Download as PDF Download PDF

Sexual Cinema

Visible Frenzies


Let us suggest that one of the key differences between eroticism and pornography lies not just in the explicitness of one versus the implicitness of the other, but in the way the bodies are positioned. In the erotic, the body resembles often the sculptural – as we can see in an early scene where Soledad Miranda offers a ‘sculptural’ striptease in Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos; the bodies present in the prison cells in Franco’s Justine. Or it can suggest the painterly, as we find in Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls, evident for example in the scenes where Marina Piero’s nun practises yoga-like exercises in her room, and in Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O, where Corinne Clery defiantly stands with her wrists tied, her arms stretched out, just after being whipped. Whatever the suspect sexual politics often at work, this is still very different, generally, from the pornographic. The pornographic aesthetically tends to focus not on the body in space, surrounded by other objects, and on the sculptural and the painterly, but much more on the body anatomically, even gynaecologically presented. Here space is almost as irrelevant as it would be during a body examination at a doctor or surgeon’s office, room or ward. As Cahiers du Cinema’s Yann Lardeau once proposed in an article called ‘Cold Sex’ “The basic element of pornography is the close-up.” If we look at examples touching upon the issue of pornography, without themselves being pornographic, we notice how the films zero in on the claustrophobic inertness of porn. We can see it for example in scenes from Taxi Driver and Seul Contre Tous, and in Extension du Domaine de la Lutte and The Piano Teacher. What we see here is the functionalism of pornography, the degree to which porn isn’t so much a branch of art as a very unusual branch of science. The priority is to show detail – it presents the artlessness of the explicit.

To explore this issue of art versus science in relation to the erotic and the pornographic, a couple of terms can prove useful: ars erotica, and scientia sexualis. They’re terms utilised by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1) when he differentiates between the erotica of Ancient and Oriental cultures versus the modern fascination with the scientific aspect of sex. In Roman and Chinese culture Foucault sees the importance of a certain type of sexual mastery. “In this ‘art of life’”, Foucault says in an interview published in the collection on Ethics, “the notion of exercising a perfect mastery over oneself soon became the main issue.” Sex wasn’t first and foremost about witnessing but about self-controlling. “It is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations, in the body and the soul.” In scientia sexualis the emphasis is on witnessing, on trying to understand, comprehend and reveal the other in the positivist tradition of making sexual knowledge explicitly presented, unequivocal. It leads in fact, in the pornographic context, to what Linda Williams, in her book Hard Core, has usefully called ‘the frenzy of the visible’, taking off from a Jean-Louis Comolli comment about the machines of the visible: cinema, photography, television etc. In this frenzied visibility what matters isn’t how something is filmed – in the painterly, sculptural approach of a Franco or Borowzcyk at their most interesting – but what is shown, the explicitness of the material.

To help us here we can turn to Bertrand Bonello’s art-house film The Pornographer, with Jean-Pierre Leaud the central character who has more or less retired from making porn films because they’ve become so utterly functional. While he wants to film an intimate moment between two people, no matter if they’re paid up porn actors, the producers want categorical pump action pornography that works off the clearly visible. Thus where Leaud prefers the woman to swallow the man’s sperm; he’s expected to film the man coming all over the woman’s face so that it is undeniable that the man has orgasmed, and that, some might add, the woman gets humiliated. This particular frenzy of visibility has been taken to ever newer extremes in porn. There is a Japanese speciality (according to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, in an article about sexual habits called ‘Sex, Now’) called bukkake – “showing women weeping in distress while numerous men ejaculate all over them.” And where Milan Kundera in his novel Slowness can rather naively propose that anal sex remains taboo in pornography, that is certainly no longer the case, and generally wasn’t even when Kundera was writing his novel in the mid-nineties. In the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, standard anal intercourse is almost passé, and double, even treble anal now the taboo breaker.

