by Peter Lehman
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 21-26
When Milos Forman accepted the 1997 Golden Globe best director award for THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, he said he had "never bought a copy" of Hustler magazine, adding, "nor will I. I'm in agreement with the people who say Hustler is tasteless" ("Hollywood Dresses Up").
Much as the end of the classical cinema frequently mirrors the beginning in a bookend fashion, Foreman's pronouncement recalled similar statements given before the film was even made. As soon as the film's production was announced, Forman's comments about pornography in general, and Hustler in particular, appeared in the media. Forman made it clear that he had never bought a copy of Hustler and had no use for pornography. His interest in pornography, he said, was solely confined to its historical social and political ramifications. He noticed that when the Nazi's and totalitarian regimes rose to power their first book burnings targeted pornography, thus his attraction to a film about Larry Flynt appeared to be tied to Flynt's legal battles. As Forman bluntly put it at the Golden Globe ceremonies, "The film is about the First Amendment." In a self-satisfied manner, Forman threw pornography aside while making a film defending the rights of "tasteless" pornographers like Larry Flynt. More about "tastelessness" later.
Critic Frank Rich, among many others, was quite taken by Forman's point of view. He found the First Amendment issue in the film so compelling that he devoted one of his New York Times columns to the film after it premiered at the 1996 New York Film Festival. In turn, the film's promotional people found Rich's defense so compelling that they reprinted it in its entirety in a pre-release ad campaign which included New Yorker magazine. Rich fully capitulates to Forman, declaring, "To understand why this movie has been made now, and with such urgency, one need only listen to its director, Milos Forman" (55). He then goes on to quote Forman talking about the manner "in which Nazis and Communists began by attacking pornography" (55).
Even though Forman publicly disassociated himself from porn, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT nevertheless drew the ire of anti-porn feminists. In a widely reprinted piece that initially appeared on the New York Times Op-Ed page entitled "Hollywood Cleans Up Hustler," Gloria Steinem strongly attacked Forman's championing of Flynt. In no uncertain terms she stated,
One of Steinem's main charges is that the film cleans up Hustler: "
Steinem also challenges the manner in which the film has cleaned up Larry Flynt, who she points out has been accused of child molestation by his daughter. Furthermore, she states, "Unlike his film character, the real Larry Flynt is hardly an unwavering advocate of free speech." Her evidence here is the fact that Flynt has viciously attacked her and other feminists in a degrading manner in Hustler.
Indeed, the day before her Op-Ed piece was published, Steinem appeared along with Susan Brownmiller and Tonya Flynt, Larry Flynt's daughter, at a news conference sponsored by the National Organization for Women. They and others "labeled Flynt a pornographer" ('Flynt's Daughter"). Tonya Flynt finds the film " a pack of lies" and charges,
These extra-textual discourses about the film position spectators either to deplore the film for whitewashing pornography and Larry Flynt or to praise its vigorously defending the First Amendment. Although I reject both positions, I find they share a common attitude towards pornography: Milos Forman doesn't like pornography anymore than Gloria Steinem. He defends pornographers' rights since the only alternative seems to live in a frightful, totalitarian society which protects no one's rights. In a sense Forman is anti-porn, but he prefers to live in a society where pornographers are free to practice their "tasteless" business while he is free to ignore it.
The film received a great deal of critical praise. The critical discourse tends to align itself with Forman: the film seems serious about freedom of speech issues rather than offering a titillating erotic spectacle. Mike Clark gave the film four stars out of four, saying,
Like other reviewers Clark saw the ironies in such a position, calling the film "disingenuously ungraphic in terms of nudity." Indeed, one extremely negative reviewer bitterly lamented that the film lacked Hustler's honesty.
Aside from its points about pornography, to which I shall return, the feminist anti-porn discourse disturbingly implicates itself in a naive notion of realism: that is, the film is not like real porn. This charge takes two forms: the film's porn isn't as disgusting as real-life porn and the character Larry Flynt isn't as disgusting as the real-life man. The former point is that it's easy to defend pornography if you don't get people upset by showing them what pornography really is. The latter is that you might become sick of pornography if you learn about how disgusting the real Larry Flynt is. Beyond this, a concern with the evils of the "real" Larry Flynt plugs into a broader cultural discourse: unveiling evil lurking behind and within powerful, successful men.
