That Old Feeling: When Porno Was Chic

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This column is rated NC17 for explicit nostalgia.

Here's a little statistic that means a lot. In hotel rooms where pornography is available, two-thirds of all movie purchases are for pornos; and the average time they are watched is 12 minutes. The image instantly summoned is of the traveling businessman who wants a smidge of sexual exercise before retiring, but who is too tired, timid or cheap to summon a call girl. He cares little about whatever niceties of dialogue or mise-en-scene the movie may contain. He seeks only a brisk hand job, self-applied, then clicks off the TV, and so to bed. Someone I know, on hearing of this archetypal businessman, wondered, "What did he do the other seven minutes?"

Pornography is big business: an industry that earns an estimated $57 billion worldwide annually —$20 billion just for adult movies in the U.S., where some 800 million videos are rented each year, according to Paul Fishbein, the founding president of Adult Video News. "And I don't think that it's 800 guys renting a million tapes each," he told CBS News. Fishbein means that the phenomenon can't be simply a big-city, left-wing perversion; a good many of those renters, those consumers of hotel porn, have to be red-staters. Which is why, among all the cries in favor of traditional values and against naughty TV, you haven't seen many county sheriffs or G-men forcing the old smut peddler do a perp walk. Porn doesn't affront contemporary community standards. It is a contemporary community standard.

There's a lot of porn out there. But nobody's calling it art. Or even, technically, film. (The industry has been virtually all-video for a couple of decades.) Porn is a commodity, with no more pretension to art than the most mindless kiddie show. For the weary businessman it's just a combination Viagra and Ambien.

How drab this seems compared to the heady days of the early 70s, when "There was something exciting about pornography," as Norman Mailer says in the new documentary Inside Deep Throat. "It lived in some mid-world between crime and art. And it was adventurous." Porn films preoccupied critics, cops and the courts. Often financed by Mafia families, they attracted the crusading instincts of local, state and federal prosecutors, who shut down the films and secured the conviction of one actor. They were directed by men who could fancy themselves as artists, and starred off-Broadway actors as well as the occasional gifted ingenue —like Linda Lovelace, star of the movie that created the craze (and the phrase) "porno chic," Deep Throat.

Mainstream newspapers (the Timeses of New York and Los Angeles, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert) and magazines (TIME and Newsweek) reviewed the more ambitious soft-core movies in the 60s and then hard-core, when it was legally exhibited. Why? Because it was sufficiently dangerous, popular, newsworthy and, frequently, ambitious to warrant the interest of reviewers. The opinion of many of them, including me, was that there might be a meeting of pornography, which had quickly established a kind of artistic pedigree, and Hollywood, which was striding toward explicit sexuality. That was also the belief of Deep Throat's writer-director, Gerard Damiano, who said in 1973: "If it's left alone, within a year sex will just blend itself into film. It's inevitable."

To anyone who wasn't around in the early 70s, this statement must sound utopian, if not delusional. Well (and I know I've written this before, but this time, children, it's true), things really were different then. You get a sense of those old New Days in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's Inside Deep Throat, a snazzy documentary now playing in theaters and coming soon to HBO, and a more synoptic view in the new book The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, by Legs McNeil, Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia. Diving into the nearly 600 pages of unmediated testimony from the actors, directors and producers, and the cops who kept track of them and tried to bring them down, a reader gets an inside look at a time when porn —the entire cultural life —was different, bolder, weirder, better.

But don't take my word for it. Listen to the Inside Deep Throat testimony of Damiano —now 76 and a Florida retiree, his trousers pulled nearly up to his tits, old-man style. "You had to be there," he says. "You had to be there. I'm thrilled that I was there. And I thank God I had a camera."


