Free Film School #56: When Porn Was Almost Art

Professor Witney Seibold takes a brief look at the 1970s phenomenon of "porn chic," and how a little flick called Deep Throat caused such a stir. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

 

Pornography has always been with us. Many years ago, I visited the Museum of Sex in Amsterdam (which contains just as much sexual paraphernalia as you imagine, and isn’t quite as filthy). In it, there were many displays depicting ancient Greek paintings of erotic acts, some ancient sex toys, and even porn reels from the late 1910s. Erotic paintings have been around for as long as there has been pigment to paint on cavern walls. Nude paintings can be seen in art galleries, but it doesn’t take a very astute eye to see that many of these paintings were intended to titillate and arouse as well as move and enlighten. It’s likely one of the first intentionally set up photographs was of a nude woman. It didn’t take too long after the invention of the motion picture camera for someone to think of pointing it at to people having sex.

Welcome back, my students, to the latest installment of CraveOnline’s Free Film School, lesson number fifty-six. I wanted to save this particular lesson for week sixty-nine, but, well, it couldn’t wait. This week, we’ll be discussing everyone’s favorite topic: sex in film. And not just the depiction of sex on film, but actual sex on film. It’s time to porn it up.

The actual history of pornography, and the myriad attitudes towards it, is as vast and varied as the history of sex itself. Reams and reams (snicker) have been written on the topic, and the sheer volume of printed pornography in the world may even outweigh some of the larger libraries. Heck, we’ve entered into an age where one can go on the internet and find pornography by accident. From early man, to internet man, we’ve all done one thing: check out people doin’ it. Since porn is so vast, the Free Film School will not be able to tackle it all at once. And, yes, it will be tackled. Pornography represents a huge part of the world economy, and should be considered a proper off-shoot of the film industry. Most consider porn to be the shameful redheaded step-child of the film industry. And while big-budgets in the porn world are comparatively modest, and only a tiny pinch of porn stars actually become recognizable in the public eye (they’re often called “crossover stars”), the fact is the porn industry makes billions of dollars every year. A statistic: annually, American spends more on porn than the entire GNP of sub-Saharan Africa. This is a stat I stole from a comedian, so it may not be accurate. But it sounds possible.

The entire porn world will be addressed in the Free Film School, but not all at once. Maybe some porn subgenres will come up from time to time, but all of porn is surprisingly complex and varied, and has gone through several social and economic phases in its history. No. Instead, we’ll be tackling a smaller – but vital – period of pornography that arose in the early 1970s. Yes, we’ll be going for Deep Throat, and the subsequent trend of so-called porno-chic that lasted a few glittering years in this country before AIDS came along, and the wild sexual decadence was called into question.

The phrase “Deep Throat” is common these days. It refers either to an entire category of pornography (some people have learned to suppress their gag reflex), or maybe to the informant in the infamous Watergate scandal. To some young ones, it may only refer to a character on The X-Files. But there was a time when the 1972 porno feature film Deep Throat made headlines around the world. While it wasn’t the first adult film to be widely released (I believe that distinction belongs to a now-obscure1970  film called Mona the Virgin Nymph), but Deep Throat was easily the most famous, and the most notorious. The late 1960s and early 1970s were, if I must remind you, a time of sexual revolution. Talk of sexuality began to enter the mainstream, and smut saw a boom. Sexual freedoms were discussed openly in certain public forums, and sexual censorship laws had to be reconsidered. Some would say all of this was a result of the widespread use of birth control pills, allowing women to take control of their reproductive rights in new ways. Also, the generation following the post-war baby boom perhaps found the stodgy repression of the 1950s to be stifling, and responded with a free-love mentality as a result. Where do you think Hugh Hefner came from? Film technology also began to improve, and more and more people had access to filmmaking equipment.

Previously, porn was relegated to “stag” reels: 10-20 minute shorts, usually with no sound, that were intended to be seen during bachelor parties and the like. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that porn feature films started to get made, and it wasn’t until 1972 that Deep Throat was released in theaters and caused the stir it did.

