TOPOGRAPHICAL COMPARISON, CONTINUED
Relations of Representation:
Gay Male Pornography
Straight Male Pornography
Relations of Representation:
Gay Male Pornography
Straight Male Pornography
Towards a Summary:
Gay Male Pornography
PLUS: Unlike straight male porn, gay porn does not directly and systematically replicate the heterosexist patriarchal order in its relations of production, exhibition, consumption, or representation. Kathleen Barry's assertion, "Homosexual pornography acts out the same dominant and subordinate roles of heterosexual pornography," cannot be shown to be true of any of these terms. Produced by, depicting, and consumed exclusively by gay men, the fantasy universe of gay porn resembles the gay ghetto in its hermeticism as well as in its contradictory mix of progressive and regressive values, in its occupancy of a defensible enclave within heterosexist society. It subverts the patriarchal order by challenging masculinist values, providing a protected space for non-conformist, non-reproductive and non-familial sexuality, encouraging many sex-positive values and declaring the dignity of gay people.
MINUS. At the same time, the ghetto is part of as well as separate from heterosexist society. The patriarchal privilege of male sexual expression and occupancy of public space is perpetuated. The patriarchy is propped up equally by the reinforcement of the gay male spectator's self-oppression, by his ghettoization. Finally, capitalism's usurpation and commoditization of the private sphere is extended not threatened by gay commercia1 porn.
Slraight Male Pornography
PLUS: Porn as "liberated zone," social safety valve, as visualization of women's desire, as vehicle of the sexual revolution?
MINUS. Gender-defined sexual roles and power imbalances, both within the narrative (woman as insertee, active or passive, woman as victim, woman as fetishized object of the camera) and outside of the narrative (woman as spectator), replicate the power relations of patriarchal capitalism and are thereby both its symptom and its reinforcement.
A REAL RAW PLACE
Curt McDowell's LOADS (1980) is a 19-minute black-and-white gay porn movie that is so hot that it makes KANSAS CITY TRUCKING COMPANY feel like a three-hour Marguerite Duras film projected at half-speed. It is also a lot more than that, though this "more" amplifies the turn-on rather than legitimizes it.
Like most great works of eroticism, and like the erotic films of McDowell's fellow Bay Area homosexual, Barbara Hammer, LOADS is intensely personal, autobiographical, even confessional. The diary form tends to achieve a mixture of everyday images and fantasy overtones that is highly potent. As in the first-person anecdotes of Straight to Hell, the authentic ring of, "This is really true. I was really there," brings a vibrancy to even the tallest tale. The diaristic form also has a documentary graininess to it that enhances the impact, the spontaneity of camera twitches, the fragility of flares. Both Hammer's and McDowell's format is the low-budget independent non-sync-sound short film, an alternative form, borrowing from both documentary and experimental vocabulary, that knits well with an alternative eroticism. Slickness takes away from desire, Hefner's airbrushes notwithstanding.
Hammer and McDowell, however, live at opposite ends of the Bay. Her films have a Berkeley spirituality to them, even at her most carnal moments (the closeup labia-dabbling in MULTIPLE ORGASMS). Maybe it comes from her habit of linking eros to nature, whether it's the garden or the desert with all their iconographic associations in our culture; maybe it's the presence of a visible lesbian community throughout her films, the pervasiveness of sisterhood for all her obsessive egotistical sublime. With San Francisco-based McDowell, a cock is a cock is a cock. His landscape is the concrete of the streets, the filtered light of his non-residential-zone studio. But his physicality doesn't belong to the Castro, except for the overtones of camp — it belongs more to the Mission. Unlike Hammer, McDowell is usually alone. The faggot fellowship is nowhere in sight, the clone ghetto somewhere over the horizon. His love-objects are the Other, the Straight Man.
In fact, in LOADS, it's six Straight Men who swagger through the frame. The film narrates the filmmaker's encounter with each of them, on the street or in parks, his offer to film them jerking off. They all consented (though of course the filmic record doesn't include those who refused nor any real or threatened violence incurred), and the six intermingled episodes/ vignettes of the film are built from the resultant posing and sex sessions in McDowell's studio.
