Porn Rising

More and more filmmakers are putting pornography under the spotlight. Here is my article on the subject from The Scotsman.

Sex and pornography have been running themes at this year’s film festivals. Sundance and Berlin included biopics of Soho smut king/property tycoon Paul Raymond and Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, plus Don Jon, a comedy about a porn addict’s search for love, and Interior. Leather Bar. James Franco’s and Travis Mathews’ re-imagining of sexually explicit footage cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising. 

All this has meant that talk between journalists and filmmakers has frequently turned to matters carnal. Suddenly a sex act that it would normally be unseemly and downright inappropriate to discuss with a rising Hollywood starlet like Amanda Seyfried – who is the main reason to watch Lovelace – was a legitimate part of the discourse.

Next week sees the release of Michael Winterbottom’s entertaining The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond. Five years after the death of its subject, the film arrives amid growing concern about the mainstreaming of pornography – in which porn barons like Raymond, and filmmakers such as Deep Throat’s writer-director Gerard Damiano, played a significant part.

Whereas the 52-year-old Winterbottom says he grew up in the era of magazines such as Raymond’s Men Only and the “top shelf”, now any child capable of using a computer or smartphone better than their parents can access extreme hardcore material at the click of a few buttons.

Kids director Larry Clark told me seven years ago that he was shocked by the effects of pornification in America. While filming his contribution to the portmanteau art-porn project Destricted, Clark had interviewed young males who dreamed of copulating with a porn actress. When they disrobed for the camera, he discovered they’d all removed their body hair, just like porn stars.

“I had no idea that was going on,” he recalled. “When you’re a kid, pubic hair is the greatest thing in the world. You can’t wait to get it. And these very young kids were shaving it off. It’s like, what?” The way they had sex was equally surprising to him. “There’s no mystery. You f***, you pull out, and you come on the girl – that’s the way to have sex… If kids see that, they think that’s the way to do it.”

This point was disturbingly illustrated recently in the “On All Fours” episode of Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking TV show Girls, in which Hannah’s on-off lover, Adam, left a new partner feeling violated and degraded with moves that looked like they’d come straight out of the modern porn actor’s handbook. 

In Noah Baumbach’s wonderful new film Frances Ha, meanwhile, the eponymous New Yorker, played by co-writer Greta Gerwig (a friend of Dunham, incidentally), resignedly implies that porn now defines the way that many men her age want to have sex, with “facials” now part of what women are often expected to endure.

The role Raymond played in getting us here is not Winterbottom’s primary concern in The Look of Love. At first, the director says, it “felt like maybe it would be more the life and times of Paul Raymond, the ups and downs, the adventures, being more about the club, the magazines, the properties, but I think eventually we felt the story should be organised around his relationship to his wife, his relationship to [his lover] Fiona Richmond, and his relationship to his daughter [Debbie] … The cultural world became background, really, and the women became foreground.”

Not all the women, though. The models and dancers are wallpaper, for the most part. We learn nothing about their lives or how they feel about their work. The film doesn’t explicitly critique the way Raymond made his money, nor make any grand statements about the rights and wrongs of pornography. In a way, it doesn’t need to; the critique, or at least the basis for one, is inherent, to an extent, in the film’s vivid mis-en-scène.

When he opened the Raymond Revuebar in Soho, in 1958, Raymond offered private members a glittering contrast to the post-war gloom that coloured British life. “There was a dance show, choreography and costumes, and then people gradually took those costumes off,” says Winterbottom. “It was an evening where people would go out as couples. Film stars would arrive occasionally. So it was a glamorous kind of thing and it was the idea that he was importing sophisticated continental culture to London.” By the time the film ends in 1992, however, the club had become “just a seedy, tacky kind of place, with tourists going there”.

Despite Raymond’s contention that what he was offering in his shows and magazines wasn’t pornographic, Winterbottom has no doubt that over time that is precisely what they ended up being: “It became more explicit, more degrading, more depressing and less attractive. And we show that. So when he says, ‘Is it degrading to women? No,’ we then try to put in the most degrading things we could.” 

