Monday, October 23, 2006

Porn With a Heart


Sofia has a problem. She's a sex therapist and she's never had an orgasm. But her husband Rob doesn't know this because she's been faking it. But one thing actress Sook-Yin Lee doesn't fake with Santa Cruz local Raphael Barker, who plays her husband Rob, is sex. John Cameron Mitchell's new film "Shortbus" opens with a very energetic and unsimulated sexcapade between the two which includes fucking on a piano keyboard to an atonal accompaniment. And that's not all. Another actor, Paul Dawson, who plays the gay lover of a man with the same name, James, is shown in an autofellatio yoga position that includes an orgasm. Mitchell, the director of the delightful transgendered musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," has dropped a WMD into the Cultural Wars, obliterating the boundary between entertainment and pornography.

"Shortbus" is no doubt the most sexually explicit film to ever play art-house theaters (you won't see this movie in Nebraska's multiplexes). The critics have had a field day. Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone that if there is "such a thing as hard-core with a soft heart, this is it." The Boston Globe's reviewer, Ty Burr, wrote, "'Shortbus' is a very dirty movie that can make you feel oddly clean." Jim Ridley in the Village Voice: “It's a triple-X midnight movie with a heart of squarest gold." Even the New York Times' writer Manohla Dargis wrote that the "carnal interludes in 'Shortbus' are integrated into the narrative, much as the singing and dancing are in “Oklahoma!" Newsweek's critic David Answen wrote that Mitchell’s methods, style and tone are the opposite of the pornographer’s. Titillation is not the point, nor is shock. Mitchell’s more radical agenda is to normalize the outrĂ©, to beguile us through his comedy of sexual manners into seeing sex as just another expression of character, as worthy of cinematic exploration as an itch to maim, murder or bake a cake. His movie is a celebration and demonstration of outsider Eros."

"Shortbus" isn't the first mainstream film recently to show real sex, but it's the most good natured. The others are troubled, murky or violent, and most come from abroad. Think of Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" or Gaspar Noe's "I Stand Alone" and "Irreversible." Other foreign films unrated or given the NC-17 commercial kiss-of-death rating include almost everything by Catherine Breillat, Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 shocker “In the Realm of the Senses,” Patrice Chereau’s "Intimacy" and Jang Sun Woo’s "Lies." In this country, only Larry Clark's so-far unreleased "Ken Park" and Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" (With Chloe Sevigny giving a blow job) have depicted unsimulated sex. All of these directors attempt in one way or another to make no-holds-barred sex an integral element for their plot.

The real pioneer, of course, was Gerard Damiano who wrote and directed "Deep Throat" in 1972, the first porn film to make viewers laugh as well as turn them on ("Do you mind if I smoke while you eat," Linda Lovelace famously asked her partner, Harry Reems), and it attracted a mass audience and an unheard of box office of $600 million which reportedly went into Mafia pockets. The Seventies was the heyday of porn films: "Behind the Green Door" (1972)with Marilyn Chambers, the Ivory Snow cover girl, still going strong in her mid-50s; Damiano's followup, "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973), with Georgina Spelvin; the softcore "Emmanuelle" series which began in 1974 with Sylvia Kristel; and in 1978, and "Debbie Does Dallas" with Bambi Woods in the title roll. Both "Deep Throat" and "Debbie Does Dallas" have been the subjects of recent documentaries which chart the tragic lives of their lead actresses, as well as trumpet the significance of porn films in the sexual revolution of the 20th century.

Only the deaf, dumb and blind would not know that porn, or what has been come to be called "adult entertainment," from hardcore to soft, is everywhere in 21st century America. Four years ago, in a six-part series on "American Porn" by PBS program Frontline, it was claimed that pornography generated $10-14 billion (and maybe even more; figures from this secretive industry are illusive) a year in revenue. Sex is everywhere, on the internet, in movie theaters and on DVDs, on cable television, and in old standby print media like Playboy and Hustler. Parents trying to shield their children from disturbing information and images, and social conservatives trying to preserve an innocent Pollyanna culture against an onslaught of polymorphous perversity, do not have an easy time of it. The "Frontline" series was criticized on Violent Blue's Tiny Nibbles, one of a growing number of online erotic blogs:
Virtually every stereotypical notion about the adult industry was catered to in segments that represent only the tiniest slices of the genre. Instead of digging beneath the surface of the mainstream porn market to interview the people there (and incidentally where the money's really being moved around), Frontline focused on the fringes of extreme porn, depicting pornography as a horrid, hundred-faced hydra of exploitation. Considering our culture's internal struggle to reconcile sexuality with ingrained Puritanical values, portraying porn in a shocking and lurid manner is like shooting fish in a barrel, and this material did exactly that.
Is it possible that porn can have a heart? Must sex outside of the marriage bed always be sleazy, tacky and not very nice? What can the old and the unattractive do for sexual enjoyment?

