Time writer Richard Corliss wrote:
|Here's a little
statistic that means a lot. In hotel rooms where pornography is
available, two-thirds of all movie purchases are for pornos; and the
average time they are watched is 12 minutes. The image instantly
summoned is of the traveling businessman who wants a smidge of
sexual exercise before retiring, but who is too tired, timid or
cheap to summon a call girl. He cares little about whatever niceties
of dialogue or mise-en-scene the movie may contain. He seeks only a
brisk hand job, self-applied, then clicks off the TV, and so to bed.
Someone I know, on hearing of this archetypal businessman, wondered,
"What did he do the other seven minutes?"
Pornography is big business: an industry that earns an estimated $57 billion worldwide annually —$20 billion just for adult movies in the U.S., where some 800 million videos are rented each year, according to Paul Fishbein, the founding president of Adult Video News. "And I don't think that it's 800 guys renting a million tapes each," he told CBS News. Fishbein means that the phenomenon can't be simply a big-city, left-wing perversion; a good many of those renters, those consumers of hotel porn, have to be red-staters. Which is why, among all the cries in favor of traditional values and against naughty TV, you haven't seen many county sheriffs or G-men forcing the old smut peddler do a perp walk. Porn doesn't affront contemporary community standards. It is a contemporary community standard.
There's a lot of porn out there. But nobody's calling it art. Or even, technically, film. (The industry has been virtually all-video for a couple of decades.) Porn is a commodity, with no more pretension to art than the most mindless kiddie show. For the weary businessman it's just a combination Viagra and Ambien.
How drab this seems compared to the heady days of the early 70s, when "There was something exciting about pornography," as Norman Mailer says in the new documentary Inside Deep Throat. "It lived in some mid-world between crime and art. And it was adventurous." Porn films preoccupied critics, cops and the courts. Often financed by Mafia families, they attracted the crusading instincts of local, state and federal prosecutors, who shut down the films and secured the conviction of one actor. They were directed by men who could fancy themselves as artists, and starred off-Broadway actors as well as the occasional gifted ingenue —like Linda Lovelace, star of the movie that created the craze (and the phrase) "porno chic," Deep Throat.
Mainstream newspapers (the Timeses of New York and Los Angeles, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert) and magazines (TIME and Newsweek) reviewed the more ambitious soft-core movies in the 60s and then hard-core, when it was legally exhibited. Why? Because it was sufficiently dangerous, popular, newsworthy and, frequently, ambitious to warrant the interest of reviewers. The opinion of many of them, including me, was that there might be a meeting of pornography, which had quickly established a kind of artistic pedigree, and Hollywood, which was striding toward explicit sexuality. That was also the belief of Deep Throat's writer-director, Gerard Damiano, who said in 1973: "If it's left alone, within a year sex will just blend itself into film. It's inevitable."
To anyone who wasn't around in the early 70s, this statement must sound utopian, if not delusional. Well (and I know I've written this before, but this time, children, it's true), things really were different then. You get a sense of those old New Days in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's Inside Deep Throat, a snazzy documentary now playing in theaters and coming soon to HBO, and a more synoptic view in the new book The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, by Legs McNeil, Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia. Diving into the nearly 600 pages of unmediated testimony from the actors, directors and producers, and the cops who kept track of them and tried to bring them down, a reader gets an inside look at a time when porn —the entire cultural life —was different, bolder, weirder, better.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to the Inside Deep Throat testimony of Damiano —now 76 and a Florida retiree, his trousers pulled nearly up to his tits, old-man style. "You had to be there," he says. "You had to be there. I'm thrilled that I was there. And I thank God I had a camera."
Damiano's camera could be turned on, but if the actors weren't, he'd have no blue movie. (Blue, don't ask me why, was the word to describe a dirty joke, an aching scrotum or a pornographic film. Two stag-film collections that opened in 1970 were called A History of the Blue Movie and Hollywood Blue.) Where was a director to find people who would consent to be photographed having sex? And where would he find sex workers who could convincingly play roles —act —in a feature-length, talking picture?
Two genres combined to create 70s porn. One, shown in theaters, was the soft-core sex film: basically a low-budget fiction feature with heavy-breathing innuendo, simulated lovemaking and the occasional, calculated exposure of skin (They were called skin flicks.) The genre boomed in 1959 with the smash success of Russ Meyer's nudie comedy The Immoral Mr. Teas, which cued a five-year run of so-called nudie-cuties. Says prime sexploitation showman Dave Friedman: "Nudie-cuties were very rigid in their construction —you had the boy/girl scene, the girl/girl scene, the orgy scene, and then the kiss-off." These light comedies gave way to Meyer's delirious lower-depths melodramas, and to Radley Metzger's glamorous European-accented romances, and to R.L. Frost's sex-and-violence epics, known as roughies As the 60s wore on, and the courts relaxed standards, soft-core tiptoed toward hard.
