by Peter Lehman
Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 16-20
Hollywood loves porn. Well, not quite. Hollywood currently loves to make films about porn, which it loves to hate. In "THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT — Will the Real Larry Flynt Please Stand Up?" I argued that in that film the subject of porn was simplified and lost within the script's First Amendment perspective. Both the film and its director as well as its detractors and defenders focused on whether or not we should put up with the likes of Larry Flynt in the name of free speech. Neither the film nor its director ever posed the question of porn in and of itself as anything complex and useful, let alone valuable. The idea that a pornographer like Larry Flynt or a publication like Hustler might serve complex cultural functions seemed unimaginable. Similarly, in "BOGIE NIGHTS — Will the Real Dirk Diggler Please Stand Up?" I argued that film eliminated porn's complexities by drafting film/video porn into the service of metaphorical representations of the 70s and 80s.
8MM (directed by Joel Schumacher and written by Kevin Anderson Walker, 1999) is much more pornophobic, to coin a term, than even THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (the director of which, Milos Foreman, proudly announced that he had no use for Hustler and had never looked at it). Yet 8MM shares with that film and BOOGIE NIGHTS a virtual inability to represent and engage porn itself. The New York Times review of the film describes the film's R rating as follows: "Though it includes profanity, partial nudity and ugly violence, its depictions of pornography are relatively discreet" Such "discreteness" characterizes how Hollywood paradoxically represents porn — it doesn't. This paradox is further heightened in 8MM by, as The New York Times notes, the film's profanity and ugly violence. 8MM depicts graphic, bloody violence in a much more extreme manner than its representation of the supposedly degenerate world of violent porn.
Indeed, subject matter aside, the actual representation of porn footage in 8MM is PG-13 at best, maybe PG. Hollywood condemns, preaches about, attacks, thematizes, and makes metaphors of porn endlessly but gives it little actual representation. Compare this to the contemporary war film, for example, where critics hailed the opening half hour of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for its graphic, realistic depiction of the gruesomeness of war. No such critical accolades are likely for a half hour of "realistic" porn representation.
The title 8MM and the pre-credit sequence of 8mm film projection apparatus introduce a nostalgia for an outmoded technology. Eight millimeter film existed, in fact, long in the past, having been replaced and/or succeeded first by video and then by the Internet. 8MM displaces current anxiety about Internet porn onto the now doubly outmoded porn technology of 8mm film. Video has been the dominant mode of home porn distribution since the early 80s. Currently there is very real anxiety in our culture about porn, but it is neither 8mm porn or video porn — it is Internet porn.
The history of technology has been inextricably linked to anxiety about porn since the 19th century invention of photography. The modern notion of pornography began with the advent of photography, which enabled broad, cheap distribution of sexual imagery among the working classes. Sexually explicit material no longer remained the privileged domain of the rich and educated. This intersection of class and distribution spurred modern Western cultural anxiety about the allegedly harmful effects of porn.
Many forms of technology quickly take on sexual dimensions when they are introduced into the market. The Polaroid, for example, enabled private sexual photography without having to send the film out for developing and printing. Home video afforded a similar opportunity, and Playboy was one of the places where home video equipment was advertised shortly after being introduced. Hard-core-porn theatrical films of the 70s quickly appeared in the early days of home video cassettes.
Some technologies like virtual reality even acquire this dimension before they appear within or saturate the culture. For years commentators have feared the effects of virtual reality if, as reported, people will be able to experience sex with anyone they want in such a virtual world. Why will anyone bother with real sex? Such paranoid anxiety underlies the sex/ technology connection. Each new technology is feared as perverting good, old-fashioned, loving human contact in favor of dehumanizing, effortless access to porn and, presumably, the instant gratification of masturbation rather than the hard work involved in establishing and maintaining loving relationships.
