Koch Vision // 1999 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 20th, 2006
"You cannot imagine a revolution without shocks." -- Lasse Braun, European porn entrepreneur
I have offered a theory for years that every technological advance in communication since the invention of the printing press has been spread and made cheap enough for consumers thanks to pornography. Usually, people just look at me indulgently, nodding their heads as if they are simply humoring me. Even my students do this. Well, apparently I am not the only person who thought of this. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the producers behind Party Monster and Inside Deep Throat, believe that such a theory is worth five hours of television time.
Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation -- well, you see its thesis right in the title. Over the course of six episodes, this 1999 documentary series, created for Britain's Channel Four, examines six turning points in the history of art and commerce and places pornography squarely at the center of each one.
Episode One: The Road to Ruin: The word pornography (which literally refers to writing for or about prostitutes) only appeared in English in 1857: the Victorians invented the genre as way of containing the improper by taxonomy. It was associated with addictive behavior, with pathology. It terrified the mainstream. When Pompeii was uncovered around this period, the Victorians discovered that the noble Romans liked sex -- everything from paintings of couples both straight and gay in explicit couplings to a statue of the god Pan porking a goat. I expect the Victorians decided that this was what caused Vesuvius to erupt. One museum curator jokes that all good people of taste in ancient Pompeii apparently had to have sex pictures in their homes.
But the ancient Romans would have seen the Pompeian dirty pictures as a necessary part of public discourse. Fertility was the health of the nation. The satisfaction of desire was the marker of affluence. Queen Victoria's assertion that women should not enjoy sex but should lie back and do it for the good of England would have puzzled Romans. For the Victorians, fertility and desire were markers of lower-class status. Poor people needed children and the distraction of sex; the rich could afford to live without them.
Episode Two: The Sacred and the Profane: The expansion of printing in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a censorship war. Again, class is the key. Even before the printing press, wealthy patrons could commission religious books with erotic images illuminated in the margins. One book we see even includes naughty pictures of the baby Jesus!
But the printing press made books cheaper and opened up a market for porn for the masses. The use of sexual imagery in the hands of the church and state is "not just telling you what to do with your body, but how to think," according to one historian. Sex is used to draw attention, but also to warn you against sin. However, once the masses learn that sexual desire is permissible, social unrest against the authorities that have always controlled desire always results. The notorious Fanny Hill by John Cleland was as much a social satire in an age of Enlightenment political awareness as it was a dirty book. (You can find a free copy easily on the web and discover this for yourself.) Even the French Revolution was accompanied by often brutal satires (including the work of the Marquis de Sade) of the aristocracy fucking while Paris was falling apart.
Episode Three: The Mechanical Eye: The development of photography changed everything. Now caricature became specificity; representation became realism. Photography encouraged static poses (an effect of exposure time, so to speak). In order to convince authorities that the new medium was "artistic," photographers shifted focus exclusively toward female nudity (earlier porn was more egalitarian by comparison). Of course, at first, all this was only for the wealthy who could afford those early daguerreotypes. Once reproducible photography brought prices down, once again the democratization of porn had social and political consequences.
It should be clear by this point that the consistent theme of Pornography is that class politics is the central factor in the development and dissemination of erotic material. Most discussions of pornography focus almost exclusively on gender issues. Bailey and Barbato are trying a different approach. Porn is celebrated as a form of resistance against authority. Throughout the documentary, there is little discussion of the typical criticisms against porn: sexual exploitation, criminal activity, psychological trauma. Of course, these arguments have been so well documented elsewhere. Perhaps Bailey and Barbato felt that the other side had its say for long enough.
On the down side, their documentary appears on DVD from Koch Vision with no subtitles or extra content. Jeez, guys, you came this far. How about some outtakes or even just a research bibliography? There is so much material to cover here that those with an actual scholarly interest in this stuff (like us popular culture professors) might want to follow up.
Episode Four: Twentieth Century Foxy: From the underground economy of stag films to peep show booths to the public celebration surrounding Deep Throat (check out Bailey and Barbato's Inside Deep Throat for more on this) and the surreal Behind the Green Door. The early films were made for all-male, ritualized group gatherings ("stag parties"). The Hays Code (and later the MPAA) struggled to keep sex marginalized. The result was almost exactly what would later cause the rapid drop in prices for camcorders and webcams: people started making movies in their homes. The promise that porn would go mainstream fizzled.
Considering the prevalence of film clips in this episode, I suspect that it might be a good time to mention what you are already thinking: Pornography is pretty explicit for a made for television documentary. There is no actual penetration shown, but pretty much everything else is fair game. Female nudity is something that has almost become routine (and the documentary has theories as to why). But if too many penises give you the willies (I know, but I figured we needed to get that joke out of the way already), then you will not feel comfortable with this series. Pornography does not shy away from showing bodies and describing everything bodies do, right out in the open with good lighting. This is history, and the show treats every artifact with respect. Better still, the documentary does not try to go to the other extreme and dry the material into intellectual leather: tough and hard to chew. There are great stories and interesting historians who show us this material in a much livelier fashion than the usual abstracted talking heads.
Episode Five: Sex Lives on Videotape: Speaking of prominent experts, I spotted cultural critics Douglas Rushkoff and Camille Paglia (both of whom I have taught in popular culture courses) in this episode. And check out the cool clips from Cronenberg's Videodrome. Anyway, this episode focuses on the shift toward interactivity through video tape, camcorders, and the turn toward amateur production. Some film lovers thought video was cold, inorganic, hard -- but it was cheaper and faster. It took a few years (and the development of digital video) before it looked good, though. The porn industry expanded to massive proportions.
Back in Episode One of this series, a Cambridge professor points out that the Victorians were so "passionate about repressing" sexual desire that they couldn't stop talking about sex. Is it possible that sex may become so omnipresent, so acceptable in all its forms, that it may just seep into the mainstream and become just another commercial enterprise? Just visit San Fernando's "Porn Valley," where dozens of production companies, distributors, and studios reside, and wonder if anybody in the neighborhood even pays attention.
Episode Six: Pornotopia: Or, you could just stay at home and play on the computer. The apotheosis of pornography has come in the digital age. Now, even as we leave the body behind for virtual experience, pornography has permeated our culture. It can be accessed anywhere at any time. It can go live; it is completely plastic and manipulable. Without borders, pornography slips under and around all efforts at censorship; no law can directly touch it. Everyone can participate. For Bailey and Barbato, the democratization of technology is complete. Everyone becomes connected, and getting plugged (and plugged in) becomes more than just the fulfillment of desire. It becomes an act of self-determination and resistance.
I am not sure I entirely buy Bailey and Barbato's porno-political manifesto, but I am also not sure they entirely buy it either. There is a dry sense of humor about this entire series. There has to be. You cannot be a historian or cultural critic scrutinizing a museum full of erect phalluses or a cluttered and decidedly unerotic porn-movie set and not laugh. Authority figures have always viewed sexuality as a control issue, and pornography has long been a weapon in the satirist's arsenal.
Bailey and Barbato's documentary never tries to apologize for its content by distinguishing between "erotica" (which implies something artsy) and "pornography" (which implies something sordid). Sexual imagery of all sorts, whether intended to arouse, edify, inspire, or whatever, is all fair game. This avoids stuffiness. Literate and entertaining, Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation never displays its naughty bits for prurient reasons. In short, Pornography is fun, intelligent, and blessed with wisdom and wit. And that's really sexy.
Review content copyright © 2006 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated