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porn, fast-forwarding, modernism, new aesthetics

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From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:

When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.

Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle!  Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always  a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…

Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.

Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:

[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.

The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *

There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.

So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.

* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Posted in aesthetics, modernism, porn

4 Responses

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  1. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films.

    Very interesting point. Umberto Eco proposed once that you can tell a porn movie not from the sex scenes, but rather from the construction of the filler (in Diario Minimo I think it was – I could check). Whereas in relation to your Barthes citation I wrote something once about Perec and the challenge he poses of reading him whole, and in order. I now wished I had used the Barthes quote…

    Giovanni

    October 24, 2009 at 12:48 am

  2. As a kid, I used to feel the same way about Harryhausen monster movies, and I think its affected the way I read too. I hardly ever read non-fiction from front to back, but bounce back and forth from chapter to chapter until I’ve eventually joined the dorts and absorbed it. The strange effect is that I found non-linear modernism much easier to ‘follow’ than a – z crime fiction.

    But I’ve heard that may be the best way to learn new languages. I wouldn’t know, because I’ve always got bored with the time spent on the ‘hello how are you’ stage and switched off.

    wayne

    October 25, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  3. it’s the old Hollywood maxim/cliché, taken as far as the aesthetics will let it: “cut to the chase.” This is always narrative advice, that calls for the subversion of ‘narrative’ to ‘spectacle’ (or more specifically, to ‘narrative-spectacle’).

    I wonder how much the modernist mode of reading/writing is being developed by today’s youth being able to string together short, free pornographic clips rather than watch an entire movie with its (vague) pretenses of narrative.

    Tom Gunning’s idea of a ‘cinema of attractions’ discusses the tension between narrative and spectacle – are we then reverting to the ‘spectacular’ mode of cinema’s earliest days as we perhaps approach it’s last? [This idea of ‘last’ implies that ‘cinema’ itself is somehow a narrative idea]. Does this imply that cinema is moving from the representation of modernist subjectivity (editing follows Kuleshov in representing interiority in an exterior way) toward a representation of pure exterior sensory data along the lines of the nouveau roman.

    I might say that this form of exterior representation has always been present in some strands of the ‘avant garde,’ but only recently does this development arrive in mainstream cinema. Flicker films and various films with super-quick cutting use rhythm and vision to construct sensations rather than narrative. Contemporary blockbuster cinema takes the same philosophical approach to image-as-sensation, though it is a matter of convergence rather than shared lineage. Michael Bay constructs the visual information his action scenes as non-narrative spectacle – as physical experiences totally divorced from even visual narrative information [about which I have a long-promised essay, not yet started].

    Dave

    October 28, 2009 at 5:17 pm

  4. I misplaced a question mark at the end of “nouveau roman” in the post above…

    Dave

    October 28, 2009 at 5:18 pm


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