Tuesday, September 24, 2013

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. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

XXX Auteur: An Interview with Nica Noelle

Courtesy of Nica Noelle
 Hi folks! I was recently lucky enough to be asked to do some director and performer interviews for Adult DVD Talk, with free reign as to who I reached out to. Naturally, my first thought was Nica Noelle, an adult film powerhouse who I have long admired for her seemingly-constant creative evolutions, and a willingness to push the creative and categorical boundaries of hardcore in way that I deeply admire. Nica has been extremely busy developing four exciting and groundbreaking studios of late, and she graciously accepted my request to chat about her life, career,  sexual politics, and recent creative ventures in hardcore film. Enjoy!


How did you get into the porn industry? I know you started out performing and then transitioned into writing, directing, and also performing. How did this come about? Did you know you wanted to be a writer/director from the very start?

I had always been drawn to the adult industry, from the time I was an adolescent and noticed the marquees at Times Square for adult films, or would sneak a dirty magazine from under my parents' bed. I was intrigued by the women, because they seemed so different from any I knew in real life; e.g., my mother and my friends' moms. Also the strange mixture of fear, desire and anger that women in the sex industry aroused in people was very intriguing to me.  

But I had no particular plans to be in porn. I worked as a stripper for many years, but I wasn't one of those girls who loved the lifestyle or attention. I didn't do drugs or party and I was never much of an "attention whore." It was more that I wanted to be around the sex industry as an observer. I liked analyzing it and thinking about it and observing the girls, and the best way to do that was to join in myself. But I always kept more of a narrator's perspective. I wrote constantly; I kept daily journals. First and foremost I was always a thinker and a writer. 

Courtesy of Nica Noelle
When I was in my late 20s, though, I decided I should probably get a "real job" and grow up, join the rest of society, that sort of thing. So I focused more on journalism, I became a newspaper reporter and magazine writer, and a paralegal. But I felt a little lost in the corporate world with no connection to the sex industry, so I started writing about it. I wrote articles for Exotic Dancer magazine and I became the editor for Private Dancer magazine. That led to essays for other magazines, which in turn led me to performing my first fetish video for Kelly Payne's Tantrum Trainer series. She gives a hell of a spanking and I wrote about that experience for Spread magazine. And starring in that video led me to work for a lesbian film company. It was just a tiny company back then, with a rinky dink, outdated website. The owner operated the whole thing out of his house. He told me he was kind of at a loss for how to take his studio to the next level, because he felt he needed a woman at the helm in order to do that. So after he had used me as a model a few times he asked me if I would be interested in writing some scripts, since that wasn't his strong suit. So I wrote some scripts for him, and then he told me I could direct the scripts I was writing and that he wanted me to essentially take over the creative direction of the studio. He said he thought I could give the company a "shot in the arm." So I took a big pay cut from the law firm, left that job, and I took over the creative direction of his studio. 

I basically changed the way he was doing everything. I began casting well known porn stars, doing lots of promotions, writing scripts that made sense, I completely designed the new website and insisted we have a fan forum because I noticed how much the fans loved to communicate about movies and post their reviews. And within a year of my taking over, the studio was the talk of the industry. From there MileHigh Media offered me a deal to start up my own studios, so I went on to create Sweetheart Video and Sweet Sinner, which set off the "couple's porn" trend, and now I've teamed up with AEBN and created four more successful studios and branched out to TS and gay porn, too. 

What were your expectations of the porn industry? Which preconceived notions were challenged, and which were reinforced?

I guess the biggest shock to me is that the porn community is not actually a culture of individuals and iconoclasts and misfits that think for themselves. There's a group ideology and most definitely group politics. You're expected to be a "rebel" in a very specific way, the same way that everyone else is a rebel, and there are ramifications and consequences if you try to go against that and do your own thing. I've come to the conclusion that people are essentially sheep no matter where they are, but it's more insidious within "subcultures" because you feel like you're being an individual, but really you're still being controlled by the group. It's just a different group.

You recently wrote a provocative article about your resistance to labels, specifically to the “feminist porn” label. What do you find problematic about such naming? What are your feelings about the feminist porn movement in general? Do you identify as feminist? What does feminism mean to you?

