Some Problems with Linda Williams’ “Hard-Core Eroticism”

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Excerpt from Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself

Some Problems With Linda Williams’ ‘Hard-Core Eroticism’


We are all lucky that we have theorists like Linda Williams pioneering the field of Porn Studies. Without her work, it would be impossible for me to do much of what I do in this class. (Thank you!) However, everyone makes mistakes and this is particularly true of certain factual claims made in the book, Screening Sex, especially in the chapter “Hard-Core Eroticism.” Her reading of Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, particularly the section on “The Bullfight of Love” (and in relation to shunga) is outstanding, and does a lot of heavy lifting for me in this class. The problem lies not in her analysis of the film—which, again, is great—but in the unnecessarily exaggerated claims she makes about Oshima’s work:

My goal in this chapter will not be so much to understand this unique film as a stunning example of Japanese cinema (which it is), but as the first example of feature-length narrative cinema anywhere in the world to succeed as both art and pornography … (183–emphasis mine)

In fact, Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself (1972 – begun in ’68 and not completed until ’72), as well as his Sextool (1975) and Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! (1974) were well known hard-core art films of the time (see footnote 1 below). Unfortunately, Williams was unaware of this “other” history of experimental pornography at the time she wrote Screening Sex:

In an article called “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film,” published soon after he made Senses, Oshima explains that he had just heard from his colleagues returning from the 1975 Cannes Film Festival that not only were serious pornographic art films being made (in what was surely an exaggeration) ‘all the young directors are acting in their own sex scenes of sexual intercourse’ (emphasis mine)

Because Williams and her colleagues were not able to identify any such films, she states that this report from Cannes was a “mistaken impression” based on “a vague idea circulating around the potential of a newly emerged hard-core pornography” (187). In other words, Oshima’s friends simply made this idea up.

However, in 1975, Fred Halsted was well known as a director of hard-core art films who also starred in his own films. (I don’t know if “hard core art film” is the correct term, because I am not sure Halsted made any distinction between pornography and art–at this time, we did not yet have the view we have today that art and pornography, or even art and life, were totally separate spheres, which is precisely what one would expect of an era that experimented with this new form, particularly after the upheavals of May ’68). His films L.A. Plays Itself,Sex Garage, and Sextool are the only pornographic films in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Halsted directed and starred in Sextool, which was released in March of 1975 (just prior to Cannes), which he thought would eclipse the acclaim L.A. Plays Itself had previously received (it did not). According to IMDB, Sextool was released in France in 1975. I don’t know if it played at Cannes that year or not. It’s entirely possible–I strongly suspect it is likely–that Oshima’s friends returning from Cannes were referring directly to Halsted’s work (which was very well known at the time, but lost to subsequent generations).

According to Williams :

Oshima thus resolved to do what no Japanese director had ever done and no reputable director of art cinema in the West had ever done either: to make a narrative art film with frequent graphic displays of sexual organs. He made this resolution under the mistaken impression that this kind of hard-core art film was already quite common in the West (187–emphasis mine)

Halsted’s early 70’s films were artistic, experimental, narrative, and hard-core  (as was the work of Curt McDowell–both defy simple genre classification). While I vaguely knew about the existence of Halsted’s film, I knew nothing “about” it. I suppose this is owing to the post-70’s and post-AIDS marginalization of anything related to leather and S&M, especially in pornography (L.A. Plays Itself was famously censored and the original remains presumably lost forever partially for this reason). I first learned about Halsted from the work of William E. Jones and his book, Halsted Plays Himself. I was, however, more than familiar with the work of Curt McDowell, having seen Thundercrack!Loads, and Ronnie, as well as a rough cut of Sparkle’s Tavern in Seattle in the 1980’s. McDowell’s work has seen a bit of a renaissance since a screening at the SF International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 2010 (and a restoration has been forthcoming on DVD for the past three years). There are other queer films from this era that treat art, narrative, and pornography equally. I am using these directors as the most famous examples because they were so well known at the time.

