Saturday, August 29, 2009

Porn: A freedom of drunkards?

History of Single Life
Dirty Movies and You
by Ken Mondschein
August 23, 2008

In honor of the Supreme Court striking down COPA, an overly-broad piece of legislation that would have made it difficult or impossible to publish any "adult" material online (including this site), we present a brief history of pornography in America.

Pornography had a long and uneasy relationship with American culture well before Linda Lovelace's unlikely debut as a media darling shoved it down everyone's throat. Titillation was one of the first uses of the movie camera, but the Comstock laws kept the trade decidedly underground. Cheap, grainy "reels" played for all-male groups at bachelor parties and Elks lodges or in grimy, coin-operated peep-show booths tucked away in the bad part of town. Other filmmakers produced more innocent-seeming "nudist" movies featuring bosomy women playing volleyball or young boys skinny-dipping. Another way of skirting the censors was to make the film funny, instead of sexy: the hapless protagonist of Russ Meyer's 1959 The Immoral Mr. Teas never gets to bed any of the film's parade of bare-bosomed beauties.

Documentaries about the burgeoning European pornography industry, such as Alex deRenzy's 1969 Censorship in Denmark, circumvented the American reluctance to show actual sex on screen — and racked up a tidy profit. Meanwhile, as obscenity laws loosened, porn emerged into the open. In the same year that deRenzy's documentary debuted, two brothers named Artie and Jim Mitchell began showing hardcore reels at the O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco. (The City by the Bay already boasted the first topless go-go bar, Davey Rosenberg's Condor Club, which spawned hundreds of imitators when Carol Doda danced on a white baby grand piano in 1964.)

At the same time, magazine publishing — always more vulnerable to censorship due to mail regulations — was also becoming more daring. Thirty-four-year old Robert Guccione, a Brooklyn-born sometime artist and actor living in London, bucked British censors to found Penthouse magazine in 1965. Four years later, after a great deal of difficulty in finding funding and a distributor, Guccione launched the U.S. edition of his magazine as a conscious rival to Playboy, which was already taking on a tone of old-boy respectability.

The market was already saturated with girlie magazines, but Guccione had an ace up his sleeve: In April of 1970, Penthouse became the first "men's magazine" to show pubic hair — and the censors didn't care. For years, "nudist" magazines like the countercultural Jaybird had been going far further than Guccione dared to, while homoerotic "physique" magazine publishers such as MANual Enterprises had been winning court cases since the 1950s. The real outlaws, the hippies and the homosexuals, had paved the way for the respectable smut peddlers to take over.

Though Comstock's obscenity laws were still on the books (even if their enforcement was, at best, irregular), the majority of censorship was exercised by publishers and distributors themselves, since having a shipment of magazines or books impounded or refused by wary booksellers could be a financial disaster. Nonetheless, by the time that Penthouse began showing pubic hair in 1970, the freedom to put nudity on newsstands and in bookstores was practically assured. Businessmen, after all, had more money to fight court battles than hippies did.

If the market wanted smut, the regulatory forces would have to adapt. The acceptability of sex in arthouse movies had slowly increased through the late 1960s, and the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system (which replaced the old Hays Code from the 1930s) was introduced in 1968. This new system legitimized the distribution of films that otherwise would not have been shown. The Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), seized by U.S. Customs in 1968, was released in theaters the following year with an X rating. If anything, the X helped the movie's box office receipts: I Am Curious grossed over $20 million in the United States alone, a huge take for a self-consciously arty foreign film featuring endless discussion of Swedish politics interspersed with some simulated intercourse.

The stag reel and the art-house film finally intersected in Deep Throat, a full-length movie, shot on thirty-five millimeter film, that had not only a plot and characters (though the latter were as scanty as the costumes), but also explicit sex. Throat was shot in six days in Miami on a budget of about $25,000; editing it took another three months. Though not the first such production, it was by far the most profitable. In terms of the return on the initial investment, Throat was one of the most profitable films of the '70s, grossing $3.2 million by the end of 1972, and, reportedly, more than $600 million in total revenue by the thirtieth anniversary of its release.

For a while, it seemed the success of Deep Throat and "porno chic" would create new possibilities for mainstream movies. In 1972, the New York Film Festival premiered Bernardo Bertolucci's X-rated Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and the openly bisexual, barely twenty-year-old Maria Schneider. "The movie breakthrough has finally come. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form," the legendary film critic Pauline Kael enthused in The New Yorker.

