Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 17-29
History of pornographic film:
Film history also chronicles cinema's limitations, supervision, regimentation, judicial constraint, and channeling of norms. Looking over chronologies in film history, we clearly see the censor's "danger signals" which would classify, catalogue and direct cinematographic production into acceptable and forbidden zones:
Although these historians do not describe the exact regulation in effect at the time — i.e., what was considered offensive — we know from another source that the censorship authorities collected pornographic films:
Despite the short time lag between the invention of cinema and the institutionalization of censorship, pornographic films had enough time to secure a broad base. In the absence of censorship pornography bloomed as early as 1904. Pornographic films developed technically from still photography to stereoscopes and mutascopes, so that by 1904 these films consisted of four acts and ran twenty minutes. Early blue movies thus kept abreast with most of the medium's technological developments.
What kind of aesthetic development occurred in this genre? Can we in fact even speak of a genre? And what defines its aesthetic? In order to answer this question, we must consider those few sources describing early pornographic films and their organizational forms:
"In most cases, these sotadic films were screened in private societies or especially in men's clubs founded for this purpose. Tickets in Germany cost between 10 and 30 marks. The distribution of tickets was handled by prostitutes, pimps, cafe waiters, barbers and other persons in contact with the clientele, and they earned a tidy profit through scalping. Since vendors usually knew their clientele and its inclinations, they seldom came into conflict with the police." (Moreck, p. 175)
Pornographic films were above all bought and screened by brothels, which hoped to entice their customers with filmic offerings while earning money from services rendered through selling tickets for the screening. At first, it was expensive to buy pornographic pleasure. It was reserved for well-to-do customers, who frequented such establishments in every European metropolis from Paris to Moscow. Abroad, both Buenos Aires and Cairo offered international tourists a chance to visit pornographic cinemas. In "Die Schaubuhne," Kurt Tucholsky describes such a film experience in Berlin:
The Berlin event had an atmosphere of male-bonded, laborious harmony, embarrassingly hidden arousal, and awkward mirth. It was apparently no special case. Norbert Jacques gives us another description in Buenos Aires, enriching the steamy, Berliner beer feeling with sadomasochistic, exotic stereotypes, exuding lurking danger and destruction:
It seems as if viewing pornographic films has to do with a specific kind of bashfulness. But this bashfulness first has nothing to do with the legal or moral condemnation of pornography, and second, it is not connected to pornographic films' obvious purpose in a brothel. Even today, when the presentation of pornographic films in public theaters is detached from brothel operations, such feelings of shame still visibly exist and can only be insufficiently explained by the last remaining moral taboos. The same atmosphere of uneasiness and shame, excitement and repulsion which comes across in historical documents, is described in more recent reports. Gunter Kunert, for example, describes a visit to a porn house as follows:
If the porn cinema clientele is made up of human beings who act like zombies, voyeuristic pleasure in these cinemas must result from a situation involving the peeping tom's sense of secrecy. The voyeur likes to see but not to be seen. A lack of lust in porno cinemas apparently results from the aversion against being seen, while seeing. When the connection "cinema and brothel" still exists, when a modern technical invention [functions] as a "pacemaker for cat houses," then the lack of lust and concomitant shame gets channeled into "stout and massive pleasure," into erotic transactions. Even today pornographic films fulfill this function. They promote not only a masturbatory "family cinema" but also are used as a part of prostitution and brothels. Besides this type though, a kind of blue movie has quite apparently developed which has no other purpose and goal other than that of satisfying the voyeur. While pornography's historical forms were at least partially integrated into the context of foreplay, this special way of viewing becomes abstracted to pure, completely self-consuming, voyeuristic lust.
