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.