Issue 13 : Fall 2007








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Xperimental Eros: by OtherCinema DVD

by David Cox

15 Sep 2007

Sleaze International

In the early 1970s, when 16mm commercial porn production accelerated rapidly (for a sense of this period, see the commercial melodrama "Boogie Nights"), the genre was still largely considered by most people to be illicit and in terms of its effects on one's 'moral fiber', almost toxic. It was known widely that porn was financed by organized crime gangs. Porn was cheap and dangerous. The world of Times Square, of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle's endless urban inner-city torment of backstreet sleaze, addiction, and vice. Men (and it was almost exclusively men) had to go to a movie house (usually recycled newsreel cinemas from the 1940s) to see porn and had to be in a city to go to a movie house. There were no VCRs. No DVDs. No internet. No cell phones.

Porn theatres then assumed the patrons did not want to be seen going into them, offering secret back-alley doors to sneak in and out of. This was not the enlightened, middle-class professional class' idea of the body and sexuality as part of a healthy overall view of the world, as say, embodied in the "Good Vibrations" culture of female empowerment via well-informed masturbation. It was urban. It was lurid and sickly. There was little that was good-natured or even remotely glamorous about it. The people who made the films lived precarious lives. The subjects often suffered at the hands of sleazy cheating producers and their gangster backers. And the world of old men jacking-off in dark small theatres was a market, which had yet to get suburban and mainstream. Only then, when the eventual early 1980s VCR sales created what became really a totally new demand, the cheaply made home porn video, the 16mm porn film was relegated to oblivion.

In the intervening years, and most notably since the Reagan-led 1980s, organized crime and media production have long since gone completely mainstream and acceptable. Everything in the world is part of the media spectacle and little on sale today falls outside the aegis of that most crime-ridden entity; the major global corporation. Like Las Vegas going 'family-oriented', inviting the RV-driving elderly pensioners from the suburbs to displace the shady types who started the place to shake its image as a sleaze magnet, it's the same old shady hoods that run the show. The difference however, between the glitzy showbiz hoods and the official culture of governance they once had to work around, has evaporated. The gangsters got so big they ended up running the world. Tony Montana got what he wanted--the world. Al Capone is the president and his movie star Austrian bodyguard runs California. And Cheney is so far off the sleaze scale, a new paradigm of sleaze has to be created just for him.

Porn specializations proliferated in the 1980s to a point where any peculiar taste could be met as just another market in a boundless commercial empire spanning the world. Fat porn. Granny porn. Pee porn. Pregnant porn. Scat porn. Like the musclemen of the screen that decade, the appeal was seeing what the human body could do. It could get really fat. It could get really weird. It can bend this way and that. The body, like meaning itself, had lost its purchase on limits, de-regulated, like the world's economies. The body was post modern and busting at the seams with possibility like John Carpenter's "The Thing"; it could assume any shape, any size, and who knew what form it would take next?

Today every aspect of life seems to be mediated by intricate channels of media whose levels of specialization truly defy any known limits. The commercially distributed database of homegrown production that is YouTube, the endless archive that is Google, and the vast flea market that is eBay are but the iceberg tip of a tsunami of privately-run digitized meaning-systems which render anything made before the early 1980s as amazingly rare, distant and collectible. It's enough for a media artifact to simply have survived the nuke-attack of digitalism since 1990 to suddenly today become the subject of deep and lasting fascination.

Porn is today thus just another hue to the air we breathe. It is just another consumer choice to make at selection time on the cable TV remote, the website menu, or the arthouse calendar. It means nothing. It's just data.

Experimental Film - Lost in the Ghetto

The political and cultural openness which eventually led to porn's commercial normalization in culture paradoxically sealed the death-knell for any such similar outcome for experimental film, forever marginalized to ghettos arguably much more confining than those befalling porno at the same time. Those of the arthouse, the cinematheque, and as evidenced here, the specialist collectible media-archeological DVD.

Experimental film was like the one-of-a-kind insect specimen. It was like all things 'fine' --expensive, limited, hard to see easily, and tied too closely to institutions which have a vested interest in keeping themselves inaccessible.