Only by supposing such a specialized way of viewing can we explain the immense success of public pornographic movie houses, in spite of the displeasure they inflict on the zombie-like voyeur. In our age of visual culture, the active subjugating eye wins out in the world over the passive receptive sense organs, like our ears. We also see such a dominance of the visual demonstrated in the recently completed break between cinema and brothel. And pornography and prostitution are becoming fitting metaphors for aspects of our entire visual culture. When jobs demand nothing more of the body than keeping a watchful eye on the control board, then a one-man-cell peep show, possibly offering other services, becomes an adequate leisure area. Maybe in the history of pornographic cinema the films themselves have not changed as much as the organization of the senses. It is possible that the social environments in which the films are seen determine their effect more than the films' form and content. That is, the organization of the audience's sexuality defines the mode of the product's appropriation.
Although it is not certain whether pornographic films for heterosexuals and homosexuals are, aesthetically speaking, better or worse, they obviously encompass different modes of reception and appropriation. Tucholsky described audience response in the heterosexual porn film business when it was still connected to prostitution:
Brendan Gill, writing about New York in the 1970s, describes a connection between homosexual porn theaters and an erotic practice that hardly exists in public heterosexual porn houses:
We also see that in the course of time, environments, stereotypes and characters change even in pornographic cinema in order to conform to newer fashions, especially about what is considered sexy. Early pornography, for example, attempted to please its well-to-do clientele by presenting erotic scenes involving servant girls and masters, thus capturing an everyday erotic fantasy. Newer pornographic films depict other service trades. Newer films produced for public screening and sale also differ from older ones in that they more strictly follow the letter of the law and avoid certain specific erotic combinations which were shown in earlier, always illegal, films. According to Curt Moreck's description of pornography in the Weimar Republic and before, individual films differed according to country of origin and their supposed audiences:
Apparently early pornographic films were divided into films which were set in a quasi-realistic milieu, thus referring to the customer's everyday life, and those films which were set in either a fantasy world or at least in an environment considered at the time to be a place of "secret" eroticism or foreign imperialist eroticism. While realistic films depicted masters and servants in bourgeois surroundings, fantasies often took place in harems and cloisters, etc. This dichotomy has apparently changed little, considering the HOUSEWIFE REPORTS, on the one hand, and such racist excursions into such exotic domains as Thailand in EMANUELLE, on the other. [Trans. note: HOUSEWIFE REPORTS are pornographic serials dealing with "typical" housewife affairs with the postman, gasman, etc.]
The blue movie genre has meanwhile become obviously more professional, so that the previous unintentional comic relief and unbelievable plots have given way to a routinely crafted presentation. Cinematography has become more skillful, the dramatic arousal curve more sophisticated. Cutting and other formal operations give the simple images more screen life. Even if we take into consideration that various ironic observations were used by historical commentators as defense mechanisms against their own shame and arousal, we can still conclude that early porn films were awkward amateur films made with little thought to the effects they could achieve cinematically:
Kurt Tucholsky describes here the realm of porn films which abstain from so-called perversions by limiting themselves to that which Curt Moreck considered typical for German blue movies: "well-executed realistic coitus scenes" and "sin without grace." (Moreck, pp. 17879)
Comical moments, described by Tucholsky as unintentional, occur often in the genre. We cannot assume that these comical aspects of old porn are merely a product of historical distance. Even today, numerous sex films pass as farce, dirty jokes, and witty commentary. So too in popular older forms comical moments played a significant role:
A "humorous approach to various sexual procedures" probably originates in sexual repression and carnal fear; laughter and vexed giggles are often a product of broken taboos. Still it seems as if comedy's continued existence within pornography is connected to the carnal pleasure of looking, of voyeurism itself. We laugh at the secret exposure of others. It is the same comic form in which TV producers and viewers consider "candid camera" funny.
Looking, cognition, pleasure. Glances and the pleasure of looking.
