“Voyeur”

voyeur

Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: “Voyeur” is a video game with sex-thriller and “Dynasty”-like narrative elements. It’s played on your TV, meant to be enjoyed by grown-ups, and to turn them on.

Polly Frost: Computers, multimedia, pornography … Why do I have to share your enthusiasms?

RS: I don’t care if you share them. I only want to know how you react to them.

PF: I really went for Masa, the Japanese eco-terrorist. He’s one Pacific-Rim hunk! You seemed to like the scene where that major cocktease Chloe, in skimpy undies, interrupts Masa’s martial arts work-out and gets him to rub her shoulders. You interacted your way every single time to her cute little blonde-girl butt.

RS: Only because it reminded me of yours.

PF: Hah. And you liked the line Chloe says to her cousin’s uptight wife Lara, “The bra has to go.” Would you like to say that to your woman?

RS: Actually, I liked hearing a woman say it to a woman.

PF: How passive of you. “Voyeur” is about as effective a marital aid as getting a flat when you’re on vacation, and one of you has to read the instructions while the other one changes the tire.

RS: An erotic suspense story should have an I’m-on-a-waterslide excitement. In a movie it can be arousing that you can’t re-run a favorite scene — narrative does have its purposes. I never experienced linearity as the horrible thing some theorists make it out to be. Did you?

PF: I grew up on the LA freeways. I wouldn’t know what linearity is.

RS: Now that digital media give us the ability to bring up our favorite movie and video bits instantly, and run them past over and over, I wonder what new frustrations and yearnings we’ll discover. How did the partial point-of-view work for you?

PF: It was like a Christmas advent calendar. You’re in an apartment, looking through a video camera. Across the way is the mansion of a powerful, sinister family. You’re peering into their windows, at pieces of a story. Some are video segments with actual actors, some are audio clips, some are clues you zoom in and pick out. You have a limited amount of time to solve the mystery. Then you warn the character in danger, or you contact the police. When I heard the words “interactive multimedia” I was afraid I was going to have to do a lot more than that.

RS: “Voyeur” is halfway between a movie and a video game, and it isn’t a satisfying mesh.

PF: If you play a typical video game, you enter into it as a character, like Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s your id set free. “Voyeur” would be more fun if you could be Reed, who wants to be President and tries to bury his dirty secrets, or Chantal, the dominatrix who really runs his empire.

RS: It seems to have been made by entrepreneurs rather than entertainers.

PF: It didn’t lead to great sex; it led to weird dreams when we conked out instead.

RS: And different kinds of dreams than the ones movies stir up.

PF: Death or sex should be the catharsis of interaction. In “Voyeur” I never even got to see anyone killed. It might work if my prurient interests were being more expertly catered to.

RS: Inept game-players like us need more payoffs along the way. Maybe what’s supposed to be adult about “Voyeur” is the endlessly postponed pleasure.

PF: Interactive multimedia makes me feel like I’m in one of those restaurants where they tell you to create your own omelet. I say, show me what your chef can do. Then let me bitch about it. I don’t want to be the one who decides whether Anna Karenina jumps in front of that train! Is it the technology itself that turns you on?

RS: It’s like watching the birth of a new medium. Imagine being in on the first days of movies, when people were trying things out that had never been seen before.

PF: Film seems far richer than multimedia.

RS: I think that’s because only a few people have begun learning how to do more with multimedia than show off the technology. Lousy as “Voyeur” is, look at how complicated even it gets. When we cut in close to gather evidence we sometimes wind up looking at someone’s computer — we’re watching our TV, which is portraying an image seen through a video camera that shows us a message on a computer screen. For 25 years, worlds-within-worlds self-referentiality was an aspect of art that baby boomers were obsessed by. Who knows why? But for better or worse multimedia is the recently-hatched culmination of that obsession. And people are still mostly just fumbling around with it.

PF: It gave me a headache.

RS: Humanizing the computer world and learning how to interact with it are two of the great intellectual/aesthetic challenges of our day. Can I make some other fast points?

PF: Only if you number them. I love it when you make lists.

RS: 1) When you’re using it with interactive programs, your TV becomes a different device than the one that’s discussed by critics of TV like Neil Postman. It’s no idiot box. Imagine: all that theorizing disproved, just like that. 2) Videocam style is entirely different from the classic visual language of the movies, and may be obliterating it. 3) The home entertainment center — the stereo/TV/computer rig — is today’s cathedral, museum and theater. 3a) Don’t do that.

PF: Don’t do what?

RS: Don’t scratch your back yourself. Think interactive, baby. Tell me how you want it scratched.

PF: Down up down right there yes not there do it right aaaahhhh. This is exactly why I find “Voyeur” boring — if I’m going to boss someone around I want to do it in person.

©1992 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Guest Choice

By Ray Sawhill

I have experienced “video on demand” and I’m spoiled for good. Ordering up what you want when you want it — that’s what video on demand means. At any time of the day — late, early, 13 minutes before the hour or 21 minutes after — you can point the remote control, click a few times, and start the program you choose.

Although video on demand won’t be generally available for five or ten years, you can get a taste of it now if you spend a night in one of the 125,000 hotel rooms that have been wired up to Guest Choice, a service devised by the visionaries at Spectradyne, the Dallas company that pioneered cable and pay-per-view movies in hotel rooms. Offering only a hundred or so programs — movies, sports features, “classic TV” — and working not via fiber-optic wires and computers but a videocassette jukebox, Guest Choice is a modest and quaintly low-tech version of the service.

