4.29.2013

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.

To begin with, almost none of the film’s actors fit the conventional porn-star image, even according to the somewhat relaxed standards of the 1970s.  The appeal of the wonderfully affecting Georgina Spelvin—playing our heroine, the doomed Miss Jones—doesn’t rest on her sexual desirability; she’s hardly Brigitte Bardot.  In fact, within the diagetic world of the film itself, Spelvin/Jones is presented as downright un-desirable.  The film opens with her alone in her apartment, gazing with longing at strangers in the street below, then gazing in the mirror at her naked body with an attitude of defeated sexual frustration.  After she commits suicide and awakens in limbo, we learn that she has died an “old maid.”  It’s possible to see her sexual inexperience as a source of sexual pleasure for those watching the film; the defloration of virginal women (and sometimes men) has of course always been a pornographic trope.  But to signify as an old maid as Spelvin does here (she was thirty-six, already over-the-hill by industry standards) is quite different than to signify as a young one.  My point here is simply that Spelvin’s “advanced” age and average looks, along with those of just about everyone else in the film, complicate our attempt to claim that pornography’s ultimate goal is to maximize the arousal of its audience by appealing to its most banal sexual fantasies.  Spelvin’s screen persona is not that of a vapid nymphomaniac bimbo; because she communicates vulnerability, desire, na├»vete, and sexual failure, we’re asked to respond to her as a character instead of merely a set of bodily orifices.

Spelvin as old maid.

The plot of The Devil in Miss Jones gives rise to further tonal complications.  Like Behind the Green Door, it’s a surreal affair.  In the opening suicide scene, Spelvin’s naked body invokes pity rather than titillation.  The sex scenes themselves run from the kinky (ex. Spelvin’s encounters with a vaguely menacing Harry Reems) to the sensuous and languid (ex. her erotic rub-down by a doting masseuse).  The notorious sequence in which Spelvin makes love to a live snake—going so far as to take its head into her mouth—seems to me more likely to cause viewers to cover their eyes in shock than to turn them on.  In short, the sexual education of Miss Jones sets off a range of sometimes conflicting responses in the viewer.  Before we can draw any conclusions about hard-core pornographic films from this period, we must acknowledge the full spectrum of affects they awaken in us.   

Sexy or squeam-inducing?  Spelvin with snake.

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