COVER

REVIEWING NEW WAYS TO SANITIZE SMUT

Brian D. Johnson October 11 1993
COVER

REVIEWING NEW WAYS TO SANITIZE SMUT

Brian D. Johnson October 11 1993

REVIEWING NEW WAYS TO SANITIZE SMUT

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

For a film critic, it was an unusual assignment: rent some porn movies and review them. There were some snickers around the office—a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. At 10 a.m., the adult video store was mercifully empty. It was as big and bright as a Shoppers Drug Mart.

The clerk ran down the basic menu: “We’ve got bisexual, transsexual, gay, stag, all-girls, oral, anal,

Asian, big boobs, black and white [inter-racial], foreign, amateur, toys. . . .”

Toys? Suddenly, renting a video seemed as complicated as buying a pair of running shoes, a consumer decision fraught with

lifestyle options. And the titles did not help—Star Trek: The Next Penetration, Butt’s Up Doc? and Bimbo Bowlers from Buffalo.

Hidden Obsessions seemed a logical place to start. It is currently the top-renting adult video in the country. And its director, Andrew Blake, is in a class by himself. Unlike most pom directors, he shoots with

film instead of video, and uses luxurious lighting, sets and costumes. Hidden Obsessions looks like an X-rated Revlon commercial. The women outnumber the men. Predominantly blondes, they all look like models, with bullet-proof makeup and long lacquered nails. And they all share the same half-shaven fashion in pubic coiffure.

The story line, such as it is, consists of fantasies dreamed up by a woman who claims to be a writer—she occasionally glides her nails over a laptop while lying naked by the pool. The episodes unfold like music videos, set to a jazz sound track by a saxophone player with too

much time on his hands. Much of the footage plays in slow motion. Hit the fast-forward button and it looks almost real.

Blake shoots women as luxury commodities. He wraps them in patent leather and pearls. In one scene, a woman receives oral sex while hanging from a chrome scaffold by her black-gloved arms, a

Most adult videos are cliché-ridden or burdened with hokey fantasies

chunky dollar-sign medallion slung between her silicone breasts. There is something obscene about Hidden Obsessions, but it is not the sex. It is the packaging. The sex is neither hidden nor obsessive. It is graphic, glossy and coldly dispassionate. Even though the sex is real, not simulated, Blake makes dirty movies look squeaky clean: porn Muzak for the MTV generation.

It was Playboy magazine, of course, that pioneered the Barbie-doll approach. And Playboy, still resolutely soft-core, now produces topselling home videos, including the current hit 101 Ways to Excite Your Lover. It is an absurd how-to guide for men in need of a prosthetic imagination. “While men rely on their sense of sight for stimulation,” says the honey-voiced narrator, “women respond to their sense of hearing.” Onscreen, a woman hands her sweetie a computer disk on which she has written an erotic fantasy. He calls it up, reads it and acts it out.

With the expansion of home video, the adult movie business has become industrialized. But during the late 1960s and early 1970s, sexploitation and free love flirted in a bohemian muddle of experimental film-making. Sex films crossed over from the tenderloin district to the

art houses. There is little of the early stuff in video stores, which are stocked almost entirely with recent releases. Pom is the ultimate in disposable culture, forever erasing its own memory.

But a few classics are still on the shelves, including Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door—all released in

1972. Deep Throat is the most famous for the oral stunt work of its star, Linda Lovelace. The Devil in Miss Jones is remarkable for its bleak opening, which has the heroine slitting her wrists in the bath—no contemporary porn-maker would dare begin with such a downer.

Behind the Green Door, meanwhile, was a groundbreaker. Marilyn Chambers serves as the submissive centrepiece at an orgy watched by a Felliniesque gallery of participant-observers. The orgy, documented in a cinema-verité style, is framed by a makeshift plot. (A key element is missing from the video version in Ontario: the

province’s censors have snipped out a scene in which the Chambers character is kidnapped—making the sex seem consensual.) Provocative for its time, Behind the Green Door involves a jackhammer marathon between Chambers, who started out making Ivory Snow commercials, and a stereotyped black sex-machine wearing white tights and African face paint. The action seems entirely focused on her pleasure, which seems authentic, and his slavish commitment to it. But even with all the hard-core footage, the most arresting images are of the star’s face.

Despite a dizzying variety of novelties and gimmicks, most current pom titles consist of a plot no thicker than a G-string, which is quickly discarded for scene after scene of pneumatic thrusting. Like Hollywood movies, pom videos rely on formula. And the most well-worn cliché is women performing oral sex on men. Fellatio is to the pom flick what the car chase is to the action movie. And it acquires a numbing sameness from one movie to the next. Pom actors carry out their duties with a mechanical zeal, a blinkered diligence that comes across as a bizarre variation on the Protestant work ethic. The women work hard to look like they are having fun; the men simply work hard.

Although a kind of exploitation equity takes over in the sex scenes, it goes without saying that porn movies tend to de-

grade women. But at least one director has tried to cater to female sensibilities. Candida Royalle, who is with New York City’s Femme Productions, makes movies that are like X-rated Harlequin romances. Royalle’s Three Daughters avoids the crass excesses of most pom. The women do not have inflated breasts. The men are all excessively courteous. They show up bearing champagne and flowers. And they treat their partners to a great deal of gentle foreplay before shedding their underwear.

About to deflower a virgin, a suitor says: “Are you sure you want to do this?” The movie shows penetration, but there is no profanity. And after intercourse, the men linger for studiously attentive hugs and kisses. Three Daughters attempts the impossible—to create a drama without conflict. The result is what a Baby Duck

wine commercial might look like if extended to 90 minutes.

As the pom industry finds new ways to sanitize smut, it begins to undermine its original purpose. But a burgeoning subgenre is available for voyeurs who crave more realism: “amateur” videos. Technology now allows anyone with a Camcorder to become a pomographer. But the so-called amateur videos available in the chain stores are, in fact, made by professionals. They just look amateur. They tend to consist of continuous hand-held footage of improvised performances, which unfold in real time. They are, in a sense, sexual documentaries, pom’s approximation of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

One way or the other, adult videos demand a certain suspension of disbelief, among other things. And pom often wears its fantasies like ill-fitting costumes. They tend to be remarkably literal, and often hokey—Cyrano de Bergerac (from the “toys” category) redefines the meaning of the term “nose job.” The distance between the voyeur and the fantasy is perhaps part of the thrill. Pom and alienation appear to go hand in hand. Vox, American author Nicholson Baker’s 1991 novel, consists of one continuous phone-sex conversation in which a man tells a story about watching a pom video with a woman from the office. The permutations are mind-boggling: a man arouses himself by talking on the phone to an anonymous woman about being with another woman and watching a video of strangers coupling. It can be a lonely road to satisfaction. □