There's only one thing worse than intellectuals talking about pornography; that's FRENCH intellectuals talking about porno. No, I take that back. French intellectual FEMINISTS talking about porn is worse than having your fingernails ripped out by a Hessian dominatrix.
And it all started so promisingly. My friend Gary Crowdus at the Cinema Guild turned me on to this hot new documentary called "Bad Girl" that was banned last year by Tele-Quebec, the big Canadian network in Montreal. Do you know HOW sleazy you have to be to get banned by Tele-Quebec? They include hardcore footage in the weather report. (OK, I'm exaggerating.)
At any rate, the idea is that it was a sizzling film about the new breed of women porno directors and it was Too Bad for the Quebecois. Actually it's pretty much of a snoozer. I've seen all this stuff before, but since you may not get quite as much feminist mail as I tend to get, lemme lay it out for you.
Beginning about 1979, organized feminism started an attack on pornography as being demeaning to women. Their poster child in America was Linda Lovelace, who was supposedly threatened at gun point when she made "Deep Throat" and was subjected to what amounted to legalized rape -- charges she made that were later proved to be not so accurate.
In Canada the anti-porn crusade was led by a documentary called "Not A Love Story" that set out the case for porn being anti-woman and resulted in calls for the banning of it on feminist grounds. (The new film doesn't really deal with any of these events. I'm just outlining the background "Bad Girl" fails to provide.)
To give you some idea of how bad it got, I was personally picketed and poison-penned by feminists twice -- in 1985 and 1986 -- over my reviews of a slasher flick called "Pieces" and an Italian softcore drive-in classic called "Gas Pump Girls." (Yes, they had too much time on their hands.)
And then a strange thing happened. In the late 1980s the lesbian wing of the National Organization for Women decided that porno was OK. They started blathering about "female-friendly porno," and the idea was that, if the woman was in a position of power and she was respected, or if the movie had NO MEN IN IT, then it was politically correct porno. (This idea actually seeped into mainstream cinema. Ninety percent of the R-rated sex scenes in big-budget movies started featuring the woman in a position of power.)
Then in the 1990s, there was a backlash among women who think of themselves as feminists-but-let's-not-get-crazy-about-it. And THEY were fans of the old-fashioned porno from the 1970s -- man in a position of power, a little rough stuff from time to time, and even -- gasp! -- bondage.
This set off a debate within feminism about whether it's possible to watch a scene that would normally be demeaning to the woman, but, because she's in love with the guy and he really RESPECTS her, it's OK.
And somewhere in the midst of all this bickering over what was, let's face it, a bunch of assembly-line skin flicks out of Van Nuys, women started making their own kind of porn.
That's sort of where "Bad Girl" begins, with a bizarre scene in which a gorgeous blonde journalist pulls up to the gates of Zentropa Studios in Denmark, where a cockeyed cackling dwarf sticks his head out and says "Admission restricted for women."
It's the setup for interviews with Lisbeth Lynghoft, the first woman ever hired to direct a porno film in Denmark -- one of those artsy blue-light things with a lot of slow motion and dry ice -- and it kind of establishes the irrelevance of the film. Denmark hasn't been the leader in pornography since the 1970s. In fact, the people at Zentropa make it very clear that they have nothing to do with the mainstream porn business.
Peter Aalbaeck Jensen, Zentropa's executive producer, says when he solicited porn scripts from women, most of them were "so extremely perverted, so very dirty" that he couldn't shoot them. He should have! If the feminist line is that the porn industry reflects a twisted extreme male fantasy, then let's see the twisted extreme female fantasy!
At any rate, the film soon leaves Denmark and veers off into the talking-heads world of feminist academics. (The director of "Bad Girl," Marielle Nitoslawska, is a Polish film professor at Concordia University in Montreal.) Linda Williams, a professor at the University of California/Berkeley -- where else -- talks boringly about women "working within the conventions of porn."
