Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Black and White and Blue: Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR

[Yet another paracinema post, rather than Eurotrash]

With Dave Thompson’s book (not to be confused with David Thompson who is sufficiently mainstream not to do this), yet another hitherto marginalised, forgotten area of cinema goes under the microscope.

This is the “stag” film, or the clandestinely produced, distributed and consumed sexually explicit one-reel short film, as it existed from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s. At that point the hardcore loop, for private peep show booth viewing, and the hardcore feature, for consumption with a theatrical audience, took over.

The title is slightly misleading, insofar that the VCR’s privatisation of the sex film is hardly addressed. Likewise, while the emergence of amateur porn in the 1980s and beyond, with cheap video cameras and latterly digital cameras, is addressed, this is only in the conclusion. This also means that the late 80s/early 90s emergence of “gonzo” porn, with little or no pretence of a plot to string together the sex scenes, is downplayed.

But, these criticisms aside, Black and White and Blue is an impressive piece of work, as Thompson, aided by several unfortunately but understandably anonymous or pseudonymous informants, digs deep into the history of the form as it existed in the US, UK, France, Germany, Mexico and elsewhere.

These are films whose provenance is difficult to establish. While hairstyles and other incidental details provide clues, these merely point to the earliest point at which a film could have been made, with the delay between the metropolis and the small town frequently suggesting anywhere within a decade or two, or epoch. But they were also often localised in the US context, that what was shocking in one state could be normal in others. (Or, with the limited circulation of stags, that each state developed and reflected its own morality.)

Where Thompson is most astute here – and where his work also gains value for social historians, to the extend he hasn’t drawn from them, as he likely has – is in charting the demotic, that, for example, “eel skin” meant condom in the 1920s, whereas “fish skin” only emerged in the 1930s.

He also charts the prevalence of various sexual practices over the period in the US. There’s a normal and the pathological, or a normalisation and pathologisation, here, that oral sex was gradually normalised by the stags whilst male homosexuality (as distinct from female pseudo lesbianism), mixed race relationships, anal sex, watersports, bestiality and other ‘perversions’/perversions were not.

A fascinating read...


Keith said...

Great post. I'll definitely have to check that out.

john smith / john smyth said...

Great post. I'll definitely have to check that out.