A little earlier we mentioned this idea of the how of erotica versus the what of pornography. This isn’t to say a pornographic film can’t also be erotic, but because it is generally caught in the frenzy of the visible, its purpose is not to create a form to contain the eroticized imagination. Is it instead first and foremost to produce greater machines for the visible, and ever more exhibitionistic, exploited or unthinking subjects who are willing to be scrutinised? It is a variation of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame: but what will those fifteen minutes consist of? Decca Aitkenhead again supplies us with the details: “ten years ago, few teenage boys would have seen women having sex with animals, men defecating in their mouths, or bukkake,” but now these are reputedly commonly available on the net. This is courtesy of what has been called ‘gonzo porn’: ultra low-budget pornos with production values no higher than that required for capturing extreme images on screen. We may recall the elegiac scenes in Boogie Nights, where the characters mourn the passing of the relatively high-quality production values as celluloid porn disappears and video takes over. But for Aitkenhead, “internet pornography is qualitatively different from its predecessors, by virtue of its limitless access to extremes of sexual behaviour …”

In some ways this echoes a Martin Amis article on the porn industry in the Guardian several years earlier, called ‘A Rough Trade’, where he interviewed various people in the porn business. One insisted that now “pussies were bullshit”. This meant that somehow vaginal penetration just wasn’t visible or aural enough. “With anal, on the other hand,” Amis says, “the actress is obliged to produce a different order of response: more guttural, more animal.” As Amis’s interviewee puts it, “you want guys who can fuck really good and make the girls look more…virile.” Amis’s interviewee goes on to say that he was the first to shoot famous porn star Rocco Siffredi. “Together we evolved toward rougher stuff. He started to spit on girls. A strong male-dominant thing, with women being pushed to their limit.” Certainly not everyone in the contemporary porn scene is pushing for this frenzied visibility, but it is the norm. When there is an exception, and Amis mentions one Andrew Blake, Blake insists “I’m into looking at women. Not all this pissing and fisting.” His relative tameness carries with it some pride. He’s never had “any legal problems” he insists. Others who may see themselves loosely in this more sophisticated tradition would be Gregory Dark and Michael Ninn. These three directors are seen as auteurs in the tradition of seventies filmmakers like Radley Metzger, The Mitchell Bros and Candida Royale, a former porn star who turned to directing. Indeed most of these filmmakers have made it into the top tens of the best porn films ever made.

Blake, it seems, is one of the rare relatively soft practitioners left in the industry (he usually films lesbian action), and is still, after all, a hardcore filmmaker. But the erotic heyday appears to have also long since past. The great period of this looking, the great period of geometric eroticism that seemed to want to counter the hardcore, or perhaps even influence it, was surely the sixties and seventies, the period when censorship slackened, yet hardcore pornography was still generally, legally unacceptable, or the pornographic exception to the erotic rule. The key names here would include Borowczyk, Franco, Jean Rollin, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Russ Meyer, Tinto Brass, Just Jaeckin, José Larraz and Jose Benazeraf. We can also mention masters who would occasionally drift into the erotic film: like Pasolini with Arabian Nights, Nagisa Oshima with Ai No Corrida and Miklós Janscó with Private Vices, Public Virtues.

As the writers, Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill, make clear in their book, Immoral Tales, many of these filmmakers who worked loosely in the sex and/or horror genre were forced due to financial straits to make a sideways move into pornography when the low-budget film industry did likewise. But their hearts lay in the erotic. Or rather, their eyes: they were interested in looking. Obviously this was a male gaze cinema as Laura Mulvey would define it when she says, in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure…” But is this male gaze, however un-feminist, still not much healthier than the obviously misogynist gaze of gonzo porn? It is not the gaze in gonzo porn that is the problem, perhaps, which, after all, still has connotations of wonderment, but what we might call the glaze, with its dictionary definition: ‘losing brightness and animation’. Better surely the gaze, which has been honourably continued and expanded upon not first and foremost in the obviously erotic, but in the art house, and by female and gay filmmakers as well as hetero men. Claire Denis, for example, in Beau Travail, Catherine Breillat in Romance, A ma soeur!, Sex is Comedy and Anatomy of Hell, Jane Campion in In the Cut, Almodovar in Live Flesh and Bad Education, and Julio Medem in Sex and Lucía. The erotic film may have peaked in the sixties and early seventies, but it residually continues in a more pluralistic way today.