Still, making use of it, you know that your relationship with the television has changed forever. It takes a moment or two to get used to the fact that your TV wants you to tell it what programming to deliver. Then it seems natural; after all, isn’t this the direction the human/television exchange was meant to take from the beginning? Within minutes, it becomes impossible to conceive of going out to a movie, or renting a videocassette, or waiting around for a program to begin.

Video on demand is obscenely pleasing — like having Rebecca de Mornay appear at your door and say, “Hi, I’m yours, do with me what you will.” It’s the ultimate in room service, and it’s instantly and completely corrupting. Now that it has arrived, it’s time to agree once and for all that television is the most seductive and versatile of all appliance/media/toys. Like de Mornay’s character in “Risky Business,” video on demand costs. But when it becomes available at home, the only reason you’ll have to go out will be to earn the money you need to afford to stay in.

    • Wikipedia offers a good entry on the topic of video on demand.
    • The industry’s early days were driven by a demand for — surprise, surprise — porn.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Cannibal Culture 3

By Ray Sawhill

More and more of the images in the American sleaze magazine Celebrity Sleuth are taken from video screens. How is the sexual makeup of young men being affected?

As an adolescent, I was entranced by Princess Caroline of Monaco, whom paparazzi were forever snapping in states of semi-undress. Ever since, I’ve responded erotically to almost any photograph taken with an unusually long lens. By now there must be several generations of young men raised on TV whose imaginations have been imprinted by the visual qualities of the video image. All those horizontal lines! “Honey, would you mind standing behind the Venetian blind, just for a minute?”

***

I buy Celebrity Sleuth for the photos they run of naked actresses. Naked actresses have been my passion for years. As a boy, I enjoyed Playboy’s annual “Sex in the Cinema” feature more than I did its monthly smorgasbord of prettily-posed flesh. Movies being what they are now, it’s the possibility of seeing an actress I care about undress that keeps me a moviegoer. What gives me pleasure is the conjunction of the physical, the spiritual, and the esthetic — although when I tried to make the case to female colleagues that Sharon Stone had given a great performance in “Basic Instinct,” I was jeered down and informed that I’d simply been turned on. So I’ve kept it to myself that, in Jim McBride’s “The Wrong Man,” Rosanna Arquette gives her best performance since “The Executioner’s Song.” I know that someone’s going to say, You just liked it that she finally got naked again.

***

When you compare the horror-and-kung-fu bimbos who are also featured in Celebrity Sleuth with the real actresses, you understand a key distinction. The bimbos display themselves professionally; they’re there to serve. The actresses are relating to something, or focused on their roles, or projecting an emotion. They’re naked, yet retain their mystery. So you feel involved with them.

***

John Hinckley wasn’t unusual in having a fantasy relationship with a movie actress, and he may not have been unusual in thinking he had a real one. There may be a little Hinckley in many male moviegoers. The few times I met actresses who had dizzied me onscreen, I was confused and upset. They didn’t seem aware of what we’d been through together.

***

English actresses often look amused and in-charge when they appear nude, while French actresses display their poise and style — the French expect their culture products to have an erotic sheen.

In Gérard Corbiau’s new “Farinelli,” about an 18th century castrato opera star, women fans swoon over Farinelli, who’s conveniently masculine-looking and broad-chested. He makes out with them and works them up, then steps aside to allow his (mangier but better-equipped) brother to complete the coupling. The actresses (Elsa Zylberstein and Marianne Basler) flush, breathe deeply into their sensations, and let feelings ripple through their bodies.

What Hollywood usually presents as an extravaganza of lighting, music, and set-design is here made to seem to occur inside the women; watching them is like watching those roses open at the beginning of “Age of Innocence.” I imagined I was a third brother, adept at Euro-connoisseurship; my wife tells me she identified with the women, enjoying being savored. So much for the hegemony of the “masculine gaze.”

***

Americans don’t have a comparable tradition of sexual appreciation. Celebrity Sleuth seems a perfect embodiment of our conflicts. It’s full of childishly smutty puns (“Enjoy Joan Chen’s Twin ‘Peaks’ And China ‘Moon'”), giggly italics, and lipstick-and-swimming-pool colors. At the same time, it’s indisputably reverential and adoring. The women are bathed in that special light that descends only when you’re chosen to appear in both a movie and a magazine. If pop culture has become the modern Gospel, these stills are our versions of those Renaissance panels that portray dramatic highlights from the Bible.

***

We might all learn a thing or two about actors by leafing through Marilu (“Taxi”) Henner’s sweetly inane, unabashed new autobiography, “By All Means Keep on Moving” (Pocket). To Henner, an affair is a “little work of sexually gratifying art.” About one such affair, she tells us, “Actors are usually so desperate for work that they’re inclined to create fantasy improvs. Lloyd and I had some pretty hot ones. One was a teacher-student act … Detention often included a few over-the-desk spankings.”

Actors: Drama-seeking, amoral — there’s a start.

