©1997 by Gary Schubach, Ed.D.
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest and near fascination by the public concerning X-rated or Adult films and the people who make them. This has been evidenced by the popular success of the films “Boogie Nights” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” as well as the cover story in the February 10, 1997 edition of U.S. News and Worlds Report.
For our purposes, adult films will be defined as the visual and aural representation of moving bodies engaged in explicit, unfaked sexual acts with the primary intent of arousing viewers. They attempt to portray to their audiences the dynamics of sexual desire, passion and eroticism. They are distinguished from written pornography by the element of performance contained in the sexual act. So, why is it, in a time when the laws allow a reasonably free distribution of this kind of material, that our video stores are overrun with seemingly endless amounts of almost identical adult films? Over 8,000 new titles were released in 1996 with 665 million adult film rentals last year totaling over $3.1 billion in gross sales and rentals. What makes one “better” or even different from another? What criteria can be used to assess them?
Since childhood I have been a fan and historian of “straight” films. As an undergraduate, my minor area of study was film history where my favorite genre was the movie musical. When adult films began to appear openly in the late 1960’s, I judged their quality by using the same standards that I had learned from straight films. I looked at such things as production values, the composition of the scenes, script and dialogue, as well as my subjective feelings about the sensuality of the sex scenes. For this genre of film, I had no coherent integrated theory from which to work.
It wasn’t until I read Linda Williams’ book, Hard Core, which compared the sex scenes in adult film to the musical numbers in a movie musical, that things began to click for me. I started to understand why I had found certain adult films to be effective in their presentation and others not. My interest then became studying the choreography in the movement of bodies and how that stimulates viewers by the creation of images in the viewers mind.
For many people, what’s wrong with adult films is that they exist at all. They find sexually explicit film morally objectionable and the result is an on-going legal battle to determine the lines between obscenity and free speech. Of course, throughout recorded history, starting with the markings on cave walls long ago, human beings have been creating visual portrayals of their sexual activities. These depictions appeared in almost all societies with many of the richest examples of such work occurring during sexually repressive periods, such as Victorian England.
The purpose of this article is not to deal with either the moral or legal questions. Instead, it is to look at these films and/or videos (hereinafter referred to as films) to see whether they are accurate representations of human sexual behavior and how the art forms of film and videotape interplay with the images, messages and values represented on the screen. Finally, what is and what can be the effect of these sexual images, messages and values on the audience.
Before the arrival of VCR machines, most sexually explicit films were created for and seen almost exclusively by men. Whether it was in “smokers” such were put on by male fraternal societies, or later, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, in dilapidated old movie houses, the audiences were primarily male. The films functioned as a way for these men to glimpse into the sexual secrets of women, albeit from a male fantasy perspective.
The popularity of Video Cassette Recorders changed the audience and possibly the purpose for these films. They are now seen by a larger number of women, with an estimated 40% of all adult films rented each year by women. They are often used to provide visual stimulation for couples prior to sexual activity and to put the viewers in the emotional frame of mind to become sexual.
Couples may want to have the physical and emotional experience of sex but may experience anxiety and tension from their lives. The increasing prevalence of the two or more income family, combined with parental duties, creates a situation where both partners are frequently physically exhausted at the end of a day. The question is often whether they’re going to attempt to be sexual at all. Sometimes the question is who is going to initiate sex. Adult films are often used by couples to try to create desire and arousal so that the viewers will want to be sexual.
A secondary function, perhaps unintentional, is the modeling of behavior. Often, people may wish to explore their fantasies and look at behaviors that may not be in their current sexual repertoire. Adult films allow them to do this by watching but not having to actually perform the behavior which can then lead to deciding whether they want to expand on their preferences.
