These days, nostalgia's queasy longing attaches itself to any artifact older than Dharma & Greg. So why not porno films? "Ah, the good old days," one writer recently opined, "when the words 'shot on video' were unheard of, and they actually had budgets to shoot an adult movie. Sigh...Heck, they even were known to have occasional rehearsals."
The passage was taken from a Website devoted to the so-called Golden Age of Porn, which the author (a smut-loving emoticon user?!) considers to have ranged from 1977 to '82. Maybe you didn't know that porn had a golden age, but among aficionados it is common wisdom that the genre's best days are behind it. This is the very same argument made by Boogie Nights, the recently released mainstream film about porn, which has received some of the year's best reviews. Despite its epic length, the movie has only one real villain: videotape, which in the early 1980s transformed dirty movies to an even greater degree than talkies did mainstream filmmaking. This dawning sense of temps perdu has also inspired prominent Hollywood producers to initiate projects based on the lives of real '70s pornographers like Linda Lovelace and the Mitchell brothers. All of which hints at an interesting aesthetic question: Can nostalgia blunt pornography's ugly power? Can filth become quaint?
"You can really see a strong and distinctive line between '70s and '80s porn, not just in quality but in the spirit behind it," claims Paul Thomas Anderson, 27, the writer and director of Boogie Nights. For one thing, he says, the ease and cheapness of videotape obviated the discipline of shooting on film, of having to think through and craft even something as rudimentary as a sex scene. And given the reality of fast-forward buttons, most videomakers have chucked narrative (i.e., clothed) interludes, intensifying the genitally drawn gaze. Not that hard core hasn't always been an industrial-strength product designed to meet a very specific need. But with nearly 8,000 new videos saturating the market last year, porn, like the rest of American culture, is a marketing-driven business selling to demographic or in this case fetishistic niches, as a few recent video titles suggest: Awesome Asians, Granny Bangers, I Can't Believe I Did the Whole Team!
We have surely come a long way from the era of "porno chic," that brief moment in the early 1970s when hard-core films first flourished on the national scene. Perhaps because of the novelty, intellectuals chose to take them seriously, and middle-class couples flocked to Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones as if they were pretentious corn like The English Patient. The movies' formal crudeness wasn't necessarily a drawback in a day that still took Andy Warhol verite seriously and made hits out of the sloppy likes of Easy Rider and Billy Jack. From today's perspective, it's more than just sideburns and poochier bodies that date '70s porn it's the lingering hippie notions of free love and liberating sensuality that inform the films, the idea that indiscriminately "getting it on" served some kind of social good. In 1997 this has quaint charm indeed.
That is also the case with Tijuana Bibles, Simon & Schuster's recently published coffee-table collection of the dirty and then illegal comic books that flourished from the 1930s through the 1950s and featured American icons ranging from Mickey and Minnie Mouse to Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers copulating every bit as explicitly as any seasoned loop performer. At their best, with a cheerful, any-port-in-a-storm ethos prevailing, the comics have the bratty, anarchic wit of the real funnies; the spirit is perhaps best captured, for a family magazine, by the title of one comic: Myrna Loy and William Powell in "Nuts to Will Hayes!" a reference to the famous censor. But for all their insouciance, Tijuana Bibles can be wearying in extended servings as even the collection's editor admits.
It's hard to get past all the plumbing, which in pornography is always both the problem and the point. The brute ability of graphic sex to arouse, shock or bore ultimately bludgeons any secondary claims on our attention. Or to put it another way, Georgina Spelvin, star of The Devil in Miss Jones, is widely considered to be the greatest actress in the history of dirty movies, and even she couldn't help breaking character when being sodomized; the reality of sex always trumps the art. In this regard, one has to admire the pluck of two elderly women I recently eavesdropped on at the Egon Schiele exhibit at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. They were standing in front of one of the Viennese artist's drawings of adolescent girls with swollen, red, fruitlike pudenda. "It's pornographic, yes," said one woman, "but the talent is evident." "Yes," said her friend as they moved on to the next work, "the sense of design. The space..." It was a nice try.