Damiano's camera could be turned on, but if the actors weren't, he'd have no blue movie. (Blue, don't ask me why, was the word to describe a dirty joke, an aching scrotum or a pornographic film. Two stag-film collections that opened in 1970 were called A History of the Blue Movie and Hollywood Blue.) Where was a director to find people who would consent to be photographed having sex? And where would he find sex workers who could convincingly play roles —act —in a feature-length, talking picture?

Two genres combined to create 70s porn. One, shown in theaters, was the soft-core sex film: basically a low-budget fiction feature with heavy-breathing innuendo, simulated lovemaking and the occasional, calculated exposure of skin (They were called skin flicks.) The genre boomed in 1959 with the smash success of Russ Meyer's nudie comedy The Immoral Mr. Teas, which cued a five-year run of so-called nudie-cuties. Says prime sexploitation showman Dave Friedman: "Nudie-cuties were very rigid in their construction —you had the boy/girl scene, the girl/girl scene, the orgy scene, and then the kiss-off." These light comedies gave way to Meyer's delirious lower-depths melodramas, and to Radley Metzger's glamorous European-accented romances, and to R.L. Frost's sex-and-violence epics, known as roughies As the 60s wore on, and the courts relaxed standards, soft-core tiptoed toward hard.

The other genre was traditionally shown at stag parties; hence, stag films. These were hard-core shorts, 10 to 20 mins. long, almost always silent (even into the 1960s) and with anonymous performers, usually prostitutes and their johns, who didn't mind displaying their genitals but sometimes masked their faces. The films were essentially documents, documentaries, of two or more people satisfying their urgent desires. The furtiveness was part of the kick for the all-male audience at a Rotary meeting or frat-house smoker. The fact that these films were so raw, and illegal, at a time when publicly exhibited movies couldn't show a tit and couldn't say shit (literally: the 1962 film The Connection was banned in New York state for using the word, though the shit it referred to was not excrement but heroin), made seeing them the ultimate, safe guilty pleasure.


The first blow in the one-two punch that brought porn into the open was a 1969 documentary, Pornography in Denmark, from the sexologists Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, the sub-Kinseys of their day. As filmmaker John Waters recollects: "Pornography in Denmark got around the law because it was a 'serious documentary,' right? It was supposedly 'socially redeeming,' but it showed penetration.... It was a big deal because after that there was no turning back. That's the day exploitation films ended —the way Andy Warhol ended Abstract Expressionism in one night by that soup can, the way the Beatles ended rhythm and blues in one night on the Ed Sullivan Show."

Fast on its heels came Mona, the first porno fiction feature, which opened in theaters in San Francisco and New York —and, more important, wasn't closed down by the police. Set in the Bay Area, Mona had no redeeming social interest, only redeeming prurient interest. It's about an engaged girl who has promised her mom she'd be a virgin on her wedding day, but figures fellatio doesn't count. The movie spends its 70 mins. following the parallel adventures of Mona and Mama. (Both generations sup at the loins of Mona's fiance, and take my word, mom's hotter.) When her fiance learns about her outside partners, he insists she have a simultaneous assignation with all four of them, and her every orifice is plundered. Returning home, Mona tearfully says, "Mother, I have something to tell you." Mom replies, "I have something to tell you too, dear." They hug. Fade out on this sadder-but-wiser mother-daughter sisterhood.

Whether it was considered a real movie with explicit sex scenes, or a series of stag-reel exertions with a modicum of plot and characterization added, Mona created the blueprint for 70s porno chic. True to Friedman's recipe, it had the boy/girl scene, the girl/girl scene, the orgy scene, and then the kiss-off. It also boasted an honorable mix of no-budget craftsmanship and hippie-dippie who-cares?

What Mona did not have was any credits —not for the producer (Bill Osco, scion of the nationwide drugstore chain), director (Howard Ziehm) or actors (Fifi Watson, Judy Angel and Ric Lutze). Discretion was probably wise; the cops were less likely to arrest you if they didn't know your name. But in hiding its makers' identities, Mona bowed to the old stigma of the stag film. It was still an anonymous transgression.

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