What's new in pornographic cinema is obviously its establishment and existence as a voyeuristic amusement park. It promises nothing more or less than it advertises: the carnal pleasure of looking without a social connection to erotic action. This can be observed not only in the large industrial metropoli, but also in the provinces and in the daily changing programs of boring motels. Whoever, with good and honorable intentions, reproaches blue movies for dishonestly manipulating the poor consumer — because these films deny him true and real sexuality and short change him with illusory gratification — is literally pinning the donkey's tail on the wrong end. Such a critic assumes the primacy of genital lust over those archaic inclinations such as voyeurism, looking, and what the Germans call Schaulust. [Schaulust must be translated as the pleasure of looking, as in satisfying one's curiosity like a "tourist," but the word also carries erotic connotations, involving the "lust to see" and carnal pleasure — JCH.]
The heterosexual consumer who buys his ticket at the door doesn't expect and probably doesn't even want to experience sexual gratification through another person. Like Mr. Chance in Hal Ashby's film comedy, BEING THERE (1980), the porn film patron especially wants "to watch." The criticism of pornography thus misses the mark when it assumes that something else is expected, that the goods were paid for but not delivered. Customer fraud hardly explains blue movies' success.
While having improved over heavy and awkward predecessors, the quality of today's porn films explains this success even less, since these films in no way match the formal standards of other genres. The latest attempts to make porn "serious" by providing the genre with stars, festivals, and directors should probably be seen as a self-conscious guild's legitimizing efforts, rather than just as snares to capture a wider audience. For the blue movie trend continues to expand even without all the hype.
The trend toward pornography, in my opinion, relates to a broader development of how our society organizes the senses. Porn houses are not the motor but the chassis. There is a likely explanation for the expansion of pornographic cinema and its function within the context of ruling-class sexual organization. For example in "Die Schaubuhne" (1913), Walter Serner, overwhelmed by the new invention of cinema, commented:
This ghastly pleasure in seeing atrocities, fighting, and death lies dormant in us all. It makes us rush into the morgue, to the scene of the crime, behind every chase, to every street fight It pays good money to cruise around sodomy. That is what draws the masses into the cinemas as if they were possessed. [Cinema] here offers the masses that which expanding civilization continues daily to rob from them, that which neither the magic of the stage, nor the tired sensations of a circus, music hail or cabaret performance can attempt to replace. Here the masses get it all in all its old glory: Schaulust." (Semer, pp.53-54)
Serner prophetically anticipates that cinema's attraction lies in a New-like pleasure: being able to participate from the bleachers in an epoch's atrocities. Such Schaulust ferments the popular mixture of what critics call "sex and crime." While societies have long permitted the depiction of brutal violence, hate, war, crime, destruction, and death, many have not permitted the presentation of naked bodies and sex. Now it is no wonder that with the breakdown of sexual taboos, cinema has now seized upon sex as a subject to satisfy the urge to look. Up until now it was possible to see every imaginable kind of killing. Now 99 or 150 or x ways of making love will appear on the screen. "Schaulust" Serner describes as a violent, eruptive lust, finally able to desecrate culture. But Schaulust is not an isolated, primordial phenomenon but rather is a developed and structured way of perceiving and feeling and occurs through the process of creating a highly rationalized and thoroughly organized society. Porn houses' current success is a product of this cultural-historical imprint rather than a product of primordial lust:
Taylor invented the systematic categorization of the work process, and this shaped industrial design and the rationalizing of work. In the age of Taylorism, a sudden and drastic rise in pornography became obvious in Victorian England. In fact this interest did not directly result from the great Victorian taboo on sexuality in a so-called pressure cooker effect. The dissemination of pornography is rather connected to specific social aspects of modernization efforts, as well as to changes developing in a parallel way in perceptual apparatuses and psychic mechanisms. In a certain respect pornographic cinema both symptomizes this development and expresses it. Training the eye means socially adapting the senses of sight to strategies of rationalization and modernization. This also occurs at the level of the organization of sexual urges and thus corresponds to an expansion of voyeurism. Sexuality becomes aligned with this social/perceptual development.