While Raymond was mainstreaming sex and porn in Britain, across the Atlantic hardcore pornography’s big breakthrough came in 1972 with the release of Deep Throat. Before it, filmed porn was most commonly consumed as short, often silent, stag films shot in 16mm. Deep Throat, on the other hand, used 35mm, it had a script, some artsy editing, and a lot of humour.

Harry Reems, who died last month, was cast in the role of a doctor who discovers that the reason Linda Lovelace (real name Linda Boreman), is having trouble climaxing is because her clitoris is, bizarrely, at the back of her throat. Reems told me that he often played doctors because, under American law, sexually explicit material was only permitted if it had socially redeeming value.

“So I would say, ‘If you’re having trouble with oral sex, here’s how you do it,’ and it would cut to a 30-minute oral sex scene. I was the socially redeeming value. Deep Throat then came along and became a complete spoof on those movies. It was the first film not to have the pretence of socially redeeming value. It went strictly for comedic entertainment and that’s why it became the icon that it’s become.”

There was another reason, of course: Linda Lovelace. She was young, fresh and seemingly insatiable. Deep Throat turned her into an international star. But as Howl directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman acknowledge in their biopic Lovelace, everything wasn’t as it seemed. At least not according to Linda, who in her 1980 autobiography Ordeal claimed that she had been forced into pornography by her manager-husband, Chuck Traynor. More a film about an abusive relationship than an exploration of the skin trade, Lovelace shows the two conflicting versions of her story, and thereby, the filmmakers believe, the contradictions of the sexual revolution.

“We were very interested in that historical moment where porn is just becoming mainstream, where sexual mores were really changing, and people are becoming more honest in the depictions of what was going on,” says Epstein. “And then there was also a dark side to that force – women who felt they weren’t fully in control of their own situation within that. So there was the dark and the light, and we tried to characterise that particular moment.”

Deep Throat was embraced by celebrities and the chattering classes. People who had never dreamed of going to see a blue film before turned up in their droves, making it a box office and cultural sensation. Writer and director Gerard Damiano foresaw a convergence of sexually explicit content and mainstream Hollywood, and for a brief moment it looked like it might happen. However, the political reaction against Deep Throat was so strong that pornographers eventually had to look for new ways to get around the obscenity laws.

Video proved to be the answer. But whereas Deep Throat had turned watching porn into a communal experience, it now became, according to one commentator, “the occasion for solitary masturbation”. Pornographers knew they had a huge and hungry audience waiting for new material, and video allowed them to get it out quickly and cheaply.

Now that we are in the age of digital, the internet is making porn more available than ever before. A popular and profitable kind is gonzo porn – short, amateur-looking clips filled with close-ups that have the effect of dehumanising men and women by reducing them to their body parts. The violence in Lovelace’s off-screen narrative has now made its way on-screen, arguably, and there are countless accounts from consumers, teachers and psychologists, about the impact that porn is having on the way young people relate to themselves and to each other sexually.

In his writing-directing debut, Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young man who cannot relate to women in the real world because of his obsession with internet porn. His character’s inability to find true satisfaction with a flesh and blood female, and admission that he can only lose himself online, are typical symptoms of porn addiction.

However, Gordon-Levitt recently dropped the word “addiction” from the film’s title (it was originally called “Don Jon’s Addiction”), saying that his real subject was the effects of living in a society saturated with media. A large chunk of the film’s budget came from using cleverly edited clips (meaning you see less than you think you do) from actual porn films as product placement. But, insists Levitt, the film is not about porn.

“If there is a message, it is about media and how media impacts our perspectives,” he said in Berlin. “But, in general, it’s also about things that have been true throughout humanity, whether two people can see eye to eye and connect and engage, or put each other in boxes and relate at a distance.”

The fear expressed by many is that the mainstreaming of porn – and its influence through music, advertising, and other forms of media – could well be making this more difficult.
This is not to say that explicit sex doesn’t have a place in cinema. After all, says Winterbottom, whose drama 9 Songs showed how unsimulated sex doesn’t have to be pornographic, like love it is an important part of a relationship.

“What is weird, in a way, is that cinema doesn’t deal with that very often. In fact very few films deal with at all. If you think about how important it is to everyone, the question is why aren’t there more films that deal with that?”

 © Stephen Applebaum, 2013

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