Movies with staying power: a look at what makes a classic porn

Winners of the AVN "Woody" Award for best performance in their category

By now, it’s likely you’ve already hungrily devoured our feature covering  the Golden Age of Geek Porn, as well as  many  other articles detailing our love and respect for the pornographic genre – in which case, you have already accepted pornography as a legitimate entry in critical film discussion, unashamedly removed your copy of Deep Throat from its hiding place under your bed  and proudly  displayed it on your DVD shelf next to   Big Bang Theory  (which, apparently, is  the name of a TV show).

In short, you do not need me to to reiterate that  porn ought to be taken seriously, or that the best of them can too be considered classics.

What makes a classic porn?

But what makes a classic porn film?  In spite  of its constant struggle against backlash and controversy,  how  have the best of the pornographic genre  carved out a niche for themselves in cultural memory, with  their own classy sounding label to boot (Porno Chic)?  Just for the hell of it, I did a quick Google search to see if there existed an adult film version of the Oscars - there is. They’re called the AVNAs, short for the Adult Video News Awards, and they shrare many of the same honours as their more PG-rated cousin, including Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Spanking. (Okay, all but that last one.) At first glance, it  would seem like the criteria necessary to immortalize oneself alongside the Pornographic Hall of Fame would be obvious.

However, upon closer inspection, many of these awards are vague or completely inconsequential: what exactly is meant by “best male perfomer?  After all, if we’re judging by the  lazy ecstasy of the partner, maybe we ought to be giving him/her the award.  Further, it is odd that the  period generally known as the Golden Age of Porn — which gave us the aformentioned   Deep  Throat, as well as Behind the Green Door and Debbie Does Dallas – is generally considered to have ended around 1982-83, the year before the AVNAs were founded. Clearly, these two developments marked a shift in  pornographic history.  Something was left behind as  pornography moved into the  online age, and proceeded to flood  the internet with capsule  films and vignettes, five-minute scenes that wasted no time in taking us from foreplay to climax — an unsatisfying thing, really, because as we all know, it’s all about the foreplay.

It’s all about the politics

The  films of the 70s are classic porn specifically because they give us foreplay, in the sense that they reflect the context in which the films themselves were created. Films of that period are rooted in specific social and  cultural moments, and  I argue that  the reach of those moments extended  to the porno industry as well, whether  manifested  in the beliefs of the actors, or as motifs found within the films themselves. I doubt that Deep  Throat ‘s choice to place  the woman’s clitoris in her speaking orifice during a time of women’s struggle for sexual freedom and expression is a coincidence.

Modern porn, on the other hand, isn’t rooted in much of anything. These plotless, vignette-style  pornographic films that dominate the  contemporary film landscape  appeal to the genre’s predominantly mass male audience because, in many cases,  they represent the absolute zenith of sexual encounters  — guiltless, no-strings-attached sex and lusty confrontations  that begin and end in the same  scene, but have no meaning, no staying power beyond their fleeting, immediate existence. These are films  that may have some damn good spanking in them, but don’t speak to anything greater. Instead they merely reflect the fragmented, schizophrenic culture that has come in the age of ‘on-demand’.

And the Woody goes to…

In short, it is all  well and good  to hand a  film the “Woody” for Best Interactive DVD Menus, but all you’re really doing is congratulating someone for adding a drop to a vast ocean of porn,  one that is almost certain to get lost  between Dorm Room Fantasies  XIV and   XVIII (I made those titles up, but it’s likely they exist, given that 11,000 pornos  are released to DVD every year). The classic porn, on the other hand, lays its claim to greatness on the  idea that pornography is not simply a  means to a wholly physical end, but rather an opportunity to  make a statement on contemporary culture that’s  as important or relevant as anything that can be found in  mainstream cinema – or your Big Bang   DVD, which, again is allegedly not a classic porn.


Noam Kaufman is a cinephile by day, concert-goer by night. He cherishes doumentaries and foreign films, which enable him to indulge his dual love of reading and watching simultaneously. If he isn't at a concert hall or movie theater, you might be able to find him at York University, where he occasionally moonlights as a student.

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