Arts: In search of the lost art of porn

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is now available in a videostore near you. But you still won't find the darkly erotic Devil in Miss Jones. Is the film censor saying that it has no artistic value? Or is there a lost canon of hard-core porn? By Laurence O'Toole
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Next week sees the release of Romance. This doleful French movie about the erotic odyssey of a young woman is the latest in a recent string of films featuring sexually explicit imagery - Idiots, I Stand Alone, Sitcom. Defending its decision to pass Romance uncut, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) spoke of the film's "insights about the female condition, about the difficulty of separating sex from love". The BBFC is keen to make clear that Romance has artistic merit, and it's not just a scuzzy porn flick.

The opinion of Britain's film censor is that a porn film could never scale the heights of Art. Not for the first time the censor is mistaken. The Opening of Misty Beethoven was a feature length hard-core porn film of the Seventies. Back then, many porn films were made like "proper" films - with storylines, dialogue, sets, and costumes to go with the full-on sex. Although superficially a bright, fluffy sex comedy, partly reminiscent of Sixties cartoon strip movies such as Casino Royale or The Thomas Crown Affair, at the dramatic heart of Misty Beethoven is an astute disquisition upon sex versus romantic passion.

This was no fluke. During the Sixties, Seventies, and into the Eighties, porn film-makers realised that movies featuring intellectual ballast were less liable to be branded obscene. Accordingly, intelligent, relatively accomplished porn films, including Pandora's Mirror, Between Lovers, Roommates and Cafe Flesh, occasionally crossed over to art house cinemas, causing the already blurred distinction between art and sleaze to virtually fade away. This was especially true of The Devil in Miss Jones, a dark, compelling tale of lust and sexual guilt by Gerard Damiano. When asked a few years back to name a film he wished he'd made, director Hal Hartley picked this.

Miss Jones and Misty Beethoven are dynamic, engaging and thought-provoking. Both are better films than Romance, which in comparison feels po-faced and intellectually meagre. And yet these porn movies are illegal in Britain. While hard-core porn is freely available across most of the Western world, and has been for a quarter of century, here it remains beyond the pale. A key reason for our island nation's abnormally restrictionist stance is the unexamined cultural assumption that porn is worthless.

In late 1996, with David Cronenberg's Crash under threat of censorship, critics from BBC's Late Review went to Brussels to see the film, to then return and defend it from interdiction. The critics could have gone to Brussels and watched porn movies. They might have then debated the glaring discrepancy between two similarly modern pluralist societies having such different porn laws. They didn't, and probably won't for the foreseeable future, because porn is deemed as lacking artistic significance.

To celebrate the release of Romance, London's National Film Theatre is running a retrospective of director Catherine Breillat's films. A retrospective of Seventies porn movies, however, is not on the agenda. "It is not a high priority at the NFT," says spokesperson Adrian Wootton. "Presently porn is at the margins of film cultural theory," declares Wootton.

This is debatable. These days in America, porn is the subject of intense theoretical scrutiny, and has been incorporated into the pop culture syllabus at several colleges, with high-powered feminist scholars Linda Williams, Constance Penley and Laura Kipnis teaching courses on hard-core. With so many people watching porn - approximately a quarter of all video rentals and sales in the United States last year were hard-core tapes - it was really only a matter of time before the academic world caught up and started doing the theory.

In appraising films such as Misty Beethoven it's possible to apply the standard tools of film criticism - theories of genre, authorship, narrative, psychological realism, and, inevitably, voyeurism. Additionally, porn movies raise their own unique points of interest. Porn is powerfully and, for many people, frighteningly at odds with traditional values. Given that, historically, porn films emerged in opposition to contemporary standards, it's useful to examine the social, legal and industrial circumstances of production, exhibition and consumption of hard-core, as well as treating porn cinema as an index of changing attitudes to the body, gender, morality and the broader culture's various sexual taboos and hang-ups.

Last year saw the inaugural World Pornography Conference (WPC) in Los Angeles. Organised by California State University, the WPC featured lawyers, health care experts, film-makers and porn stars, as well as scores of academics presenting jargon-heavy papers on porn. A theoretical intoxication coursed through the conference, culminating during the panel discussion on the work of hard-core director John Stagliano, where the creator of the cult "Buttman" porn tapes was lauded by assorted professors as the "Woody Allen of porn... the king! The supreme auteur!". Plainly some American academics are getting carried away. However, porn's critical re-evaluation isn't restricted to the US.

Next month Channel 4's monumental Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation comes to our TV screens. "The central thesis of the series," says Yad Luthra at Channel 4, "is that all art finds its basis in porn." Accordingly, viewers see graphic cave paintings, erotic Victorian etchings, stag movies, cyberporn, and analysis of movies such as The Devil in Miss Jones as examples of a lost film genre.

It has been lost partly because of the rise of video. The emergence of video had a profound impact on the production and the use of porn, taking adult films out of the red-light district and into the living room. When porn is consumed at home, the methods of viewing become highly personalised. The playback of porn tapes is likely to involve much use of the freeze- frame facility, or the fast-forward button. For obvious reasons, viewing may be interrupted, with tapes watched in installments and also repeatedly. The arrival of DVD, the latest format to be embraced by the adult industry, allows for even greater customising of the viewing experience, offering a multiplicity of camera shots of the same sex action for viewers to switch between.

When the traditional modes of watching become so disrupted, it's advisable to part company with aspects of regular film analysis. This doesn't mean however that porn should be excluded from the critical domain, instead it poses a challenge to film theory to broaden its scope. In general, there's a need to raise the level of the porn debate in the UK, to think differently on this awkward, complex subject. One way of doing this is by reviewing porn's place in culture. Recent developments with horror films are relevant.

For more than 20 years The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was branded a video nasty, and denied film or video certification in Britain. Now it has both. A movie which a former film censor once described as "the pornography of terror", is now freely available at your local video store. This is also finally true of The Exorcist. A significant factor in causing this turnaround, arguably, was the critical support for these misunderstood films from respected commentators such as Mark Kermode and Kim Newman, making the continued banning hard to justify. (Interestingly, the source material for the eagerly awaited Blair Witch Project was Cannibal Holocaust, another banned video nasty.)

These days Britain's film censor seems to be almost constantly under fire about sex on film - from the sex industry, European cinema, the British Government, or, inevitably, the Daily Mail. Unfortunately the censor hasn't the critical frame of reference required to fully make sense of the films being pushed its way. Meanwhile the pressure is set to continue. Film director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves and Europa) has discussed launching a line of hard-core porn movies. Should these ever come to light, will the BBFC know for sure whether the latest outpouring from a darling of European cinema is an outstanding work of art or just porn?

A new edition of Laurence O'Toole's `Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire', (Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99), is available from 14 October

Tomorrow

Porn and the academics; and Hollywood directors Mike Figgis and Paul Thomas Anderson discuss making better porn movies

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