoming apparent to me that tone is a crucial—and largely underanalyzed—element of hard-core pornographic films, one to which we might pay closer attention in order to understand their appeal.  Tone, which varies quite dramatically within porn films, allows us to begin to make important distinctions within the genre.  I’m becoming less convinced by the claim, made by some anti-pornography feminists, that all porn is the same—that, at bottom, it may be boiled down to a single fantasy of male power (to paraphrase Andrea Dworkin’s argument).  Having watched Boys in the Sand, Deep Throat (dir. Gerard Damiano, 1972), and Behind the Green Door (dir. Artie and Jim Mitchell, 1972) in succession, it occurs to me that such universalizing claims don’t hold.  While all three of these films depict hard-core sex, they unfold within entirely different erotic universes and articulate quite different sexual fantasies.  By paying attention to the tonal differences between them, we may begin to map the different uses to which images of hard-core sex may be put.


The Films of 2013: Room 237

In Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s spellbinding and brilliantly edited new essay-film, a handful of writers, historians, and armchair critics offer up spirited, though sometimes baffling, interpretations of The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic.  The theories range from the conspiratorial to the ideological.  One interviewee believes that Kubrick was hired by NASA to shoot fake footage of the Apollo moon landing, covert references to which are embedded within the film.  Others argue that the source of the film’s horrors lie in the repressed genocides on which Western civilization is founded.  Another viewer of the film confesses to spending hours watching and re-watching the film in search of those small visual details, often related to Kubrick’s use of objects and on-screen space, that don’t make sense (what we might call, invoking Derrida, deconstructive moments); after attempting quite literally to map the film, she decides with a kind of amused astonishment that it ultimately defies coherence.


The pornographic canon: "Boys in the Sand" (1971)

Casey Donovan emerging from the water at the beginning of Boys in the Sand.

                           “He will then be reborn
                           From 1970s porn
                           Wearing tube socks with style
                           And such an innocent smile […]
                           He will fall from the star
                           Studio 54
                           And appear on the sand
                           Of Fire Island’s shore…”
                                                             --Rufus Wainwright, “Gay Messiah”

Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (1971) was not the first work of hardcore moving-image pornography, gay or otherwise, but it can be seen as marking a shift in the way that gay sex, and later straight sex, was represented on-screen.  Its significance to the history of pornography is largely tonal, which is to say that Boys in the Sand is noteworthy not for the explicitness of its images but rather for imbuing them with an unprecedented naturalism.  Gay sex in Boys in the Sand, often staged al fresco, is just another thing under the (Fire Island) sun.  Its scenes unfold with commensurate ease, and its actors exude health and confidence rather than shame.  When Casey Donovan comes running out of the water onto the beach, he’s an object of fantasy, but he looks like the boy next door.  He’s the opposite of every image of the homosexual as dirty old man: warm-eyed, clean-limbed, blonde, fresh, sweet-tempered—the gay Marilyn Monroe.  We might compare his screen persona to those of Linda Lovelace and Bambi Woods, who effectively made names for themselves as the all-American girls of the blue-movie business. 

Casey Donovan: the boy next door as sex god.

Such innocent smiles, indeed.  Donovan and Lovelace gave hard-core sex a facelift: with them, sex would be like ice cream, as Norman Mailer famously said of Monroe.  Angela Carter put it more acidly: she wrote of Lovelace that “her queasily kitsch prose style, her leer, her simper, her naïvety, her schoolgirl humor effectively antiseptizes all the danger from that most subversive and ambivalent aspect of our selves.”  It’s true, too, that Donovan robs gay sex of some of its transgressive appeal: he’s so damned nice-looking that he lacks any kind of tension or mystery.  (Sometimes one does not want sex to taste like ice cream.)  At the same time, as Linda Williams points out in her reading of the film in Screening Sex, Boys in the Sand must be understood as a watershed moment in gay history; its naturalization of gay sex was of immense benefit to gay audiences (and, insofar as it indirectly helped legitimize straight pornography, to straight audiences as well).  Later films, such as Poole’s own Bijou, would restore some of the darkness and the edge to hard-core sex, and in any case no single film should have to shoulder the burden of representing everything that the medium can do.  We should appreciate Boys in the Sand on its own terms, as a beautifully languid hour in the sun.  

Peter Fisk runs into the water at the end of the first segment of Boys in the Sand.