Internet porn appears in headlines regularly, and virtual reality porn is poised off-stage, awaiting a dramatic entry (or an even apocalyptic one as in the film STRANGE DAYS, 1995). Within such a climate, 8MM displaces anxiety upon old fashioned film porn and, in this regard, parallels the strategy of THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) and ED TV (1999), two films premised upon the seemingly outrageous concept that every second in a person's life can be broadcast live on TV People can tune in anytime they want to watch the "show." The problem is that "shows" like this are, indeed, already on, although not on TV but rather on the Internet. There are countless Internet "web cams" which are trained on a room or a number of rooms or even every room of a house.
The most well-publicized of these is Jennicam (www.jennicam.org), a site that posts an image from a camera in Jenni's apartment every few minutes. Voyeur Dorm (www.voyeurdorm.com) offers a similar concept, but this time the cameras monitor every room of a house in which seven college women live. Cameras are trained on the bedrooms, bathrooms, TV room, patio, etc., twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Viewers can log on and look in anytime. Of course, cultural commentators are all abuzz about this and related forms of Internet voyeurism that threaten to turn us all into voyeurs. Filmmakers like Ron Howard and Peter Weir, then, are actually displacing an Internet phenomenon onto TV, an outmoded technology from this perspective.
8MM is like these films in that it displaces current Internet technological anxiety onto a technologically outmoded form since, from the point of view of porn (snuff or otherwise), 8mm film is simply not the form of making or distributing it — video is. Similarly, twenty-four hour, seven-days-a-week voyeur cameras are not currently available on TV, but they are readily available on the Internet. Fears about porn are currently rampant in our society, but they have nothing to do with 8mm film.
Within this context, the title and pre-credit sequence of 8MM betray revealing assumptions underlying the film. The pre-credit sequence shows an 8mm film projector being started, film reels, and the lens and light beam from the projector. Oddly, the sequences invoke a nostalgia for the days of 8mm home filmmaking and viewing, days long gone in the home video era. Indeed, many younger people in the audience will have no recollection of ever having watched 8mm films at home and probably have never even seen an 8mm projector or reel of film. Older people may fondly remember 8mm home movies of family, friends, children growing up, etc.
As I have argued, however, 8MM's use of an outmoded form of film technology in relation to porn is a displacement of a deeper fascination that haunts the film: the relation between sex and technology. Indeed, 8mm film is not even the technological precursor of our culture's current obsession with Internet porn; video fulfilled that function. Within the compressed time frame that characterizes technological change in the late 20th century, 8MM reaches way back to film, bypassing video, for the site of its dread of the sex/technology connection.
8MM tells the story of Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage), a private detective hired by Mrs. Christian, the widow of a wealthy business tycoon.She has discovered a disturbing 8mm film hidden in a safe in her husband's office. The office is called an "inner sanctum" and the safe is hidden behind a portrait: this is the inner-inner hidden sanctum that holds a deep dark secret. When Welles first enters the room with Mrs. Christian and Longdale, an aide, Longdale opens the safe and produces a can of film. Mrs. Christian is distressed by the disturbing pornographic film in the can, which appears to show a young girl being murdered. She asks Welles to watch the film and give his opinion of whether it is real or fake. She then hires him to find the girl so that she can have certain knowledge. Her motivation is clear: she is distressed by the knowledge that her 82-year old husband and father of her children could have been aroused by such a pornographic film and, even worse, that the film might be real.
From its beginning, 8MM uses a strategy designed to intensify the viewer's worst fears of pornography by affirming that we are fooled by the widely accepted belief within our society that "snuff films," as they are commonly called, are nonexistent. Linda Williams, for example, in her discussion of SNUFF (1976), treats the film as a special-effects horror film and notes,
After watching the film, Welles sounds curiously like Williams. He tells Mrs. Christian that they can do remarkable things with special effects in films these days and that the existence of actual porn-murder films are "urban myth, sex industry folklore — there's no such thing." Although Welles appears to be assuring Mrs. Christian that her worst fears are unrealistic, the filmmakers are also apparently reassuring the audience that snuff films have been discredited This supplies a kind of inoculation for the film which then goes on to assert that such films do, in fact, exist. In other words, the film distances itself from the naive notion that snuff films never existed so that it can more dramatically assert that, common wisdom notwithstanding, such films do exist. Welles' initial skepticism works as a narrative strategy to prevent spectators from dismissing Walker and Schumacher as peddling an alarmist, misinformed view of the porn industry. Paradoxically, this strategy later enables 8MM to present just such an alarmist view of the industry. Even a worldweary private detective knows no such thing exists. Or shall we say, he thinks he knows. If he can be fooled, as well as scholars like Linda Williams, imagine how easily we can be fooled.
