4.24.2013

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.

This issue came to my attention when, while watching Deep Throat for the first time last weekend, I was struck by how unapologetically silly the damn thing is.  It is, as even the filmmakers admit, a comedy, and a pretty broad one at that.  Linda Williams claims that what she remembers most about going to see the film with friends was “how much we laughed.”  The groan-inducing one-liners (“mind if I smoke while you’re eating?”), combined with the puttin’-on-a-show feel of the sets and costumes, recalls bad community theater.  The title song, too, borders on doggerel (“Deep throat / Go row a boat / That’s all she wrote…”).  If films like Boys in the Sand and Behind the Green Door aspire to make porn into an avant-garde art, Deep Throat panders to a mass audience of the lowest common denominator: it attempts to legitimize porn by getting laughs, and it soon becomes clear that it will do anything for them, as evidenced by Harry Reems’ scenery-chewing performance as the loony Dr. Young, a stock character (as Richard Corliss points out) straight out of vaudeville.


Deep Throat’s mainstream success suggests that comedy had the power to relax American audience’s anxieties about graphic sex in a way that taking the matter seriously did not.  We might use this example to make a distinction, then, between the cheerfully up-tempo porn film exemplified by Deep Throat—porn in the comic register—and the darker, more surrealistic porn films such as Behind the Green Door, or the kind of languid, pornotopic lyricism of Boys.  It turned out to be Deep Throat’s silliness, its insistence on the comic fun of sex rather than on its psychic intensity, that provided the key to its appeal: the market favors sex as comedy. 

I’d like to return to this issue later this week, when I discuss Behind the Green Door.  For now, here’s that theme song in all its glory:    



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