The Films of 2013: Upstream Color

The experience of watching Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color—described in one synopsis as a “romantic thriller science fiction film”—is a heady one; it’s not always clear what’s going on, and even when you’ve begun to piece together the plot it remains uncertain why it matters, though it’s so visually stunning that it makes up for its largely incoherent plot.  The film opens with a sequence in which Chrissy (Amy Seimetz), an attractive young professional, is kidnapped by a male stranger who proceeds to perform a bizarre set of medical experiments on her body; we later learn, or perhaps we don’t, that her kidnapper uses tissue from his human and animal subjects to harvest a particularly brilliant species of orchid.  It’s an elaborate MacGuffin for what becomes the story of the process by which Chrissy and a fellow victim (played by Carruth), who have since fallen in love but who remember nothing about their abduction, begin to discover what has been done to them. 


The pornographic canon

Viewing pleasures: Dorothy LeMay in Kirdy Stevens' Taboo (1980).

Having spent the last several months watching and thinking about horror films, it seems only logical to move on to another of what Linda Williams calls the body genres: hard-core pornography.  (Melodrama, according to Williams, constitutes a third body genre, and I would also add comedy to the list.)  While hard-core pornography is consumed at staggering rates, and while it continues to be hotly debated by moralists, feminists, filmmakers, and philosophers, the “classic” porn films of the 1970s and early 1980s are rarely seen or talked about much anymore.  They are also notoriously difficult to access—many have not been given proper DVD releases, a notable exception being Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), which was lovingly restored for DVD and Blu-ray just last year.  For the next several weeks, then, I’d like to look at these films with fresh eyes, as it were, in order to see what they tell us about the era of “porno chic” and about hard-core pornography in general.


The Films of 2013: To the Wonder

As I was watching Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder it occurred to me once again that he may be the D. H. Lawrence of the cinema—he has the same knack for grand, sweeping lyricism, and for infusing the most intimate of moments with a certain cosmic power.  He’s unapologetic in his attraction to the kinds of big, weighty themes (God, love, nature, etc.) that not many other artists bother to tackle anymore.  In this regard, Malick’s films can feel both audaciously bold and laughably old-fashioned; visually, they’re nearly always stunning, but you often get the sense that Malick is dealing with ideas that went out of fashion more than a century ago.  His previous film, The Tree of Life, succeeded largely because it took both its images and its ideas to such extremes that it really felt impossible not to regard it with a certain awe.  So one can’t help but feel disappointed with To the Wonder, which looks lovely, of course, but lacks ambition.  Beyond its rather unremarkable love story, to which it clumsily appends a subplot involving a frustrated priest, there’s not much there to warrant Malick’s epic treatment.


In memoriam: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

When I was about ten years old I discovered Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which seemed to me an invaluable resource.  I was tickled by the idea that you could look up any title and learn, in the course of a few terse sentences and a handy star rating, whether it was worth seeing or not.  Then I discovered Roger Ebert.  I came across a collection of his print reviews, which were then being published annually as Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion, at the local bookstore.  I was immediately confused.  I saw that he used a star rating system similar to Leonard Maltin’s, but these were not capsule reviews.  They were, like, long.  Nevertheless, he liked Poltergeist (or at least had given it three stars), and I liked Poltergeist, so it seemed he could be trusted.  My parents, bless them, bought me the book.


The old, dark house

Tapping into one of the horror genre's oldest scenarios: The Girl and The House.

Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) is a welcome relief from those recent horror movies that either try to scare audiences by piling on the gore (as in the Saw films) or else try to win them over by affecting a tongue-in-cheek cleverness (as in the recent Cabin in the Woods).  While House of the Devil evokes the style of late ’70s/early ’80s horror, mainly in its opening title sequence, it’s not interested in pastiche, nor does it rely on gimmicks or snark.  All it wants to do its scare the hell out of you.  It succeeds, largely because it returns to one of the most reliable of horror-story scenarios: that of The Girl and The House.  West doesn’t inflate it with a lot of complicated backstory, plot twists, or extraneous characters.  He simply arranges a series of familiar but reliable scares, much as a jazz musician covers a book of standards.  Because he covers them well, The House of the Devil ends up feeling fresh rather than tired or cliché.  It inspires us to recognize the conventions of the horror genre and to re-appreciate them—as opposed to mocking them or attempting to spin elaborate and supercilious theories around them, as The Cabin in the Woods does.