Linda Williams, Chapters 3, 4: Screening Sex



Pauline Kael compared the 1972 New York premiere of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris to the riot-inspiring Parisian premiere of Stravinsky & Diaghilev’s The Rite of Spring nearly 60 years earlier, presumably to draw a parallel to its avant-gardism, its arrival as a form of high art: “a similar primitive eroticism” 113. “It was at least partly the Americanization, through the body and voice of Brando, of a sexuality once associated with European sophistication that made the film seem such an astounding event for Kael” 114. “Two of the most memorable of these sex acts are explorations of anal eroticism that illustrate Bataille’s sense of the links between ‘excreta, decay, and sexuality,’ as well as the importance of desires tinged with fear” 117. (The scene in which he trims her fingernails with scissors and she anally penetrates him would be an interesting comparison to Jeanne Dielman). “Only now, after the catharsis of confronting sex as death, does Paul attempt to connect with Jeanne beyond the womblike enclosure of the apartment. But now he is an ordinary middle-aged man with no special allure and Jeanne is hardly interested” 119. Kael differentiates this from exploitation films in claiming that the sex here is “emotionall charged” 119.

In contrast, Deep Throat, which became a household name, was not touted by its champion, reviewer Al Goldstein, as high art 121. “What Goldstein applauds… is a simplified and less emotionally threatening version of what Kael applauds… the spectacle of convulsive, phallic, heterosexual, but often nonnormative sez” 121. What Kael was interested in was that “powerful emotions of fear and violence, not mere prurience, animated the audience” 112. Williams lingers on the word prurient as implying “the morbid and shameful part of sexual urges that presumably also have a healthier and more natural side” 122. “The problem with prurience is thus twofold: its susceptibility to being identified as the shameful or morbid sexual practice of the deviant (someone else’s sexual practice, not my own) and the difficulty of isolating the ‘immediate stimulation – or turn-on – from the rest. Sex is rarely ever ‘just’ sex. Art film knows this, pornography tries not to. Inevitably, sex mixes with diverse emotions (shame, joy, triumph, relief, morbidity, love, etc.)” 124.

Williams claims that these films were important because sex was undeniable in them, they were highly popular, and they could “become sex aids” to viewers 125. “When we are in the grips of the physical excitement of sex, we achieve a kind of intimacy with our own and others’ bodies that, once past a certain threshold, allows us to relax what the historian and culture critic William Ian Miller calls the ‘rules of disgust'” 126. Norman Mailer’s critique of Last Tango as “a fuck film without the fucks” implied its simulated, rather than real, sex acts: “What was imagined was no less than a new kind of mainstream film in which explicit sex acts would be integrated into narrative films: not just to deliver the required number of graphic sex acts that would soon prove de rigueur in the new porn genre but to expand the representative power of the medium into aesthetically ambitious realms of the performance of sex… pornography as such would disappear” 128. Of course, this never happened.

“Cum shots, or money shots… are markedly unreal as depictions of the practices of mutual pleasure. When they become the conventional conclusion to all sex acts depicted in pornography, the withdrawal (whether from mouth, anus, or vagina) that makes the ejaculation visible necessitates a dislocating shift from the proximate, mutual pleasure of touch to the more distant pleasure of sight, as if the couple compromises their own pleasures of touch for our screening pleasure. The film asks us to believe that the participants in the sex act, especially the woman who makes so much of the sight of the ejaculating penis, prefers, at that moment, to become more like a film viewer marveling at what she sees than like a sexual actor caught up in what she feels. As climax, then, the money shot is awfully one-sided” 130.

In Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace is “an ordinary young woman with wholesome – not what would later become known as stereotypically pornographic – good looks. She is a typical product of the 1960s sexual revolution. She considers sexual pleasure important to her self-fulfillment, but has missed out so far. She confesses to feeling ‘little tingles’ when she has penetrative sex, but ‘no bells ringing, dams bursting, or bombs going off'” 131 (interesting to think about these figurations). As Williams argues, audiences laughed – the film was less about eros than about “teach[ing] the audience to relax its own automatic reflexes of disgust, much the way the good doctor would teach Linda to relax her gag reflexes in order to discover the pleasures of deep-throat fellatio” 132. “Vigorous deep-throat fellatio, in which the doctor presumably ‘hits’ the invisible ‘spot’ that precipitates Linda’s pleasure, leads to the highly visible spectacle of the money shot that would become the sine qua non of all hard-core pornography for decades to come” 133. Another joke of the film is that the metaphors she uses to describe her previously absent experiences of pleasure literalize on the screen as she experiences orgasm. (It also seems important to consider how this film not only services visibility and ‘women’s lib,’ but a fantasy that frees men from guilt by insisting that this is an act women find pleasurable… what would be the male heterosexual equivalent? How would this map onto homosexual acts?)

