4.15.2013

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.

Why pornography?  Well, why not, really?  In the 1970s, mainstream audiences, critics, and festival programmers all saw hard-core porn as a cinematic phenomenon, as Richard Corliss recounts (with no little nostalgia) in his article “When Porno Was Chic.”  But since its novelty has worn off, pornography has largely been ghettoized by film studies and film history.  In spite of its being a hugely popular genreand one that, as Williams argues, facilitates viewing pleasures that are perhaps not all that different from those facilitated by horror films and tear-jerkersa sense of cultural shame, and no little moral anxiety, still attends discussions of hard-core porn.  It continues to signify as either a guilty pleasure or a joke, especially those films from porn’s golden age, like Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas, which have become cultural punch-lines.  70s porn now signifies as more cheesy than chic (the moustaches! the music! etc.)  I worry, in other words, that so few film scholars, historians, and armchair critics are willing to pay serious attention to the pornographic canon that these films and their cultural significance may be lost to the ages. 

Hence this project, in which I sit down with ten or so of the best known—but, in our digital age, rarely seen—hard-core porn films from 1971 to 1987 in order to think about what value they might have for us as twenty-first century film fans.  With the exception of one title, I’ve seen none of them before.  I’ll be looking at them alongside an assortment of critical readings by the likes of Williams, Carrie Rickey, Richard Dyer, and Thomas Waugh.  As always, I’ll be including screengrabs (though none that are unsafe for work).  And I’m so excited to get started that I just might burst.  Won’t you join me?   

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