The connection between power, control and sex can only be made via changes in sexuality itself. Pornography may be a porous membrane through which power penetrates into the inner regions of sexuality while sexuality flows outwardly, becoming an element of power. Michel Foucault analyzes the way power and sex dovetail in the first volume of The History of Sexuality without, however, viewing the matter in a simple active/passive repression equation:
Contemporary sexuality, according to Foucault, is influenced by the "drive for knowledge" or power. Pornography thus becomes nothing more than the "drive for knowledge," the night school for sex education, so to speak. A discourse on power takes place by means of voyeurism; it is also a cognitive urge. In fact, numerous studies on the social history of pornography indicate that pornography producers have always perceived themselves as contributing to sex research. Indeed the whole current pornography film wave in Germany began with films which advertised sex education (e.g., the Dr. Kolle series), which perceived themselves as practical self-help guides and as providers of knowledge. The taxonomy and classification of forms of knowledge stilt clings to an unending series of "Reports," often presenting sexual behavior according to various occupations. Even the earliest porn attempted lexicographic forays, as an eyewitness noticed:
The drive for knowledge activates the eye, turning its attention to sex. "Schaulust" as a cognitive instrument, cognition as "Schaulust." Pornography discovers its social role. Psychoanalytic theory supports the concept of a connection between curiosity, cognition and voyeurism in individual development — even before pornography revealed this connection by becoming a significant and typical product of our society. The optical organization of reality implies control — whether from the hunter's vigilant eye or "the great eye of the government" (Foucault). Jean-Paul Sartre notes in L'Etre et le néant:
Let us assume the correctness of Foucault's thesis, that the history of sex is based on a drive for knowledge and concede that pornography is a nexus in this transfer of sex and power. If we also consider another point made by Sartre, we might be able to explain why the pornographic cinema today is a medium for conveying knowledge (in Foucault's sense) rather than a medium for aesthetic experience. Sartre assumes a difference between art and cognition, implying different relationships to appropriation. Art works resist possession.
Cognition, on the other hand, consists of an appropriation act, thus incorporating the object of cognition and assimilating it:
Sartre analyzes cognition as assimilation, its limit being reached when desire destroys it object, instead of preserving it through appropriation: You can't have your cake and eat it too! It seems to me that Sartre's analysis of cognition as penetration and aloof observation also characterizes the appropriation process in pornographic films. If the viewer allows her/himself to be carried away by the desire to possess, thus relinquishing the position of an aloof observer, then s/he must sacrifice her/his Schaulust in order to make a specific moment or a certain image his/her own while the next image and sensation on the screen has already appeared. The observer is thus caught between these two modes of appropriating, perception and cognition. It's like Buridan's hungry ass of old caught between two tasty piles of hay:
In the relation between voyeurism and masturbation, obviously the print media and cinemas differ in degree of privacy offered for masturbation. Biologically orgasm is tied to the genitalia, but even when the orgasm functions physically, here its psychic organization is determined by the peeping eye. Whether male viewers masturbate or not in a porn theater, their pleasure is organized around looking at coitus. The famous English psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, wrote about perversions in relation to the physical fact of genital orgasm. Thus if men or women masturbate during or after the film, or not at all, it is only a question of degree. The stimulus is in the looking.
Symptoms for this theoretical observation can be observed in pornographic amateur films. Robert van Acken collected amateur films in German showing vacations, private life, and sexual activity. He called his denunciatory compilation PRIVATE GERMANY (1980). The films, formally far inferior to the standards achieved by today's blue movies, nevertheless feed on the latter for their fantasies.
Pornographic ideas and mise-en-scene become naturalistically documented by a super-8 camera in fact, it seems that, in contrast to more elegant professional porn, the acts are being executed only for the camera. A distressed woman lolls about on a coffee table, another models erotic underwear. Pleasure seems minimal; the liveliest part of these bodies comes from their eager gaze into the camera. The documenting camera creates the show; it's like how Mr. Chance thinks he can turn of reality's unpleasant programming by using his TV remote control. The assimilation of filmic, pornographic fantasies once again becomes alienated from erotic practice. These films do not depict erotic practice but rather how people have assimilated the depiction of sex. Pornographic movies beget pornographic movies.
