Saturday, June 23, 2012

Revenge of the Petites (2012)

Hi folks. It's been quite a while since I wrote anything substantial about a new movie, and to be honest when I heard that AMKingdom were making a feature with the goal of replicating the fully integrated adult films of the golden age, I was highly skeptical. Even when I read reviews that highlighted, "it's a real film!" I still braced myself for a feature that had good intentions but, alas, fell foul of the demands of the gonzo crowd and internet watch-by-scene. But what a treat this film is. I actually kept telling myself, “Don’t get your hopes up…” for a full hour before I felt I could sit back, relax, and accept that, yes, this really is what you think it is: a fully integrated x-rated feature.

Petites follows Skin (Skin Diamond) and Marie (Marie McCray) as they start college and attempt to join the Theta House, a sorority full of tall, hot young women who mock Skin and Marie's diminutive stature. In the world of Petites, being a petite is tantamount to being a nerd in Revenge of the Nerds (a central conceit that gets a lot of mileage in the laughs department), and the film chronicles Skin and Marie's efforts to fit in, before embracing who they are and taking revenge on the Thetas. A simple plot, but one that is tons of fun for film fans, as well as allowing for sex scenes that don't feel forced. The sex is already implicit in the source texts Petites is riffing on; ATK just had to flesh it out, so to speak. A wise move for a first feature, and one that attempts (and succeeds) in fully integrated sex and plot.

Petites does a few things that reminded me of what drew me to adult film originally, as a film fan and a feminist:

It shows women in protagonist roles – roles that are typically male roles in mainstream. If the Bechdel Test were applied to hardcore features and Hollywood, I wonder which would win out? In Petites there is nary a man to be seen. Meanwhile, there are tons of women and they all have, like, relationships of different kinds and stuff. Nothing groundbreaking, sure, but a breath of fresh air for someone who breaths a sigh of relief when a woman is not the male hero's trophy at the end of a Hollywood narrative. Some could legitimately point out that while women do get to play protagonist roles usually reserved for men, they also have to fuck in order to earn this privilege, but it is also important to note that the x-rated feature is one of the only spaces where women are not punished for actively pursuing sex. Indeed, it is encouraged. Of course, this is not true of every porn film, as in all genres of porn there are films that most definitely punish women for being sexually active, all for the pleasure of the voyeuristic viewer (the recent series Pornstar Punishment is only the most literal manifestation of this). But this applies to all media, and when taken as a whole, pornography has consistently provided me with representations of women as sexual subjects unashamed of their sexuality.

Part of being a protagonist means owning the gaze in some way. Petites does this in a manner that reminded me of how the pornographic male sexual object/subject is shown in a naked, erect manner that simply is not seen in the mainstream sphere. The Hollywood double standard of showing female nudity but not male is leveled in porn, and replaced with a different double standard (that of male pleasure over female, yet even this is nowhere near as uniformly employed as the double standard of Hollywood nudity). One Petites scene in particular inverts the famous Fast Times at Ridegmont High scene in which Judge Reinhold masturbates and fantasizes Phoebe Cates emerging from a pool, removing her bikini top. In Petites, it is a girl masturbating, and a boy emerging shirtless from the pool. In a heterosexual porn flick, this feels somewhat radical. This in turn reminded me of what fun, and how subversive, porn can be when it parodies mainstream media in a meaningful way.

Essentially, Petites demonstrates how good porn can be when they take risks, such as fully integrated sex, fractured sex scenes that cut back and forth, and sex used to tell a story. Even in scenes that are “regular” scenes, such as the one between GGG-favourite Celeste Star and Vanessa Cage do not feel out of place. The performers don’t constantly act like their characters, nor do they try too hard to narrativize the sex; it’s just a good sex scene, performed well, doesn't stray outside the boundaries of their characters (i.e. they perform sex acts that seem feasible for the characters we have come to know), and – critically – it’s not too long. 

It’s interesting to note that there is an extra disc in this package that has extended sex scenes for those who want them. I have no problem with this whatsoever. Not only is it a good business move to appeal to the raincoat crowd, but I also respect what the raincoat crowd is after. Let’s not forget, a lot of people who watch features are sometimes in the mood for raincoat fare, depending on the circumstances, and I won't belittle those desires. I should imagine a lot of people (most?) will watch the feature in full, and then perhaps watch the extended cuts of the scenes that particularly tickled their fancy. 