Suddenly spectators find themselves embarrassed voyeurs both of McDowell's tricks with the six men, and of the men's tricks with the camera. The men strut about defensively, as if taunting the camera, or they lie back invitingly, staring vulnerably, trustingly into the lens. They undress and caress themselves, or allow the filmmaker to help. The camera sometimes embodies McDowell's point of view, crawling across the floor in submission for the blow, trembling as if in echo of the spectators excitation. Or else it remains aloof on its tripod for a breather with the pretense of immediacy temporarily dropped. At other times when McDowell needs both hands, one of the subjects holds the camera, adding the frisson of subjective angle to the palpability of micro-closeups of flesh. This is participatory camera taken as far as it will go, filmmaking as fellatio. The editing preserves the feeling of participation and spontaneity, texturing the narrative lust with the temporal patterns of memory and obsession — echoes, stuttering, flashbacks. McDowell's half-confessional, half-conspiratorial voice-over adds to the complexity of the mosaic: "I wanted to be slung on his back, fucking him as he walked down the street."
In fact, McDowell doesn't fuck any of the men. And that's the point at which the film begins to expose "the raw place" of the filmmaker's desire and of our sexual culture as gay men of the post-gay-lib era. Like all eroticism shaped by a commodity- and image-enslaved patriarchy, McDowell's eroticism is deeply troubled, and troubling. I am speaking neither of the gospel of omni-pansexuality embodied in the gay male institution of tricking, nor of the objectification inherent in the image-making process in itself — at least not here. I am referring rather to the eroticization of the Not-Gay, the Straight Man. For some, it may be gratifying that the tables are turned. The straight man becomes erotic surface, objectified, both idealized and debased, the object of erotic obsession. It is an obsession frequently present in gay male pornography, as I've noted elsewhere, and an obsession that McDowell tackles head-on, exorcizing it and analyzing it as well as indulging it and perpetuating it:
McDowell, then, is quite deliberate in confronting the contradictions of his sexuality, of gay sexuality in its current incarnation, but he doesn't pretend to be able to understand them, nor to resolve them — without the spectator's help.
The types of men McDowell is attracted to are telling. They are macho, some body-builders, mostly working-class, a few with tattoos, — none with the idealized beauty of Blueboy pornstars but in fact almost parodies of our culture's stereotype of masculinity were they not ultimately so ordinary. Their sexuality, not surprisingly, is deeply alienated. Most depend on images to masturbate to, propped on one elbow, thumbing the glossy magazine photos of women, the perfect image of the ideal sexual consumer of the post-Hefner age. One man even rubs his cock into the crack of the centerfold during and after his ejaculation. Of others, McDowell manages to capture the comic absurdity as they strut around trying to look cool with their pants down around their knees. Of still others he succeeds in registering an unexpected tenderness, a haunting vulnerability that matches his own, an openness to this experimental intermale exchange that subverts our rigid labels of sexual orientation. At the moment of his final montage of all six protracted ejaculations, McDowell adds the sound of thunder to the already exaggerated heavy breathing on the soundtrack, a hint of parody that is just the right touch to top off the "expedition," this exposure of the male sexual drive. The male body is both celebrated and decorticated, the rites of masculinity are both indulged and subverted.
As for the spectator, caught up in a mix of desire and outrage, guilt and complicity, amused distance and involvement, his disturbance remains long after the excitement has dissipated. Not your usual pornographic film, designed for easy consumption and disposal. This is the direction we must pursue if we are to attain an eroticism worthy of our political ideals. I do not mean the reworking of fuck-film formulae with ideological discourse and politically correct sexuality, nor the legitimation of eroticism "artistically" through self-reflexivity or modernist editing (though we should not exclude possibilities inherent in either of these avenues). I guess I mean an alternative practice, a grass-roots pornography to counter the industrial pornography; an eroticism that enhances our pleasure in our sexuality by starting from the raw place we're in right now and by responding to that place, without defensiveness or complacency, but with honesty, questioning and humor; a challenge to our sexuality as well as a celebration of it.
1. "Lesbians and Pornography," from transcript of workshop at the Pittsburgh Conference on Pornography 1980 in off our backs July 1980, p. 9.
2. Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York, 1981), p. 43.
3. Lisa Orlando, "Bad Girls and 'Good' Politics," Village Voice (Literary Supplement), December 1982, p. 16; Ellen Willis, "Who is a Feminist? A Letter to Robin Morgan." ibid. p. 17; Deidre English, "Talking Sex: A Conversation on Sexuality and Feminism," (with Amber Hollibaugh and Gayle Rubin), Socialist Review, No. 58, July/Aug. 1981, p. 51.4. Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery (New York, 1979), p. 207.
5. (Ibid., p. 206.
6. Quotations by Curt McDowell are taken from interviews in Gay News (London) No. 229, p. 47 (by Jack Babuscio); San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, Pink Section, Feb. 8-14, 1981 (by Calvin Ahlgren); Artbeat, Dec. 81-Jan. 82, pp. 22-23.