The realism issue rests on an absurd assumption that films can or should be like real life. To argue that porn in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is not like real porn is somewhat like arguing that Westerns' gunfights between attacking Indians and circled wagon trains are not like the way such fights really were conducted. All filmmakers represent everything within a framework related to their purpose. For Forman's purpose, graphic depiction of pornography was irrelevant. Even "dirty" imagery would not show porn as it really is. It's the notion of porn as a threat to civilized society, not the "reality" of porn that anti-porn activists dread. Porn isn't really what religious conservatives or anti-porn feminists think it is any more than it is really what Milos Forman thinks it is. All these and other positions are caught up in discourses about reality, not simple presentations of it.
And the same holds true for the man Larry Flynt. To continue the Western analogy, we learn nothing useful or surprising about a Western by pointing out how different the real Jesse James was from his fictional representation in a film. No film can ever give us the "real" Jesse James. As William Luhr has shown, John Ford implicitly understood this when he represented Wyatt Earp, a man he knew personally, as a hero in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and as a degenerate in CHEYENNE AUTUMN. Could a film depict Larry Flynt as an unredeemable degenerate rather than as a First Amendment hero? Of course. Would this give us the "real" Larry Flynt? Of course not. Biographical films must use characters based upon actual people for their own purposes; they cannot do otherwise. When a director like Frank Perry makes a film like DOC, his representation of legendary Western heroes like Doe Holiday and Wyatt Earp is no closer to reality than earlier Westerns. However, Perry employs these figures within a discourse which seeks to destroy rather than build myth.
One of the added dangers of the anti-porn response to THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is that it does not realizethis. A film showing a "disgusting" Larry Flynt would be no more real than Forman's. A naive view of porn is now overlaid with a naive view of how one should represent "real" people in fiction films. Much in the way that anti-porn pronouncements rarely bother to analyze, historicize or in any way understand pornography as culturally complex and even contradictory, critics such as Gloria Steinam who reject THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT do not bother to question commonplace assumptions about the "real" Larry Flynt and his relation to the fictional character. Just as they know that porn is one-dimensionally evil and produces terrible social problems for women, they know how simple the truth about Larry Flynt is and how easily it could be put into a movie.
Such a facile "realist" aesthetic is revealing about porn. Our culture is currently obsessed with revealing the ugly truth about "important men", be they artists or politicians. The year that gave us Larry Flynt also gave us Pablo Picasso. The film SURVIVING PICASSO touched off a media feeding-frenzy about how terribly Picasso treated women, and this in turn touched off agonizing over the fact that great artists are sometimes terrible men. This did not, however, touch off agonizing over whether Picasso was a great artist (incidentally, not everyone agrees that he was). Forget for the moment my point that the Picasso of this film is just as much a construct as a more conventional account of a great artist (e.g. Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE). Now he is constructed within a cultural discourse which revels in tearing the mask off cultural heroes, revealing the depraved "real" man beneath the myth.
Similarly, Vincent Canby tells us that
In short, it sounds to me that Canby finds Fassbinder the man as appealing as Steinem finds Flynt. However, his article is entitled, "Honoring Fassbinder the Director, Not the Man." As with Picasso, in the name of art the artist's evils are put aside. We may have a cultural need at the moment to insist on the sordid "realities" of the lives of great artists but also need to assert that that such knowledge changes nothing about the work. Indeed, we are proud of being able simultaneously to deplore these men and recognize their accomplishments.
Imagine for the moment a headline, "Honor Flynt the Publisher, Not the Man." Not likely. Our culture always insists on pornography being a special case. Let's say for the sake of argument that Larry Flynt was not a nice father; in fact, let's say he was a monstrous father. Within a social climate of reveling in such disclosures, why should we single out Flynt's transgressions in comparison to, say, Fassbinder's? Why believe that there is a special horror to Flynt's personal life which should be insisted on in stark contrast to the manner in which Vincent Canby, for example, virtually accuses Fassbinder of being responsible for two suicides but insists that we separate Fassbinder the man from his films?