Shadows and fright, deficiency and abundance — pornography's realm
A widespread system of pornographic cinemas emerged in most western countries after the great liberalization; it came as a result of sex being permeated by societal power. Furthermore, in pornographic cinema, instrumental rationality cuts sensuality down to its size. Male vision, as found in porn films, shows the body as an instrument for experiencing and maximizing pleasure. Human beings seem monadistic individuals (strictly according to bourgeois ideology) whose actions are guided by the principle of experiencing as much pleasure as possible.
Lust's perpetual motion, as produced by pornographic cinema, originates in this arena. Everything becomes an instrument for sensual pleasure: the body, hairbrushes, dildos, or bananas. Every situation leads to sex-car breakdowns, the beach, the carwash, or the office party. Bodies are connected according to mathematical equations; orgies are played out like dominos. What Horkheimer and Adorno write about de Sade can also be applied to blue movies.
In fact, newer pornographic films demonstrate great advances, especially in the area of gymnastic-artistic formations. Technical presentations have evolved from "perverse beauties rolling around on a carpet" to group orgies, and the combinations call attention to themselves through athletic self-control and simultaneous sexual achievement. The aesthetic forms of blue movie rely on a fundamental metaphor of the body as a machine. Cuts are utilized in order to exchange tired bodies with freshly pounding ones or those which have been refurbished in the interim. Cuts also create movement artificially when sexual athletes have exhausted themselves.
The performers' interchangeability and anonymity function as a material correlative to their expressed ideology. There is no room anymore for the old fashioned clumsiness of a giggling Emmy Raschke because heavy duty professionals are now at work, producing through a taylorized procedure body components for the final product while maintenance brigades with spare parts take care of breakdowns. These production maneuvers are of no interest to the viewer; the rapid reality of aroused penises, wide-open mouths, spread-eagled thighs, and stretched vulvas is hardly perceived. It is just like the wig changes of female performers who appear one moment as blonde equestrians in a family circus and then as red-headed lesbians the next.
The most sophisticated porno films are structured in a way that builds the keyhole perspective of the voyeur right into the film. A number of "fucks" thereby become dramatically organized through parallel montage, thus counteracting battle fatigue which invariably sets in when the camera presents an entire coition without interruption. The latter usually leaves the impression of being hard work rather than pleasure. Pornographic cinema lies at the end of a development in society involving specialization and compartmentalization. Pornography itself is a part of this specialization through the increasing autonomy of Schaulust.
All this operates in accordance with a further compartmentalization of pornography as a commodity, since producers speculate on the consumer's presumed or actual taboos and needs. Homosexuality does not turn up in heterosexual porno houses and vice versa. In heterosexual porn, anal eroticism only arises between men and women, and the only way a man gets close to another man is when a woman, who gets it both ways, lies sandwiched between them. Lesbian sex is also finally invisible, because when women touch each other, it is only because they are waiting for a man or performing for a male voyeur. Besides, they usually use dildos and suck cock, thus remaining within the limits of phallically oriented sexuality.
However, criticism of pornography's new forms, especially its filmic forms, remains uncomfortable. Despite porn film's already routinely executed, socialized sex, something still clings to pornographic cinema which Siegfried Kracauer in Theory of Film called "phenomena overwhelming consciousness":
Elemental catastrophes, the atrocities of war, acts of violence and terror, sexual debauchery, and death are events which tend to overwhelm consciousness. In any case, they call forth excitements and agonies bound to thwart detached observation. No one witnessing such an event, let alone playing an active part in it, should therefore be expected accurately to account for what s/he has seen. Since these manifestations of crude nature, human or otherwise, fall into the area of physical reality, they comprise all the more cinematic subjects. Only the camera is able to represent them without distortion…"
Kracauer points to the possibility that only through the image's distance is a reconciliation with such objects imaginable, recuperating them from mere functionalism. There is a one dimensionality of the optical possession of the world. This flatness is reflected in and enacted by pornographic cinema, making it even more scintillating and enticing than any warranted and proven ideological criticism of it has been able to deal with.