I have had a long love affair with porn. When I was 16, a friend visiting Europe for the summer brought back illegal copies of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn for me. I read D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover right after the censors had lifted their ban, and I enjoyed James Joyce's hymn to Molly Bloom's orgasm in Ulysses, another banned masterpiece. I loved Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita and the two films made of it, and I also remember the pleasure of reading Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, Terry Southern's Candy and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, books that would have been censored by an earlier age. More recent authors who have stimulated me include Anais Nin, Kathy Acker, and Barbara Kingsolver who wrote the very sexy Prodigal Summer.

It's certainly true that much of the commercial porn on the internet is sleazy and downright icky. Models (in lesbian and in heterosexual sites which are aimed primarily at men) are shaved (wherever did this absurd practice come from?), overly made up, and frozen in stock, often comic, poses. Abby Winters, a lesbian photographer and videographer in Australia, has cleaned up the genre with her almost wholesome site, AbbyWinters.com The participants appear to be real people rather than bad actresses. There seems to be an erotic revolution occurring down under, and spinoffs from Abby's site include Beautiful Agony, I Shot Myself, I Feel Myself, and the tawdry, but not entirely disrespectful, imitation, Girls Out West. An American version of organic natural porn is Hippie Goddess.

But there are many internet alternatives to commercial porn, and this is what is hidden when attention is focused on the violent, disrespectful and tasteless extreme porno. Some people think the success of the videotape/DVD home market, and later the internet itself, was due to the sexual content; no sex, no home video or information highway. Technological progress is driven by the profit motive. But once the technology is put in place, people find uses for it never envisioned by the entrepreneurs. Who could have foreseen the popularity of chat rooms, perhaps the single reason for AOL's early success? Many if not most were virtual versions of singles bars where people could talk about sex and engage in cyber sex without the normal visual or moral restraints. Now there are chat rooms and groups everywhere on the net, from Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to Google and Yahoo. Personals ads, popular in print media, found a natural home on the internet and spread quickly. They range now from the establishment Match.com to the sexual suggestive AdultFriendFinder.com, with many variations in-between. These of course cost money. In many cities, Craig's List offers for free the possibility of both friendly and erotic connections. The internet is a cornucopia for both exhibitionists and voyeurs, and every shade in-between, and much of it is outside the marketplace. Erotic bloggers confess their desires and experiences, complete with self photography, for all to read and see. Sites like Sugasm.com link these bloggers together into a community and publish "best of" lists regularly. In the chat rooms and on the erotic blogs, every kind of sexual desire, attraction and fetish is on display. I'm sure that even Freud, when he wrote about polymorphous perversity, had no idea of the infinite permutations of sexual pleasure that could be achieved with the human body. And they're all on display on the net, much of it for free.

Public sex is a horror to the socially conservative as well as to religious leaders who are certain that secularism and sexuality lead inevitably to the Apocalypse. The barbarians are not only at the gates, they are crawling inside and into our bedrooms. These are the same people who hold up the Nuclear Family as the only viable container for sex. Equally outside the pale to them are same sex families, single-parent families, and polyamorous families of threesomes and foursomes (and more). They have little concern for the single men and women living alone, too old or perhaps too unattractive to develop a permanent relationship with someone else. What are they to do?

Charles Fourier, the eccentric 19th century utopian social theorist, addressed just this problem in his writings, notably Le Nouveau monde amoureux (The New Amorous World) which was not published until more than a hundred years after his death. In his imaginary utopia, Harmony, Fourier believed every mature man and woman should be guaranteed a satisfying minimum of sexual pleasure. In Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World, John Beecher writes that the "essential point which Fourier never tired of repeating, was that as long as the basic sexual needs went unsatisfied, the true richness of the erotic impulse could not find expression." For the elderly, the poor, the "perverts," all whom civilization denied sexual gratification, Fourier proposed a form of "sexual philanthropy" in which some classes of workers bestowed sexual favors on those left out. There would be an "amorous nobility" in Harmony whose main responsibility "would be the providing of sexual gratification to all those whom age or physical deformity would have condemned to loneliness in civilization." Remember, for Freud, it was Civilization that decreed an end to natural polymorphous perversity.

While Fourier's ideas, bizarre even for his times, were never fully put into effect (only in America were communities inspired by him established, but his sexual theories were unknown), his thoughts about women and sexual minorities were particularly progressive. According to Beecher, "Fourier's ultimate goal was the liberation of all sexual minorities, so long as their activities did not involve the use or abuse of people against their will." An admirable goal, even today. And he believed, in the early 1800s, "the emancipation of women was the key to social progress in all other spheres." An end to traditional ideas about marriage, and the approval of polygamous relationships, would, Fourier believed "put an end to the hypocrisy about sex so rampant in civilization."

I bring in Fourier here because I think he was right that human beings need a "sexual minimum" of pleasure in their lives. While he had little to say about romance, his proposal for "sexual philanthropy" has much to recommend it. In the absence of a group of sex workers willing to service the elderly and the odd, the proliferation of pornography discussed above fills that gap. Rather than condemn it as an aberration, we should support it for its useful social purpose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While this piece did not give me a rod, it is some of the best commentary on Porn to date; the problem with porn remains for as literature, it usually involves the interplay of giant sexual organs to which human beings are only occasionslly attached.