Saturday, 18 April 2009

Getting behind the Green Door

I've never seen Behind The Green Door, the first and most famous role of the porn pioneer Marilyn Chambers whose sudden death at the age of 56 was announced earlier this week. Nor have I watched Inside Marilyn Chambers, Insatiable, or her later comeback film, Still Insatiable. So I'm in no position to judge the quality of her acting, the lubricity of her anatomy or the polish of the cinematography in which her skills were displayed. I did once see an interview with her, though, and she came across as strikingly articulate, thoughtful, humorous and (so at least it appeared) undamaged by her choice of a career noted for its broken lives and damaged personalities. Perhaps that, in the end, was why she was, and remained, iconic - that and the natural beauty that brought her initial success as a model for one of America's leading brands of soap-powder.

She was, as many of her obituarists have stressed (and how many porn-stars would merit an obituary in both the (London) Times and the Grey Lady?) a "girl next door", "all-American", and yet utterly unembarrassed about the nature of the films which made her famous, most of which were, for their time (and even for ours) shockingly explicit. Time magazine dubbed her "the pinup princess of XXX cinema" who later became "something like the queen mum of porn". But of course porn is still porn. As Matt Schudel of the Washington Post noted, her death posed an unusual problem for the American press:


Chambers was certainly a significant cultural figure of the 1970s, but since we're still a mass-circulation newspaper, with standards of taste to maintain, I had to decide on the fly how much and how little we could say about what she actually did. I opted for the modest approach, describing only in very general terms what happened in "Behind the Green Door" and in Chambers's other films.


Behind the Green Door, filmed when Chambers was still a teenager, was set in a private sex club. The plot, if it can be so described, concerned a young girl's abduction and protracted defloration, carried out for the delectation of that establishment's jaded membership. It is, I understand, stressed throughout that she is, if not initially a willing participant, certainly enjoying her ravishment. It may be doubted whether such a scenario would pass muster in today's politically informed moral climate. In 1972, however, there were many who looked upon porn as being at the cutting edge of liberal chic. Green Door took $50 million worldwide.

It is still highly regarded. The New York Times quotes a modern day porn magnate, Steven Hirsch of Vivid, who describes Green Door as "a movie that really dug deep into sexuality, psychologically". "It took you to a place that no other adult film had gone before, and the reason they were able to pull that off is that she was a talented actress." Time, for its part, actually compares the film to the work of Ingmar Bergman.

That such a film might be exhibited in cinemas, before a paying public consisting of far more than the dirty mac brigade, and gain widespread coverage in the mainstream press, is extraordinary enough. That its makers intended it to be seen not merely as titillation, but also (and at the same time) as art, seems these days rather comical. But the early seventies was a different age, more innocent but also less constrained. There was no AIDS, no home video, certainly no World Wide Web. The sexual revolution had happened, or at least was well under way, but feminism had barely begun. Thus porn appeared cutting-edge and liberal, rather than inherently exploitative as it is often claimed to be today. Opposition tended to be moralising (and conservative) rather than political (and left-wing). American society shed its inhibitions as Marilyn Chambers shed her clothes. With her blonde hair, orthodontic smile and air of unaffected enjoyment the young Chambers incarnated that new, liberated mood.

Or so, for a brief time, it must have seemed. Today, footage shot at the time of cinema-goers - of both sexes and all ages - discussing their reasons for queueing round the block to see Green Door or its main rival Deep Throat looks utterly bizarre. Because we know what happened next. The meeting between hardcore pornography and mainstream cinema was brief, if indeed it can truly be said to have occurred at all. The artistic ambitions of pornographers such as Green Door's makers, Jim and Artie Mitchell, were never properly realised. Nor did Chambers realise her own ambition to build a career in mainstream movies - though whether her notoriety helped or hindered her in that regard is difficult to tell.

Sex in mainstream cinema has remained, with a few high-profile exceptions, softcore and simulated, though with an increasing tolerance of what earlier would have seemed shockingly explicit. Meanwhile with the coming of video, and later the Web, porn discovered media more appropriate to its essentially solitary pleasures. It has retained (or returned to) a largely repetitious format, devoid of originality, changes of costume and location failing to conceal the paucity of its hackneyed situations and stereotyped poses. Even its stars, to a casual observer, look interchangeable. These days pornographers are, in the main, happy to admit that their wares are straightforward aids to sexual arousal. Claims that hardcore can be in the vanguard of social, cultural and even political liberation, though still heard, seem risible. To critics, the image of sex and of women that porn presents is reductive, indeed backward-looking. Only in exploiting technological advances has porn remained pioneering.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. Porn was almost certainly more exploitative, less regulated and less health-conscious, in the heyday of its imagined innocence than in the era of the crassly commercial sex industry that subsequently developed. Several of the best-known films were financed by the mafia. Chambers' most famous contemporary and dark shadow, Linda Lovelace, (also dead before her time, in a car crash in 2002) recorded in her autobiography Ordeal a miserable story of marital abuse, drug-taking and forced prostitution. For a time, she spearheaded anti-porn campaigns alongside the likes of Andrea Dworkin. Where Chambers had advertised soap, prior to Deep Throat Lovelace took part in an underground film (Dogorama) in which her co-star was a german shepherd. Bizarrely, Chambers later married Lovelace's allegedly abusive husband, Chuck Traynor. It was a small world, and a murky one.

