Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Review: Graphic Thrills: American XXX Movie Posters 1970 to 1985 (Robin Bougie)

When I received Robin Bougie's recent FAB Press publication, Graphic Thrills: American XXX Movie Posters 1970 to 1985, I opened the beautifully-illustrated cover expecting a page or two of background information painted in broad strokes for those readers unfamiliar with the impact of Deep Throat, before a hundred or so pages of glossy poster reprints. A breezy, picturesque trek through XXX poster art. As such, I was excited. I already own a copy of Sexytime, and imagined it would be similar, though with Bougie's trademark rhetorical stylings.

What I didn't expect was an in-depth and eye-opening 13,000 word introduction, and a further god-knows-how-many words of sidebar trivia accompanying each glossy poster reproduction. As I delved into the prose, I braced my academic self...and was delighted to realise that I was dealing with someone who, like myself, believes that books for the masses need not be dumbed down, and that an academic approach can be done in a witty and stylish manner.

Courtesy of Robin Bougie.

Bougie also includes information that rarely makes it into the porn history books. Having read the majority of these books, I tend to approach porn overviews with a discrete yawn, willing to re-read the usual information in slightly different language. What a breath of fresh air, then, is Bougie's introduction. Sure, he has the Deep Throats and the Miller Tests--if he didn't, I would question his authority of the subject. He also approaches the subject matter chronologically, providing overviews of each era according to the relationship between politics, technology, and pornographic content. This is smart and familiar for a reason. What makes Bougie's writing special is his careful weaving of diverse pornographies (Paul Johnson's photography, for example), socio-political cultural contexts (not just legal cases but significant historical milestones that some people may believe to have nothing to do with pornography--they are wrong), and Bougie's own commentary on the sexual politics of our recent culture. Any sex radical feminist will be on board with his musings about societal hypocrisy and slut-shaming. Bougie provides a multitude of interconnecting texts and cultural moments that produce gradual change, as opposed to suggesting that one milestone film changed pornography as we know it--BOOM--as so many other authors have done. I know firsthand how difficult such interweavings are, and Bougie does it with a graceful touch. The work is both intellectually rigorous and playful; accessible and thorough.
Courtesy of Robin Bougie.

When I spoke to Bougie, I was most interested to learn about the process of putting something like this together. Where does one start when it comes to gathering the images? Bougie tells me, "FAB Press and I spent quite a bit of time tracking all the posters down. They came from various collectors around the world, and everything had to be mailed to FAB in the UK to be scanned one one of those giant flatbed scanners. Many of the posters were damaged from years of being displayed, so they had to be restored digitally. I worked for years as a photo retoucher at a photography studio here in Vancouver, taking pimples off graduation photos, so I had the training to do that. The trick is fixing the damage without altering the art in any way. It was like those art restorers who fix ancient frescos, but with dirty smut instead! It was a blast. Hundreds of hours of work, but really rewarding seeing the posters coming back to life. I'm really proud of how they look." As well he should. The images are sumptuous and the pictures alone would have made this book worth a purchase.

Courtesy of Robin Bougie.
The explanation of the process of gathering images also reveals a little more about the book's biggest omission: gay male porn. I admit, I approached the book with a slightly cynical attitude, as I tend to do with commercial porn books as they routinely behave as if gay porn doesn't exist. The very first thing I did was to flip through the pages scouting for gay porn posters. None! Harrumph. However, Bougie is careful to explain this absence and this explanation in itself is of great interest. Bougie wanted to include gay films, "but it turned out to be an exercise in frustration. Very few posters were even made for XXX gay films, with producers mostly relying on small black and white newspaper ads for promotion. The few full colour posters that do exist are exceedingly rare, and unlike the majority of straight film advertising, when they run up in online auctions they end up commanding extraordinary amounts of money that simply price them out of our grasp" (16). This outpricing signals the way in which many gay culture enthusiasts handle gay pornographic legacy--as an important part of cultural visibility, artistic heritage, and radical sexual politics. When I asked Bougie about his desire to include gay porn, he noted, "it's part of the story, if you're talking about the history of adult films, and I want to tell the story. The gay pictures may not have been as prevalent, but they're a key part of what was going on back then. It's a real shame more writers don't to go there. I wanted to do more to focus on them, but yeah, I had to shelve that idea once I realized that there wouldn't be any images to display." Bougie's efforts are to be admired. One can only hope that some day a gay male porn project of that sort can be realised.
Courtesy of Robin Bougie.

Bougie has achieved a difficult feat. His rhetoric may not be to all peoples' tastes--not for those who may recoil at euphemisms such as "man-crumpets" and "milking the pearl-sack" (8). Even if you are the sort who wrinkles their nose at such language (and I might be), don't let that put you off picking up a copy of this book. Because far outweighing the pearl-sacks are reams of thoughtful analysis, insights drawn from a combination of first-hand interviews, academic research, and personal observations. Indeed, Bougie told me, "My main thing was being honest to myself and my writing and art, and expressing where I am and what's going on with me through that. Making my writing about film be as much about me as it is about the movies. I don't think enough writers do that, either because they're scared to get naked and go out on that limb, or because they've been told that it's not a legitimate and academic way to be a journalist. Personally, I find it's been a big help and very rewarding." I agree with Bougie. It is a risky approach, but Bougie's commitment to such an approach is as engaging as it is disarming.

Bougie with a perplexed Marvin. Courtesy of Robin Bougie.
Oh, and those gorgeous works of art that Bougie compliments with surprising and wildly diverse nuggets of information. Bougie has gone to great lengths, interviewing the stars as well as drawing on contemporary and current texts, to provide new and interesting details that enrich our understanding of the films and the era. Each page is a new gem--in terms of the visuals and the text. Bougie tells me that he "wanted to make each page somewhat unpredictable," and it works wonderfully.

Whether you are a stone cold porn nerd, a casual smut dabbler, or someone interested in culture as a whole, you should pick up a copy of this. It's a real treat. And if you want to make that treat extra sweet, buy a special signed and doodled copy from Bougie directly.

2 comments: said...

Great review - I've just finished the most recent Cinema Sewer book and I was in two minds about whether to buy this, but now I'm sold.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Thanks Steve! Glad to hear you will be getting a copy.


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