***

The early in-production pieces about “Showgirls,” Paul Verhoeven’s first film since “Basic Instinct,” have been confused. The journalists don’t seem to know what angle to take on the film, which is set among the strip clubs and topless revues of Las Vegas, and is almost certain to be rated NC-17. The problem is that no one involved seems ashamed of the project, or interested in making a political or artistic case out of it. They just seem to want to make this movie. In interviews, Verhoeven is suavely amusing about his taste for sensationalism, and the actresses speak seriously about their commitment to showing an “interesting world that’s worthy of depiction.”

***

Uma Thurman is set to play Marlene Dietrich in a film to be directed by Louis Malle from a John Guare script. It seems like perfect casting. Uma, along with such other young actresses as Diane Lane, Kelly Lynch, Jenny Wright, and Laura Dern, is something new — an American performer who conveys tragic sexual fatalism of a sort that we’re used to getting only from Europeans.

Uma appeared, of course, in “Henry and June,” the first film to be rated NC-17, and frames from some of her other movies are regularly featured in Celebrity Sleuth. Recently, though, she has been avoiding nudity, which is a pity. If she were to use her body more freely, Uma could be as redolent a presence as Dietrich, yet ratchet up the intensity and sensuality one more notch. She may simply feel she needs to defend herself against exploitation — but watching actresses fight to overcome exploitation is one of the great ongoing American screen dramas.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Cannibal Culture 2

By Ray Sawhill

Over and over I hear — sometimes from young people, sometimes from video-parlor clerks — that people in their 20s won’t watch black and white movies. Yet ads and music videos aimed at young people often use black and white.

How to account for this? My guess is that it isn’t just a question of pacing. In the ads and videos, black and white is used as a sign. We read its meaning: “low-budget integrity,” “drained of affect,” “1950s glamor” — nostalgia for the childhood someone, somewhere must have had. In the old movies, black and white doesn’t need de-coding.

20somethings seem to find it inconceivable that one might move into and inhabit a language. Suggest that it’s possible, and they look at you with “what kind of dinosaur are you?” disbelief. External reality consists of a desktop to be customized, and icons to be clicked on.

Movie language, evolved during the “organic unity” modernist era, strikes young people as fit only to be parodied, referred to ironically, or shunned.

***

The baby boomers who now run the media were once known as the Movie Generation. The 20somethings, their progeny, may be the Anti-Movie Generation, even when they make movies. In their films, people wander out of frame, someone horses with a videocam, partners shift, time drizzles by. Finally, someone confesses that he feels miserable.

***

“Bodies, Rest and Motion,” “Clerks,” “Reality Bites,” and the grandaddy of the genre, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” — even the titles demand a lower-case, sans-serif typeface. There’s something abroad that’s beyond language, we’re being told. It demands diagramming-out, new thought patterns, new technologies.

***

“Late Bloomers,” by David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams, is subtitled “Coming of Age in Today’s America: The Right Place at the Wrong Time” (Times). There aren’t any surprises in the Generation X complaints it sets forth: AIDS, the deficit, divorced baby boomer parents. GenXers of the most self-conscious type — MediaSomethings — Lipsky and Abrams spend most of the book worrying about media portrayals, complaining about them in one paragraph, using them to bolster their case in the next.

***

The MediaSomethings have grown up surrounded by cameras and recording devices. They seem to want to protest against the society of the spectacle, and to be videotaped doing so.

As prose writers, the MediaSomethings have two major modes: the mock-selling (ie., commercial) style, and the no-style (ie., truth or art) style.

The commercial style seems to come equally from ads, stand-up comics, e-mail, and video jockeys. It’s raucous — full of imperatives, YO!-style attention-grabbers, dropped subjects, and invisible auxiliary verbs. It’s prose that wears its baseball cap backwards, and pushes its snout into a wide-angle lens. Entire sentences seem to turn into contractions. “Never mind those stories about … “; “So it’s gross. So what did you expect?”

***

The art style is in love with the poignancy of nothingness. Lipsky and Abrams stand firmly, or limply, in this camp. Their specialty is the forlorn, stray clause, and the whimsically dangled participle: “It wasn’t a surprise, exactly … Perhaps, in a weird way … Divorced, you see them as people … ” These are words lying immobile among dirty sheets, mourning another drab day, unable even to shut off the alarm.

***

Elements of the MediaSomething magazine style include mix-‘n’-match visuals, splatter-font typography, and tail-end-of-the-roll photos. In book-jacket design, the wan, faded-and-blurred photograph has already become a cliché. So have brackets used for no grammatical reason.

The mainstream has been quick to pick the style up. Nonsense brackets have made appearances in ads for Ikea, the discount-furniture chain. New York Magazine’s recent makeover features blocks of type crushed together, and a color-Xerox-and-video palette. When layouts first started being done on Macintoshes, the idea was to use the machines to streamline the design process. Now ads, magazines, and books are made to look like computer screens. The world inside the computer has become primary. “The trash can in your office has become an icon for the trash can on your Mac screen,” an artist friend says.

***

Another artist tells me that when he shows his students a slide of, say, a Velázquez, he can’t get them to see it as a unique work. It registers instead as “Old Master.” “To them, an image is only an example of a category of images,” he says.

***

The professor and critic Hal Foster described in the Times what he sees as a new “ethic of the loser,” and managed a good description of Nirvana’s music: “a lullaby droned to the dreamy beat of the death drive.” Still, I think he’s wrong to find only defeatism there. Not working in a media factory, he may not hear the sound — it may be a whine, but it’s a self-confident whine — of the MediaSomethings making their way.