Today, by contrast, within a much larger and better-funded porn scene there's room for erotica from all perspectives, including that made by avowedly feminist directors. Much attention was given at the time to the fact that Chambers' co-star in Green Door, Johnny Keyes, was black. Yet these days, mixed race couplings are commoner in porn than in mainstream cinema. It might even be argued that porn's reduction of human beings to a series of moving body-parts cannot but collapse artificial barriers of race, culture and class. It is well-known (and obvious) that female performers are better paid and have more leverage than the men, and for many of them the progression from appearing in porn to directing, producing, even financing it has been a natural one.

So what does the reaction to Marilyn Chambers' death have to tell us about present attitudes towards sexuality and porn?

First, it revealed a powerful nostalgia for an allegedly simpler, more honest, less commercialised type of commercialised sex; less perverted, too, before the advent of "Max Hardcore" or the widespread availability of the type of material the British government recently tried to ban. Time ventures that "If the Ivory Snow girl could go into porn unashamed, then maybe the genre wasn't so sooty." There is a wistfulness in such a thought, and also a kind of idealism (or wishful thinking). With her articulacy and apparent lack of victimhood Chambers seemed to offer the prospect of porn untarnished by exploitation or perversity, a socially acceptable, politically less controversial type of porn, a porn that didn't bring with it the baggage of guilt. A porn that one could admit to watching in polite company. Almost non-porn porn, softcore hardcore, squaring the circle between masturbatory titillation and political correctness.

At the same time, Chambers' best known work recalls an era before porn was all-pervasive, when it was still panting and young, warm and still to be enjoyed. She owed her fame above all to her rarity; today there are thousands of girls like her. A career in porn remains to an extent stigmatising and taboo, but that does not put off legions of hopefuls, and in its maturity the adult industry has attracted its professional satellites, its specialist agents, executives, creatives, lawyers, plastic surgeons and publicists (not so much screenwriters, perhaps). It has become as mainstream, in its way, as the Hollywood film industry it once aspired to join. And it has a higher turnover. In 1972 a porn film could still be an event, more scandalous because less "normal". Sex still held a powerful mystique. Ironically, a woman who did more than most to destroy that mystique has come, as this week's tributes reveal, to embody it.

Particularly striking has been the jaunty, positive tone of so much of the coverage. It would not have been difficult to make the known facts tell a very different story. Chambers had three failed marriages. There are well-attested stories of drink and drug dependency. Much has been made of the famously lucrative contract she negotiated for Green Door, which gave her a cut of the profits; but at the time of her death she was living in a trailer and, it appears, working for a car dealership. Where did all that money go? And why did an apparently healthy 56 year old woman suddenly drop dead? Overdose? Suicide? A serious medical condition? Chambers' generous obituarists don't want to go there. It would spoil the dominant narrative of the sweet, fulfilled, contented all-American porn star. After everything, she's still the Ivory Soap girl. Or that, at least, is what somehow we need her to be.

12 comments:

McDuff said...

I think there's definitely something in the fact that a great deal of the "feminist" pornographers make the kind of "extreme" porn that the government has tried to ban, wheras the more traditional kind of male-dominated, exploitative pornography is regarded as acceptably mainstream now.

The fact that porn's romanticised heyday was, in fact, more sexist and exploitative than it is now yet is still romanticised is very telling. We are still not used, as a society, to the notion of women having sexual agency. When we talk about the innocence of it all we're talking about our collective ignorance rather than the actual lack of moral culpability the film-makers would have. Chambers was, in many ways, less exploited than Lovelace but the industry she worked in was still horrendously patriarchal and exploitative, and she was by know means unscathed. I am, by the way, talking about the movie industry in general rather than the porn industry, and it remains that way today to a large extent - you can count the number of quality scripts for actresses that come out of Hollywood every year on the fingers of one hand, and do the same for female directors. That porn, which for all its regressiveness has, as you mentioned, gone further in many ways to promoting progressive female values, is regarded as morally dubious while creating asinine chick flicks isn't the career-killing move it should be says a lot about how many problems and hangups we still have as a society.

