6.15.2013

The pornographic canon: "Taboo" (1980)


Sons and lovers: Kay Parker and Mike Ranger in Taboo. P.S. OMG that bed. 

I saw hard-core pornography for the first time the summer I turned twelve, after one of my childhood friends and I discovered an unmarked VHS tape in his father’s garage.  It turned out to be a bootleg copy of two vintage hard-core features: N*U*R*S*E*S of the 407th (dir. Tony Kendrick, 1983) and Taboo (dir. Kirdy Stevens, 1980).  N*U*R*S*E*S was a light-hearted, and frequently absurd, M*A*S*H parody: porn in the comic mode.  Taboo was a different animal entirely, an erotic drama about a jilted housewife played by Kay Stevens, who, after being abandoned by her husband, finds herself increasingly attracted to her hunky teenage son (Mike Ranger).  As it happens, the attraction is mutual: although he enjoys a healthy sex life with a girlfriend who’s more than willing to put out, the son's eye keeps wandering to his mother’s bedroom.  Taboo culminates in two scenes of incest, both of which cause the mother considerable guilt, though the son is less repentant (“I don’t think any less of either one of us," he tells her.  "It happened…and I want it to happen again”).  While the film momentarily leads us to believe that our heroine has succeeded in transferring her attraction to a new beau (Michael Morrison—who, it should be pointed out, doesn’t hold a candle to Ranger, attractiveness-wise, even if Ranger’s eyes are set too far apart), it ends by suggesting that she will continue to find sexual satisfaction in both her son and her lover. 

The ending of the film: Barbara (Kay Parker) decides to keep her relationship with her son a secret from her lover (Michael Morrison). 

As a twelve-year-old, I watched this film with a mixture of prurient fascination and discomfort, the latter mostly a response to the incest plot (N*U*R*S*E*S was a much less upsetting viewing experience).  It disturbed me that the characters in Taboo were indulging in sexual behavior that even the film itself presents as “wrong”: because the presence of the incest taboo is, of course, necessary for the sex scenes to have any transgressive charge, we’re given lots of scenes of Barbara (Stevens) feeling conflicted and ashamed of herself, even as she keeps going back for more.  In other words, this is not a film set in a pornotopic fantasy world where “anything goes”; it’s grounded in a more or less recognizable social reality in which incest is understood to be prohibited.  (If there is a pornotopic force in the film, it’s represented by Barbara’s friend Gina [Juliet Anderson], a pansexual nymphomaniac for whom any sex is good sex.  Cocooned in a private sexual world of her own making, complete with two love slaves, she’s pure libido.)           

"I always say, 'do what comes naturally'": Juliet Anderson as Taboo's pleasure principle incarnate.

My twelve-year-old self found the film’s deliberate shattering of that prohibition deeply traumatic.  I was at the age when the thought of any sex seemed weird and scary, let alone the thought of having sex with your mother.  Watching the film now almost twenty years later, I find it nearly as fascinating and shocking as I did at twelve, though I’m more at ease with the powerful affects that it stirs up in me.  Taboo belongs to that unique category of hard-core porn films that creep into dark and mysterious psychic territory.  While less phantasmagoric than, say, Behind the Green Door, Taboo similarly pushes at the limits of our sexual imaginations (as opposed to the porn comedies like N*U*R*S*E*S or Debbie Does Dallas, which stage comparatively unproblematic, "wholesome" sexual fantasies).  The resilient power of Taboo—which, it should be noted, holds the record for being the #1 best-selling porn film on VHS—lies in its ability to let sexual discomfort and sexual pleasure sit side by side without subordinating either one to the other.  

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