My theory is this: the MediaSomethings were raised under the spell of victimology and deconstruction, yet they still crave stardom and sex. So they brandish not self and language, but the signs of victimhood. Hence, young guys in granny dresses and dreadlocks, young women in washed-out babydolls and tatoos.

***

A man who once did business with Kurt Cobain told me (with wry exasperation) that what isn’t understood about Cobain is how badly he wanted stardom. My theory suggests that Cobain’s suicide was the ultimate act of MediaSomething self-assertion. Bookstores are awash in new titles by and for MediaSomethings, but none have sold many copies. Why? Shannon Maughan and Jonathan Bing report in Publishers Weekly that young people prefer to buy products that blur boundaries — CD-ROMs, book-and-disc packages. A bookstore manager tells me that what he sees young people buying are books about television. One hit was “The Entertainment Weekly Seinfeld Companion.”

Publishers are still trying to find a formula, according to Maughan and Bing. Silhouette has kicked off a series of romance novels featuring “dismal entry-level jobs, credit card debts, drugs and HIV infection.” One agent has reached a sensible conclusion. Since “corporate America is obsessed with marketing to Generation X,” he said, let’s sell the books about 20somethings to the baby boomers.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Cannibal Culture 1


By Ray Sawhill

In his new “The Gutenberg Elegies” (Faber and Faber), the literary critic Sven Birkerts wants us to know how much reading and writing matter to him. Really, that’s his theme. The changeover from ink-on-paper to electronics elicits from him ruminations, intimacies, autobiographical scourings. We learn about his spells as a bookstore employee, his attempt at novel-writing, the time he met Joseph Brodsky. We learn that reading and writing matter a lot to Sven Birkerts.

It’s a fussily literary, drippy book, but that drippiness may be one of the perils of book-besottedness. We bond with some books. They can seem to speak to our most private selves. We can even feel that our autobiographies consist of the books we’ve read. (At surlier moments, we can feel that our truest autobiographies consist of the porn we’ve collected.)

We learn that Birkerts disapproves of computers, although we don’t find out why we should care. Birkerts doesn’t propose any way of putting a stop to the things, and he doesn’t assemble an entertainingly, or enlighteningly, Luddite vision. His book is finally a symptom of the mush-headedness of the bookish; what it expresses is a reverence for books per se.

My quarrel with Birkerts, who’s generally a good critic, may be a matter of temperament. I love some books; some I hate; some I like OK; most I couldn’t care less about. It’s what people do (or don’t do) with them that matters to me.

***

If Birkerts is at the stern, waving a damp hankie at the native land he fears he’ll never see again, Paul Goldstein, in “Copyright’s Highway” (Hill and Wang), stands at the helm alongside the harder-headed people. We may not know what lies before us, Goldstein seems to feel, but that’s no reason not to pull out the sextant.

What makes copyright a fascinating topic right now is that digital electronics permit flawless duplication. Plug into what Goldstein calls the “celestial jukebox,” and such concepts as “uniqueness” and “authenticity” become meaningless; you’re instantly in a post-Walter Benjamin, post-Situationist, post-Derrida world. Everything’s a copy, or maybe nothing is.

Goldstein runs us through copyright’s history, compares Anglo to non-Anglo assumptions about intellectual property, and takes us inside some key recent cases (photocopying, sampling). His theme is: what will happen to producers of intellectual property when “digital sampling shreds their works into bits and pieces, free for users to recombine into entirely different forms?”

This isn’t the book on the relations between copyright law and artistic form you may hope for, even though Goldstein pauses to comment that “copyright law indelibly colors the works it encompasses.” Still, his discussion of legal practicalities sparks off more brain circuits — even those concerned with aesthetic matters — than Birkerts’ self-scrutiny does.

***

New York isn’t a bad place to watch the celestial jukebox take shape. Warner Books has given an imprint — traditionally a kind of fiefdom awarded to an editor of distinction — to the TV executive Brandon Tartikoff. He’ll be developing projects with “multi-platform” possibilities. Hyperion has paid as much as a million dollars to the brothers who created the computer game “Myst,” for a novel they have written with a collaborator. Mischievously, Catbird Press, Online BookStore and the author Floyd Kemske have been posting drafts of Kemske’s novel-in-progress on the Internet, so the public can help edit the book.

***

Vintage, in their publicity material for Camille Paglia’s “Vamps and Tramps,” include a page-long statement from James Wolcott that was found on a computer chat board. This may be the dawn of the unsolicited electro-blurb.

Paglia’s (very entertaining) book consists of articles, reviews, interviews, transcripts of TV shows she’s appeared on, even blurbs (of Gutenberg-era vintage) she’s written for other people’s books. There’s also an appendix that’s a detailed record of her ongoing assault on popular culture. (Several references are made to The Modern Review.) It has to be the most miscellaneous miscellany of all time. You might call it a multimedia extravaganza.

***

The reputation of that former godhead Sigmund Freud has fallen so low that his defenders are resorting to desperation measures. Harold Bloom, Paglia’s mentor, includes Freud among the great writers in his “The Western Canon.” Here’s his rationale: “Freud called himself a scientist, but he will survive as a great essayist like Montaigne or Emerson.” It’s almost too easy to point out that Montaigne and Emerson didn’t pretend to be scientists.