Indeed, we later see Welles watching an apparent snuff film on video. He and his viewing companion are distraught over the seeming death of a young woman. Yet, when they watch another such film, Welles jubilantly exclaims that he recognizes the actress who is "killed" in the film: she is the saner actress who was "killed" in the other film. These deaths are fake after all! The more that 8MM shows Welles believing what most audience members believe, the more it gives credence to its shocking revelation of "truth." No matter how much he and we want to believe that all such things are fake, the sad truth is not all are. 8MM ultimately wants us to believe not that the porn industry is as bad we think it is but, rather, that it is worse! It is precisely this hysterical notion of porn that I term pornophobia.
The first depiction of porn occurs when we see Welles watching the 8mm film of the title. Welles emerges from the viewing experience visibly shaken. His response affirms Mrs. Christian's fear that she has discovered some deep dark secret about her husband that reveals his essential ("inner sanctum") nature. If he enjoyed films like this, regardless of whether they were real, he could not have been the man she thought she was married to all these years. She becomes obsessed with learning the truth: Who was the real Mr. Christian? Were he still alive, she might well ask, "Will the real Mr. Christian please stand up?" Welles ends up posing a similar question of his own.
Welles treats the case as that of a missing runaway teenager. Eventually he identifies a Mary Anne Mathews who appears to be the girl in the snuff film and hunts down her mother. He discovers that Mary Anne grew up in an abusive household. Welles discovers Mary Anne's diary, however, where he learns that she has run off to L.A. with her boyfriend, Warren, to become a film star. Welles then hunts down Warren only to find him in jail. Warren turns out to be pure slime, talking about Mary in a vulgar, uncaring manner. At a dead end, Welles goes off to Hollywood to look for Mary himself.
A cluster of porn clichés emerge here, foremost among them the idea that all women who work in the porn and sex industries come from abusive homes. This will be of special importance in 8MM, which dramatically contrasts the abusive, "broken" Mathews' home with Welles' home. Welles lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with his wife, Amy, a textbook author, and their baby Cindy (nicknamed Cinderella). Amy's job enables her to be with her baby all the time. Schumacher frequently intercuts images of Amy and Cinderella as Welles talks to his wife on the phone. As Welles descends further and further into the demi-monde of pornography, the world of his upper-middle class family seems further and further away, and the seething disease of the porn world implicitly threatens their healthy world. His investigation implies a nightmare that Cinderella, years from now, might disappear into that cesspool along with the likes of Mary Anne Mathews.
These scenes are followed by yet another common cliché of the porn world: the montage of driving through the adult entertainment district of a big city. The narrative structure here recalls that of HARDCORE (1979), something that several critics observed. Mike Clark notes, "Loud echoes abound of past and mostly better movies, including HARDCORE..." and Janet Maslin similarly observes, "For a more wrenching account of a man reluctantly dragged into the porn world, George C. Scott did it far better in Paul Schrader's HARDCORE."
Welles quickly finds a guide through this sexual demi-monde in the personage of Max California, an employee in an adult bookstore. But Max, of course, isn't the real thing. He's a musician fallen on bad times. Max clearly has no taste for porn and he holds the masturbatory activities of his patrons in contempt. 8MM is so pornophobic that it will not allow even a minor character who is truly part of the porn world to be anything less than slime and sleaze. So, insulated by the hard veneer of music, likeable Max takes Welles even further into the bowels of the porn underground. The sleaze on the street, however, is nothing in comparison to what's in the basement. Yet, even here we're told, "There's no such thing as snuff." Even the slimiest of the slime don't believe in snuff. Max happily chimes in a little later, "I told you snuff was bogus." Snuff is such a dark, dirty secret that nobody but Walker and Joel Schumacher know about it. Until, of course, they let us in on it.
