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 plot is sketchy, nightmarish.  A beautiful young white woman, Gloria (Marilyn Chambers), is abducted and taken to a private sex club, where she participates in a series of erotic rituals in front of an audience of masked spectators.  She is first attended to by a masseuse, then by a bevy of handmaidens dressed in black robes, then by a handsome black stud done up in kitschy African jewelry and white crotchless tights.  Soon an orgy has broken out among the members of the audience, and the entire spectacle builds to an orgasmic finale in which images of male ejaculation appear as they would in an avant-garde film.  At bottom, it is an avant-garde film—one in which sex becomes abstracted, heightened, de-familiarized.   

To read Behind the Green Door for tone is to discover just how strikingly difficult it is to place within conventional theories about pornography.  Shifting the focus away from the somewhat tiresome question of whether or not it empowers or degrades women—a question that continues to structure the critical conversation about the film—I want to direct our attention to its quite complicated affective register.  One of the reasons why Behind the Green Door is so odd is that pleasure and arousal are not the only feelings, perhaps not even the primary ones, that it facilitates.  Does Behind the Green Door want to get us off?  Perhaps, but it also seems determined to scare us, to unnerve us, and to pique our curiosity.  Its phantasmagoric art direction—the darkened room, the masked spectators, the silent figures dressed in black and white—invokes fear, suspense, and disorientation, not only on the part of Gloria (or so one presumes) but also on the part of the film’s audience.  That mime: what role does she play?  Her presence adds a certain sinister whimsy to the proceedings.  And what of the spectators themselves, who are probably the most motley crew ever to show up in a porn film?  Black, white, obese, scrawny, androgynous, sexy, ugly, elegant: their diversity reminds us of the wide range of affects that the film itself provokes.  Behind the Green Door audaciously suggests that pornography may, in fact, articulate other kinds of affects beyond titillation.  More next time.  

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