***

Bloom supplies a blurb for “Freud’s Wishful Dream Book” by Alexander Welsh. Another of the book’s blurbs is from Frederick Crews, Freud’s most relentless debunker. How can this be? Welsh’s book is a lit-crit treatment of “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it’s the lit-critness of it that brings Bloom and Crews together. Bloom, eager for Freud’s scientific pretensions to be forgotten so as to get on with enshrining him as a literary genius, is delighted. Crews, eager to see those pretensions demolished so as to destroy Freud’s reputation entirely, is delighted too.

***

In “The Myth of Irrationality” (Carroll & Graf), John McCrone argues that the Freudian model of personality walks hand in hand with romanticism and modernism, and that we know too much now to see these doctrines as anything but quasi-religions. McCrone suggests that part of the appeal of Freudianism is simply that it makes life seem more dramatic. In his view, personality consists of a body — literally — of animal needs, atop which sits a cultural superstructure. Language is what connects the two; it trains the animal.

In one passage, he reviews the evidence we have of people without any culture — feral children, and untutored deaf and blind children — in order to venture an answer to the question: what do unmediated lives consist of? It turns out that when these children are hungry, they eat. When they need to crap, they crap. Occasionally they hump something. The rest of the time, they snooze, scratch, and rock on their heels. Such, it seems, may be the real beast within.

***

If appearances — as in haircuts and clothes — are any indication, no doubt can remain any more that digital media are the coming thing. The best-looking kids I’ve seen since my last trip to California were students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (the wired generation’s equivalent of film school), and employees at Voyager, a publisher of literary CD-ROMs.

Meanwhile, audiences at the New York Film Festival look seedier every year. They’re really in a rut. During the q&a sessions after screenings, the audiences asked the same questions they’ve asked for decades: how difficult a time did you have making your film? How horrible was it to get financing? There’s something almost pornographic in the festival audience’s need to do battle for the artist.

By contrast, after an evening of CD-ROM presentations, the well-groomed, bright-eyed crowd didn’t want to know how society should protect and nurture its poor artists. They wanted to know how to do this nifty multimedia stuff for themselves.

***

At another evening’s presentation — this one of rock videos — our host called the videos he was showing “subversive.” I took him to mean that he liked them. It’s a mystery why more art and entertainment-world people still haven’t caught onto the fact that the — or at least a — revolution has already occurred. With computers infiltrating work and home like invaders from Mars, there’s no need for anyone to promote deconstruction anymore. The machines are taking care of it by themselves.

An example: the place of literature within the marketplace of books. Look at the way fiction is broken down into horror, westerns, mystery, romance, literature, fiction (i.e., current literary titles), and other categories. 20 years ago that wasn’t the case. If fiction was broken down at all, it was into fiction, bestsellers and “classics.” In other words, in the typical American bookstore, right now, literature has already been de-privileged. It doesn’t represent the pinnacle of anything. It’s simply one category like any other. (Harold Bloom is probably right when he says that the battle for “greatness” has already been lost.) The reason has nothing to do with Marxist theory, and everything to do with the computerization of inventories.

***

The computer world doesn’t lack for utopians with therapeutic agendas. The faith of the digital propagandists — I think of them as the Digi-Props — is that the computer will set free the native genius of the people. (Therapist/utopians always see such energies as being released, not created.)

One Digi-Prop at a recent conference recounted her dismay at finding so very much bad writing on the Internet. A moment of bracing realism? Far from it. She told us that she finally realized that what she had encountered wasn’t poor thinking, poorly expressed. It was rich with qualities of its own. She colored slightly as she said this, but with fervor, not embarrassment. It was up to us (presumably the rightly-guilty cognitive elite) once again to reserve judgment, and (wouldn’t you know it?) to deconstruct our thinking about what constitutes “good writing.” She looked shyly beatific. She had confronted her doubts, and overcome them.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Amateur Pornography

amateur02

By Ray Sawhill

It’s a safe bet the first couple that bought a camcorder spent the afternoon taping baby romping and the evening taping themselves having sex. Like Polaroid cameras, camcorders instantly suggest themselves as sex toys. By the mid-Eighties, somewhere in the States, maybe even everywhere, people who made cassettes of themselves fucking started exchanging the cassettes. Chain-mail-like networks of participant-consumers developed, with streams of cassettes going from post-office box to post-office box. Eventually someone got the idea of copying the tapes as they passed by, and marketing them. It’s unlikely that the people who appeared in the first commercially available amateur porn tapes had any intention of being seen by the general public.

The inexpensive camcorder has set porn free from its adherence to the ideal of conventional narrative film. Amateur porn is sleazy, raw and (sometimes) intense, but it’s also companionable; watching it, you feel you’re among enthusiasts. Things aren’t garishly spelled out for you; whether or not a passage has been given a narrative frame, you essentially supply the narrative and illusion elements yourself. Amateur porn gives you erotic kicks free of any attempt at class and meaning.