Today the cultural appeal of the Seventies as a kind of 'lost paradise' of pre-globalized relative simplicity is embodied in the now twenty-year-old fascination and mis-representation of the period as a time of excess, of 'bad' taste and garish bravado. Much of the porn in "Xperimental Eros" is from this time. Millennial nostalgia and surface-image fetishism for the 70s means little to those like myself who actually experienced them directly as teenagers. I remember this period as a time of tender anxiety and considerable moral and economic confusion, tinged with the sense that one was caught precariously between more than one kind of amazing utopia. It was also a very liberating time, because the triumphs of the 1960s had yet to be so totally crushed, as they would soon be during the 1980s, a project which has continued to this day, when it arguably has reached a zenith.

This "1970s-disconnect" sensibility is perfectly evoked by Damon Packard's stunningly accurate and knowing re-creations of low-brow TV psycho-drama from the period. But that is a different DVD and I thus digress?

Underground experimental films once shared alongside porn an imposed outsider status, and it's comforting in a way to see the association between them made again, if only as a result of 40 years of found-footage production, animation, and Cultural Studies. Other Cinema's "Xperimental Eros" brings porn back alongside its once-upon-a-time fellow outlaw form, the experimental short. It's almost like a replay on the cliché view held by--say, bigots and conservatives in 1973--that "if you went to an underground movie, you might see naked ladies!"

The Kuleshov-Conner Effect

With this sensibility in mind, I decided that my favorite film on the "Xperimental Eros" DVD is "The Influence of Ocular Light Perception" by Thomas Draschan and Stella Friedrichs. It utilizes the now-familiar post-1990s "found footage" collage-essay technique of juxtaposing archival shots of thematically related ideas visually. There are many mini-montages based on shot theme. Shots of men peering through scopes (each shot very short - maybe a second only). Shots of people taking off shoes. A collection of 'button pressing' and 'dial turning'. A glimpse of porn. An instructional film about-mouth-to-mouth. Another about applying pressure to a young female thigh. A film about archery (arrow hits target).

Sex is alluded to and graphically insinuated (much as it was clumsily in the heyday of 1940s and 1950s theatrical movies - e.g., the train rushing into the tunnel, the waves crashing onto the beach to indicate that "the couple fucked") rather than directly shown, and the sly innuendo which results, is hilarious. It is every editing student's primary lesson of continuity editing (shot A plus shot B gives rise to thought C)--the "Kuleshov Effect".

But this film also enacts what might be called the "Bruce Conner Effect" - the deliberate mining of shots for associated graphic matches and simpatico meanings in order to reveal something unseen between them. No matter how 'well' shots match up thematically, the differences between them formally, in terms of look and feel and overall inherent nature, give rise to a mysterious quality which might be described as a third element, separate from the shots themselves, born uniquely from their precise collision.

When pressed together shots thus explode like gunpowder under pressure. This is a chemistry of symbol exchange, and this movie is a power-keg.

We Really Appreciate Your Beauty

Tom Palazzolo's documentary "Sneakin' and Peekin" is about a zesty 16mm camera-toting guy sneaking into a summer mid-western country nudist contest event (getting lost in brambles as he does so), and asking the women there if he (along with dozens of other salivating men with cameras) can take movies of them. The filmmaker is only semi-embarrassed at the prospect of having to ask for shots of nudity, and the rather blasé women generally comply, some of them asking for copies for their own commercial needs.

This homegrown exchange of image production ("let me photograph you nude, please - oh, alright, but send me a copy") is a far cry from the counterculture idea of the body as "beyond" exchange, as the place where pleasure happens, not where it is to be photographed for private pleasure later. This is a 1970s rural blue-collar notion of the body as a commodity. And the process of recording and that of presenting it for display is an identifiable and thus quantifiable form of work.