“It is hard to imagine a sex act with more initial shock value than fellatio when graphically seen on the big screen… dramatically bring[s] organs of smell, taste, and ingestion up against organs of elimination… a pretty face… positively worshipped the man’s bodily functions” 137. Though the doctor sees the clitoris in Linda’s throat, we never do, and its “remains occulted throughout the film and thus offers narrative justification for not having sex in the prescribed, procreative missionary position” 138. (Williams: think of Foucault on the ‘implantation of perversions’ to a particular age, place, or practice 138). “When Freud attempts to understand the pleasures of fellatio (nowhere does he tackle the pleasures of cunnilingus), he takes great pains to minimize the awareness of its perversion (in his terms) by referring it back to the innocence of the child sucking at the mother’s breast… linked to his own belief in the mother’s (and the breast’s) lack of sexual sensitivity in the act of nursing… he misconstrues its pleasures as one-way” 140 (also weird because heterosexual sex would give pleasure only to the male in Freud’s mind in both cases). The conceit of the film allows it to “compensate the woman who fellates witha putatively deeper, nonoral, clitorally orgasmic satisfaction” 141. This is the same era in which cunnilingus is relegated to a non-climaxing foreplay: when “the new graphic pornography failed to invest eros in that which it could not easily see” 141.

Screenings of hetero pornography did not necessarily result in onanism (decency about which ladies might be sitting next to you), but this was not true of homo pornography, where “to be seen watching a film in these theaters could often be interpreted as a sign of interest in having sex on the spot” 144. “All pornography is utopian; all pornography takes place, as Steven Marcus has said, in pornotopia, the land where it is ‘always bedtime.’ But it seems fair to say that all-male gay pornography is more utopian, if only because the taboos that must be overcome to stage its pleasures are greater” 150. “Always in danger of disappearing, the virile black man becomes all the more precious as the erotic fantasy of the white man. This means, of course, that the black man functions more as a sexual object than a sexual subject, more as what Franz Fenon has called an ‘epidermalized’ racial essence” in Boys in the Sand 153.



“Deep Throat had purported to be about female orgasm by rather disarmingly acknowledging a problem that had not been previously disclosed in the mainstream history of screening sex: where to locate and how to depict female pleasures that did not necessarily coincide with those of the male. The clitoris, which as we shall see below was newly exalted as the primary organ of female pleasure by the sexologists, whas not where it should be. ‘Why there you are! You little bugger you!’ proclaimed the good doctor in Deep Throat” 155.

Williams begins with the orgasm scene in the 1989 When Harry Met Sally as a great example of the ‘outing’ of the problem of women’s pleasure 156. The “make love, not war” message, which Williams points out was often politically empty, would make the body “an object of cathexis and a thing to be enjoyed – an instrument of pleasure” 157. As to the “Say Yes to Men Who Say No” to the war, Williams “was tempted to adopt it, too, before recognizing in it a whole patriarchal regime that wanted to make my sexual pleasure subservient to the only real political actor in the revolutionary scenario: the man” 158. How could sexuality be more than “getting laid,” become a more “politically correct form of making love for a woman”? Williams turns to Kinsey, who actually filmed orgasms in his home 159. “The gay media scholar Thomas Waugh argues… that Kinsey’s problem was that he did not admit to the prurience that inevitably informed his work… Sexual science… is inseparable from eroticism” 161. “In a mood of even greater insurgency, the feminist activist Anne Koedt proclaimed, in a famous pamphlet widely circulated at radical meetings long before it was published, that if vaginal penetration was not the cause of orgasm, then women had been ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analyzed” 163.

Williams turns to Jane Fonda, highlighting in particular Barbarella and “Kinsey’s insight that sexual response does not look like happiness” in her examination of Fonda’s onscreen orgasms 169 (this would be interesting to compare with horror genres). She then turns to Hal Ashby’s 1978 Coming Home. “Luke informs Sally that he cannot feel when she touches him (down there), but he can see. Sight, in a solution that neatly coincides with the needs of an audience screening sex, thus partly substitutes for touch in a sex scene that has a legitimate excuse to leave the light on” 173. “However we construe the sex that Luke and Sally have, it is emphatically not that of active, phallic thrusting into a passive receptacle. On the other hand, we do not ever see what exactly Sally does to pleasure Luke besides offer herself up to be seen by him” 174. Fonda said she was interested in locating “a dramatic way to redefine manhood beyond the traditional, goal-oriented reliance on the phallus to a new shared intimacy and pleasure my character had never experienced with her husband” 175. “As feminist researcher Annie Potts demonstrates, the language of orgasm, even the more female-aware language of sexologists such as Masters and Johnson, tends to be organized as a teleology of excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution… a transcendence that brings one back more fully and completely to the self through a beginning, middle, and end that often still privileges phallocentric models of thrusting and getting there, with men typically getting there too soon and women too late” 176. “The hydraulic model of orgasm… can be complicated by another model of sexual excitations that seek nothing more than their own intensification… the pleasure of the itch: anticipation, prolongation, intensification” 177.

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