Whoever learns to read pornographic films against the grain, like Peter Gorsen above, will not only find such "a code of prohibitions and carnal denial." In the sense that the cinema effects what reality denies, he/she will also recognize the wounds which "the code of prohibition and carnal denial" has inflicted on desire. Those wounds exist not outside of but inside pornography's iconography, which expresses them rather than covers them up. Even in the machine-like availability and exchangabiity of bodies in their crude naturalism in blue movies lies a wish for a realm beyond sacrifice, one where milk and honey flows. Steven Marcus traces the historical context of this imagery back to economics in his key study on sex and pornography in Victorian England:
While pornographic fantasies of abundance in English Victorianism are correlated to the objective overtly within England, which was still in the process of acquiring mercantile riches, the endless flow of semen and the bodies of women covered with and rubbed in sperm point to pornographic cinema's one deficiency: the body itself. In pornographic fantasy everyone is perceived within a world of machines, of meshed systems and cogs. But the fantasy always shows the body's subjugation. The body suffers from deficiency while paced in a sea of material plenty.
Today pornographic film no longer refers to meanings lying outside its own subject matter; it refers primarily to itself through visual system, to that which can be seen on the screen: bodies and their carnal pleasure. From this perspective, the problem raised in Part II must be addressed again. What is seen? What form of sexuality can be visualized? I will attempt to answer this question in the next section, which deals with the iconography of visible penises and invisible vaginas in gender-specific pornographic imagery. However, first I will attempt to elucidate the distance between observer and observed phenomena, the distance created by the camera.
Kracauer believes distance is necessary in order to ease the fear that would arise should phenomena overwhelm the spectator. Pornography obviously plays off of a certain fear of crudity, coarseness, and sex — a fear which it does not dissemble or sublimate. The observer can confront that which frightens him/her only through the image. It is a process akin to an individual's dreams with the camera becoming a medium for creating distance and harmless voyeurism:
This dream, as related by a patient to his psychiatrist, reflects quite well the camera and voyeurism's mechanism for exculpation; it is interpreted by the psychoanalyst as fear of sex. (The camera played a role not only in the dreams of his patient, but also in his erotic everyday reality. He took pictures of his girlfriend during their mischievous sex games.) Correspondences with the procedures of pornographic voyeurism can thus be found at the level of individual psychology. Such everyday examples demonstrate just how deeply imbedded such organizational forms of the perceptual apparatus are. Thus it is hardly possible to talk about this "influence" originating in the simple content of pornographic cinema in the way conservatives would like to in order to defend censorship.[open notes in new window]
Looking, as a form of sexual curiosity probing an undiscovered sexuality, requires distance in order to ease the fear of the unknown. Some literary works utilize shadow metaphors to create the necessary distance between observer and observed. This need has a common base. We can see in the following literary example, written by Peter Weiss, from another point of view, the sexual observer's wish for distance:
Here Peter Weiss presents the schematic, the stereotypical, and the projection of persons and identities within body movements. He offers a voyeuristic experience through the literary form of an endless genitive flowing action. The same schematization remains a mindless characteristic in pornographic films, where it is reproduced blindly. The transformation of persons into facsimiles based on previously existing patterns refers even in pornographic cinema to the yearning for a sex life. But it does not postulate a union of "mature personality" and "genital sex":
The constant change of environments so predominant in the pornographic movie scene and the masks and costumes belonging to the paraphernalia of anonymous lust are possibly the last signs of a search for non-identity in sex. The proletarian captain of a riverboat in a blue movie promises a certain aggressive ingredient involving "a strong hand"; the "duchess of porn" in a black evening gown offers a touch of French decadence; and the cloistered student is surrounded with the scent of sadomasochistic flagellation orgies at the confession pew. The secret codes of environments hide lust's special drives and the specificity of those drives finally disappears in the close-up depiction of genitalia's "straight-to-the-point" gymnastic primacy.
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