Raymond Carver would be doing the proverbial grave-turning if he knew how overused variations of the title of his 1981 short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are these days. (See here and here and especially here; I could go on forever). But Carver’s title is so overused because it perfectly describes the trouble we have when defining what a thing is. Therefore, I’ll add my name to the guilty pile of writer-borrowers, and say that this piece should tentatively be called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Porn”, which is really just a poetic way of saying, “What is porn?”
I’ll leave you to think on that for a minute.
A Brief Definition of Sex on Film
To address the question, we can’t simply say “porn consists of depictions of sexual intercourse intended for arousal.” We also have to ask why it is that pornographic material has elicited such a strong reaction within the history of cinema, a reaction that has inevitably excluded pornographic films from ever having any hope of joining any aspect of any even remotely respectable canon of filmmaking. Let’s take a look at 1972′s Behind the Green Door. Why this film? Of course, nudity and sex had been recorded and displayed in moving image formats before 1972. However, it was usually in short, silent “stag” films screened at “gentlemen’s clubs”, clinically-minded adult sex instruction films, or films belonging to the so-called “experimental” or “avant-garde” realm, such as Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (1968). For the first time, in 1972, explicit depictions of sexual intercourse within a feature-length, full-colour, and musically-accompanied narrative film were available to (and gradually more accepted by) mainstream audiences of both genders (more info in this book).
A brief summary of the film: two men chat at a truck stop diner. One recounts the story of a secret sex-voyeurism club meeting he once attended. In flashback, the sex-voyeurism show is depicted in detail: a young white woman is coerced into performing sex acts with a variety of other people (principally a black man, among others) on a stage while a rapt audience watches, and occasionally masturbates. However, somewhere along the line (but before she is penetrated), she begins to show that she is taking pleasure in the proceedings, and the coercion eventually (and confusingly) turns into consent.
The Realness of Pornography
Certainly, the interracial nature of the sexual relationship caused a great deal of controversy. Moreover, the actress’ (Marilyn Chambers) youth and ostensible innocence offended many (compare this to today’s mainstream porn, in which the actresses get suspiciously younger and younger, and nobody seems to bat an eye). Both the depiction of group sex and public sex in Behind the Green Door were not easy to stomach by mainstream society. But I want to put forth my own hypothesis about why this film (and, in fact, all pornographic films) cause such unease in mainstream culture: it might have something to do with the very realness of the production strategy. In a pornographic film, the event taking place within the film’s narrative and the profilmic event (the event taking place before the camera “in real life”) are the same. That is to say: the only way to depict sexual intercourse in exact detail is to have the actors actually perform sexual intercourse in exact detail.
This “closeness” between the fiction and its reality might lead us to consider something like “production ethics” (think of the controversies around animal exploitation and cruelty in such quality cinematic fare as Air Bud). When an actor plays a character who get shot and dies, that actor’s bodily health is never in any real danger. Marilyn Chambers, however, in a conflation of actor and character that took place via the power of sex, was lambasted by mainstream society for being promiscuous; that is to say, the actress actually had sex in order to play her part.
Revisiting Behind the Green Door
But existential questions aside, this is, after all, a Cinema Revisited article, so what’s so special about Behind the Green Door that we would want to revisit it (as I have done quite a few times myself)? The fascination lies, inarguably, in the famous inexplicably psychedelic and absolutely entrancing ejaculation scene. If you haven’t seen the film, you might wonder what could be so jarring and unique about a regular old “money shot”, replicated millions of times in practically every pornographic film, gay, straight, or otherwise. Well, this is no regular ejaculation: a penis is filmed expelling semen in extreme slow-motion, while optical filters alternate (red, blue, green, yellow) over the image. In addition, the image of the slow-motion, psychedelically-coloured penis is doubled, reversed, and laid over itself, offering multi-coloured simultaneous projections of itself in mirror-image ejaculations. An oddly hypnotic soundtrack of low, cavernous bass-register moans, manipulated to sound like the meditation of monks echoing through the mountains, accompanies the scene.
The first time I saw this scene, dumped without rationale into the middle of an otherwise very ‘realist’ (ahem) pornographic film, I was baffled. Why? Certainly, we can conclude that the scene’s primary intent was not arousal (when was the last time you heard of someone who is turned on by a neon-coloured, mirrored, slow-motion ejaculation?) What was it, then? Why the highly stylized effects? Returning to our discussion of the closeness between pornographic fiction and the reality necessitated to create it, we might guess that the stylized ejaculation is meant to make the real unreal. The unusual stylization of the ejaculation adds some mystery and some fantasy to a scene which would otherwise have been very real. Is it possible that the first narrative, feature-length, mainstream hardcore porn film could not actually show an ejaculating penis in a ‘realist’ aesthetic mode because it was just too real? Considering the controversies surrounding not only this film, at the tie of its release and today, but also all pornographic films, mainstream and otherwise, it might just be too jarring to watch real sex.
In any case, if you’re bored and feeling curious, I recommend viewing the puzzling and otherworldly ejaculation scene while sipping a couple of glasses of Prosecco… just to take the edge of realness off.
Toronto Film Scene is turning up the heat for the month of July and looking at Pornography as a Legitimate Art Form. Don’t miss our scintillating coverage on everything from soft to hard core films, including a look at the Feminist Porn awards, what makes a truly classic porno, erotica translated from book to screen and the golden age of geek porn.
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