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Can Hardcore Porn Be High Art?

Mark Hay

Mark Hay

From arthouse orgies to sci-fi double penetration, we had some very serious critics dissect the decade's most artistically ambitious porn.

The close-up shots of gaping orifices, awkward dialogue, and bland elevator muzac that is so often associated with porn does not scream high art to most people. However, there is a long tradition of ambitious porn directors and producers who try to use their films for more than helping you bust a nut. Back in the 70s, as porn began to crawl out of the shadows of censorship and excessive social morality, hardcore features like Deep Throat garnered mainstream attention and were critiqued by high-brow critics like Roger Ebert.

Somewhere along the way, however, the intelligentsia of American cinema stopped checking in with what their kin in the skin flick business were up to. To change that, we devised a little experiment. We hit up five highly informed and well-respected film critics and academics to watch more than eight hours of some of the last decade's most ambitious hardcore videos and give us their thoughts.

Wasteland

In this 2012 film, director Graham Travis builds an intimate story around a turbulent friendship between two women. After years apart, they reunite in the hedonistic underworld of Los Angeles, where they do a whole lot of emotionally charged fucking.

David Sterritt: As just a movie, I wouldn't give it a glowing review. But given that one of its highest priorities is delivering hardcore sex, it managed to do a pretty good job of presenting things that we value in movies: narrative development, character psychology, acting that has a ring of truth to it. When you carry that over into the sex scenes in the first half of the movie, I really did feel that the two characters were having a love experience, not just a fun, physical experience. It succeeded to a good extent at using hardcore sexual activity to extend the emotional meaning of the story. That's why when you get to the sex club in the second half, it's disappointing, because you don't feel that anymore. I could see a person watching this movie more than once for the relationships as well as the pornography. It speaks reasonably well of the possibility for serious filmmaking in the adult industry. It is by no means great filmmaking, but it is good filmmaking.

Meghan Sutherland: It tries to imbue [its] bodies with more significance and sexual appeal through narrative, and in that sense, it is innovative and interesting. The close-ups weren't just of dicks and holes. Most of them were of faces, and they only have cum and dicks all over them 20 or 30 percent of the time. For all the standard porn tropes, it is really trying to find a different way of thinking about where desire and sex and bodies come from by thinking about this friendship and staging a reflection on the fact that there's empathy, creativity, and love [there]. It's, almost heavy-handedly, making a case for its own artistic value beyond its [pornographic] use. It was impressive, though, just a step more clinical than an arthouse film that shows unsimulated sex.

Michael Sicinski: It took a while for me to see what the film was up to. The initial scene where Jacky gets out of the car and gives a random guy a blowjob seemed off-putting. Then it became apparent that everything was integrated, from the characters' emotional connection to their jealousy, estrangement, and bitterness. All of that was present in their sexual relationship. And all of that sense of loss and defeat was present when Jacky goes off to the sex club and Anna's complex feelings about Jacky are there when she lets herself be taken away in the sex club. Those scenes are shot not to be sexy. They're degrading. For male viewers, it kind of implicates you.

It's as if [the director] was making an anti-porn porn film. He's made this an allegory for why trauma might lead to devaluing one's self. That's contrasted with the friendship and lesbian relationship, which seems to have the potential for sex with greater emotional connection. It struck me as kind of radical. Other films deal with the repetition of trauma and how that advances in soulless sex. But because they don't depict hardcore sex, they have to generate a discursive layer to get at the same places that Wasteland can get at more directly. The film didn't always meet its ambitions, but it was easy for me to overlook its flaws because of the emotional resonance.

Mike Sargent: Things could be explored that weren't. It draws you out of the movie a couple of times because it's otherwise believable. Like when a character says, "Let's go home," and the other girl just gets out of the car and joins her, you ask, "Why did she do that?" She doesn't seem to question why she did it. Then at the end, she just leaves. But this experience opened her up, didn't it? You want to know whether they stay friends, reconcile, stay in love. You want to know more about what these characters think about the sex, which is something you never get in porn. I don't mind open-endedness, but there are a couple of elephants in the room. I think they could have addressed them, but that may be their artistic choice.