The answer is that the anti-pornography position finds pornography different from everything else; the usual rules don't apply. It is somehow self-evident that a pornographer who is "not a nice man" (maybe self-evident that a pornographer couldn't be a nice man) is different from an artist who is not a nice man. The allegedly self-evident evil of pornography and pornographers blocks anti-porn activists from offering any useful insights into their much-dreaded subject. Milos Forman's solution is to avoid the subject in the name of a higher good. Oddly enough, porn falls through the cracks in both the film and the anti-porn discourse surrounding it.
Imagine if the director of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT had been someone who announced that he liked porn and found it useful. Obviously, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT would have been a much different movie. I do not want to criticize Forman for making this film rather than another. For the record, I find THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT an uneven and minor film: it ranges from humorous to heavy-handed to unexpectedly emotional moments. In our culture, predictably the most I can imagine for a Hollywood film on this topic is a filmmaker like Forman, who has other things on his mind than porn. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, porn seems a simple, self-evident topic: ban it or put up with it in the name of a higher good.
But what if porn has value like any other genre? What if, as Linda Williams does in her excellent book, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and "The Frenzy of the Visible", we think about porn as having a changing history of style and function? What if, instead of just deploring, labeling, banning and burning porn, we try to understand and evaluate it as, for example, we try to understand and evaluate Westerns? John Ford, generally acknowledged as the greatest director of Westerns, seems to not have been a particularly nice man — in how he treated his family or himself. Yet, we manage to stay calm about that. What if we treated pornographers and pornography as similar to other artists and forms of expression?
Ironically, such a context would enable a much more meaningful criticism of Flynt' s particular form of pornography, including his racism and misogyny — providing, of course, that that is an accurate reading of Hustler. One of Williams's valuable insights is that 70s hardcore porn features are much more complex and contradictory in this regard than they are typically characterized. In other words, instead of condemning porn or taking the First Amendment high road, one could within the framework I have proposed substantively criticize Flynt and Hustler. But that presumes one grants that pornography warrants that kind of attention, precisely what its critics and Forman have not done.
Yet THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT does relate to one interesting issue within pornography, the subject of humor and taste. Pornography is funny, at times very funny. When a judge in New York ruled DEEP THROAT pornographic, the World, an adult theater in midtown Manhattan, ran a marquee that read, "Judge cuts Throat, World mourns." Porn titles alone reveal that the porn world has an ever-present sense of humor. Which finally brings us back to Forman's point about taste. Porn humor is tasteless, something in which it frequently revels. The makers of the film ON GOLDEN BLONDE could revel in punning the title of the Fonda film ON GOLDEN POND and could also revel in distressing Jane Fonda or Henry Fonda in a way that neither the actors nor anyone else could do anything about.
I entitled this paper with a pornographer's sense of humor: "Will the Real Larry Flynt Please Stand Up?" The joke puns on the dispute between anti-porn critics and Forman: Is the real Larry Flynt a despicable degenerate or a First Amendment hero? It also puns on the fact that the real Larry Flynt is paralyzed from the waist down and can't stand up. Everyone would agree that this latter aspect of the pun is "tasteless" because it makes fun of a paralyzed man. It is precisely this kind of calculated tasteless humor in which Flynt and pornography in general engage. The question is, can it serve a useful function? As I have argued elsewhere, with so many aspects of porn the answer is surprisingly complex.
Shortly after Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick accident made front-page news, Screw, a porn magazine, ran the much-publicized picture of Robert Kennedy as he lay dying. The caption presents Kennedy's dying words as, "Tell Ted that Mary Jo gives good head." I long remembered that joke because it struck me as the most tasteless, offensive joke imaginable. Like many young people then, I was committed to the Kennedys' brand of liberal politics; the ruin of those politics by assassination, alleged drunken driving, and negligent behavior did not seem suitable for grotesque sexual humor.
