The Female Gaze and Narrative Rupture: Barbara Broadcast (1977)

One of the only times I have ever agreed with something Gail Dines said is in her book Pornland where she states that gonzo porn--seemingly a plotless series of fucking positions--tells stories (xxii-xxiii). "As much as pornographers would like us to think that they are just capturing people having sex," Dines goes on, "in reality, the images are carefully crafted and choreographed" (xxiii). This is a similar argument to that made by Linda Williams two years earlier in Screening Sex, but it bears repeating.

Andrew Ross, in his 1989 book No Respect, goes some way in theorizing pornographic narrative, arguing that both intellectuals and antiporn feminists disapprove of pornography due to "lack of respect for narrative, for the former" and "a callous scorn for the holistic experience of a properly loving and sexually fulfilling human relationship" for the latter (194-195). "In fact," Ross states, "pornography is not at all inattentive to narrative." Indeed, pornography is somewhat unique when it comes to narrative: "Pornography, for the most part, provides a stimulus, base, or foundation for individual fantasies to be built upon and elaborated. It merely provides the conditions--stock, generic, eroticizable components such as poses, clothing, and sounds--under which the pleasure of fantasizing, a pleasure unto itself, can be pursued" (196-197). In this way, the true "narrative" of even the most "plotless" gonzo film occurs somewhere between the spectator and the screen.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard people either justifying a pornographic film because "it has a plot" or "it's like a real movie," or conversely dismissing a pornographic film for having nothing but fucking, apparently disqualifying its status as meaningful text by refusing to wrap its hardcore sex acts in traditional Hollywood trappings. I have written about this elsewhere regarding another Metzger classic. Barbara Broadcast, recently re-released by Distribpix in lovingly-restored form, has more traditional "plot" than a standard gonzo porn flick of today, and yet as far as golden age features go, it is heavy on the sex and light on dialogue and characterization. With this in mind, it is telling that over the years I have noticed a disdain for this film when compared to the likes of The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Barbara Broadcast, it seems, is for the raincoat crowd. In other words, it is for masturbation and therefore not as noble as a hardcore film with loftier aspirations than simply eliciting sexual desire and arousal in its audience.

I myself was one of these snobby folks. I was not keen on Barbara Broadcast when I first watched it many moons ago. I dismissed it as practically plotless, as being nothing but sex, and turned my attentions toward other, more easily championed (because more akin to realist cinema) hardcore film. The kind of hardcore film where you could take out the sex and the film would remain intact. This kind of qualification for hardcore disturbs the very notion that hardcore is a genre unto itself. If a hardcore film remains intact after the sex is removed, what exactly is the point of making the film hardcore in the first place? Moreover, why do we make such demands of pornographic film that we do not make of other genre films?

What distinguishes BB from some gonzo is its use of context. The sex scenes are embedded in carefully constructed contextual framing devices; framing devices that almost carry as much erotic weight as the fucking itself. This, for me, is what makes BB so special, and is also the reason why my favourite hardcore at the moment is Moms Bang Teens. For, while fucking itself does indeed tell a story, context produces eroticism. Or, thought through differently, context infuses the fucking with eroticism. However, "context" itself is relative. Even a generic label or a title indicating some kind of background produces erotic context for the spectator to develop their own fantasy narrative. With this in mind, BB raises a series of interesting questions for me regarding porn narrative, class-based taste, and audience activity/engagement with the screen: why do we desire porn to be "more than" porn? What is the threat of the raincoater? the solitary masturbator? How do perceived audience interactions shape the legitimacy of film?

According to Linda Williams in her essay "Film Bodies" (1992), one threat posed by all body genres, especially pornography, is the audience's physical mimicry of the (usually) female body on screen. This is particularly obvious in the films of Radley Metzger where women are typically the protagonists; indeed they occupy the title characters (Misty Beethoven, Pamela Mann, Maraschino Cherry, and Barbara). Yet, in Barbara Broadcast, sexual voyeurism and perversion is both instigated by and experienced through women. In other words, women occupy and direct the gaze, as opposed to being only the object of the gaze.

BB concerns Barbara, a former high-class prostitute, and now a successful author, being interviewed over lunch by journalist C.J. Laing in an unconventional, sex-driven restaurant. Sex is literally on the menu. The film subsequently details the various sexual shenanigans experienced by the pair, and by others, at various (usually public) locations. It's effectively a series a scenes strung together by the slightest of plot. But, as I have already discussed, traditional plot is not the concern of BB.