Lise Raven: I don't think it was an attempt to not be a porn, but I could imagine seeing this as a midnight film at Sundance. The cinematography, the design, the look of the film was amazing. It felt like Gossip Girl with blowjobs. The plot is interwoven [visually with the sex] until the end. In the final gangbang, the girls sort of lose themselves. Things were just happening to them. I suspect that there is a philosophy of going through hell and coming out at the other end, but I'm not sure. It started off as one film and ended as a different one, and that inconsistency bothered me.

The Crash Pad

Somewhere in San Francisco, an apartment sits empty. If someone gives you the key, you can go there and fuck and fuck and fuck. The catch is that you can only use the key seven times. Directed by Shine Louise Houston in 2006, this film utilizes its simple set up to jump right into strikingly diverse and well-shot queer hardcore.

David Sterritt: The reason you need a whole movie, if you do need one [for porn], is for story and psychology. Those elements were so completely minimal in The Crash Pad. The thing that distinguished it was its voyeuristic angle, that there was secret filming going on in the story. Technically, it had a crude look. That could have been on purpose because the movie is about… voyeurism. It was also really repetitious. I'm aware there were different kinds of penetration and combinations. To be fair to Crash Pad, [everyone involved] appeared to be having a lot of fun, and that came across. And it is, I'm sure, an underserved community [that this speaks to]. So it's admirable. But the byproduct is that it's only going to serve a limited community, and it's not going to reach out to people like me.

Meghan Sutherland: I like that there was no narrative. It was forthright. It shifted the question of its aesthetic values onto ethics and the stylization of social difference and sex, which rearticulates the social through different groupings. The formal structures seemed more reminiscent of traditional hetero-porn than I expected—a heavy, almost clinical focus on the action. But I was interested in how it was shown. The Crash Pad is just this normal house, not a fantasy space. The lighting was natural, the way the bodies were shown felt intimate, like you were looking at real people who weren't groomed to the edge. That gave it a kind of tenderness and honesty.

Michael Sicinski: I want to see more work by Shine Louise Houston. This film has a communitarian vibe and is coming from a queer sensibility. But there is this attention to composition and editing that I never noticed is so sorely lacking in pornography. Most pornographers find the vagina at best negligible and at worst distasteful. But Houston shoots vaginas as a beautiful body part. In one threesome scene, there's a shot from the end of the bed looking up with a naked woman's pelvis being framed by the other two women's black dildos almost in a triangular formation. That's not the kind of thing that just happens. These are the things that show care about how the image looks and how the camera can embellish the sex scene.

Mike Sargent: It was a good delivery mechanism… that any couple can be there and you pass [the key] on. But you don't understand why you can use the pad or how it got started. They're not interested in giving you more than, "Here's a key, you can go have sex." I did like the variety and the fact that it's multiracial. People of color are more fetishized in the straight adult film industry. I enjoyed that there was nothing fetishistic about this. It was just different women having different sexual experiences. I liked that it showed the diversity of queer culture. That made it groundbreaking. It made me question some things I'd never questioned, like walking around with your strap-on on in public as a woman. Is that a thing? What does it mean ? It made me curious.

Lise Raven: Lots of fun, no pretension. Everyone was having a great time no matter what was going on. There was a lot of action, a minimum of distraction. It was fresh, and it was raw, and I liked that. She wasn't going for showy editing or filmmaking, yet it wasn't sloppy or unintentional. She didn't use the camera in any different way. But it was not formulaic. The sex scenes felt organic as opposed to being constructed through the camera work and editing. But after a while, it was just couple after couple having sex. If I wasn't charged with watching it all, I probably would have gotten bored and fast-forwarded.