Yet, as the years have passed, that joke has come to mean something much different to me than it did at the time of its publication, when the mainstream "tasteful" press did not report what it knew about politicians' sex lives. In what has since been commonly referred to as a "boy's club" mentality, the press has been roundly scolded for protecting powerful men like the Kennedys. When the public demanded full coverage of every politician's sex life, much evidence emerged that John, Robert and Ted Kennedy all engaged in many extramarital affairs. Perhaps the most famous of these are the alleged affairs that both John and Robert Kennedy had with Marilyn Monroe. Most recent was the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, which once again involved Ted Kennedy who had been with Smith the night of the alleged rape. With changes in journalistic practices that led to, among other things, Gary Hart's resignation as a Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, it's now generally acknowledged that the press used to cover up such news.
Within this context, the "tasteless" Screw joke serves an interesting function of breaking with the legitimate press' "tasteful" old boys network. In effect, it blows the whistle on the Kennedys' sex lives and the fact that legitimate journalism complicity protected politicians' behavior. This, of course, doesn't make the joke less offensive, but it suggests that even when offended by "tasteless" humor, we shouldn't contemptuously dismiss it.
Interestingly, in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT Forman does portray Larry Flynt as a man with a tasteless sense of humor and perhaps unwittingly shows that such humor can serve a social function. In one scene, for example, Flynt attends a trial wearing a shirt boldly proclaiming, "Fuck This Court." As the "Judge Cuts Throat, World Mourns" joke indicates, the legal system is often a target of porn humor.
My point here is not to defend either Larry Flynt or Hustler magazine. I know virtually nothing about either. In contrast to Milos Forman, I am not proud of that nor of the fact that I have yet to buy a copy of Hustler. Although Hustler has never appealed to me, some pornography does, and I have purchased some of it. I also would not berate Forman for making a movie different from the one I wish had been made. Forman legitimately uses Flynt and Hustler as First Amendment material. His eliding any examination of pornography from the film, however, combined with his comments to the press about his lack of interest in, knowledge of and use for pornography ironically treats pornography in the same manner as his severest critics, anti-porn activists. For both, pornography is a simple given.
Both Forman's strategy and the anti-porn position have a further consequence. The film's treating porn as a special horror deflects attention away from the frequently close relation between porn's treatment of women and mainstream cultural practices, which, in contrast to porn's evils, emerge relatively unscathed. Indeed, it is with the very "tasteful" practices of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and the Hollywood cinematic institution to which it belongs that I wish to conclude this essay. The film comes down to a choice between two men: Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell. Given that the film portrays Falwell as a self-righteous, pious buffoon, Flynt emerges all the more heroic by contrast. Instead of worrying about the "real" Larry Flynt, I would argue that we are better served by worrying about how the fictional Larry Flynt is constructed in relation to the fictional Jerry Falwell.
Analyzing Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS, Michael Renov argues that the film entraps its central female character within what he calls a "two-male system" — the good figure of the Law (Cary Grant) and the bad (Claude Rains). Cary Grant working for the U.S. government versus Claude Rains as an undercover Nazi presents as extreme a contrast as one can imagine in the film's 1946 context. Yet Renov points out that this opposition masks the manner in which Grant brutally and powerfully gains control over the woman that he and Rains fight over. At the end of the film, Grant rescues the Ingrid Bergman character from the evil clutches of Rains. The audience is positioned to cheer her rescue without noticing the frightening nature of the character who engineers the rescue and in the process gains total domination over the nearly unconscious woman. The Grant character, in other words, emerges a good hero in contrast to Rains' evil villain when in reality the former is quite an evil character.
Such two-male systems function as a commonplace in Hollywood cinema. THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT offers an interesting variation on the pattern. The issue at the film's climax is not what happens to a female character but the manner in which the female spectator is positioned between Flynt and Falwell. Since the film represents Falwell as a simple-minded threat to free speech, Flynt, the active crusader for our rights, emerges as hero. In this version of the two-male system, Falwell functions like NOTORIOUS' Rains character and Flynt like the Grant character. Forman uses the First Amendment to rally the audience around Flynt. Given the choice between the film's Flynt and Falwell, viewers choose Flynt. To position not only women but all spectators of the film in such a manner is truly pornographic.
