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Sex, art and pornography in cinema December 11, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Movies Life.
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From ‘Deep Throat’ to ‘Shortbus’

Following John Cameron’s «Shortbus» by just a couple of weeks, there came «Destricted,» a film compilation of seven short stories directed by Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Marco Brambilla, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noe, Richard Prince and Sam Taylor Wood. Both films have been screened in Greek movie theaters. What do they have in common?

Scenes of real sexual activity that make the films themselves border on the pornographic. The first of the two looks at a sex therapist who visits alternative clubs in order to improve her own sex life, and the latter is much like a study on sex and pornography. Films like «Last Tango in Paris,» «Salo» and «9 1/2 Weeks» don’t hold a candle to these newer productions where the sex scenes are real.

In fact, Lars von Trier spearheaded the trend in 1998 with «The Idiots,» a film that included a scene from a real orgy, even though the director later stated that he had used body doubles for the actors. The 1999-2001 period saw three French films in the same vein. Indeed, the first, titled «Romance,» featured Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi. Next came «Baise-Moi,» directed by Valerie Despentes, and Bertrand Bonello’s «Le Pornographe,» which tells the story of a veteran porno producer who tries to marry pornography and art.

If von Trier doubled the actors for his films and the French films used professional porn stars, the 2003-2004 period brought in mainstream actors to perform real sex scenes, such as Chloe Sevigny in «Brown Bunny» or Michael Winterbottom’s «9 Songs» which, without the sex scenes, performed by actors Margo Stilley and Kieran O’Brien, would have very little story line to go on. When asked at a press conference about why he chose to show such graphic sex scenes in the film, director Winterbottom simply replied, «Why not?» An interesting yet hardly original point of view.

Pornographers themselves were the first to express a desire to see their genre presented in a more artistic light. This started in 1972 with the boom in pornography and has continued until today with films such as the excellent documentary «Inside Deep Throat,» in which the director of the original «Deep Throat,» Gerard Damiano, states that his dream was to make films that combine sex with the art of cinema. Damiano was echoed by Burt Reynolds when he played the role of the porn director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s «Boogie Nights,» which realistically portrays the boom in the porno industry in the 1970s and its ensuing demise in the 1980s with the advent of video technology.

The comfortable coexistence of pornography and art has been a dream for some time now that has never really become reality for a number of different reasons. The involvement of the Mafia in the production of pornographic films and the rise of the Religious Right in the USA, the 1980s not only brought video technology but the Ronald Reagan administration and the onslaught of AIDS, pushed sex into the background in Hollywood: that is, the San Fernando Valley in California, the heart of the American pornography industry, aptly located directly behind the hill with the Hollywood sign.

Up until the time of «Deep Throat,» pornographic films were made of so-called loops, industry vernacular for short pornographic films, often without sound, that appeared sporadically in the 1950s and in much greater numbers in the 60s. The tragic star of «Deep Throat,» Linda Lovelace, made her first appearances in loops, but when «Deep Throat» premiered in the then seedy neighborhood of Times Square in New York, artists and socialites from all over Manhattan flocked en masse to see her.

The year «Deep Throat» was launched, 1972, also saw another two seminal pornographic films: «Behind the Green Door» and «The Devil in Miss Jones,» both also directed by Damiano and both displaying decidedly more artistic qualities than their predecessor. The use of filters and psychedelic music created an atmosphere and aesthetic very rarely seen in the genre then or ever since.

Despite the fact that Damiano never really succeeded in making an «artistic pornographic film,» the trend by modern-day directors to incorporate pornography into their films, in an age of sexual freedom if not sexual liberation, does Damiano some justice and gives rise to several questions: If this really is a trend, will it continue and how far will it go? And can it be attributed to purely artistic experimentation or is it a direct result of social and political developments today?

For some critics, films like the American «Shortbus» are a reflex reaction to religious neo-conservatism. In contrast, the experimentations by Europeans such as von Trier and Winterbottom are just that: experiments that are judged by no other standard than their result. Whatever the intentions of the «pornographer» Damiano and the «artist» Winterbottom, the end result is always what counts.

The English novelist Martin Amis wrote in the March 17, 2001 issue of The Guardian: «Prostitution is the oldest profession. And porno is the newest profession.» As far as the performer is concerned, Amis says the star is «like a gladiator: a contemporary gladiator. Of course, the gladiators were slaves, but some of them won their freedom.» Amis also wrote: «Whatever porno is, whatever porno does, you may regret it but you cannot reject it. To paraphrase Falstaff: ‘Banish porno, and you banish all the world.’»

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