Upload

A four-hour sci-fi crime epic from 2007 that depicts a high-tech future in which America's most vital infrastructure is a supercharged internet that allows people to upload immersive porn into their brains. The story follows a government agent as she tries to track down a virus believed to be coming through these mind pornos—and gets her first double penetration.

David Sterritt: It wasn't made on a mainstream budget. Still, the effects carry a ring of conviction. There were long dialogue scenes; I guess that speaks to a seriousness on the movie's part. But the dialogue was not that interesting, and the acting was not that good. And a lot of it was between a guy behind a desk and a woman in front of a desk—not very imaginative.

The sex scenes are like films for plumbers. You really see how those pipes fit together. In the specialist viewer community, there are going to be things like, "This is so-and-so's first double penetration." People have a right to be interested in that. But for those of us who are not into it, more than a minute is too much. [There is] a kind of monotony, not just in the sex scenes, but in the movie as a whole, despite its exotic subject matter. It's a [hardcore sex] delivery system.

Meghan Sutherland: At first, I was like, "Jesus Christ, four hours." I thought it was going to be brutal to watch. But I developed an appreciation. It worked a lot of formal references to film noir and the femme fatal. I was impressed with the rigor of the conceit and this sci-fi reflection on porn. The plot was smart. The sci-fi set-up allows you to multiply the possibilities of the settings. There was an attempt to reflect on the projection of the psyche of a woman who would be in porn in the way the main character is always baiting people to think about her motives. [And] it's an interesting vision of what the future of pornography could look like when it incorporates AI.

Michael Sicinski: A lot of time, effort, and money were devoted to production design. [But] I found a lot of its narrative cyber espionage material tedious. The timing, structure, and rhythm is so awkward. A lot of the stuff is opaque and illogical. You can get away with illogical guff in a script if you keep the pace up. But because it was so poorly paced, the audience had time to figure out that this stuff just doesn't make sense. It also seemed like the makers had their hearts invested in this cyber-punk narrative more than in the porn, but because of where the money was coming from, they had a contractual obligation to have hardcore content that often feels out of place. At times, it was just odd.

Mike Sargent: Some of the storytelling is a little crude, though it's a great idea. I enjoyed the fact that they put that much thought into it, and I wanted to know what the McGuffin here was. It would have worked as a B-movie and done well as a hotel rental. There's really about 45 minutes of story here. But they could have stretched it out if they'd wanted to make a porn TV series or something. But the sex was overpowering and very long. It doesn't necessarily advance the plot. In fact, it stops the plot. It's all over the place in terms of its shooting style. And none of the acting is great. It succeeded 50 percent of the time when it was trying to emulate some production value. The rest of the time, it just looked cheesy.

Lise Raven: Would people have gone to see this on 42nd street in the 80s, in the time of Blade Runner and Alien, the way they went to see Deep Throat? Maybe not. I can see how elevating the production value and creating a world is pushing this into new territory, but it didn't have enough of those [sci-fi action] scenes. There wasn't enough going on.

The characters weren't much more complex than most in adult films. There's no need to acknowledge them because when they go to a hardcore scene, it's just a hardcore scene. It doesn't matter who it is. And they didn't bring their innovation to the sex scenes. You just got a lot of everything in detail. Within the genre of adult film, they did themselves proud with great cinematography, design, costumes, and locations. But I never for one minute felt this was something else other than a porn.

David Sterritt is a retired yet still prolific film critic with more than 50 years of experience at national outlets, champion of the avant-garde, and respected voice in criticism and classic-cinema studies.

Meghan Sutherland is a University of Toronto film studies professor whose works revolve around politics, aesthetics, and spectacle on the screen.

Michael Sicinski is a film critic, teacher, and the voice behind the Academic Hack , a collection of criticism that mostly explores experimental movies.

Mike Sargent is founding member of the African American Film Critics Association and Black Film Critics Circle, and an emerging film director.

Lise Raven is filmmaker who co-founded the Slamdance Film Festival for emerging artists and low-budget independent films and associate professor of film at Montclair State University.

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