Indeed, it is a film concerned with what the majority of pornography is concerned with: object/subject status, looking and being looked at, and the gendered associations of both. In an early sequence in the film, a woman requests that she use Barbara's waiter to perform fellatio. What might be a standard blowjob scene is rendered something far more complex as C.J. gets down to the level of the woman, and watches her intently as she performs oral sex on the waiter; a moment of true investigative journalism on C.J.'s part, which Barbara observes with amusement. 

Following ejaculation, a napkin appears from the side of the frame and C.J. delicately mops the semen from the woman's ecstatic face. They gaze at each other repeatedly, prompting questions as to who exactly the object is in this scene. Who is the voyeur? Who is the subject? The object? Is the vision of women watching each other perform sexual acts "narrative"? I would argue that yes, it certainly is. And it is a notably interesting piece of erotic narrative in this case.

The dynamics of this scene are replicated later in the film at the nightclub, where Barbara and C.J. dance together, and engage in oral sex with each other. The shots of men arm-wrestling that are intercut in this sequence further query the status of gendered subject and object of lust. Moments later, C.J. demonstrates her frankly impressive fellatio skills on an anonymous, faceless male.

Yet, the actual oral sex is never quite visible; rather, it is Barbara watching the cock sucking that is the primary focus of the scene. Once again, female voyeurs and objects/subjects create narrative; narrative that is infinitely pliable by that extra voyeur, the partial creator of narrative, and participant in every scene: the spectator. You and I.

Even the cannibalized BDSM scene, unused and lifted from Misty Beethoven, depicts Constance Money as submissive object yet also voyeur of her own object status thanks to a carefully-placed mirror underneath her shackled body. It is fitting, in the context of this film, that BDSM is featured in one of the final scenes, a sexual practice that Anne McClintock observes is radical and scandalous in its "provocative confession that the edicts of power are reversible" ("Maid to Order" 87).

Give my compliments to the chef...
I couldn't possibly write this piece without lingering indulgently on the kitchen scene, featuring the beautiful Wade Nichols. This moment in the film is something to be cherished by film lovers. And yes, it is another scene comprised of intense gazing. C.J. is encouraged by Barbara to check out the kitchen, as well as to "pay my compliments to the chef." C.J.'s entrance into the kitchen, into the scene, is both perverse and predatory.

Her approach--documented by a fluidly moving shot that positions us in the place of C.J.--with the chef (Nichols) the object of her voyeuristic pursuits, is almost chilling in its determined and smirking attitude. Nichols, too, seems taken aback, especially when C.J. nonchalantly lifts her skirt and pees into a metal bowl.

 Rather than expressing horror, however, Nichols appears impressed at her sheer bravado (as am I). C.J. laughs out loud, and so begins a ballet of sorts that results in a dialogue-free, but gaze-intensive, sex scene that goes down as one of the most erotic
sequences committed to film; a large degree of which is due to the careful interplay between the two protagonists who can't seem to take their eyes off each other...except for when they are glancing around at the implied crew of kitchen workers. Indeed, their presence (and our own) as witnesses only heighten the web of voyeuristic and exhibitionist pleasures on display here.


The package put together by Distribpix is typically beautiful. The film looks and sounds pristine, and there are the usual entertaining and informative liner notes by adult film historian Benson Hurst, whose essay on this film reflects similar attitudes toward porn and narrative as I have mused over here. Hurst's story about a bidding war on ebay is particularly memorable and amusing (spoiler alert: he is bidding against C.J. Laing!). In terms of extras, those familiar with the Platinum Elite series should know there is a buffet of treats: "hot" and "cool" versions (hard and soft), director commentary, a making of featurette, and many other goodies besides (the radio spots are a retro hoot). Any fan of adult film would not be wasting their money on this, but for Radley Metzger and Barbara Broadcast fans, this is a must have. 

7 comments:

Ashley West said...

Another great essay from the smartest and most enjoyable academic writer on adult film.

Thought-provoking and insightful as always.

Gore-Gore Girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gore-Gore Girl said...

Coming from you, this is high praise indeed. Thank you!

dandiacal said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post on a great and unusual film. I would go so far (and as highbrow) as to suggest that the kitchen scene ranks somewhere with the ending of Antonioni's The Passenger the train scene between Cary Grant and Saint in Hitchcock's North By Northwest.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Thank you! Yes, it is an incredible scene. Those film's are certainly esteemed company, but I feel BB deserves it.

Roger said...

Bravo. Context creates narrative. Exactly.

Keep up the good work,

Roger

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Thank you Roger!

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