The press seemingly cannot get enough of the controversy surrounding THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. Since I formed my analysis, several others have appeared which relate to my argument. In an almost uncanny manner, with a cover boldly asking, "Is Larry Flynt Hustling Hollywood? The Truth & the Lies Behind the Year's Most Controversial Movie," Entertainment Weekly notes:
Although he does not analyze the function of this kind of humor, Benjamin Svetkey, author of the lead article, perceives its structure and links it to a discourse of taste. That both of us arrived at the same joke from the same perspective indicates how aside from its banality and predictability, the joke does capture a common characteristic of porn humor. Also, Svetkey's article is caught within the polarized discourse that surrounds the film: the kicker accompanying the article's opening photomontage asks, "First amendment activist — or sadistic smut king?" (Svetkey, 16). Svetkey does not undermine the manner in which posing such an either/or question positions us to accept one pole or the other, or a mix of the two. He fails to see that Flynt is at neither pole nor somewhere in between. Although I reject the polarity, Flynt remarks of himself, "I'd say a little bit of both" (Svetkey, 22).
Svetkey also quotes Gloria Steinem as remarking,
Here Steinam anticipates and attempts to defuse the kind of criticism I made above using Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Westerns as examples. Her strategy remains the same: porn somehow represents a special case. She wants to protect the legitimacy of Oliver Stone's portrait of Nixon while denying that of Forman's Flynt (incidentally Oliver Stone was a producer of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT.)
She offers little other evidence than the unfortunate hypothetical example about Vietnam. I say unfortunate since films have been made which portray war in a manner close to the way she describes. Blake Edwards' remarkable comedy WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? represents World War II as not so dangerous (for all the combat, we never seen anyone die or get hurt) and as quite fun — rather than fight, the Italians and Americans decide to get together and have a party! Edwards' DARLING LILI treats World War 1 in a similar manner. And both films were made during the Vietnam War, a time when war was a very serious social issue.
In a New York Review of Books essay, punningly entitled "It's a Wonderful Life" (i.e., Capra porn instead of Capra corn), Louis Menand perceptively observes:
Menand, however, supplies an intelligent reading of the real Flynt's relationship to Falwell and Hustler's actual relation to Playboy. He incisively remarks,
Menand recognizes three important elements left out of most media coverage of the film and the controversy surrounding it. Most important, he perceives a function for Hustler's sense of humor, namely making fun of the famous, successful and powerful figures whom Playboy honored monthly with serious interviews. Rather than emulate the wealthy lifestyle advocated by Playboy, Hustler lampooned it and part of that included mocking the intellectual respectability for which Playboy strove. Menand's reference to the fact that Flynt and Falwell both would sneer at aperitifs points to his second important insight: namely that Falwell and Flynt are opposite sides of the same coin. Both appealed to the same socio-economic stratum — the low-income working class.
Finally, Menand recognizes the historical context in which different kinds of pornography arise and the different functions porn fulfills within those contexts. Originating in 1953, Menand argues that Playboy was part of a liberated spirit of the time which required treating women with seeming respect; although they were naked, they were pure, chaste and free of guilt. Hustler, originating in 1974, came during the height of the free love movement with its rhetoric of eliminating the double standard. This was also after the rise of hardcore porn films. In Menand's analysis, Hustler reacted against both the elimination of the double standard and hardcore's emphasis on the legitimacy of female pleasure. (Although he doesn't cite her, Linda Williams had years earlier made the observation about women's pleasure in early 70s porn.) Hustler was about shame and violation in sex — a throwback to the era prior to Playboy. Menand summarizes the resultant paradox:
Although Menand accepts an uncritical, fuzzy notion about the obligation of films based on "real-life" events to capture the "essence of lived experience" (26), he uses the film to analyze the "real" Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine in a highly incisive manner. Laura Kipnis also does a superb job of precisely that in a Village Voice article also entitled "It's a Wonderful Life." That pun seems as irresistible as "Will the real Larry Flynt please stand up?"
