This morning I settled down to watch the XXX version of Joe D'amato's Emanuelle - perché violenza alle donne? / Emanuelle Around the World, only to find myself drifting away from the film part of the way through.
It was nothing to do with a dissatisfaction with the film: using the familiar travelogue format, as the roving reporter finds herself going from continent to continent in search of a scoop and busting a woman-trafficking ring in the process, it offers the usual pleasures like familiar cult faces (and bodies), situations and music, all coupled with "exotic" locales and expectably-unexpected moments, be it George Eastman's turn as an Indian guru or the various sometimes literal what-the-fuck encounters.
Rather, it was that the film increasingly got me thinking about the wider phenomenon of cult yet again and, more specifically, about the different approaches we take to it as consumers and producers of discourses around such texts. (Yes, it's double domed deconstructionist time; with apologies to Joe Carducci...)
The first thing here is the challenge a film like Emanuelle Around the World poses in terms of the sometimes cherished notion of authenticity. For while D'Amato frequently voices a personal preference for softcore over hardcore material in interviews, he would then typically go on to say that he was also aware of the harsh realities of the market. Thus, whereas we can take films such as The Slasher is a Sex Maniac or 99 Women and say with some confidence what constituted the director's original version or vision and that hardcore inserts were not a part of it, here we perhaps cannot.
Indeed, part of my own pleasure in watching the film – thinking about it also made me re-view it – in not having yet seen the alternative edit in the Black Emanuelle box set (give it time...) comes from making educated guesses at what point the alternative footage gets cut in or out and Gemser herself left the scene.
The second thing, but also perhaps intertwined with the first to some degree, is the way in which films like these help expose some of the fault lines in cult film discussion more generally. I'm thinking here of something like Video Watchdog and what its remit as "the perfectionist's guide to fantastic video" actually means, or the Mobius Home Video forums and their policy over what it's acceptable to discuss, worth quoting for both referring to D'Amato and attempting to situating him in a particular generic context:
While discussion of mainstream-oriented unrated or X-rated films that may feature sexually explicit material is okay, discussion of adult XXX-rated films and DVDs (including vintage "blue" films) and their cast and crew is outside the scope of MHVF. Rare exceptions may be made for the discussion of XXX films legitimately connected to cast or crew primarily known for their mainstream work (e.g., the films of Joe D'Amato, Radley Metzger, Abel Ferrara, etc.), or cult films such as CAFE FLESH. We're interested in keeping MHVF open to underage readers as much as possible, and allowing the discussion of XXX-rated films would impede that goal. MHVF also doesn't have the necessary legal disclosures and warnings to alert parents or concerned readers to the presence of discussion topics about XXX-rated films.
(Annoyingly the URL of the specific post / page is masked, making it harder to cite in the appropriate fashion; it's on the posting policy and FAQ page.)
While it is true that this film isn't strictly speaking a fantasy one and, more generally, that the notion of fantastical cinema is itself a slippery one - e.g. the anglophone definition of fantasy versus the francophone fantastique - one does sometimes get the feeling that the boundaries are sometimes somewhat inchoate and ad-hoc. When is the sexual content of a horror or fantasy film - again note the possible conflation /confusion – such that it is “really” a sex film? (The reaction of some critics to the opening sequences of Cronenberg's Crash comes to mind.) At what point does a Metzger or D'Amato cease being a “mainstream” director? What does “mainstream” mean in the cult context - is it simply a coded “not porn”?
Perhaps Jean Rollin's Phantasmes was just a porn film that its director effectively disowned, his use of a pseudonym a way of signifying that it was not a Rollin film, as Tohill and Tombs note, but what about much of Jess Franco's oeuvre in this regard, not to mention his own remark in one his Obsession interview to the effect that porn is just another genre?
Or maybe it is that there is sometimes too much of emphasis upon the auteur as source of meaning – if Rollin says this is not a true Rollin film, then that is it, case closed - or upon empirical detail – X seconds of footage are different Y into the film - as against what this difference might mean, within cult discourse.
The crucial word here is might, the issue that of taking on board a more interpretive approach whilst avoiding the pitfall of academic approaches that become so detached from the film - or worse, fail to engage with it in the first place - and simply disappear up their own arguments.
The task, I would argue, is to bring the two approaches into closer contact with one another, hopefully allowing for a kind of contagion so that the cult and fan types become infected with theory and academic and theoretical types with supporting their claims via more empirical evidence.
One piece that's came to mind in regard to this film specifically is Xavier Mendik's Black Sex, Bad Sex: Monstrous Ethnicity in the Black Emanuelle Films in the edited collection Alternative Europe. Examining the cycle as a whole, Mendik argues that they express an Italian unease at the racial Other, such that Laura Gemser is a fundamentally monstrous figure. It's not an argument I would necessarily agree with wholeheartedly - I think there's too much of the sadistic male colonising gaze in there and insufficient scope for irony or self-parody - but at least Mendik attempts to engage with the significance of what he sees, rather than simply providing an itemisation of factual detail.
And all that, I guess, is a rambling attempt to justify my own interest in taking a phenomenological approach to Argento, that it is – hopefully – a theoretical approach that allows one to move from the experience of the film / text to a reflection on the meanings of that experience and text while being true(r) to them than the alternatives I've looked at. (Well, that and I don't think anyone else has done it yet...)