I believe Williams’ mistake is not as simple as it may seem. Her perspective, announced in the first sentence of this chapter, that “Sex is too important to be left to the pornographers” (181), seems to preclude an immanent reading of pornography. I’ll try to make a separate post about this idea of an immanent theory of pornography (which is clearly “in” Oshima’s work) if I can find the time, because I have so much to say about it. Of course, the fact that there is no other explanation offered by Williams for Oshima’s innovations–by that I mean a material reason why he would come to make an experimental pornographic film–other than a “mistaken impression” based on “a vague idea circulating around the potential of a newly emerged hard-core pornography” (187), is rather telling. New forms that emerge in the world are based on new practices. And it only makes sense that those experimenting at the limit of art, pornography, and life–sexual minorities–would be bound-up with the creation of these new forms.

In case it is not evident, I am not critiquing Williams for not being a gay man in the 1970’s. It is, rather, symptomatic of our larger culture that even those working in the discipline of Porn Studies would exclude these important contributions.

One big lesson to take away from this–as students–is to be wary of any claims about being the “first” of anything. Historically, such claims have a very bad track record. Of course, there is a certain expediency to these claims (they lead to book contracts for academics), but that has nothing to do with thinking. And social and historical context is everything. I believe Williams’ mistakes here, which in no way invalidates her larger reading of the film (which I still think is great), are symptomatic of just how far removed we have become from the world that directors like Halsted, McDowell, and Oshima inhabited. That world did not define pornography as we do today, something that Williams discusses in this very essay, and it has a great deal to teach us.

Finally, one last question. Why do you think pornography, art, and life would not be separate things for McDowell or Halsted? To be a sexual minority of any kind during this time was to have a life that was already defined as pornographic–a life that was supposed to be kept off the public stage (off/scene). The emergence of an explicitly queer, on/scene, subculture in the 1960’s marked a time when people were openly experimenting with this problematic (as Warhol’s work attests to). For many people, the relation between pornography and life during this time was literal: to embrace a sexual life was to embrace the possibility that at any moment–literally–a scene from a pornographic film could be played out in real life (and many people who lived through the era up through the 1970’s have described that “other” world in this way). My interest lies less in this literal relation between pornography and life (though it doesn’t exclude that) and more in the way it might have meaning paradigmatically (or, in a language easier for some students, metaphorically). The invention of pornography in the 19th century, after all, began with “a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene.” These are pornographic lives: prostitutes, sexual minorities, sex radicals, and artists of previous generations marked as pornographic or off/scene. The sexual radicals of the 60’s/70’s, as well as untold writers and artists before them, present the idea of using this categorization of the pornographic against itself. It marked a material relation (these lives were excluded from being on/scene) and a problematic; a limit that people faced in their everyday lives in order to fully live as sexual beings. I believe this idea of an immanent (existential) reading of pornography is more relevant than ever before precisely because we have moved, like the sex radicals of previous generations (whose lives were already coded as pornographic), from mere consumers of pornography to makers of pornography: that is, we have all become (more or less) pornographers.

1. Both Halsted and McDowell were gay and both met untimely ends. McDowell died of AIDS and Halsted eventually took his own life after the loss of his lover to AIDS. It is significant both that Williams’ exclusion centers on queer filmmakers from this era (and the sexual subculture they and their work exemplified), but also two directors who were lost in ways related to HIV/AIDS. In case you are unaware of this, an entire sexual subculture was wiped out by our social relations to AIDS–a subculture, I would argue, in which pornography was not separate from art or even from life–as well as the loss of an entire generation of sexual radicals to the disease itself.

For those who are interested, L.A. Plays Itself will be playing tomorrow, February 28th, at SFMOMA. Sadly, I am teaching another night course, so I can’t make it.

Image: Fred Halsted in L.A. Plays Itself (left) and in Sextool (right)

Note: this post was written very quickly this afternoon. I hope to have time to come back and annotate it and develop it further.