The other genre was traditionally shown at stag parties; hence, stag films. These were hard-core shorts, 10 to 20 mins. long, almost always silent (even into the 1960s) and with anonymous performers, usually prostitutes and their johns, who didn't mind displaying their genitals but sometimes masked their faces. The films were essentially documents, documentaries, of two or more people satisfying their urgent desires. The furtiveness was part of the kick for the all-male audience at a Rotary meeting or frat-house smoker. The fact that these films were so raw, and illegal, at a time when publicly exhibited movies couldn't show a tit and couldn't say shit (literally: the 1962 film The Connection was banned in New York state for using the word, though the shit it referred to was not excrement but heroin), made seeing them the ultimate, safe guilty pleasure.
The first blow in the one-two punch that brought porn into the open was a 1969 documentary, Pornography in Denmark, from the sexologists Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, the sub-Kinseys of their day. As filmmaker John Waters recollects: "Pornography in Denmark got around the law because it was a 'serious documentary,' right? It was supposedly 'socially redeeming,' but it showed penetration.... It was a big deal because after that there was no turning back. That's the day exploitation films ended —the way Andy Warhol ended Abstract Expressionism in one night by that soup can, the way the Beatles ended rhythm and blues in one night on the Ed Sullivan Show."
Fast on its heels came Mona, the first porno fiction feature, which opened in theaters in San Francisco and New York —and, more important, wasn't closed down by the police. Set in the Bay Area, Mona had no redeeming social interest, only redeeming prurient interest. It's about an engaged girl who has promised her mom she'd be a virgin on her wedding day, but figures fellatio doesn't count. The movie spends its 70 mins. following the parallel adventures of Mona and Mama. (Both generations sup at the loins of Mona's fiance, and take my word, mom's hotter.) When her fiance learns about her outside partners, he insists she have a simultaneous assignation with all four of them, and her every orifice is plundered. Returning home, Mona tearfully says, "Mother, I have something to tell you." Mom replies, "I have something to tell you too, dear." They hug. Fade out on this sadder-but-wiser mother-daughter sisterhood.
Whether it was considered a real movie with explicit sex scenes, or a series of stag-reel exertions with a modicum of plot and characterization added, Mona created the blueprint for 70s porno chic. True to Friedman's recipe, it had the boy/girl scene, the girl/girl scene, the orgy scene, and then the kiss-off. It also boasted an honorable mix of no-budget craftsmanship and hippie-dippie who-cares?
What Mona did not have was any credits —not for the producer (Bill Osco, scion of the nationwide drugstore chain), director (Howard Ziehm) or actors (Fifi Watson, Judy Angel and Ric Lutze). Discretion was probably wise; the cops were less likely to arrest you if they didn't know your name. But in hiding its makers' identities, Mona bowed to the old stigma of the stag film. It was still an anonymous transgression.
One step up from anonymity is pseudonymity. Paul Gerber, the writer-director of my own favorite among the early pornos, the 1971 School Girl, was listed as David Reberg on the credits. Damiano put the name Jerry Gerard on Deep Throat. That film's lead players, Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems, were really Linda Boreman and Herb Streicher. The star of Damiano's next film, Devil in Miss Jones, called herself Georgina Spelvin —George Spelvin being the all-purpose pseudonym for a stage actor doubling a role (and Georgette for an actress). Jamie Gillis, another star of proto-porn, says that when he saw his face on a blue-film poster, "I thought, 'My God, I'm a serious actor. People are gonna see this poster and it's gonna ruin my career!'"
Indeed, one of the clues that porn had emerged into respectability was that performers stopped caring about their nominal secrecy. Marilyn Chambers, the star of Jim and Artie Mitchell's Behind the Green Door, didn't mind being known, because it could mean she'd be famous.
DOING IT SERIOUSLY
The two production centers for early American public porn films were San Francisco and New York, and the movies reflected the temperaments of their respective home towns. The San Francisco films have a grainy, cinema-verite style and a behavioral openness that seems a residue of the Summer of Love. Sex is free, man, sex is beautiful, and as long as we're having sex, why not share it with the camera? I don't know much about the performers in films like Mona and School Girl, but I imagine they were friends of the directors rather than professional thespians.
New York porn was both slicker and edgier, more professional, as were its actors. Gillis cites a Shakespeare gig he did for Manhattan's Classic Stage Company. Eric Edwards starred in a Close-Up toothpaste commercial; it was pulled when he was spotted in a porn loop. In his 1975 memoir Here Comes Harry Reems (quoted in The Other Hollywood), the actor recalls, "I was doing Coriolanus in some marginal coffeehouse where they passed the hat around at the end of the performance." He got more valuable training when he signed on with two burlesque vets to be the set-up guy, or "third banana," on a tour that included Staten Island and Atlantic City. It was there he learned "the crazy doctor bit" that he would use as Dr. Young, the medical hygienist in Deep Throat.
Not all of the on-screen talent was in it for the art. "I purposely would not act," says 70s performer C.J. Laing. "I despised the people in these films that said they were actors. I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me! This is about fucking and sucking!'" But quite a few thought it was about process and progress. Once the off-Broadway types got into porn, they relied on the actor's invaluable gift for self-hypnosis to convince themselves it was somehow legit. Spelvin, who says she appeared on Broadway in The Pajama Game and Cabaret, recalls, of Devil in Miss Jones, "I took the role very seriously. I was doing Hedda Gabler here! The fact that there was hard-core sex involved was incidental as far as I was concerned. I was totally deluded. I had made myself believe that I was an actress. I was showing true life as it really was —including actual sex as it really happened —instead of the phony stuff that you got from Hollywood. That was my raison d'etre throughout the whole thing. It was okay; I was okay; I wasn't a slut."
Early porn directors also talked themselves into believing they were committing art. Ron Wertheim, Damiano's assistant director on Deep Throat, may only have been shooting porno loops but, he says in the documentary, "I approached those films as if I was Luc Godard or somebody." Damiano, who went directly from hairdressing to helming hard-core, had a similar sense of vocation. He says that after the success of Deep Throat, "If people wanted to interview me because I was a porno filmmaker, I just was not interested in talking to them. But if anyone wanted to speak to me because I made films, then I was happy to...."
His ambition was clear in Devil in Miss Jones. Spelvin plays Justine Jones, a lonely woman who slits her wrists in a bathtub. After dying a virgin, she tells a gatekeeper to eternity that she wants to live out her sexual urges, to be "filled, engulfed, consumed by lust." She briefly gets that wish —which includes intimate contact with bananas and grapes, a snake and (Damiano's favorite marital aid) a water tube. (He has a similar scene in Deep Throat and later devoted an entire movie, Water Power, to high colonics.) With plenty of boy/girl, girl/girl and orgy "action," Devil still takes itself solemnly enough to risk being laughable. But heaven knows it's intense, and an honorable attempt to blue the line between porn and "real" films. As for Spelvin, she isn't a slut; she is a theater-trained actress giving her all for her art.
Most directors with a left-field mega-hit would instantly crank out another picture in the same genre. Not Damiano. He used his cash, and cachet, from his silly porno comedy to make a super-serioso drama. Reading the script of Devil in Miss Jones, Reems told his friend: "Gerry, it's a steal. This is No Exit in its thinnest disguise." To which Damiano replied: "Well, what do you expect? I wrote it in a weekend." Though Devil was a substantial box-office hit, Spelvin notes that "it was not really a very successful porno film. I mean, guys came out of that film shaking their heads, saying, 'I came here to jerk off, I didn't come here to think!'" But that's what Damiano had in mind. He wasn't interested in being another Russ Meyer; he wanted to be Ingmar Fuckin' Bergman.
Which is just what we, in the world of serious filmgoing and film-watching, were waiting for.
Movies were getting sexier in the 60s. I mean films. European ones, Scandinavian ones: Bergman's The Silence, Vilgot Sjoeman's I Am Curious Yellow, that not-so-arty art-house hit I, a Woman. Cinema eroticism came with subtitles, until a renegade Hollywood faction got the word and married social and sexual issues in Medium Cool, Easy Rider and the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy —all rated X, back when that designation simply meant a film for adults, not a porno film. Back when sexually urgent films were made for thinking adults. As I say, this was a long time ago.
There was also a healthy substratum of what were called avant-garde movies, shown at college film societies and, in New York, at Amos Vogel's pioneering Cinema 16 film club. Oh yes, it was instructive and ennobling, watching the elliptical 16mm films that some of us thought would take cinema into the post-narrative age and make it a truly modernist art. We also had to admit that movies like Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray (a naked woman dances to a Ray Charles song) and Stan Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving (birth, in gynecological closeup) were also, relatively speaking, hot stuff. Carolee Schneeman's Fuses was 18 minutes of lovemaking —lovemaking turned into an art movie because the artist had painted on, or baked, the film stock, but it was photographed whoopee all the same.
I saw Fuses at the Museum of Modern Art, where I worked for a couple of years in the late 60s, before becoming editor of Film Comment magazine, and where I met the foxy lady who would become my wife. MoMA was a jazzy place when the Vietnam War was wearing everyone down, and the new sensuality was perking most of us up. Members watched avant-porn in the private screening room; some had sex on the carpeted floor. (I should say had love, since three Film Department liaisons, Mary's and mine included, ended in late-60s marriages, and all of them are still going strong more than 35 years later.) One MoMA staffer and spouse had a brief business connection with blue cinema: they rented out their brownstone as a location for the porn epic Inside Jennifer Welles.
It wasn't all intramural fun and games. The Film Department also organized public screenings of hard-core quasi-art. On one electrifying evening in 1972, critic Stuart Byron introduced Fred Halsted's dreamy, grainy, gay-sex LA Plays Itself, about which I rather coyly wrote, in Film Comment: "The cul-de-sac of narrative porn may well be the sadomasochistic fist-in-the-socket scene ... which one critic described as the most spectacular sequence since De Mille's parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments." The crowd in the auditorium was respectful, if disconcerted (At the moment of full-forearm penetration, a few viewers whispered "Ouch!").
The receptiveness of the establishment to the outlaw sub-art in the early and middle 70s was evident at the two major film festivals I took part in, Cannes and New York. In Cannes' unofficial sidebar, known as the Market, Mary and I saw Behind the Green Door, Lasse Braun's Sensations, Max Pecas' Dictionary of Sex and Metzger's Score, where, after a screening of the film's soft-core version, we were invited to stay for an alternate final reel featuring hard-core sex. (Metzger went on to direct one more arty hard-core, the excellent Paris-shot SM drama The Image, before turning to light-hearted New York porn under the pseudonym Henry Paris.) The Market was just that: a film showcase to lure international buyers. But the porn movies on display fit snugly into the tone of the official Festival. They were serious (if not successful) works, as ambitious as they were lubricious.
At the New York Film Festival, films with intense sexual elements were occasionally part of the 20-some features in the official program. In 1971, the year I joined the festival's selection committee, we showed Dusan Makaveyev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism, which had a hint of hard-core. The following year, the Festival had Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (Brando, butter), As we discoed fearlessly through the 70s we brought in a porno documentary from France (Exhibition) and a Japanese drama (In the Realm of the Senses) that had hard-core sex and a pretty explicit castration. The clear implication: these pictures were chosen to be in the Film Festival, so they had to be art.
At Film Comment, associate editor Melinda Ward and I put together a special issue on Cinema Sex (January-February 1973). It included Donald Richie's report on Japanese eroductions, Ray Durgnat on Jess Franco, Stephen Farber on sexual censorship in California, my long interview with Metzger and Ebert's definitive study of Meyer (which is quoted in the first pages of The Other Hollywood. My favorite essay, a real startler, was Brendan Gill's on porno films. Brendan, a New Yorker staff writer for a half-century, and author of the magazine's unofficial history, Here at the New Yorker, was a man of many passions, from theater to architecture to women, and in a sweet seizure of ardor his speech and prose were ever rising to an exclamation point . Pornography was one of those enthusiasms, as he expressed in his Film Comment effusion, called "Blue Notes." A sample:
"I go to as many blue movies as I can find time for, and it amounts to a blessing that two of the most important theatres housing hard-core porn in New York City —the Hudson/Avon for heterosexual blue movies, and the Park/Miller for homosexual ones —are within a couple of hundred yards of my office. At the moment of writing, another fifteen or twenty porn houses are but five minutes away. How lucky I am that this unexpected period of permissiveness should have coincided with my life, and how unready I am to have the period brought to a close by some new ruling of the courts!"
We probably wouldn't have done that special issue if it hadn't been for Deep Throat.
In essence, Deep Throat is part slapstick comedy, part carnal carnival: it's a burlesque routine (Harry Reems' Doctor Schnorrer routine) wrapped around a sideshow freak stunt (Linda's routine). And the movie —maybe all of porno chic —wouldn't exist if Chuck Traynor hadn't shown Damiano a bedroom trick his wife Linda could do. Which, putting it starkly, was to work a penis not only into her mouth but down her throat. Call it glottal fellatio —a glo-job.
Chuck and Linda came to New York in 1971, and quickly fell into the burgeoning local porn scene. The way she remembers, it was one big family: "You met one person, and he passed you on to the others. The still photographers knew the club owners who knew the madams who knew the eight-millimeter directors who knew the peep show kingpins who knew the adult bookstore owners and on and on. ... I swear, before the week was out, Chuck managed to meet every prominent pervert in New York."
Years later, Lovelace would publish an autobiography, Ordeal, in which she charged Traynor with all manner of brutality: he beat her, threatened her, forced her into Deep Throat and a lesser known but more infamous loop where she has sex with a dog. She found unlikely allies in the feminist movement, who took her case as prima-facie sexual victimhood. In 1986 Linda testified before Congress about her performance in Deep Throat, charging that "Virtually every time someone watches that movie, they're watching me being raped."
Other hard-core workers interviewed in The Other Hollywood dispute some of the Lovelace charges, including that she showed any reluctance to make the girl-meets-dog film. But there's no doubt Linda's life was mostly rough. She had scars on her body from car crashes, of which she endured at least three, including the one that killed her in 2002, when she was 53. An unhappy, possibly abused child, she left home early and had the ill luck to meet Traynor, about whom no one speaks with much affection. He sounds like an expert exploiter. She wrote that, on a visit to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion: "Chuck decided to demonstrate a new trick he had been practicing —putting his entire fist into me. ... At this point everyone applauded, again, just like in an old Fred Astaire movie." A Roman bacchanal, with Hef as Caligula.
Damiano was shooting a 10-min. loop, set in a hospital, with Reems as the patient (he has a bandage bow-tied around his ailing member) and Linda as the ministering nurse. Then she performed her sleight-of-throat. As the actor recalled: "I couldn't believe she ate the whole thing!... It was a frightening sensation. My first thought was, 'Will she bring me back alive?'" (Spoken like a smart third banana.) "Gerry's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets and the cameraman's jaw brushed his shoes. I think all of us there knew we were present at a significant moment in sexual history."
Damiano quickly whipped up a script about a young woman who can't achieve orgasm, whatever her sexual activity. "There should be bells ringing, dams bursting, bombs going off!" she complains to a friend. Dr. Young, after a minute examination, detects Linda's clitoris in her throat. She starts bawling, and he tries to console her. "Having a clitoris deep down in the bottom of your throat is better than having no clitoris at all." "That's easy for you to say,' she snaps. "Suppose your balls were in your ear." He pauses, brightens, and says: "Well, then I could hear myself coming."
When Reems read an early version of the script, he recalled, "I saw a part I was dying to play —and my part was dying to play it, too." (Cue rim shot.) The director was a Reems fan: "I really dug Harry. He's a professional, he's a romantic, and he's an exhibitionist." But for some reason he didn't want him to play Dr. Young. Linda, of course, had to be in the movie; she was the movie. He gave her an alliterative, movie-star name and devised costumes, lighting tricks and cagey camera angles to hide her abdominal scar, a memento from one of her car wrecks. Linda was no goddess. But she was slim and freckled, not your standard porno skank, and her inexperience on screen played like freshness, innocence.
Though the cast and crew were in New York, Deep Throat would be shot in Miami. Why? Mainly because nearby Fort Lauderdale was the base of operations for Damiano's underworld sponsor. (You need money for a porno in 1971, you don't go to Chase Manhattan.) Louis Peraino, known as Butchie, was the son of Anthony Peraino, Sr., a made man in the Columbo family; one of the five Mafia gangs that ruled New York City. Butchie, who put up the $25,000 for the movie and received producer credit (as "Lou Perry"), was volubly apprehensive about Damiano's new starlet. Lovelace subsequently explained "why Butchie was so critical of me. It wasn't that I might ruin his film or cost him twenty-five thousand. I might make him look bad in front of Daddy."
Whomever Damiano hoped to cast as his male lead wasn't available, so Reems got the job, and Traynor was named production manager. Good thing on both counts. Chuck could be a jealous spouse, so when a sex scene was to be shot, Damiano would send him away on an errand. And Reems had a chance to display his indefatigable performance skills, as a burlesque comic and sex worker, made the enterprise very viewer-friendly. "Harry wasn't a great actor," says long-time porn entrepreneur Fred Lincoln, "but he was a great fucker." Reems is justly proud of his quick preparation for the money scenes: "I can get turned on by a picture of Minnie Mouse." (Fine, Harry, just don't say Pluto!). Even Federal agent Bill Kelly, who would lead the battle to put Harry in jail, offered the grudging praise that "He was the only redeeming thing in the entire movie, as opposed to Linda Lovelace, who's got as much acting ability as a lamp." Reems certainly earned his salary on the film: $250. Linda got $1,200.
The working title had been The Sword Swallower. But "deep throat" (Damiano's coinage) was the picture's key phrase. So he changed it. Damiano: "When we finished the film, the Perainos objected to the title. 'No one will understand it! It's not catchy enough!' 'Don't worry,' I told them. 'Deep Throat will become a household word.'" He got his way, for which Woodward and Bernstein will be forever grateful.
Deep Throat opened at the World Theatre on 49th Street in Manhattan, around the corner from the Time + Life Building. The date was June 12, three days before a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Thanks in part to a rave review from Al Goldstein in Screw magazine, and to a catchy ad campaign that ran in New York dailies ("If you like head, you'll love Throat"), word of, shall we say, mouth spread quickly. The first week's gross was a robust $30,033. What did the audience find? A mildly bright, good-natured comedy with some appealing performers. Among the supporting players, I like Dolly Sharp, who has some screen presence as Linda's friend and confidante. As a man gives her cunnilingus, she nonchalantly lights up, then asks, "Mind if I smoke while you're eating?" He laps away, and the perky song "Great Big Magic Bubbles" is heard.