Similarly, our focus on the stars rather than the directors shows that our national media obsession with sex is as juvenille as ever. If it's got tits and ass we'll put it on the front page, and observe, elevate or tear down as we see fit. Starring in a porn film should be considered an impediment to mainstream success while directing one is not - unless you're also a woman, in which case you're expected to be "edgy" for the rest of your career.

Our need to sanitise the lives of the women who were on screen while others pioneered the pornography industry with their images does, indeed, tell us a lot about how much growing up we still have to do as a society.

Edwin Moore said...

I met one actress who told me she had been in a porn movie (we were extras together in a recent Taggart episode) and she said she quite enjoyed the experience - she knew the actor and had quite a nice time of it really, and they were given (improbable as it seems) choc hobnobs at the end of the scene.

But she was asked at the end if she wanted to do 'other stuff' later with the same crew and was also asked if she had any objections to having sex with animals as that was where the real money was. She fled with the cash.

Porn is a continuum with the same industry guys doing everything from the basic to the differently pleasured.

Incidentally, when you say early porn you mean cinematic porn of course. Vonnegut claims in one of his novels that the first porn photo was taken just after the first photo, and the first porn movie after the first movie. And there are those caves in the south of France with stick men with stick penises chasing animals.

Ms Chambers was beautiful - will have a look at The Times obit.

Matt said...

"That porn, which for all its regressiveness has, as you mentioned, gone further in many ways to promoting progressive female values, is regarded as morally dubious while creating asinine chick flicks isn't the career-killing move it should be says a lot about how many problems and hangups we still have as a society."

Well said.

Personally I find - for example - Loaded magazine and Cosmopolitan to be generally far more offensive than mainstream porn.

Society's faux-marginalization of something as ubiquitous and (in it's essence) natural and harmless as porn is a joke; just one more indicator of something very wrong, or at least immature in said society and it's citizens.

As sure as money implies poverty, anti-porn implies perversion, in the true sense.

The Heresiarch said...

Ed, of course there's always been porn. The Romans were quite keen, I believe. Chambers wasn't even early in the cinematic sense - I think Joan Crawford appeared in one of the really early ones, around 1920. What the seventies represented, though, was the beginning of today's porn industry. Computers began to be more common at around the same time, though I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Edwin Moore said...

Hi Heresiarch. No of course you're right am having a slow day!

One theory is that the demands of the porn industry actually drove the development of the internet which seems plausible. Remember all those unlikely TV ads which showed puzzled dads being shown how to work the home computer - well with naked women just a few keystrokes away it all seemed terribly unlikely!

septicisle said...

I have the special edition of Insatiable which came out on DVD in the States a couple of years back, and the interviews with her on that showed she was just as vivacious and defensive of her work as she had always been. I think you missed though that more people might well have seen her and not realised it: she starred in David Cronenberg's Rabid, and should really have gone on to do more "straight" acting roles, but it seems that her porn past and her refusal to stop working in that genre stood against her.

Matt said...

"One theory is that the demands of the porn industry actually drove the development of the internet which seems plausible."

Absolutely.

Having been in the IT industry for an age, I'd say it's certainly true that after it's inception as a military comms technology, and adoption as the same for research facilities, the internet's growth and popularization - especially in terms of multimedia (which has always demanded greater bandwidth) - was certainly driven in the most part by the demand for porn.

Only recently has there been a different driver, which has moved on to be the free (and mostly illegal) acquisition of media and information.

McDuff said...

Matt - are you sure that porn is all there is to it? Pornography trends as a follower of media rather than a driver of it in general. Certainly it would make no business sense for people like Comcast and BT to vastly expand their fibre-optic networks if the principle drivers are porn and pirated music.

Assuming people in this thread are typical, probably everyone here has at some point looked up some porn on the internet. But mostly, the internet's use is much more mundane and humdrum than that. You catch up with the news, you buy and sell on Ebay, you find out what the weather is like, you book a cinema ticket or a flight to Corfu, you find out the best way to make a chickpea daal, you browse facebook or youtube.

The song may be witty, but the internet is an enabler of pornography (just like every other medium before it), it's not really for it.

lost causes said...

Just chiming in to note
that sites like kink.com which are on the edge of what the government doesn't want us to look at seem to actually have the more transparency around the filming process and regard for models welfare than mainstream porn as a whole (though perhaps not the government-sanctioned, John Lewis-list, pay-per-view softcore enjoy by Mr Smith).

In the US, sex-positive feminism still seems to be going strong, but here in the UK the (Christian?), sex-bad, men-bad branch seems to have taken the lead, with the recent bans on porn and criminalisations of prostitutes' customers. Most people I meet in Britain are fairly liberal around sex issues, so I find this strange.