But Kael's revolution never actually arrived. Producing a film in the vein of Last Tango was not a risk that American filmmakers were willing to take. Moreover, pornographers quickly latched onto the uncopyrighted X label, and soon the rating, often expanded to "XXX," became synonymous with smut. As Roger Ebert noted some years later, "instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, [Last Tango] became almost the last." Legitimate filmmakers began releasing their work unrated rather than suffering the stigma of an X. (Today, even though pornography is freely available online, films that make explicit sex part of the plot, such as Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, Catherine Breillat's Romance or Jessica Nilsson's All About Anna, remain arthouse curiosities. We are apparently more comfortable watching triple-penetration gangbangs on our own computers than going to a movie theater to watch actors make sweet, explicit onscreen love.)

Meanwhile, back in the porn theaters, the ratings system had made owners more comfortable, but it had no legal standing so far as the obscenity laws were concerned. So when New York mayor John Lindsay decided in late 1972 that it was time to once again clean up Times Square, the nation's avant-garde raced to Manhattan Criminal Court to testify that Deep Throat had "redeeming social importance."

Through the magic of academic endorsement, a skin flick produced with $25,000 of Mafia money somehow became high art. "This is one of the first sexploitation films to show. . . that a woman's sexual gratification is as important as a man's," UCLA film professor and Saturday Review film critic Arthur Knight testified for the defense. "It puts an eggbeater in people's brains and enables them to think afresh about their attitudes and values," said sex researcher John Money. The court apparently agreed: "It's worthwhile to me, if nothing else happens, to have gotten this education," remarked Judge Tyler, after one witness explained to him what the "missionary position" was.

Prosecution witnesses included a semi-retired psychologist named Max Levin, who said that the film, with its "anatomical absurdity," distorted "the true nature of female sexuality," because "vaginal orgasm is superior to the clitoral." Worse than pointing out his adherence to outdated Freudian doctrine, Newsweek strongly implied that Dr. Levin, symbol of the old morality, was senile: "Dr. Levin, who is seventy-one and partially deaf, was excused from further testimony after it turned out that he had confused Throat with some of the short subjects that were shown with it." Another witness for the prosecution, a psychoanalyst named Ernest van den Haag, compared smut peddlers to Nazis, arguing that pornography caused progressive desensitization, until one would be willing to put "another person in a concentration camp or exploit his teeth and hair."

Alas, Judge Joel J. Tyler sided with the fogies, declaring on March 1, 1973 that Deep Throat was "the nadir of decadence" and fining the Mature World Theater $3 million. It was a hollow victory for censorship, though: Even if the Hollywood establishment was afraid to dance to Last Tango's beat, Deep Throat's box-office success had created an entire new shadow film industry. Behind the Green Door — starring Marilyn Chambers, whose wholesome likeness had previously adorned the Ivory Soap box — was received enthusiastically at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to become the second-highest-grossing pornographic movie of all time. Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, meanwhile, achieved another success with The Devil in Mrs. Jones. Countless other films followed, beginning a "golden age of porn" that lasted until the 1980s, when the growing affordability of video-cassette players heralded the death of movies shot on film for theaters, and the rise of cheaply-produced and far cruder videos. The dirty movie in America thus went full circle: from run-down theaters patronized by the raincoat brigade, to briefly being a communal experience, to once again a private enterprise.

Just as the rebellion of the 1960s was channeled into the defanged but profitable counterculture industry, so, too, was the Sexual Revolution commodified in every way possible, from the miniskirt up. What the pornography industry produces is, after all, the ultimate in mass media as personal experience — a surrogate sexual encounter, experienced at no risk and for a minimal outlay of time, energy and capital. If sex is a steak, pornography is McDonald's. Sure, it's bad for your heart, but it's tasty and the convenience factor makes it highly appealing.

And though America has kept porn in the closet (specifically, on the top shelf of my Dad's closet, next to where he hid the Hanukkah presents), porn keeps affecting our culture. Not only has going down become so de rigueur that advice columnist Dan Savage's routine advice to men and women trapped in oral-less relationships is "DTMFA" ("Dump The Motherfucker Already"), but thong underwear and male expectations have made porn-star-style pubic waxing a standard part of pre-date grooming. Likewise, some females expect their male dates to be as smooth as they came out of their mothers' wombs — much to the dismay of those of us cursed with the Jewish Back Hair Gene.

On the plus side, porn has taught us it's okay to do what gets us off, as well some new ways to get off. Perhaps in the future, the cornucopia of bizarre smut available online will make group sex, industrial-powered vibrators and having sex while dressed up as Scooby-Doo as ordinary as the blowjob. Or maybe it's good for some things to still be too dirty to talk about in public.

©2009 Ken Mondschein and

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