Damiano squeezed a lot of production value out of his $25,000, including the underscoring, which is full of jolly, ironic pop music, including a version of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" with raunchier lyrics. The comedy is not cruel but sympathetic. Dr. Young loves the deep throat but it exhausts him; an old Jewish guy is one of Linda's most ardent patients, pleading, "Money is no object. Look —I got Blue Cross!" Once Linda locates her tingler, she need only find Mr. Right, a nerd named Wilbur (William Love). The plot dilemma: Linda needs a man with a nine-inch cock, and Wilbur frets that "I'm just four inches away from happiness." Turns out his cock is ... 13 inches long. Ladies and gentlemen: comedy!
I hear you: this isn't porno chic, it's porno shtick. But it was fun and funny in a slummy way. That helped make Deep Throat the American public's ideal induction ceremony into hard-core. Sex-film history was repeating itself. The break-out soft-core film, Teas,, had been a comedy with a gimmick (a man is able to see women naked); Throat had a more ingenious twist, was a cleverer film and a genial buoyancy. And where else were audiences going to see a woman with such control over her gag reflex? Granted, when they saw the film, some viewers couldn't control theirs, but most were diverted. It soon became the date movie du jour.
Before Deep Throat, the mood in a sex-movie theater was solitary, drastically monastic, with patrons seated as far away from one another as possible. The Damiano film turned porn-going into a communal experience. If you were going to see a hard-core movie, this was the one. You could slake your curiosity and amass opinions that would sustain hours of cocktail-party chatter. Celebrities stood in line. Comedians worked the fellatio film into their monologues. Johnny Carson: "This is kinda strange country, isn't it? Judges can see Deep Throat but they can't listen to those [Nixon] tapes." Bob Hope: "I went to see Deep Throat cause I'm fond of animal pictures. I thought it was about giraffes." Bob Hope made a Deep Throat joke on TV! It was like a papal blessing.
Legalized porn had a sister trend in the early 70s: feminism. Deep Throat benefited from that as well. The movie did acknowledge the existence of a clitoral orgasm, though by transporting it to a part of the body where friction would give men equal pleasure. In real life, fellatio can be deemed an act of submission for the woman (and emission for the man). In this movie's life, it brings a woman to ecstasy. "Guess what?" shouts Erica Jong in Inside Deep Throat.. "It's not true!" What is true is that erupting sperm is the money shot of porn films. It's not just that porn is made for the sexual excitement of men; it's that the arousal of the penis is easier to display visually than arousal of the clitoris. As Gill noted in the "Blue Notes" essay: "Simply as theatre, cunnilingus isn't a patch on fellatio, and it is difficult to see what even the most ardent Women's Lib maker of blue movies can do about it."
Until the 70s, New York state had one of the country's stricter film censorship boards. And although Mona and School Girl were shown without incident in Manhattan theaters, the success and attendant news coverage of Deep Throat required police action. (Though the cops interviewed in Inside Deep Throat are among its most receptive critics. "It was stunning, testifies John Goodman of the NYPD. "The cinematography, for a porn movie, was very good. The movie was funny. We knew that this was something different.") On the order of Mayor John Lindsay, the police closed down the film, and in March 1973 Judge Joel Tyler upheld the ban, writing, "This is one throat that deserves to be cut. I readily perform the operation by finding the defendant guilty as charged..." The World Theatre rose to the occasion. Its marquee read: "Judge Cuts Throat —World Mourns."
The Fenton-Barbato documentary makes much of the judicial and law-enforcement politics surrounding Deep Throat. The Nixon Administration tried prosecuting the film from every angle —not surprising, since it was a popular porn movie produced by the Mafia. One federal agent quoted a Peraino underling as saying of the Deep Throat take: "We've got so much money ... we don't even count it any more.... We weigh it." The movie reports that "Deep Throat was made for just $25,000. It grossed more than $600 million." (That last stat is a flexible one, like a guy's street-corner boast about his penis size. It's a tough sell, considering that the movie was banned in 27 states and didn't play the major theater chains.) Whatever the gross, Damiano didn't see much of it. The Perainos told him he was cut out of his one-third share of profits. And you don't argue with the made men. In the documentary, three decades later, Damiano is still afraid to discuss the movie's mob connection.