Having established the "sick shit" world of porn, 8MM loses no time or nuance articulating its dangers: "You dance with the devil and you don't change the devil," Max tells Welles, "The devil changes you." Not surprisingly, he also tells Welles, "The devil's changing you already," when Max perceives that Welles is getting turned on by their tour through the porn underworld. Porn here is equated with both the devil and contagion; to come in contact with it is to risk your mental health. As Lisa Scharwzbaum notes,
But Welles is actually complicit in another way, in being a private detective. That emerges explicitly in the portion of the film where Welles traces Mary Anne to Eddie Poole, a sleazy porn mogul who owns a company called Celebrity Films. Welles establishes a surveillance post in an abandoned room across the street from Poole's office; there he watches Poole and wiretaps Poole's phone. He follows Poole to a trailer where a porn film is being made, a process which Poole simply watches. Eventually, Welles tricks Poole into revealing who made the film with Mary Anne. This sequence draws a parallel between Welles' brand of "surveillance" and porn voyeurism. The investigation is all the more ominous since Welles has discovered a hidden figure in the background of the Mary Welles snuff film, who simply stands in the dark watching.
Welles goes to New York after learning that the snuff film was made by Dino Velvet, whom Max dubs "the Jim Jarmusch of s&m," adding, "This guy I know. He thinks it's art." Here Welles learns that the figure in the black leather headmask who seemingly kills Mary Anne in the snuff film is named Machine. The reference to Jarmusch and art functions similarly to the many references about the fakery of snuff films: Walker and Schumacher need to let us know that some deceive themselves into thinking that porn is just another form of art so that all the trappings of art surrounding Dino Velvet will appear all the more sickening and preposterous. Indeed Schumacher goes out of his way to give Dino Velvet the most outrageously exaggerated trappings of a decadent artist.
This portion of the film also introduces Welles' near-obsession with the identity of the masked killer Machine. Welles' ultimate quest to know this depraved world of porn will center on who Machine really is and why he does what he does — Welles commissions Velvet to make a film for him (further connotations of "art"). Before going to the studio, however, Welles dismisses Max with one of the most redundant lines in film history: "These people we're dealing with, they're extremely disturbed." And in case we miss the connection between these "disturbed" pornographers, whom some poor souls confuse with artists, when Welles first meets Machine, he remarks, "I really like your work." But just in case we don't already agree with Walker and Schumacher that disturbed pornographers shouldn't be confused with artists, we are about to get a lesson that makes all that has gone before look calm.
Mary Anne's murder is small potatoes in relation to the bodycount here. Longdale shows up and Welles, who is discovered and taken prisoner, realizes that Mr. Christian commissioned the snuff film. It is here that Welles' need to know the true, dark secret of porn becomes explicit. When he asks, "Why?" Longdale replies,
Here Longdale suggests that the evil of porn comes from a pure abuse of power.
When Velvet threatens to kill Max and his family, Welles agrees to exchange the snuff film for their lives. In the process, Velvet discovers that Longdale has only given him a small percent of the million dollars Christian actually paid for the commissioned film. Declaring that there must be "honor among perverts and pornographers," Velvet shoots Longdale with a crossbow. Longdale, however, shoots Velvet, who falls to the ground saying,
The overkill here (pun intended) is that first, Velvet links pornographers and perverts, and then he dies in his pathetic guise as a director, bemoaning that his death is not more "cinematic" while "directing" Machine. Machine slashes Max's throat, but both he and Eddie escape from Welles, who has broken free and grabbed a gun. Welles tracks Eddie down in L.A. and it is here that Machine becomes, for Eddie and the film, the enigmatic heart of porn's dark world.