Having first viewed the behavior being modeled by others, their comfort level may be increased, both with their own sexuality and with the sexuality of others. One example of this was in a recent monologue that I saw performed by a comedian on cable television. He talked about his discomfort as a young man with giving oral sex to women and how he overcame that by first watching couples in films. After becoming more comfortable with the activity, he then learned how to perfect his “technique” by watching films of women performing oral sex on each other. He correctly assumed that they might be in a position to better know what would turn a woman on orally.
As for the question of what values adult films portray and what their effect is on the audience, there has been much valid criticism. If the purpose of explicit films has been to reveal to the audience, mostly men until recently, the secrets of human sexuality and what is pleasurable to men and women, then they have failed for the most part. They present images of hard, tight bodies, augmented breasts and perpetually erect penises. The women, often objectified, require little foreplay before proceeding to intercourse, and can easily achieve multiple orgasms.
These widely seen images create a false perception in the viewer’s mind that to be happy sexually it is necessary to have all of these attributes. For most people, these are unrealistic expectations. To aspire to model the behavior portrayed in the films is not likely to create a rewarding and intimate sex life, but may instead create anxiety in attempting to emulate these models.
There is a potential for modeling other forms of sexual behavior that can create greater emotional connection. One thing rarely found in most adult films is any signs of emotional connection between the actors. What’s being portrayed in most films is the lack of connection – a very emotionally detached perspective. However, there are some good examples of scenes in adult films that really do model the possibility of emotional connection for people as well as a physical connection. A good example of this would be the closing love scene from Night Trips, a beautiful, sensitive pas de deux between Tori Welles and Randy Spears.
Money and Meat Formula
There are historical, psychological and sociological theories to explain the origins and reasons for the seemingly odd “formula” that dominates adult films. Studying these forces that help create the products that so many people, including me, find offensive (or boring), could ultimately lead to improvement in the quality and imagination of the sexually explicit films produced. Improved adult movies might reflect what both men and women see as more fascinating, positive sexual values. Improved films could also be a more significant source of sexual education that would help lead to a more positive understanding of our own current view of sexuality.
Two of the standard ingredients of sexually explicit films are the “meat” and “money” shots. The “meat” shot is a close-up of vaginal penetration that demonstrates that sex is really taking place and is not merely being simulated. As stated earlier, from early adult films to recent times, these movies were made primarily by men for men and were not shown to mixed audiences. Freudian theory regarding the fetishization of the idealized fantasy phallus clearly is one explanation for endless close ups of incredibly long, perpetually hard, ejaculating penises. The “money” shot, a graphic exterior depiction of male ejaculation, was intended to show male completion. Adult filmmakers claim that audiences want “meat” and “money” shots but my guess is that a major part of this belief is merely tradition. It will remain as is until somebody breaks out of the formula and is financially successful.
Often, adult films are shot with a single camera mounted in a fixed position so as to show genitalia and penetration. The camera is basically acting as a voyeur, simply representing what a person standing in the same position as the camera would have seen. There are just occasional “cuts” or changes in camera position. With some notable exceptions, no attempts are made to use camera angles or editing to create images in people’s minds beyond simply reporting what is occurring. This is very similar to the early days of silent films except silent filmmakers very soon discovered that they could make use of the viewer’s imagination. They impacted the viewer’s perceptions through the use of imaginative editing and visual techniques, such as fade-ins, fade-outs, overlapping and other cinematic effects.
The late 1960’s and the early 1970’s are often known as “The Golden Age of Film Porn.” Adult films were generally made in either Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco and were frequently made by filmmakers who had backgrounds in either straight films, television commercials, experimental films or the New York theater. Films such as Marriage and Other Four Letter Words , The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976, dir: Henry Paris, VCA ), The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann(1974, dir: Henry Paris, VCA ), and adult versions of Alice in Wonderland (1976, dir: Bud Townsend, Caballero) and even “Cinderella” (), were quite creative in their use of cinematic techniques and music to create erotic images in the viewer’s mind rather than just observing sexual acts.