In the past five years amateur tapes have grown in popularity until they account for as much as 15% of all porn sales; they’re also starting to be available in rental stores. Right up there on the shelf next to such professional tapes as “Lesbian Foot Lickers” and “Beverly Hills Cox” are tapes somebody you know from work may have made and appeared in. There are over 100 small entrepreneurs distributing the tapes, paying $15 to $30 a minute for new material. Some companies have camera crews of their own that they send out to film willing couples, and threesomes and foursomes; there are even companies that hire ringers — hookers and johns — and film them having “amateur” sex.

Before porn features became available in the Sixties, hard-core action could be seen on stag films and loops — short films seen at parties and in coin-operated peeping machines. Now, loops are back, but they’re loops produced by the consumers. Amateur is alternative porn in the same way that garage bands are alternative rock, that ‘zines are alternative journalism.

Film technique becomes detached from its usual meanings. Conventional films have trained us to perk up at hand-held camera movement; it’s subjective, the killer’s getting close. Watching amateur, we have no such certainty. Everything’s subjective. Amateur tapes are like cinema verité, or Warhol films without the aesthetic or intellectual underpinning. One of two naked women lies back on a waterbed. The man pushes her thighs towards her shoulders and guides his penis into her. The other woman lowers her crotch over the prone woman’s face. Their grunts, groans and whimpers mix with the sloshing of the waterbed. The camera roves over the heaving bodies, its focus uncertain, fascinated by the pillowy flesh and the straining muscles. On the TV screen, the tangle looks like a convention of flesh-colored octopi. The camera moves in closer and — whap. A flailing limb gives it a knock.

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Sometimes the effect is akin to watching after-hours action on the surveillance monitor in a convenience store. A participant may leave the action, go behind the camera and fiddle with the lens, and it’s as if he’s stepped out of the television you’re watching and is standing behind you. The soundtrack may go berserk, with racket-making beds and couches, and vibrators roaring like lawnmowers.

Watching the tapes is like taking a tour of American basements, backyards, and bedrooms. What you see of the condos and houses — sliding glass doors, pool tables, “living-room sets” — suggests entire social lives. The bedrooms often look like motel rooms, with mirrored doors and fuzzy polyester blankets; the carpets are always wall-to-wall. It’s the America Eric Fischl shows in his paintings. You speculate about the participants’ jobs: this one’s a security guard, she’s a loan officer, that one’s in purchasing. They all seem to be indoctrinated with the post-Seventies belief that endless oral sex is the best way to “get each other ready.”

A naked thirtyish brunette is walking around a backyard pool with hedge clippers, trimming plants. She “gets an idea,” settles down on a chaise longue, and then masturbates with the grip ends of the hedge clippers, slipping one of the handles up her vagina; we’re treated to an enormous, enthralled close-up of this. She mimes a terrific orgasm, sighs, slips the handle out and — rounding off the plot — returns to hedge clipping. (You can’t help wondering: is this for her husband?) In most tapes the couple are fucking and the camera is handheld. Who’s holding it? A neighbor?

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The erotic batting average isn’t terribly high, but at least you don’t have to sit through an involved plot. You can put a tape on and check out the action from time to time — it’s friendly video wallpaper. There’s always the chance a scene will be a humdinger, something that doesn’t jibe with what you already know of your own sexual tastes. The dream of course is that you’ll be party to spontaneous, free sex. But what you see in most cases are people whose ideas of sex, kink and getting off come from professional porn. The people seem more involved in trying to feel hot than in the sex they’re actually having. It’s like karaoke; they’re fucking to someone else’s soundtrack. You may conclude that though everyone fucks, few are really into it. A man behind the camera suggests to a woman who’s holding a vibrator to her crotch that she move a little this way and that. “Pipe down,” she snaps, really testy. “I’ll press my own joy buttons my own way, thank you very much.” He pipes down.

The men tend to hold the camera, and point it and monkey with the lenses. When they’re in front of the camera they whale away at their partners like workmen bent over their tasks. The women are the glory of amateur porn: most give themselves up to the camera. (Few straight men show this talent.) You feel you know when they’re being obliging and when they’re really into their own sensations.

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Amateur porn has already spawned sub-genres. A stand-out is the Nasty Brothers’ hybrid, the “Dirty Debutantes” series — the owner of my local porn parlor says that each installment sells out instantly. It’s taped in an L.A. living room; all the action takes place around and on a sofa. Ed Powers is the leader of the Nasty Brothers; he and his team pick up girls and bring them home. (“Debutantes” seems to indicate simply that the girls aren’t pros.) He begins each segment behind the camera, with the girl in front. Fade up from black; you see and hear the girl and hear Ed’s voice. Some of the girls have agreed in advance to undress; some to masturbate; some to have sex. (You’re hoping the girls will go further than they’ve agreed to; they may be hoping so too.) The tapes generally include about eight segments, each with a different girl. Ed has a deep, jocular-yet-reassuring, television-announcer’s voice that manages to be gently respectful yet dismissive of the girls’ possible anxieties. He’s like a soothing, sinister babysitter.

Ed is essentially in the position of a producer with a casting couch, only the action on the couch is the movie. One girl, short and pert, has a frozen smile and a skeptical expression — Ed easily coaxes her by her objections. When she’s naked, Ed asks her to show him her favorite sex position; she poses on her hands and knees. Bewildering. Has Ed coached her? Is this the position she’s learned her boyfriend prefers?