This whole "feminist porn movement" is a disingenuous marketing strategy that certain female directors are trying to capitalize on. I think my article said some things that needed to be said, especially that male porn fans are always being vilified while feminists are continuously patting themselves on the back and taking credit for this wonderful change in the way porn is made. One prominent "feminist porn" director was so furious with me after my essay was published that she actually tried to rally public anger against me. But it wasn't just her; a lot of feminist pornographers came out swinging against the woman who dared speak for herself and not get on the party train. But I don't know what they were so mad about. They can still work that angle and write their books and do their little conferences. All I said was, leave me out of the feminist rhetoric and politics. I don't want my work described that way, and that's my choice.

You have had several muses over the course of your career. Can you elaborate on these women and explain what you found so inspirational about them? 

It's all different things. Unique people inspire me. Maybe they have a certain quality, a type of beauty or sexuality or depth that you don't see every day. I like people with contradictions; people who are a bit of a mystery. I don't even necessarily have to like them as people, I just have to find them compelling. Suddenly I'm just overflowing with ideas about how I want to shoot them, what characters I want them to play. It's almost like a spiritual experience, and that's why I do call them "muses," as pretentious as it sounds. They inspire me to do something special for them, and it doesn't even feel like a choice.

You recently departed from Sweet Sinner/Sweetheart (Mile High Video) and partnered with aebn to produce not one, not two, but FOUR connected studios: Rock Candy (guy-guy), Hard Candy (boy-girl), TransRomantic (trans women), and Girl Candy (girl-girl). As far as I know, you’re the only person in history to have accomplished such a feat. What was the motivation behind creating these studios? How are they going?
Jerry Anders, who is my partner at AEBN, was always a big supporter of mine, long before we went into business together. I remember reading an article about myself in a trade magazine several years back, where he was quoted as saying I was the most important erotic writer and director of this era. I had to read that a few times to make sure I wasn't imagining it, I was so blown away. But Jerry would always tell me I was the most searched director on the VOD site, and that my movies would always go right to the top of the sales chart, so I thought "Wow, this guy really believes in me." So when I was looking to expand beyond my deal with Mile High, I called Jerry and asked if he would be interested in collaborating with me on a side project or two, and within a few days he was flying me out to the AEBN offices. They made me an offer to be partners and start new studios, which was a big step for them and for me, too, because it meant leaving my studios with Mile High behind. I was definitely worried that lightning wouldn't strike a third time. I thought, "what if I'm overplaying my hand? What if my fans don't follow me again?" But AEBN was offering me profit sharing and more creative freedom, and that was huge. I really wanted to move into gay and TS porn and Mile High wasn't ready to let me do that at the time, so that kind of cinched the deal for me
And obviously the new studios are doing great. Girl Candy has been especially successful, because I've been able to make some changes that I felt were necessary to keep the girl/girl genre fresh and interesting. TransRomantic has been a big success as well, and it won two prestigious awards for its debut release Forbidden Lovers. (Tranny Awards "DVD of the Year" and Feminist Porn Awards "Steamiest Romantic Movie")

But the real game changer for me has been the success of Rock Candy Films. It's always been my dream to make gay porn, and so far the response has been overwhelming, both critically and in sales. So I'm very focused on that studio and I'm shooting a lot of gay features. I love telling men's love stories, and to be blunt, I haven't felt this creatively inspired in years.     

A couple of years back, you attempted to start a performer-focused and run union, which ultimately failed. Ona Zee attempted the same in the 1990s, and also failed. Why did you feel it was important to create this union? Was there performer interest? Why did it fail?

It wasn't a union, it was a Performer's Association that would focus on education and health resources strictly for performers. This is kind of a tricky subject because I'm now friends with the people who were against it at the time. But it failed because we were deeply afraid of the internet bullying from people who thought the Performer's Association was an attempt to go against the FSC and challenge their authority. I had never experienced internet bullying before, and I was actually afraid for my life and my child's life. The internet stalking was getting very intense, and was starting to seem dangerous. Then my partner in the venture had a psychological breakdown, in part from the stress and the bullying, so I stepped away. I decided I would just focus on privately making the changes to my own set that I felt were necessary. I still feel a Performer's Association is needed, and I'd still like to see one happen, especially now. But I don't think I'm cut out for politics, so I'd probably stay in the background next time and do more of the grunt work. Let the politicians handle the politics. It's a full time job, and I already have a full time job making movies.