What we sense peripherally in these filmmakers, and centrally in the work of Rollin, Benazeraf and others, is the cinematic equivalent of the ars erotica, the pleasure that actually includes more than just the bodies on show – it also incorporates the aesthetic containment of those bodies. It is in fact in the erotically artistic rather than the scientifically single-minded that the filmmaker can possess a phenomenalist perspective, an original way of looking at the erotic world. It allows for the sort of freedom the central character demands in The Pornographer, but which he comes to realise is no longer available. It also frees the viewer up from the expectations of the image. Where in pornography the films are made for an undeniably specific function – masturbation – and are often described as six wank movies if they contain six scenes, eight wank movies if they contain eight, in the erotic perhaps the purpose is closer to that of the erotic imagination released in dreams. Thus it isn’t a cause and effect functionalism, but an oneiric sense of the erotically possible. We could think here of the work of a modern eroticist Jean-Claude Brisseau, and the opening scene from Secret Things. Here as the camera witnesses a woman lying naked on a bed, and crosses a room towards what turns out to be bar with various people looking on, Brisseau gives us an erotics of screen space. Our curiosity is piqued not only in relation to the titillation of the body but towards a broader curiosity as we wonder where the bed happens to be (a house, a castle, a public stage?) and where others in the scene might be too since it looks like a public performance. It resembles the scene of Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos but creates a much greater sense of spatial curiosity in the viewer. This is an erotic suspense that needn’t close the sexual down to the explicitness of the body, as in much pornography, where the level of curiosity beyond the body is almost non-existent.

Interestingly, that brilliant writer on ‘the real’ in cinema, André Bazin, in ‘Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema’, written in he fifties, would seem to agree. Though obviously a key advocate of realism in film, Bazin nevertheless believed pornography was realism too far, alongside that of actual death on screen. As Bazin claimed “the obscenity of the image was of the same order as that of a pornographic film. An ontological pornography. Here death is the negative equivalent of sexual pleasure, which is sometimes called, not without reason, ‘the little death’”. Both the big death and the little death are banished from the cinema because, “actual sexual emotion by performers is contradictory to the exigencies of art,” just as filmed murder would be also. Now this is where Bazin is very interesting, no matter his absolutism, and where he coincides very loosely with notions of the ars erotica against the scientia sexualis as we’ve been exploring it, for he believes, to remain on the aesthetic level in  presenting sex, “we must stay in the realm of the imagination.”

This is what we mean when we talk about the erotic in the work of Borowczyk, Franco etc.  The filmmaker releases his or her imagination and creates a subtle world of erotic possibilities that takes full advantage of the surrounding mise-en-scene, and the viewer taps into their erotic imagination rather than just being provided with functional, often extreme images that they’re expected simply to masturbate over. Where both the erotic and the pornographic have obviously utilised fantasy elements, and where both Pasolini and porno filmmakers have adapted, for example, The Arabian Nights, for Pasolini it will be an issue of creating a broader erotic world that incorporates a sense of geography, of lighting, of production design, of the historically erotic. The porno film usually expects little more than that the actors will dress up all the better to quickly undress. There is no objective correlative as T. S. Elliot would define it. That is, there is no sense that an abstract set of aesthetic principles will release the erotic possibility, no subtly evolved sexual imaginary equivalent to Elliot’s idea of emotion in art when he says what is required is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion.” (Hamlet and his Problems) There are of course relative exceptions to this rule, and they should be acknowledged. The Opening of Misty Beethoven is often name-checked as a story-led porn film, with nods towards a classical composer in the title, and Bernard Shaw as it offers a porno equivalent of Pygmalion. Like Café Flesh, Behind The Green Door, Insatiable, New Wave Hookers, as well as films with The French actress Brigitte Lahaie, the American Veronica Hart and more recent international stars like Silvia Saint, Anita Blonde and Tabatha Cash, there is at least a hint of aesthetic values, some attempt at objective correlatives and mise-en-scene. In many Marc Dorcel productions, for example, films that often star Saint, Blonde and Cash, there is an interest in costume design, cross-cutting between different sexual encounters, and a play of light that is consistent with the chiaroscuro effects deployed by painters and the erotic filmmakers already name checked. The Tabatha Cash film, Italian Lovers contains a fantasy sequence, while Behind the Green Door utilises flashback.