If I have one moral question around porn it is around whether at 18 years old the model has enough perspective to consider the long-term stigma of appearing in porn. But really this is nothing to do with the process of making a porn film, but rather our attitudes towards it. It hasn't hurt Paris Hilton's career, so who knows...

McDuff said...

"In the US, sex-positive feminism still seems to be going strong, but here in the UK the (Christian?), sex-bad, men-bad branch seems to have taken the lead, with the recent bans on porn and criminalisations of prostitutes' customers"

The US' attitude towards sex can best be described - and I mean this in all honesty - as absolutely insane. Rhyme, reason and consistency simply don't exist. True, the constitution protects things that can be called "free speech" to some extent, but the extent to which their Christian "sex bad, women bad" branch still rules much of the discourse is, to this Euro-born Transatlanticist, truly disturbing.

And, I am not terribly sure I see our own moralisers as having that much of a "men bad" attitude towards things. I know some men feel terribly put-upon, but as with all sexually discriminatory laws the people I know who will be worst affected are, as per usual, women.

"If I have one moral question around porn it is around whether at 18 years old the model has enough perspective to consider the long-term stigma of appearing in porn."Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the 18-year-old in question. But then I doubt many 18-year-olds have anywhere near the perspective to consider the long term implications of losing your virginity to some guy you met at a party, or marrying your childhood sweetheart, or taking a university degree you have no interest in because it's closer to where you want to live. People make bad decisions when they are young - that's almost part of the definition of youth. At some point we have to quit with the cotton wool and the apron strings.

You do raise an interesting point, though. Our attitudes towards this kind of thing are bound to change as more and more people end up with naked pictures on the internet. Whether they change for the better or the worse will be hard to say, but camera phones, sexting and msn screengrabs will mean that we will either regress to the point where entire swathes of talented young women will have their whole career paths eradicated because of an "indiscretion" at 16, or where we will eventually cease to be outraged by such things and get over ourselves. I'm voting for the former for a while, gradually giving way to the latter, but then I could be wrong about the optimistic part.

The Heresiarch said...

Lost Causes: Your point about "extreme porn" is interesting, and my research into the UK spanking scene suggested it was largely a positive, caring "community" run by and for the women. I'm not sure that's true everywhere, though. I read something recently about a savage "caning" video shoot in Hungary, in which most of the participants were "vanilla", that made me feel rather queasy. The person administering the canings seemed to think it was entirely OK that he should be whacking these girls with all his strength merely because they were consenting and being paid. Needless to say, it would be quite illegal to shoot such a film in the UK.

As for the question about age, I think - as McDuff says - that with all the amateur porn out there it's probably a lot less stigmatising than it was. It won't be long - unless there's a moral reawakening, which is possible - before it will be unusual if you don't have a sex video floating around somewhere in cyberspace.

I don't buy into the idea that porn is inherently more exploitative than any other activity or form of work, just because it's about sex. Different people respond to sex in different ways; it doesn't have to be conceptualised necessarily as an expression of personal intimacy. In porn it becomes - to whatever extent - something more like a performance art, in which it is possible to take professional pride. And it isn't just porn stars who end up on drugs; are they more likely to go off the rails than, say, musicians or more mainstream actors? I've no idea, but given the numbers of Katonas and Winehouses out there I would doubt it.

McDuff said...

Casual drug use is far more prevalent than people think it is, and, while this is based on anecdotal personal experience rather than objective research, I'd reckon that hookers probably use drugs slightly more than musicians, strippers and porn stars slightly less, and the hookers would be about the same were it not for the streetwalkers bumping up the average.

This, of course, should be regarded as a significantly flawed sample, as in my experience approximately 60% of all accountants use drugs regularly too.

Nonetheless, hardly anybody who uses drugs "goes off the rails", no matter whether they are in porn or accountancy. I would also suggest that people are more likely to get significantly fucked from alcohol rather than drugs - the number of booze casualties in my personal acquaintance is much higher than the drug casualties. It's not that there aren't casualties in the sex work side of things, but there are also those who dwell in the respectable side of white collar employment. Again, my experience is hardly the kind of sample one could quote in a journal, but it seems that your risk of being a functional alcoholic is roughly similar for strippers and accountants alike.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that, yes, Heresiarch, I think you're right about the relative stress rates of being a porn star as compared to most other jobs, and that drug usage probably comes down more to availability than to the inherent shittiness (or otherwise) of what you do for a living.

But as a society we are so absolutely up our own arses about sexuality that we could never allow such a thing to be said. Some scientist would do a study and let people know the facts, and the Home Secretary would berate them for "irresponsibly" disagreeing with received wisdom and the opinions of The Sun editorial page.