There's some amusement in statements from 70s moral guardians —such as "It's a floodgate of filth that's engulfed the minds and hearts and souls of America like nothing else ever has" —especially when the speaker is convicted savings-and-loan embezzler Charles Keating. It's a pleasure to watch Reems stalwartly defend his work against the ferociously righteous Roy Cohn (later to die of AIDS after a life of secret gay sex). What isn't so funny is that a Memphis jury found Reems guilty of obscenity for appearing in Deep Throat. "For the first time in U.S. history," narrator Dennis Hopper notes, "an actor had been convicted for merely playing a part." His conviction was overturned on appeal (during the Carter Administration), but booze and drugs took their toll. Within a few years Harry ended up panhandling on Sunset Boulevard
I don't question Inside Deep Throat's emphasis on the Nixon Administration's attempt to muzzle pornography. What I do know is that it didn't work. Publicly exhibited porn flourished for the next decade. New York City, certainly, was much more open in the Lindsay-Beame-and-Koch 70s than it would be in the Giuliani 90s. In the early days you could see such perverse eccentricities as Why, a Kronhausen documentary about a Danish farm girl, Bodil Joensen, who has sex with her livestock. That one I skipped.
But I did see most of the "major" porn films (a critic's got to do what a critic's got to do). And I found that the filmmakers were eager to explore all kinds of genres. The Mitchells made a Fanny Hill-style period comedy, Autobiography of a Flea. Low-rent auteur Zebedy Colt pornofied a Crucible-like period drama with The Devil Inside Her.) Peter Locke's It Happened in Hollywood was a Laugh-In-inspired skitcom; one funny turn featured a man-woman trapeze act called the Flying Fucks. These weren't always very good movies, but they were real ones, with earnest, sometimes accomplished actors, scripts that tried to be clever and increasingly professional production values. Just add screwing.
Recently, simply for you, dear reader, I saw some of them again. Here are thumbnail reviews of five:
Mona, 1970: The Jazz Singer of fuck films, Mona was pretty sure of itself for a lonely pioneer. It had a busy soundtrack: clavichord, old pop tunes, harmonica and jug band music, an Indian raga and a long audio extract from The Taming of the Shrew. It revealed Mona as a kind of fellatio virtuoso: when a guy she has solicited for a back-alley blow job tries to pay her, she replies daintily, "I didn't do it for money. I have a taste for these things." It boasts a piquant blend of tease and sympathy, and has a few laughs at its audience's expense. Mona says she's going to see a film, and Mother advises: "You be careful now. You don't know what kind of people are in a movie house nowadays."
School Girl, 1971: The friendliest, most naturalistic porno I know, Paul Gerber's film about a San Francisco college girl's research into swinging sexuality has no bondage, no discipline, just nice or slightly bent people doing what comes hornily. Debra (charming, unaffected Debra Allen) investigates phone sex, a father-son duo and pornographic literature, plus the inevitable group grope. The finest liaison involves a woman, Elizabeth, who wants to keep her five-year marriage fresh by giving Debra as a present to her husband Tony. The catch: Elizabeth has to "direct" the scene, which she does with a gentle, practiced bossiness. "Tony, your knee's in my way —down!" "Harder, harder!" "Come on, Tony, have a good time. You look so bored." Somehow Tony manages an erection, and Elizabeth joins the party. It's a lovely, and hot, demonstration of the thesis that sex is power —and Elizabeth's the dominatrix. Highly recommended.
Behind the Green Door, 1972: The film became a hit when producer-directors Jim and Artie Mitchell revealed that their star, Marilyn Chambers, had posed for the Ivory Snow box. But it had more going for it than notoriety. Except for the framing device, there is hardly any dialogue. Chambers' mass seduction scene, 10 mins. or so, is accompanied only by the sounds of heavy breathing, moans and the occasional audible wince. One of the film's money shots is given a slo-mo instant replay of the kind Jackie Chan later used for his best stunts; then the same shot in super slo-mo, then in Pablo Ferro-style psychedelic greens and pinks. The last two minutes are extraordinary for a porn film: one extended closeup of a man's and a woman's faces as they kiss (and have sex) —as if the Mitchells understood Bergman's dictum that "Film begins with the human face."
Sensations, 1975: Trying to be a hard-core Emmanuelle, this bit of Euro-decadence by Alberto Ferro (aka Lasse Braun) featured Penthouse Pet Brigitte Maier. She's quite a pretty lass, but doesn't get to do much more than watch until the end, when she accedes to the climactic orgy scene. Seven acolytes of various genders crowd around her, matching their protuberances to her orifices, until she is nearly smothered in closeup. Cut to the seven slowly withdrawing from their feast, and, presto, Maier has disappeared. That's the end —except for the closing credits, where we find that "Julio" was played by "Mexican Anonymous. The lighting cameraman was Dutch Anonymous, the script girl Belgian Anonymous and the assistant editor: English Anonymous. The whole Anonymous family worked on this one.