The "Whitesploitation" realm of giant cars, red, white, & blue ribbons, lots of cameras, deck chairs, flatbed trucks , PA systems, resembles a rodeo. It's a kind of nudist camp combined with an outdoor beauty pageant meat-market, where the women assemble in lines and pull girly-magazine style poses for the gaze of the many surrounding men who exclaim things like "Oh baby!", and "You're doing a great job" (it's work!), and "We really appreciate your beauty", and "No crossin' of legs, now!". You almost expect George Kennedy and Burt Reynolds to come up to the camera and say how much they are enjoying themselves. Or Charlton Heston perhaps, bearing his ample back teeth?

More than the Sum of its Parts

Anais Nin's voice accompanies Mark Street's "Blue Movie" - a mesmerizing formal treatment of what appear to be 1930s or 1950s 16mm porn movies, whose original content has been optically zoomed into and then carefully augmented with color overlays and a post-production technique called step-printing. These detail the subtle facial expressions of the porn performers, rendering them languid and dreamily moving anonymous portraits from a forgotten time. The effect of the inter-frame flicker slowed down creates a kind of Burroughs 'dream-machine' effect, and here the sexuality lies not in the depiction of the act at all, but rather the rumination on the whole idea of blue movies and sex itself as something encoded via color and surface as illicit, contraband, and mysterious. It works like the very best of tender and well-remembered sexual experiences here in the real world, where a meta-language of the softly spoken word and the delicate physical dance of touch combine to form something close to pure all-encompassing spiritual and emotional bliss.

Candy Samples

The Washington-based porno collector and one-time Library of Congress official Ralph "King of Porn" Whittington is filmed by Jeff Krulik, showing off his vast homebound assembly of hoarded porno treasure before it is moved to the Museum of Modern Art. Whittington gives a guided tour of his collection, and explains in detail how it is categorized, indexed, and catalogued. Like all collectors, his lifelong obsession must constantly deal with its perpetual incompleteness. Porn has always accompanied (and even been responsible for) the rise and fall of personal media systems, Whittington's rare first-issue-on-video of "Deep Throat" must (of course) have its own dedicated Betamax (one of the first on the market) video player "It weighs up to forty or fifty pounds", says Whittington, proud that both media and player have been collected together. Another treasure is the "Candy Samples" love doll--the cheap lurid flesh-tone latex face pressed up against the five inch square transparent box lid says it all. This film begs a question as big as the proverbial elephant-on-the-couch: How could any porn collection be "complete"?! The idea that porn might somehow be a form with finite limits and thus require a policy of private semi-historical documentation is curious in itself, especially today.

Culture Gangsters Like Us

Film as fine art, as subtle statement, as personal view is today unlike porn, locked largely into the value-systems of official institutions. Academic historians, collectors, and critics are the among the few still examining actual 1970s and earlier porn today, and only then with the wistful, knowing ironic gaze of the educated professional, who can scoff from behind designer glasses and over select wines at the oh-so-vulgar excesses of a time when these curios on 16mm once flowed out of a production line that sat in close proximity to those also supplying heroin, illegal arms, prostitutes, and automatic weapons.

One cannot imagine, for example, a collector like Whittington doing what he does with experimental film, and if he did, he would not categorize the examples like merchandise on some big-box warehouse store, as this film depicts him doing. The status of the film, as art as evidence of the valuable essence-of-the-artist, would be unique by being one of a kind, not one among many, and on this basis, like a Sotheby's auction, attract high prices and invite hushed tones when talked about. Fine art is just not supposed to work in the way that porn works, because the people that run the fine-art racket make sure that dime-store porno values generally do not permeate the essentialism of their elitist country club of private screenings, discrete gatherings, and institutionally mediated events, complete with mailing lists, calendars and guest lists.

That Whittington's collection eventually 'makes' the Museum of Modern Art means that the Art Gallery has now met the librarian on common ground--where porn is understood as a media genre, and like all genres, it is best described as defining a type, a genus, an entire category of creative meaning-making, one which, due to the digital world in which we live, should attract more attention, more scrutiny, not less.

Xperimental Eros is available for purchase at our store.

David Cox is a writer, filmmaker and artist who lives in the Mission District of San Francisco. He is a regular contributor to Otherzine.