Annie Sprinkle, the porn-actress-turned-performance-artist, does one of her extended monologues about female body parts. A reference is made to "couples porn," which has NEVER made money and is sort of a red herring in the industry. And Jane Hamilton, a director at California's VCA Pictures, talks about how her own movies are "outside the mainstream" because she uses "no money shots." (And her movies don't really sell very well, because ... they don't call 'em money shots for nothing!)
But now it's time for Attack of the French Intellectuals. A French director named Catherine Breillat begins her rant with "After 2,000 years of repression ... " and is soon joined by French writer Benoite Groult, who complains that there are no good names for female body parts and that "women have been deprived of expression, language, pleasure."
It's a set-up for scenes from Virginie Despentes' film ... well, we can't even use the French title because it's obscene, but it's a 2000 movie in which, for example, a man makes a crude sexual suggestion to a woman on the street and is then shot dead by a second woman with six quick blasts from a revolver. It's sort of a radical-fem "Death Wish." The film was banned by French censors -- but it shouldn't have been, says Breillat, because women were forced to make "bitter, violent films" due to the demeaning effects of 25 years of male pornography. (And yet I don't really recall any male porn films in which women were GUNNED DOWN for amusement.)
A French male feminist director -- that's gotta be one kinky guy -- named Jean-Francois Davy tells us, "We've ghettoized women for millennia" -- right before the scene featuring the Hots d'Or, the annual European porn awards in Cannes, with paparazzi swarming around the topless "porn queens" on the beach. The porn queen, we're told, is a "pseudo-egalitarian disguise" designed to fool us into thinking women are really valued in porn films. Cut to . . . Veronique Lefay! First woman in France to create a porn Web site. (I'd like to point out here, for the benefit of the French intellectuals, that most European "firsts" are predated in America by at least 15 years.)
Veronique's philosophy is, "I love turning the tables, I get a kick out of it." Apparently she lures men to her Web site and then abuses them, because "I hate that dominated-dominating thing."
As you can see, "Bad Girl" is all over the lot. Thank God the director finally makes her way to the San Fernando Valley, which is where 99 percent of the world's pornography is produced. Unfortunately, she blows the chance to get good interviews with several porn legends -- including Marilyn Chambers, Christi Lake, Bill Margold, Nina Hartley, and Russell Hampshire, head of VCA Pictures -- and spends most of her "What does it all mean?" time interviewing people like Dr. Carol Queen, a San Francisco "sexologist," and the aforementioned Berkeley professor.
The best quote in the whole movie almost slips by when Bill Margold explains to her why she's looking at everything backwards. The women ARE the stars of porn. The women ARE elevated in porn, he's telling her, for this simple reason: "The women are allowed to be the center of our attention because the men know how to hide behind them."
But she never really follows this up. Instead she goes to the Adult Video Convention in Vegas and films a lot of footage of weirdos sidling up to porn stars to get their pictures made, then makes a quick side trip to Larry Flynt's sex shop on Sunset Boulevard, then finishes it off with more talking heads.
The funniest interview is with Bernard Arcaud, a French-speaking Quebec anthropologist who calls for the extinction of American porno. He says that the sexual imagination should not be "defined by narrow stereotyped parameters from the American West Coast," then pronounces, "If I were minister of Culture, I would muster the courage to face this challenge!"
In assessing the impact of women on porn, the only film acclaimed as an "epic" is a silent black-and-white avant-garde flick from 1967 called "Fuses."
I'm telling you, this movie will make you long for the complete cinematic works of Yoko Ono.
And just as the film began with the nonsensical cackling dwarf, it ends with the French philosopher Luce Iragaray talking about women's porn being made possible by "the conquest of contraception," but saying that, sadly, "This is an era of technique."
I just have one comment on this whole debate. In the films acclaimed as feminist masterpieces, why are the men depersonalized? They're either mute, their faces are not seen, or they're so stylized as to be mere stereotypes of the husky virile lover. Isn't this exactly what men are accused of doing with women? But aren't women in mainstream porn actually rather ACTIVE compared to these automatons? Who's really manipulating the imagery here?
Joe Bob says check it out.
(To reach Joe Bob go to joebob-briggs.com or e-mail him at JoeBob@upi.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)