You watch the tapes thinking about these teenagers — their drive to be found charming and sweet, their wanting to do things Ed encourages them to do, and their desire to be documented doing them. Perhaps in L.A. appearing before Ed’s camera has acquired a cachet, like nipple-piercing. A pretty long-haired blonde explains that she’s 18 and a half, that she has a boyfriend who’s shy, and that she’ll masturbate — “and that’s all for now.” She might be introducing herself at a beauty pageant. She strips. Fade to black, fade up. Ed’s now with her. The first time you see Ed it’s startling; it’s as if your lusting spirit had left you and joined the girl on screen.

Ed fondles the girl’s breasts and whispers inaudible, presumably naughty things in her ear as she masturbates excitedly. He’s about 40, keeps his glasses on all the time and wears a ponytail. She has an orgasm. Fade to black and up. By the end of this segment there’s some serious fucking going on, but you can’t tell who the guy is. Has she gone home and returned with her “shy” boyfriend? She’s giving her partner — whoever he is — tender looks. When his excitement peaks, he pulls out and comes on her face. She smiles radiantly and giggles. Fade to black.

Most often Ed winds up fucking the girl himself. You meet the girl, and the rest of the segment is a working out in sex of what you spotted in the first tenth of a second. Ed never forces anything on the girls; he actually relates to them, telling them he’s nervous, and he attends to their shyness or boldness. You see and hear no sign of protest, not even when he slips into a girl’s ass.

When people talk about their dream of erotic movies, it’s usually of explicit sex joined to good plots, believable acting and smooth production values. Despite an infinite number of tries, professional porn has never come as close to this ideal as such mainstream movies as “Straw Dogs,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Internal Affairs” or “Basic Instinct.”

Perhaps a reason for this is that the porn hunger tends inward; its source is in the surly part of a guy that wants things entirely on its own terms. Porn serves the part of a guy that’s fed up with illusion and matters of taste — that wants to cut straight to the action. It’s anti-art and anti-romance. (This part of a guy seems to play a role in conventional movie-going too.)

From the evidence of my friends, heterosexual men love thinking and talking about which actresses they’d love to fuck. The names on the list change, but there’s still a list. Hasn’t this always been the case? Didn’t men who enjoyed such actresses as Lana Turner and Susan Hayward dream of fucking them? My movie-going buddies mention Rebecca de Mornay, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Uma Thurman, Kelly Lynch, Virginia Madsen.

What’s kept me an occasional consumer of porn has been the (rare) moments of spontaneity and surprise — instants when you feel you’ve been witnessing something real. Guys demand proof, evidence, brute fact: this must be related to their bewilderment about women’s feelings. In porn the guy is given sex on his terms — as hydraulics. The clinical lighting, gynecological close-ups and come shots — equally common in amateur as in professional porn — serve as guarantees that something “real” is happening. Could this also explain the importance in porn of anal sex — an activity during which the girl has no choice but to respond?

Crummy as it is, amateur porn may turn out to be a major advance. It has also made tapes like “Dirty Debutantes” possible. For a guy, the series is full of footage that — depending on his mood — can be just what he’s always wanted. We see an aroused girl’s mouth grow dry; we see the last look she gives her fella before her eyes half-close and roll back; we see her slack, dreamy expression turn into a greedy snarl; we’re shown the moments when she surfaces from her feelings for a searching look at her partner.

There’s one passage when Ed is snapping Polaroids of one of the girls; he’s taking pictures of her and videotaping himself doing this — meta-porn! But to discuss these tapes as anything complex in intention would be to betray what they are, which is material designed to arouse, excite and inflame. The arousing here is undisguised by art and connoisseurship, and unblemished by pop, which would sweeten or beribbon it, or present it as a force for liberation.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Electronic Film Editing

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A Final Cut Pro editing screen

The New Jump Cut

By David Ansen and Ray Sawhill

In the past four years a quiet revolution has occurred in the world of Hollywood filmmaking: the advent of digital editing on computers. Not since the Moviola arrived, in the mid-1920s, has a machine so radically transformed the way movies are assembled –for both good and ill — or broadened the definition of film editing itself. And it has altered, in ways both painful and salutary, the lives of the men and women who make movies.

The revolution has come swiftly. In 1992 editor Rob Kobrin cut an entire feature, the thriller “Needful Things,” on an Avid computer. It was only one of four films edited that year on digital systems. Today roughly 80 percent of Hollywood movies are edited on either Avid or its rival system, Lightworks. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Kobrin, 40, a self-appointed cheerleader for a technology that not everyone has welcomed. “If computer editing is hell, then I’m Satan,” he boasts.

Traditional film editing was always a funky, hands-on proposition: reeling and unreeling spools of film, cutting and gluing pieces of celluloid together, working amid a sea of film that sometimes got trampled underfoot. All that has changed, and the advantages are obvious. In the weightless world of digital information, 150 miles of film can be stored on hard drives, and an editor with the press of a key or the click of a mouse can instantly access any visual or audio moment in the film. Infinite variations of a scene can be stored and called up for review and comparison. Want to create a dissolve, a fade, a wipe? Instead of shipping the film out to an optical shop, and waiting days for it to come back, an editor can create these transitions instantly on his computer, and just as easily lay in a temporary music score, a bomb explosion, a title.

