5.28.2013

The pornographic canon: "Debbie Does Dallas" (1978)



Watching straight pornography as a gay man is strange but often fascinating business.  Mostly unattracted by the women who are presented as the central objects of the viewer’s gaze—and only intermittently distracted by the men, the appeal of whom varies drastically in straight hard-core—my attention is freed up to notice other aspects of these films, such as their formal qualities (their construction, generic conventions, production quality), as well as what we might call their political unconscious.  Paying attention to both of these aspects of a film like Debbie Does Dallas (dir. Jim Clark, 1978) helps us to understand its significance within the hard-core genre.  Debbie Does Dallas’ status as a classic (its popularity is arguably rivaled only by Deep Throat) rests as much on its formal components as on the logic of its sexual economy.

One has only to watch the film’s opening sequence, in which a bevy of nubile cheerleaders practice their drills on the sidelines of the football field to the sounds of up-tempo marching band music, in order to recognize that we’re in the world of a teen comedy.  Since teen comedies are almost always about sex anyway, Debbie Does Dallas could be said to make manifest the latent content of the genre it parodies.  Much of its comic pleasure lies in the cheekiness with which it conjures up the sexually charged scenarios of the teen film (the pairing of star quarterback and head cheerleader; boys in the girls’ locker room; sex in the library stacks; etc.) and takes them “all the way,” so to speak.  Where films like Porky’s (dir. Bob Clark, 1982) play such scenarios purely for laughs, and where, say, Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976) ends up twisting them into the stuff of horror, Debbie simply lets them unfold; it provides sexual release for the kinds of set-ups that usually sublimate sexual pleasure into comedy or horror.  In its climactic scene, a sexual tête-à-tête between Debbie (Bambi Woods) and Mr. Greenfeld (Richard Bolla), the middle-aged manager of the sporting goods store where she works, the film basically admits that it has been catering to the teen sex fantasies of its audience, staging its scenarios as transparently as Mr. Greenfeld uses Debbie to stage his own private football fantasy.  This is to say that much of the appeal of Debbie Does Dallas rests on the eagerness with which it mobilizes a set of male heterosexual fantasies thought to be “classic,” and which have themselves been cemented by popular culture since the 1950s.

Mr. Greenfeld (Richard Bolla) prepares to tackle Debbie (Bambi Woods).
            
But the logic surrounding the film’s treatment of female sexuality is also a key component of its popularity.  Stocked with fresh-faced, all-American girl-next-door types who insist that they’re “good girls” even as they begin prostituting themselves in order to raise money for a trip to Texas, Debbie Does Dallas finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too.  The film thus fetishizes both female purity and female depravity in ways that speak to the contradictory messages at work in the culture at large surrounding female sexuality.  The ideal woman is both insatiable and innocent, “bad” and “good.”  This, the film suggests, is a sexual fantasy even more powerful than that of the quarterback bagging the head cheerleader.

"Good girls"?  The cast of Debbie Does Dallas.

5.27.2013

The Films of 2013: Frances Ha



There may not come a breezier comedy this summer than Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a beautifully wrought character study driven by a winsome performance by Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, as it turns out) in the title role.  The film spans a year or so in the life of Frances, a dancer, as she stumbles through a series of jobs and New York apartments, makes a series of bad financial decisions, and tries to keep a relationship going with her best friend and sometime-roommate, Sophie (“we’re basically the same person with different hair,” Frances claims).  

5.21.2013

The pornographic canon: "Kansas City Trucking Co." (1976) and "El Paso Wrecking Corp." (1977)



Things have been quiet here at Primal Scenes for the last few weeks, mainly because I’ve been on vacation.  So, as a way of diving back into my survey of “porno chic,” I’d like to return to the question of sexual orientation as it gets represented in hard-core porn, and what function the films’ acknowledgement of or blindness to the existence of multiple sexual orientations might serve.  If The Opening of Misty Beethoven is an ostensibly straight porn film that demonstrates an awareness—however problematically—of the existence of homosexuality, Joe Gage’s Kansas City Trucking Co. and its sequel, El Paso Wrecking Corp., are good examples of gay porn films the appeal of which depends crucially on the presence and the pretense—however unconvincing—of heterosexuality.  While defiantly gay, Gage’s films unapologetically fetishize straight, closeted, and/or butch men (it’s a trope that persists today in the form of online gay porn sites which advertise “straight” models).  If Gage’s main character, the tall, dark, lean, bearded trucker Hank (Richard Locke), is presented as exclusively homosexual (a perfect Kinsey 6, as it were), the supporting players in both films are often presented as sexually frustrated straight guys, unhappily married or saddled with girlfriends who won’t put out, driven into the more receptive arms—and hands and mouths—of other men.

5.02.2013

The pornographic canon: "The Opening of Misty Beethoven" (1976)


The girl-girl scene as appetizer: Terri Hall and Jacqueline Beudant in The Opening of Misty Beethoven.

It’s a given that sex scenes between two or more women in mainstream pornography are usually aimed at the straight male viewer, and are usually presented as merely the appetizer to heterosexual coupling’s main course.  Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976)—a superb film, by the way—offers us as good an example of this as any.  Terri Hall and Jacqueline Beudant act out a seduction scenario that ends with Hall going down on Beudant, whereupon Hall transfers her attention to Jamie Gillis and the straight sex commences.  In the context of the straight porn film, even the girl-girl scenes such as this one could be considered straight sex insofar as they serve the interests of a heteronormative logic, according to which “cock and cunt will come together,” to quote an old schoolyard chant.  As Heather Butler has noted, it’s proven difficult to unearth any authentic lesbian pornography from this so-called golden age of hard-core.  What sex between women is there (and there is quite a lot of it) almost always seems to have been made by straight filmmakers, with straight actors, for straight audiences.

5.01.2013

The Films of 2013: Mud



Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a lovingly old-fashioned boys’ adventure story of the kind that they don’t make much anymore.  It’s set in rural Arkansas in what I guess is supposed to be the present, but it’s a 2013 by way of 1972, free of cell phones, video games, and laptops.  Fourteen-year-old Ellis and his buddy Neck (short for Neckbone) communicate via walkie-talkie instead of text message, and when Ellis wants to call up his crush he has to look up her family’s number in the phone book.