Welles demands of Eddie. But the real Machine is so dark and secretive that not even Eddie knows who he is. Nevertheless, Welles drags Eddie to the snuff film's location, where Mary Anne was murdered. As if the abandoned, graffiti-covered building isn't depressing enough, Eddie reverts to disgusting behavior. Despite Eddie's behavior, Welles' need to know is paramount; he asks, "Why'd you watch?" Eddie's answer echoes Longdale's account of Christian,
Eventually, Welles kills Eddie, bringing the body count at the set of the original snuff film to two, still one behind the body count on the set of the porn film about to be shot.
But Welles is not done with his vengeance. He goes back to New York and hunts down Machine, whose real name is George Anthony Higgins. Machine, wearing his mask, attacks and a brutal fight ensues. He tells Welles that the look on the face of his victims at the moment the knife goes in is the best part for him. Welles finally holds him at gunpoint and orders, "Take off the mask." As the real Machine identifies himself, we see a quite ordinary face with glasses. Reacting to Welles' deep need to understand, Machine says,
"What'd you expect, a monster? My name's George. I don't have the answers. I wasn't beaten, molested, raped. I'm only what I am and that's all there is to it...There's no mystery to the things I do. I do them because I like them, because I want to."
Here Machine echoes both Longdale's account of Mr. Christian's motivation and Poole's account of his own motivation; they all simply do it because they can, because they want to. Walker and Schumacher thus end up positing an unknowable, enigmatic evil at the heart of male pornography. The fact that Machine and apparently the others were not beaten, molested or raped may seem like a departure from clichés about women in porn but, in fact, it is just another variation. Rather than asserting some knowable social ill to be the cause of porn, this film posits some unknowable, "essential" evil within some men even if, as Christian, they have a loving, kind wife or, as George, a loving, devout mother Indeed, in this version, porn is so evil that Welles' mounting need to know and learn who these people really are and why they do what they do is totally frustrated. The true answer to the mystery he seeks is simply that some men are so depraved that they do what they do. My other answer would have been more bearable, made some sense, or have had an element of redemption to it. But when the real Machine stands up, he turns to be just another guy.
The film ends, predictably enough, with a strong affirmation of the nuclear family as the answer to the porn world's unspeakable and unknowable evils. Welles begs Amy, who has left him, to take him back. She does and in the final scene, we see him raking leaves, just as he did in the film's first scene. He pauses to read a letter from Mary Anne's mother thanking him for his actions while Amy, holding Cinderella, looks on supportingly from the doorway. The couple then exchange deep knowing looks. The upper-middle class, normative heterosexual family has survived the man's brush with the unspeakable horrors of the world of porn.
This film is so pornophobic that it asks us to overlook Welles' behavior as an avenging vigilante in order to rid the world of porn perverts. He acts as both Poole's and Machine's self-appointed judge and executioner. But, as the final scene shows us, he leaves the world a safer, cleaner, nicer place with those scum dead, and presumably Cinderella won't have to grow up in a world of perverse sexuality. Yet, what the film never acknowledges is that the real Machine, or rather that what pornophobic hysterics like Walker and Schumacher perceive as the real Machine, undoubtedly has a dot-com address.
I would like to thank William Luhr for his revision suggestions.
Clark, Mike. 1999. "8MM: Twisting through Shadows." USA Today at <www.usatoday.com>.
Lehman, Peter. 1998. "Will the Real Dirk Diggler Please Stand Up? BOOGIE NIGHTS." Jump Cut 42: 32-38.
_________ 1997. "Will the Real Larry Flynt Please Stand Up? THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT." Jump Cut 41: 21-26,
Maslin, Janet. 1999. "Eight Millimeter': A Straight-Arrow on Mean and Twisted Streets," New York Times at <www.nytimes.com>.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. 1999. Review of 'Eight Millimeter.' Entertainment Weekly at <www.ew.com>.
Williams, Linda. 1989. Hard-Core: Power; Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible. "Berkeley: University of California Press.