Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blog Under Reconstruction

This blog is in the process of being re-visioned.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hard-Core Scholarship

For those readers of this blog with either a full-fledged scholarly predilection or a mild taste for academia, I cannot recommend highly enough Linda Williams's Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." The book, originally published in 1989, is simultaneously the genesis and, in my view, the apotheosis -- in other words, both the old and the new testament -- of what has come to be called porn studies. The most intelligent and balanced examination of hard-core pornography ever written, Williams's book deftly brings the de rigueur instruments of late-twentieth-century cultural analysis -- namely, Marxist, Freudian, and feminist critical discourses -- to bear on the field of hard-core cinema. She does so in a delightfully self-reflexive way, however, so that the book is in a sense about the deployment of these critical discourses and how such deployment often invisibly reflects the very assumptions and dynamics that such discourses aim to unravel. An anti-censorship feminist critic, Williams unflinchingly acknowledges the patriarchal "phallocentricism" that defines both the aesthetics and the economics of adult cinema, but rather than reductively dismissing the genre as a whole as a worthless example of male chauvinism, she uncovers how in its more complex manifestations it opens up questions about sexuality and its representation that can prompt a more liberatory and multifaceted sexual economy. Regardless, far from being a spineless morass of critical jargon, Hard Core features highly nuanced analyses of specific films, most notably a thrilling explication of The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Williams uses this Radley Metzger classic as an emblematic example of the generic structure of the post-Deep Throat hard-core feature: ultimately mirroring -- albeit at times refracting into greater variety -- the structure of movie musicals in its combination of interpenetrating "numbers" and "narrative sequences," the hard-core feature in effect enacts the difficulty of representing sex. The "truth" of sex -- as an experience and a representable event -- is thus the implicit motivating factor that, in Williams's reading, gives birth to both the filmic hard core and indeed to the various discourses of sexuality -- scientific, sociological, psychological -- that initially construe sexuality as a problematic area of personal and cultural investigation. In sum, Williams posits that Misty Beethoven is animated by a complex nexus of dialectical oppositions arising from the "problem" -- and the power and the pleasure -- of sex. The film eventually attempts to figure the power of spontaneity -- sexual, emotional, and indeed artistic -- to disrupt the stale conventions that seek to control and univocally inscribe (and prescribe) sexual desire. But now I'm subtly moving into my own "reading" of Misty Beethoven, so I'll stop.

Bottom line: for those few of you who actually enjoy critical discourse as well as classic porn, this book is not only a scholarly treatment of sex-filled cinema but a protracted enactment of just how sexy scholarship can be when it is carried out with a daring that does not shy away from the disciplined allowance for spontaneous thought. Seymour and Misty (connoisseurship and practicality/accessibility) come together, as it were, in both the book's content and its form.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Porn Goes Mainstream: Susan Jensen (and Others) in Blake Edwards's '10'

For a brief time in the 1970's, before it would become associated with an ever-expanding melange of bulging websites and sleazy video stores, porn was actually chic. Screened in art theaters and on college campuses, erotic films were part of the mainstream cultural imagination, viewed on the big screen by normal couples on romantic date nights. Tangled plots, and not just close-ups of lubriciously interpenetrating body parts, characterized erotic films.

One of my favorite non-pornographic movies, Blake Edwards's 10, appeared in 1979, just as the "porno chic" period was fading away. A mainstream Hollywood production (albeit by the rebellious Edwards, who has always had a riddled relationship with the powers that be in Tinseltown), 10 is a unique filmic document in that built into its fabric is an after-the-fact representation of the coming together of mainstream film and porn that occurred earlier in the decade. If George Webber and Samantha Taylor (Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews) figure the adventurous tastes and the typical struggles of the 1970's mainstream, George's degenerate neighbor, whose orgies are spied on through George's telescope, figures the alluringly unsavory charms of porn -- interestingly, of course, the neighbor has a telescope of his own, so porn is also allowed to spy upon the mainstream, as it were.

Much more deserves to be written about this topic, but suffice it to say that the entire midlife crisis that George navigates in the film symbolically captures the difficulty of reconciling the demands of the two realms: the mainstream insistence upon a developmental plot (personal and cultural meaning "wrapped up" in a narrative), and the pornographic preference for "the frenzy of the visible," to borrow Linda Williams's felicitous phrase. I'm not, of course, claiming that this mainstream-meets-porn component is the primary thing going on in or intended by the film, but it is certainly there. In 10, culture and fucking come together, or almost do, to the rhythmic pulse of Ravel's "Bolero."

Though officially uncredited in the film, the debauched party guests continually present at George's neighbor's in fact consist of a who's who of A-list porn stars, among whom is Constance Money, who even has a few lines -- this is, rather heartbreakingly, as close as Susan Jensen got to mainstream Hollywood (apparently she got along quite well with Julie Andrews, and it really looked for a time like a mainstream career might develop). An account of Edwards's use of real porn stars is told here, from which I quote:
The story of the party guests has proven to be perhaps more interesting than the film itself. Director Blake Edwards hired porn superstars for the orgy scenes figuring that they would be comfortable with the nudity. They were all put up in a hotel suite, and the party was so wild that their room service was cut off. At one point, Edwards directed one of the male stars to get up, meaning to get out of the chair he was in. The star misunderstood what was supposed to be up, and started spanking his monkey on set. When Dudley Moore related this story during a Playboy interview, his girlfriend, who was off camera, nearly stopped the interview she laughed so hard.
Besides Constance Money, the porn stars in 10 include Annette Haven, Dorothy LeMay, Serena, and Candide Royale. I also have it on good authority that the late great Jamie Gillis was involved, and that, upon running into Blake Edwards in NYC recently, Gillis told him that 10 was no doubt a hit because of his arm (apparently that's all of Gillis that can be seen in the film, unfortunately). Susan Jensen's appearance can be seen here, at about the six minute mark. Some pertinent screen captures from the film can be seen here.