What was special about Deep Throat? Well, not too much, really. It had a ridiculous premise: a young woman (Linda Lovelace) is informed by a doctor (Harry Reems) that, thanks to a really, really unusual birth defect, her clitoris is located in the back of her throat, and she can only achieve orgasm by fellating men. She proceeds to do so several times. The end. And while some people see the premise as a usual male sex fantasy (and it is), the film itself became the centerpiece of a ‘70s porn explosion in the world. Something about Deep Throat – perhaps the simple poetry of the fun title – struck a nerve with the public. It proliferated in a way no other adult feature had before. It played in theaters in Times Square. It was the first time a porn film was openly attended, in public, by young couples, women, old ladies, anyone who wanted to see some good dirty fun. The film cost less than $50,000 to make. It, to date, has earned millions and millions; the lowest figure I could find was about $60 million. The highest was $600 million. Either way, it stands as one of the most successful movies ever made.

I don’t want to get into the huge scandals surrounding the film right here, though. In short: the film had some ties to the mob, there were a lot of obscenity charges brought against it. Years later, Lovelace would write a tragic book, decrying her horrible experiences on set, and with the porn industry in general. There was some talk of drug use. The entire affair was, in addition to be revolutionary, rather seedy. All the details (and interviews) are collected in a superb 2005 documentary film called Inside Deep Throat.

But the, uh, cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Porn was now in the public consciousness. People became really relaxed toward sex films. Why shouldn’t adults of legal age be able to see porn in public, and get turned on with their fellow men and women? Further films like Behind the Green Door (starring Marilyn Chambers, also from 1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (starring Georgina Spelvin, 1973) also caused a stir, and kept adult films in the public consciousness for half a decade. Indeed, porn became so open and ubiquitous that we finally come to the crux of this week’s lecture: There was a time when porn was so mainstream, that sex films were almost considered art.

In interviews, Linda Lovelace had said that sex films were becoming so casually accepted, that they may become mixed in with mainstream films, and seen as just another genre. She felt that production values could only increase, and attitudes on sex could only relax further and further (With many films moving onto smartphone screens, and porn living on those same screens, she may yet prove to be right). A few years earlier, Midnight Cowboy (1968) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, in spite of its X rating. The same year Deep Throat was causing a stir, Bernardo Bertolucci’s excellent sexual tragedy Last Tango in Paris hit theaters. There were rumors that Stanley Kubrick, who had, at the time, just released the controversial A Clockwork Orange, was interested in making a sex film of his own  (which he would kind of do in 1999 with his Eyes Wide Shut).

The discussion bounced around a lot. Serious discussions of the feminism of porn began to enter the public rhetoric. Camille Paglia famously came out in support of porn, citing the way it empowers women’s sexuality. The phrase “sex positive” finally entered into the debate. There was still some opposition from “sex negative” people, who were uncomfortable with the idea of porn proliferation, but for a year there, it looked like porn was going to become a classy “legit” entertainment for adults.

There are, however, a few filmmakers who managed to transcend. Who managed to make sex movies that resembled actual feature films, and told stories, and had legitimate sexual drama. Sure, they were titillating, but certain filmmakers seemed to be more interested in the way sex is used, the way we react to it, and the way it ties into our everyday sexual imaginations, rather than just documenting the way it looks.

The first and perhaps foremost of all “Art Porn” directors is Radley Metzger. Metzger is a bohemian New Yorker of the first order, who made films starting in the early 1960s, right in the middle of the underground art film movement. All of his films tended to have a clear sexual slant, and often featured copious nudity and sometimes real sex acts, but which were clearly not to be compared with stag reels or ordinary porn.  His films were melodramas of an almost Sirkian level, featuring, as they did, complex emotional manipulations, forbidden passions, bisexual desire, and many scenes of romantic and sexual angst. Metzger’s films, especially the early ones, do feel like clunky exploitation movies to most, set apart by their high budgets, superb period production design, fun music, and professional acting. His films would not, as porn so often does, feature a bare-boned story that would periodically stop to have a sex scene, but would fold the sex into the story. In a Metzger film, it’s important not just that the characters are having sex, but the circumstances under which they have sex. How they have sex. How easily they give into their passions. How long they hold out.