Kipnis analysis appeared prior to the attention that Steinem and other anti-porn activists brought to the film. Like me, Kipnis is not impressed with what she calls the film's "pained liberalism" (37). Kipnis roots her analysis of Flynt and Hustler in class issues: "Vulgarity becomes a form of class solidarity" and a "mode for undermining authority" (38). In an illuminating manner, she contrasts Playboy's airbrushed, fantasy bodies with Hustler's grotesque, unruly bodies. She links the pleasure of the latter with transgressing prohibitions externally imposed by the powers that be and internally imposed by "forms of shame and embarrassment" (39).
In this regard, Menand's and Kipnis' analyses usefully demonstrate how porn — like other forms of art, expression, and entertainment — fulfills specific functions for specific classes of people within specific historical circumstances. We may not always like those functions, but acknowledging them keeps us from dismissively condemning them as lacking social value or meaning. From this perspective, the once-honored legal notion of "socially redeeming value," is itself highly suspect. It is impossible to draw a line between the already merely prurient and that with socially redeeming value because all representations of sexuality function in a meaningful way for someone. Instead of just labeling and dismissing some sexual representations as prurient, obscene, or tasteless (and, incidentally, thereby protecting our "tasteful" versions such as Courtney Love stripping on video as we and the fictional Flynt watch), we'd do well to learn what we can about our culture and its notions of sexuality from all of these forms. Such a posture would also make us all, including anti-porn activists, examine our notions of sexuality in a potentially revealing manner. Many of the anti-porn position's assumptions about sexuality are as dubious as those made by Larry Flynt, though by reason of class, education, taste and social positioning, their assumptions are much less likely to offend certain people than Flynt's.
I wish to thank Susan Hunt for bringing the Flynt/FaIwell opposition in the film to my attention, Krin Gabbard for bringing Laura Kipnis' article to my attention, and Melanie Magisos for her helpful revision suggestions.
Canby, Vincent. 1997. "Honoring Fassbinder the Director, Not the Man." New York Times, Jan. 19, www.nytimes.com.
Clark, Mike. 1996. Review of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. USA Today, Dec. 27, www.usatoday.com.
"Flynt' s daughter bashes movie." 1997. USA Today, Jan. 9, www.usatoday.com.
"Hollywood dresses up to schmooze Oscar's cousin." 1997. USA Today, Jan. 1, www.usatoday.com.
Kipnis, Laura. 1996. "It's a Wonderful Life: Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt's Long, Strange Journey from Hillbilly Entrepreneur to First Amendment Hero." Village Voice, Dec. 31: 37-39.
Lehman, Peter. 1996. "Twin Cheeks, Twin Peeks, and Twin Freaks: Porn's Transgressive Remake Humor," in Authority and Transgression in Literature and Film, ed. by Bonnie Braendlin and Hans Braendlin. Gainesville: University Press of Florida: 45-54.
Luhr, William. 1996. "Reception, Representation, and the OK Corral: Shifting Images of Wyatt Earp," in Authority and Transgression in Literature and Film, ed. by Bonnie Braendlin and Hans Braendlin. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Menand, Loius. 1997. "It's a Wonderful Life." New York Review of Books, Feb. 6: 25-29.
Renov, Michael. 1980. "From Identification to Ideology: The Male System of Hitchcock's Notorious." Wide Angle: 4,1: 30-37.
Rich, Frank. 1996. New York Times Op-Ed Column, rptd. in New Yorker, Dec. 16: 55.
Steinem, Gloria 1997. "Hollywood Cleans Up Hustler." New York Times, Jan. 7, www.nytimes.com.
Svetkey, Benjamin. 1997. "Porn on the 4th of July." Entertainment Weekly, Jan. 31: 16-22.
Williams, Linda. 1989. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." Berkeley: University of California Press.