Alice in Wonderland, 1975: Produced by Osco and directed by Bud Townsend in soft and hard versions, this is a musical fantasy update of the Lewis Carroll tale, with eight or ten perky songs (by Bucky Searles, who had written for the TV show Julia) and orchestrations by Peter Matz, who was Barbra Streisand's music man in her first bloom. Playmate Kristine DeBell, a most engaging cutie, manages the wide-eyed wistfulness as deftly as she executes the phallus-in-wonderland scenes. (Other performers do the hard-core stuff.) The film is spiffy and frolicsome, with a distinct vaudeville tone. Toward the end, during some vigorous sexercise, one of the characters remarks, "After a while they all look the same, don't they?" They do. But Alice is one hard-core comedy that is at least as appealing in its R version.
In The Other Hollywood, writer Jack Boulware reminisces: "But —as it happens with everybody who had a great time in the 60s and 70s —it can't last forever, you know?" Though he's referring to the Mitchell brothers, one of whom killed the other in 1991, he could have meant the whole porno chic scene. Professional actors, even of marginal competence, gave way to born-and-bred porn stars like John Holmes in the 70s and Traci Lords in the 80s. "The turning point," says porn director Ed Deroo, "came in 1982, when it finally went all video. I missed film tremendously. Film had soul; video had nothing. Video's just a way of making money. It flows like water, but film had a texture, a feeling, something you could grab onto and feel." Then tragedy struck with the AIDS plague, which took Chuck Vincent, Wade Nichols, Tony Taylor and Holmes. "What happened to the sexual revolution?" asks Humphry Knipe. "It caught AIDS and died."
But porno chic died long before that. If Throat in 1972 stoked the hope that hard-core might fruitfully intersect with mainstream, Jaws in 1975 ended that dream, and a few others. The Spielberg film's success, and that of Star Wars two years later, proved that the big-bucks audience comprised kids and teens, not adults, and it was the young who had to be pandered to. Adult films were largely marginalized, the hard-core back to the old grind houses (and later to video), the Hollywood ones to art houses and Oscar season. It's been that way for 30 years.
The ambitious porn films of the early 70s have basically gone missing. Deep Throat is available (though not through amazon.com) on DVD, and Alice in Wonderland on VHS, but most of the others I've mentioned required a video-store or mail-order scavenger hunt to track down. Some, like It Happened in Hollywood and Damiano's The Story of Joanna, I couldn't find even at my refuge for all things weird and esoteric, Kim's Music and Video in the East Village. Even the major research website makes it difficult to find 70s-porno data. If you go to the IMdb and type in the words Deep Throat (or School Girl, or Behind the Green Door), you will not find the movie; porno is listed only under the actor or director's name. The genre is too scuzzy to list on a big site, and doesn't have the slumming or nostalgia value of the Ed Wood oeuvre.
So you'll have to take
my (and Damiano's) word for it. Pornography, and movies, used to be
a whole lot more interesting. Granted, I can't authoritatively swear
that today's hard-core stinks. That's because I haven't seen a porn
video, or digito, whatever they call them, in decades. Except once,
a few years ago, in a hotel, for about five minutes.
Compared to the pre-AIDS era, today's commercial porn seems dull indeed. However, Corliss misses a major point. Video wasn't a watershed because tape, as a medium, is inferior to film, but because with video the consumer has taken his (and it remains mainly "his") porn private.
The paradox of porn is this: judging quality is both objective and subjective. While the quality of a particular work can be objectively tested the results of the test will vary from one viewer (or reader) to the next, because the testing equipment can't be calibrated from one viewer to the next. Thus, the best porn will of necessity be custom made. With film, as a practical matter for the average consumer, this was problematic. With video, it is not. The consumer can now easily customize his smut by making it himself. (likewise, the still photographer.) Production values are a factor, but home video equipment is now so good that it's a diminishing factor.
Since the porn industry can't compete with the amateur's ability to customize the action, thanks to home video, its only edge is the models, which is why today's porn models are prettier, handsomer and more extreme than ever. Nevertheless, "amateur" commercial porn, authentic or faked, has been the fastest growing segment in the industry. The minimally attractive - or even not, if they have a special "talent" - can now produce and market their own porn, the "studios" having become as much distributors as producers. It's an evolution not unlike Hollywood itself.
So in a way, today's porn is better than ever. The difference is, that the best is no longer commercial. The moral and social implications are signal.
Brendan Gill, the distinguished writer for the New Yorker, offered a definition of pornography that has stood the test of time. A porno movie, he said, is a movie where you become acutely aware that the characters are spending too much time getting in and out of cars and walking in and out of doors.