In his most notorious (and I would say best) film, 1974’s Score, a young heterosexual couple (Calvin Culver and Lynn Lowry) is scoped out by an older, predatory bisexual couple (Claire Wilbur and Gerald Grant) who, as a game, regularly seduce straight couples for fun. They keep score as to who can consummate first. The entire film is devoted to the long and complex seduction process, as the older couple probes and prods at their charges’ sexual tendencies. Yes, dear reader, the bi seduction is completed. This is a film that not only explicitly examines the playful and tense sexual tension that comes from real seduction, but also brings notions of sexual identity into the mix. It’s credited for coining the phrase “bisexual chic,” which was a keen trend in an age of key parties and open porn consumption. Radley Metzger told stories with sex, rather than just putting sex in his stories.

Even more daring, and perhaps a bit more hard-edged was Nagisa Oshima, who, in the 1970s, made a series of sexually explicit films in a culture more usually noted for its repression than its open sexuality. His 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses is a high point in the porn-as-art movement, as it stands, like Last Tango in Paris, as a tale of a dark and torrid affair that allows the nature of the sex to be seen. And nature of the sex reveals a lot about the obsessions of the characters, who end up being so powerfully in lust, they decide to leave all life behind. In the Realm of the Senses lacks all the chic fashions and pretenses of a Metzger film, and cuts, perhaps harshly, to the bleeding heart (and aroused genitals) of the matter. Oshima, unlike Metzger, actually stretched his talents over many genres, and has made over 50 films in his day (his last one was released in 1999), only a few of which (Empire of Passion, Pleasures of the Flesh) dealt directly with sexuality. The few he made, though, are diamonds within the genre.

Why did the porn chic movement end? Well, home video had a lot to do with it. As porn became available in the home, they stopped being shown as readily in theaters, and it moved out of the public eye. Porn movies, these days, when they’re in the form of a feature film at all, seems like a quaint novelty; a callback to the Deep Throat era. The short, free, easily consumed online porn short seems to be the way of the future.

And whither art porn? Well, it does still exist, of course; no subgenre ever truly dies. If you were to look to France, you’d find several explicit sex films still being made. The ones I’ve seen, though, are usually… well, they’re very French. They are moody and dreary films that may have hot French women in them, but tend to be loaded with that trademark Gallic ennui. 2002’s Secret Things may be sexy, but it’s hardly earth-shattering. The troublemaker Catherine Breillat (who may warrant a Free Film School article of her own someday) has made a whole career of exploring sexual mores, lust and misogyny in her films, which include some rather great ones (Fat Girl, Romance, and 36 Fillette are notable), and some other striking but only fair others (Anatomy of Hell and Brief Crossing weren’t very well received). She’s clearly making sexual films to provoke, though, and not to incorporate the sex into the narrative.

In recent memory, I can only think of one American film that was a legitimate drama and also feature hardcore sex, and that was John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus, about a sex therapist who cannot climax, and her several clients with sexual neuroses of their own. In this case, it was vitally important that we see how people have sex, and declare openly that all forms of consensual sexual acts can be loving, no matter how many partners or tools or whatever mix of genders are involved. Emotionally disarming, undeniably sex-positive, and incredibly sweet, Shortbus did allow porn chic to breathe for a short moment.

We often have to wait for porn chic films these days, and they’re typically being made in Europe or Asia (the last such film I saw in a theater was probably Ang Lee’s interminable Lust, Caution in 2007. American studios tend to skew younger, preferring big-budget PG-13-rated genre films to complex and mature films for adults. In the early 1970s, I think we can now glean, more grown-ups were going to movies. Some of them were lucky enough to see sex in a theater, on a big screen, and not be ashamed. Like I said, if you’re in the mood, and you’re the right age, it was possible to have good dirty fun.

 

Homework for the Week:

If you’re of legal porn-buying age in your state, see if you can track down Deep Throat. How is it different from the porn of today? What kind of story can only be told when the sex is visible? Would you be comfortable seeing an adult feature in a theater? Is there a line between drama and titillation? Which films have you seen that toe that line, if any?