Enjoy the trailer (which provides a taste of the original soundtrack - did I mention that original songs in porn is one of my very favourite things?) and buy the movie.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Kickstopped: Misty Beethoven and the Porn Nerd's Burden

Recently, in anticipation of the Platinum Elite release of Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven, the gang at Distribpix set up a Kickstarter account to raise $10,000 for a Blu-ray release of this beloved film. The response was overwhelming (dare I say, heartwarming?), and before the week was out they had raised just a couple thousand short of their target goal. I’ve long thought Kickstarter is a site to be cherished in that it really allows the little guy/gal to find their audience—often a very small audience, tucked away somewhere, not to be found until they had an easy way to be a part of grass roots support of independent art. I have pledged before (to the Chuck Holmes documentary), and I happily pledged as much as I could to this project, seeing as it dealt with one of my very favourite films.

However, this week, Distribpix CEO Steven Morowitz was informed that the project had to be removed from Kickstarter because “our community guidelines specify that projects cannot involve pornography or inappropriate content.” After some email exchanges, in which Morowitz defended the artistic integrity of the film, and explained how the film differs from what the masses (or Kickstarter) might consider “pornography,” the Distribpix team were told that yes, indeed, "‘pornography’ is a notoriously subjective term that means different things to different people and is a difficult line to draw. We do, however, feel like Misty Beethoven firmly resides on the other side of that line and violates our guidelines.”

Before going any further, I want to make it clear that this is not an article bashing Kickstarter nor a call to arms. Don’t withdraw money from worthy projects funded through Kickstarter, nor go about crying about censorship and freedom of speech. It sucks, sure, but Kickstarter has the right to do whatever they want with their company, whether I like it or not. What I can do though, as you will see below, is address some of the issues connected to sexual representation, censorship, and media that the Kickstarter decision brings up; some thoughts that I have been meaning to put down in writing for a very long time now. The Misty debacle simply pushed these issues to the front of my mind. That said, I do encourage you to pledge (or re-pledge) your $$ to the newly-formed Misty Beethoven site, created to replace the defunct Kickstarter account. Did I mention a Misty Beethoven martini glass is one of the rewards up for grabs?

In his 1987 history of the term “pornography,” The Secret Museum, Walter Kendrick argues that with each landmark obscenity case, with each slight refining of the definition of “obscenity,” the category of “art” has broadened, while the category of “porn” has narrowed. Literature, for example, is rarely actually considered “porn”; if it is, then apparently it can skyrocket to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and be discussed openly at parties, even with the family. Not so with moving image porn. Thanks to a consistent cultural disdain for pornographic materials, a common reaction to the dismissal of particularly excellent examples of the genre is to champion a text as “more than” porn; as “more than” just sexual arousal. It’s a reaction seen in both anti-porn activists who support erotica (“good” porn), as well as those who champion porn and its cultural importance. Such a reaction is inevitable (I would say even unavoidable) when you’re constantly being told that an entire category of art is worthless, that “porn” means “void of meaning,” and I have found myself resorting to this type of explanation many times ("Oh, it's not just fucking, it's actually like a real film!"). Sexually explicit material can be art, it seems, but just so long as it doesn’t appear to be trying too hard to get you off. A good example of this tendency to defend good or interesting porn as “more than porn” is Neil Gaiman’s review of Alan Moore’s porno-graphic novel Lost Girls. Moore has emphatically stated time and again that the novel is indeed “pornography,” yet because Gaiman liked the novel, he was evidently uncomfortable with the designation pornography. After explaining the subjective, class-based distinction between “porn” and “erotica,” and admitting that yes, the novel is sexually explicit, Gaiman resorts to creating a new term: “pure pornography.”

It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined. Lost Girls, however, is all about consequences. It's also about more things than sex – war, music, love, lust, repression and time, to pick a handful of subjects (I could pick more). It's the kind of smut that would have no difficulty in demonstrating to an overzealous prosecutor that it has unquestionable artistic validity beyond its simple first amendment right to exist.

In this way, Gaiman demonstrates the need for art to tell us about more than “just sex,” that base act that anybody can do and holds no meaning. I have nothing against sexual representations that involve consequences and “more things than sex”; my point is that there is very little porn that could be argued to be “just sex.” To assert such would be tantamount to declaring pornography an unmediated reality; not a representation at all. And that, furthermore, sexual activity itself is meaningless. How depressing!

The Kickstarter situation also got me to thinking about the concept of “mainstreaming,” a term I find bewildering in its vagueness, as well as in the fact that people use the term so frequently and for so many different purposes. I respond to such observations by querying what exactly it means—not only the phrase, but what “mainstream” means and what “porn” means and what exactly they are referring to when they make such claims. Buttman’s Stretch Class airing at 7pm ET? My local cinema screening the latest Wicked feature one auditorium along from Battleship? Or, perhaps, the fact that Jenna Jameson had a billboard in Times Square? This latter example is often used as evidence of the mainstreaming of porn, the idea that “mainstream” culture is chock full of porn, more so than ever before. This is to some extent true. Certainly, Jenna Jameson did appear on a Times Square billboard, and advertising and other media have appropriated cliché pornographic tropes such as the money shot/facial. Yet, where exactly is the porn? All I see are carefully selected images and concepts designed to construct a particular mainstream pornness that can titillate/outrage citizens, while keeping the actual texts at arm’s length. The mainstream appropriation of porn says more about the mainstream’s quite particular construction of gender, race, class, and sexuality than it does about porn’s. That porn (not angelic by any stretch) is both more diverse and more interesting to me than the majority of mainstream fare says a lot.