However, the pornographic generally lacks, in its focus on the close-up and the specifics of the sex act, the sense of erotic hope that will keep our desire slightly intangible, intriguingly permeable. This sense of the erotic is echoed by Audre Lorde when she says, “the erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.” (‘Sister Outsider’) When the fantasy element is usually no more than a conceit, before moving onto the money shot of the pornographic, do we come anywhere near our deepest knowledge, despite fulfilling the expectations of the porno-graphic, the scientia sexualis?

It is as if the great erotic filmmakers – like Borowczyk, Benazeraf, Robbe-Grillet et al – share Bazin’s maxim and work loosely within the sculptural, painterly aesthetic. They search out the objective correlative, and hope to move us towards Lorde’s notion of the ‘deepest knowledge’. What pornography usually gives, according to Lorde, is “sensation without feeling”. There are no objective correlatives, just really objects – and those objects happen to be human. But Benazeraf, Borowczyk and co believe the verisimilitude, the requisite suspension of disbelief, lies not in presenting the real – in the form of actual sex, and all its attendant and ever more extreme extras – but in finding a less documentative but more expressive aspect of the sexual. Now we needn’t be especially moral here – and one certainly isn’t advocating anything like the complete banning of images that contain scenes of penetration – but it is to ask for more images or eroticism and less images of the ever more extreme and graphic.

One interviewee Aitkenhead talked to, in her survey on sex quoted above, says “that’s how I’ve experienced life, really through porn. It’s like a seed that gets put in your brain.” Another interviewee says that after a recent lover ejaculated all over her visage, he told her “that’ll wipe the smile off your face.” Can the erotic somehow work like an antidote to the porno seed, the virus just mentioned? Now this isn’t to make especially great claims for the erotic film, which sometimes feels like a ham-fisted coy version of the pornographic, but at its best, most innovative, most revealing and confessional, it seems to give back to sex the intimacy that the harsh light and the harsher actions of the contemporary porn film removes from it. Of the filmmakers mentioned loosely under the ars erotica, some are undeniably key auteurs – Robbe-Grillet, sometimes Borowczyk, certainly Pasolini – but they are also filmmakers who have made films that touch upon as readily as focus upon the erotic. Others, like Rollin, Franco and Benazeraf moved readily between the erotic and the pornographic out of financial necessity. Sure, there hardly seems to be a great un-tapped universe of erotic cinema out there, just a handful of attempts at making sexual cinema with a hint of soul and with a sense of erotic history. Nevertheless a few years back Channel 4 very usefully put together a season of films under the label, Eurotika, including those by Larraz, Rollin, Max Pecas and Benazeraf. If we showed them in some cinema back to back with a season of modern hardcore, we could see the bifurcation. We could see how cinema had a kind of forking path between the erotic and the ever more graphic, and generally chose the latter.

Many people of course snigger at the idea of the erotic film, and feel no nostalgia for its general passing. One reviewer reviewing the mid-eighties 9 ½ Weeks said it was a film for yuppies too self-conscious to rent Deep Throat. It is probably not much better a film than Gerard Damiano’s, but it is still that little bit more imaginative in its generation of intimacy than most pornos. At least when Kim Basinger goes over to Mickey Rourke’s stylish apartment, the director, Adrian Lyne, has gone to some length to make it a distinctive space. Most porn films give the impression of being shot, at best, at the producer’s own home. So to conclude, this isn’t to suggest obviously that porn is only a moral problem – though that is certainly central to the debate. If pornography is an evil it isn’t just because, as some feminists and most moralists would argue, it destroys the fabric of society. But also because it is in some ways in danger of destroying our erotic imaginary – the problem of the seed in the brain – by insistently giving us this frenzied visibility. Maybe we’ve more than reached the stage where we need less frenzy and more subtlety to the visible. Perhaps we could do with resurrecting the careers of so many of these half-forgotten eroticists and in the process suggest they were trying to make films that were healthily offering a sexual sensibility at odds with the ever-encroaching explicitness of the modern porn film. In an essay in the Susan Sontag Reader, Sontag talks of the pornographic offering “a wider scale of experience”, but we might sometimes wonder whether the wider the scale the narrower the perceptual options.


©Tony McKibbin