You seem to have a particular interest in period settings—the Victorian settings of many Sweetheart/Sweet Sinner films, and the 1930s setting of your Rock Candy film, His Mother’s Lover. What is it about porn films set in the past that appeals to you?

The extra layer of "taboo" more than anything. In Victorian times there were strict rules of etiquette that everyone was expected to follow, so the sexual tension must have been overwhelming (and if you've read any Victorian erotica, it obviously was.) These days people run around half naked coming on to each other like it's no big deal, but back then you couldn't do that and most people wouldn't do that. So it was a much more romantic time, a more sexually anguished time. You could be in love with someone your whole life and not be able to act on it or even tell them because social customs forbade it. And if it was a gay or lesbian romance, it was even more scandalous and forbidden. Maybe you'd just have one secret tryst with your object of desire that nobody could ever know about. That social climate of sexual repression makes for some very hot porn.

While your films cover a variety of themes, they all have social transgression in common. This is arguably the purpose of all pornography, but your films make it more literal and visible than most. What kinds of social transgression appeal to you or intrigue you erotically?

I like the older/younger dynamic and I like as many layers of forbidden and taboo attraction as possible. The teacher/student, the step-parent and step-son or daughter, even depicting truly incestuous relationships, if I could get away with it. Actually my film Nobody's Daughter is about an incestuous, abusive relationship between a father and daughter, but I couldn't come right out and say it in the movie or we would have distribution problems. So the viewer has to kind of figure it out for himself: "Oh, those are her parents!" And I don't think most people did, but I got a few emails from people who were like "I hate to ask this, but ...." 

In my mind, exploring forbidden themes that we either can't or don't want to explore in real life is what porn is really all about. But there's this weird belief that if someone sees a movie about a mother and son in an incestuous relationship that it will cause people to feel turned on by incest and then start doing it themselves. Suddenly mothers everywhere will be seducing their sons. And it's a cliché argument, but: why does no one worry about this when it comes to making movies about serial killers or other violent crimes? Violence is all over TV and film, but arguments that it causes viewers to be desensitized to violence in real life are scoffed at. So it really doesn't make any sense. People are just afraid of any sexual themes. We're afraid of their own sexual desires because most of us don't understand them. So it's like "Don't open Pandora's Box! We don't know what's in there!" 

Of the many films you have made, which are you most proud of and why?

I'm most proud of His Mother's Lover, which was my debut gay film for Rock Candy Films, My Sister Celine for Sweetheart Video, Nobody's Daughter for Hard Candy Films, Last Tango for Sweet Sinner Films, and Gia: Lesbian Supermodel for Girl Candy Films. Those were all films where I felt something special was happening, some type of alchemy and magic. It's a combination of the performances, the chemistry between the performers, how inspired I was to write the material, and just an overall energy, like the Porn Gods were smiling down on us in some way. And those are always the films that end up affecting people the most, and the ones I get long, emotional emails from fans about for years after they're released. Porn really can affect people emotionally, sometimes more than a mainstream movie can.

You have accomplished so much in your career so far. What’s up next for you? Do you have any life goals that you have yet to achieve?

I'm working on a book. I'm giving myself a year to get it done. It's kind of an overwhelming project, but I can't help but think that I'll end my days on this earth as a writer, so it's time to start moving in that direction in more of a real way. Articles and blogs are fine and I write them all the time, but to publish a book kind of puts you in a different category, especially if it's well-crafted and has a point to it. 

Other than that, I'm just trying to stay on track in terms of my philosophies and beliefs about erotic entertainment, continuing to grow as a filmmaker without compromising health or safety to make a quick buck. You have to really take stock of yourself and your motives constantly when you're in this business, because the pressure to go with the flow and be motivated by sales and money is intense. I'm sure that's why people end up broken so much of the time, and regretful of their years in porn. This industry could be a wonderful, magical place, an expansive place of discovery. But unfortunately mainstream society still refuses to acknowledge adult film as an art form and continues to view adult performers as expendable. So, to a large degree performers see themselves that way, too. I don't know if any of that will change in my lifetime, but in my own small way I hope to stand against it for as long as I'm here making movies. 


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