Unfortunately, by the late 1970’s, distribution channels had become so controlled that independent filmmakers found it virtually impossible to get their films distributed, no matter how artistically interesting they were, without dealing with the established adult film distributors. A similar situation had occurred in straight films in the early 1930’s but the government then enforced anti-trust laws in order to break up the monopolies between the studios and the movie houses. In the case of adult films, to this day, the government has been intent on attempting to enforce the obscenity laws. Their concern is that enforcement of the anti-trust laws would imply a tacit approval of adult films. This is a major reason why we still see such a sameness in the appearance and style of adult films.
A Criterion To Judge The Artistic Value Of Adult Films
Film sexuality and sensuality are about the magnified movement of human bodies in space and time to create illusions and images for the viewer. Comparing adult film to another film genre that explores body movement in particular ways allows for workable standards by which the adult film can be analyzed. What becomes important, as in the movie musical, is the relationship between the “numbers” and the narrative. As in movie musicals, in most but not all cases, the story and dialogue are simply filler to segue between the musical numbers. Such is also the case in adult film where the rhythms and synchronization of movement and the music itself become important standards by which to assess the quality of the piece. With a few notable exceptions, this is the reason the story lines of most adult films are so banal and boring just as with most musical films. The sexual “number” and the impressions that it creates are the central reasons for being.
There are notable exceptions in both genres in which the story and plot are integral to the overall work. The adult film The Opening of Misty Beethoven is a very thinly disguised version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” It, of course, was also made into the musical film “My Fair Lady,” so we have a perfect comparison. In both “My Fair Lady” and The Opening of Misty Beethoven, the story about the relationship and power struggle between the male and female protagonists is essential to the work. In both cases, the conflicts are resolved through the “numbers.”
Even in films that have no real plot or dialogue, there is still a relationship between the “numbers.” Early “loops” were just sexual “numbers” edited together somewhat haphazardly with generally no relationship between the scenes. In contrast, a film like House of Dreams, (Blake, ) weaves the “numbers” together through music and visual techniques. There is a continuous natural flow in the mind of the viewer, not just an abrupt ending of one number and the beginning of another.
Since a greater number of the viewing population for adult films are now women, we are beginning to see a small number of films that approach sexuality and sensuality from female perspectives. Filmmakers like Andrew Blake, who was originally a fashion photographer, and Candida Royale have given us softer and more sensitive images of female sexuality and sensuality. Some examples are adult films such as, Night Trips (1989,dir: Andrew Blake, Caballero), House of Dreams(1990,dir: Andrew Blake, Caballero), Secrets (1991,dir: Andrew Blake, Caballero), Three Daughters (Candida Royale – 1986), and Urban Heat (Candida Royale – 1984).
Another interesting adult filmmaker, Michael Ninn, has created imaginative production numbers which are very similar in construction to those in a musical film. These can be found in such adult films as Sex (1995, dir: Michael Ninn, VCA Platinum),Latex (1994, dir: Michael Ninn, VCA Platinum), and the recently released, Shock (1996, dir: Michael Ninn, VCA Platinum).Shock is over two hours in length which is very long for an adult film. Yet every time I view it, I see something different in the way of visual images and interesting action taking place away from the camera’s center of focus. These films clearly appeal to the viewer’s imagination and emotions to create an eroticism that is unique and different for each person. I would argue that this is what makes a film interesting and different.
A fundamental truth is that adult films are made to make a profit. Adult filmmakers, mostly male, have created what they think will be appealing to their audience which, until fairly recently, has been primarily male. However, those audiences are changing and whenever someone, be it a male or female film maker, challenges the “formula” and makes a film that is popular and profitable, others will attempt to copy it so as to also make a profit.
Until more films are made from the perspective of female sexuality, either by women or by men sensitive enough to understand female sexuality, the old formula will probably still dominate a majority of adult films made. Educating audiences to become more discriminating consumers by utilizing a comparison with the musical film genre, plus analysis based on a more female view of sexuality and sensuality, could create demand for more sensitive and creative adult films.