Which brings me back to Misty Beethoven. If it is to be believed that a single complaint caused the removal of the project, then this is disconcerting, especially considering several sexually explicit projects remain on the Kickstarter site. The fear of being associated with or supporting “pornography” is apparently still powerful enough to prompt a company to reverse a prior decision well into the twilight stages of fundraising. This doesn’t feel mainstream to me. Try finding an x-rated film on without an account, and without changing your settings; to the average surfer on imdb, porn simply does not exist. Meanwhile, google your preferences and a host of torrents pop up for you to access. In other words, porn is not treated as film or art; it is treated as disposable trash, handed out for free under the table. Other examples abound. It is only sexually explicit, unsimulated material that is treated in such a way; treated as “not-art,” simply a masturbatory tool. And what if a text is predominantly a masturbatory tool? Are the jumps and scares, tears and wallowing self-pity, or adrenaline rushes of other genre films to be celebrated as meaningful responses, while genital/sexual arousal is not? And let’s not forget that these worthy “non-pornographic” films regularly invoke sexual arousal, along with other, more socially acceptable bodily spasms.

Of all the pornographic films that could be isolated as valueless smut, it’s ironic that Misty Beethoven has garnered the spotlight in this way. I don’t want to say, “It’s more than porn!” or “It’s erotica!”, though that would no doubt be easier; I do want to say that Misty Beethoven is a film to be treasured as a film. A porn film, an erotic film, call it whatever you want. It’s a fucking great film. Not only is the film treasured by fans, and commonly regarded as the greatest porn film ever made; not only is Radley Metzger a celebrated filmmaker outside of hardcore; but Misty has been “recovered” time and again by academics such as Linda Williams and Peter Lehman (Williams and Lehman even cited Misty as their favourite porn film in an interview for Velvet Light Trap). This is not to say that academic approval is necessary to a determination of a text’s worth (indeed, some might say it’s the other way around), but it does go some way in demonstrating the far reach of Misty. Furthermore, I find it laughable that the Kickstarter reps claimed to understand the subjectivity of the term “porn” and recognized the value of sexuality in media and life, yet found Misty Beethoven to fall “firmly” on the pornographic side of things. I firmly believe that none of the people making this judgment have seen the film.

So all of this leaves me with some questions: why is art that is designed to sexually arouse deemed valueless? What if Misty Beethoven is indeed designed, in part, to sexually excite? Is it any less of a masterpiece? Isn’t the graphic, sexually arousing content in Misty—the pornography—as much a part of the film’s magic as the wit and drama? Put another way, can we really separate out the wit and drama from the sexual excitement? And what would it mean to the rest of porn and its consumers if this led us to surmise that no porno is ever solely designed to sexually arouse? That gonzo, too, is clearly designed to incite laughter, disgust, awe, and myriad other complex emotions that could fall under the category of “arousal.” I think we need to query just what it is we feel is so very dangerous about pornographic representations of sex. This does not mean accusing those uncomfortable with pornography of being prudes—porn is not sex; it is a carefully constructed representation of sex—nor bestowing the mantles of “revolutionary” or “liberated” to those who enjoy watching/making pornography (though certainly revolutionaries exist in porn). I do think this means that discourse on sex-themed art must incorporate an honest appraisal of the value of sexual arousal as a response to art. This recent debacle has simply demonstrated that the dialogues on pornography raging in the nineteenth-century are alive and well today, that Justice Potter’s infamous definition of hardcore—“I know it when I see it”—is in full practice at Kickstarter and elsewhere, and that arguments we’re told are antiquated and derailing the “real” conversation are very much still relevant and profoundly impact all media and discourse, pornographic or otherwise.

On a brighter note, the project continues, and along with provoking my brain cells, the Kickstarter decision has merely emphasized what passion folks have regarding this film, and the woefully under-celebrated genre of x-rated film in general. You can still pledge your $$, the DVD will still come out (restored to perfection and full of exciting extras, as is the wont of VXP’s Platinum Elite line), and we can still continue to celebrate this beautiful film. Who knows? Maybe Kickstarter did us a favour.


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