In this brave new world the line between editing and special effects has blurred, the jobs of editing film and sound have started to merge, and it’s sometimes hard to know where editing begins and cinematography and production design leave off. In the current family movie “Alaska,” editor Kobrin, working with director Fraser Heston, literally moved mountains. The town the characters lived in was on the Canadian coast, but the mountains on view in the background were shot in Valdez, Alaska, and electronically laid into the image. “Traditionally the art of film editing was the juxtaposition of frames,” Kobrin explains. “I’m now editing within the frame.” A crowd of a hundred extras can be multiplied into a horde of thousands. You could say that in the digital universe all live-action films have the potential to become animation.

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Moviolas went into general use in the 1920s

In the first 100 years of moviemaking, the editing room was a noisy, collaborative workplace where an assistant would sit beside the editor and get a hands-on demonstration of the art. Now, when you walk into the old house in Greenwich, Conn., where Ron Howard is putting together his big fall thriller, “Ransom,” there’s a ghostly quiet. All you hear is the voices coming from the computer screens — where Mel Gibson, as an airline magnate, learns his son has been kidnapped — and the clicking of the keyboard. Howard is working with the two editors who won Oscars for “Apollo 13,” Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, but this is the director’s first venture onto digital. Each editor works in a separate room; the assistants are in the basement, where they convert the film to video, digitize it and painstakingly catalog the footage. “I find it thrilling,” says Howard. “You don’t have to tear the movie completely down and put it back together. It’s everything I ever hoped editing could be.”

But not everyone is rejoicing. For most editors the blade of revolution has a double edge. As Walter Murch, the legendary sound editor of “Apocalypse Now,” puts it, “If God wants to punish you, he gives you what you want.” Almost unanimously, editors rave about their new machines — and complain that the quality of their lives, and of the work, has gone to hell. It’s the much touted speed of these new machines that has led to problems. The studios, naturally, want a bottom-line return for the hundreds of thousands they’ve spent on their digital systems. Since time is huge money in Hollywood, executives figure that the time spent in post-production can now be cut in half. “Editors are terribly upset about what’s going on,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts Martin Scorsese’s films. “Computers do save time to an extent, but not as much as producers thought.”

To make the opening dates determined by the marketing departments, teams of editors frequently come in to “gang bang” a movie. “The vision goes,” explains editor Tom Roll (“Heat”). “Editors have different styles, so the movie becomes a hodgepodge.” Richard Marks, who edited “Assassins” last year in a rushed seven weeks, says, “It’s insane. It’s the thinking process that makes the movie, not the speed at which you use the tools.”

“The digital revolution is digging a big hole for all of us,” moans editor Carol Littleton (“The Big Chill”). “You do the impossible and that becomes the norm. You can’t explore anything.” Another reason the process isn’t that much quicker is that action directors, emboldened by the limitless options of their Avids and Lightworks, are shooting much more film — instead of boiling 800,000 feet down to a 12,000-foot movie, the editors might have to contend with a million feet of film. “We always worked terrible hours, and it’s worse now,” says Schoonmaker. “Everyone’s personal life and health is suffering. Everyone has to calm down and use the technology for the greatness of it and not get hysterical.”

It isn’t just the workers who are getting hysterical — so are the films. Several people cite the hyperactive “The Rock” — cut by four editors on five Avids — as an example of the new emphasis on kinetic impact over coherence. But is the technology driving the style, or is the style a response to an audience conditioned to a faster pace?

Roll and his colleagues warn that the facility of the new tools can seduce filmmakers into cutting too much, and too quickly. A new generation of directors, schooled in MTV esthetics, is so used to editing on a computer screen that they can misjudge the impact of their images when they’re amplified on a huge screen. Michael Bay, “The Rock’s” 32-year-old director, realized, when he finally saw a car chase projected on film, that he’d cut it too fast for the eye to absorb. He had to “de-cut.” The next generation may magnify this dilemma. “The real problem is with very young directors who have never edited on film,” says Warner Bros. head of post-production Marc Solomon. “They don’t want to look at film dailies, they’re happy to look at videotapes, and they lack a sense of proportion.”

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A Steenbeck flatbed editing table — high tech in the 1970s

The spirit of collaboration is disappearing, too. “The goal of electronic editing is ‘one brain, one screen, one machine’,” explains Murch. “But is working by yourself the best thing for the most collaborative art form there is?” Assistants, relegated to their bookkeeping chores in distant rooms, now have no shoulders to peer over — no way of learning their craft. They may know computers, but nothing about how editing creates drama and emotion. “I’m worried about how training is going to occur,” says Hank Schloss of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “Everybody wants to get their end of it done today, and to hell with tomorrow.”

But there is no going back. The digital revolution is pointed in one clear direction: the all-electronic cinema Francis Coppola envisioned almost 20 years ago. Within the next five to 10 years, digital images will begin to match the subtlety and richness of film. Then, movies will be shot on digital cameras, fed directly into computers and beamed — somehow — electronically into theaters. Look, Ma! No hands! There will be no scratches on these movies, no faded colors and missing frames. There will be visions and effects and explosions the likes of which we’ve never seen. Will they be movies any of us want to see? That will have little to do with the machines, and everything to do with the people at the controls: the artists, craftsmen, executives and moneymen who will, rest assured, still be duking it out well into the 21st century. Some things don’t change.

David Ansen is Newsweek’s film critic. He wrote this piece; I had the idea for it and did the reporting.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.