Throat Culture

Two Accounts of How Porn Went Pop

Open wide: 'Deep Throat' meets its public

By Terri Sutton

The jokes and titters before a critics' screening of Inside Deep Throat showed--as clearly as the documentary itself--how little and how much the world has changed since Linda Lovelace made pornography hip for squares. Most Americans are still uncomfortable watching sex acts in public. But I'd bet most people in that screening room had seen video porn somewhere semi-private. Inside Deep Throat posits that, for a moment in the early '70s, art, pornography, and commerce nearly united to create an America where human sexuality was an accepted, even revered fact of life; then the conservative forces of censorship slapped down the mass hard-on, and porn slunk off to make billions through cheaply produced, cynically prurient, and cruelly flat home videos.

Universal Pictures

Though this theory has the virtue of boldness, it lacks historical and sociological context--as does Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's doc. I wouldn't venture to guess how many times white America has seen sexual prudery and rebellion punch it out in a winner-takes-all, sky-high-stakes, this-is-it-we-swear contest. No two-bit flick about a woman with a clitoris in her throat was gonna tip the scale for good (in either sense). In addition, Inside Deep Throat argues, against the words of its few easily drowned-out feminist voices, that Deep Throat as a movie and as a phenomenon was about sexual pleasure and freedom for all. This perspective leaves anyone quibbling with fantasies about a girl who comes when fucked in the throat looking like a sex hater or--in the case of the now-deceased Lovelace (née Boreman)--a stupid and spineless child.

It's true that Deep Throat exhibited a revolutionary sympathy for women's sexual pleasure. Before "writing" and directing porn films, Gerard Damiano was a hairdresser, and, as he points out here, his clients had given him an earful of female dissatisfaction. When Deep Throat was brought to trial in New York, the prosecutors correctly surmised that its most subversive aspect was the script's celebration of the clitoral orgasm. I'm guessing that not many films before Deep Throat began with a woman getting head (however much her lit cigarette stands in for the phallus). The movie's eventual focus on blow jobs led to another surprising flip-flop: The men became the writhing recipients of female action--almost emasculated. There were reasons why Damiano's skin flick was popular with women.

But Deep Throat--in its thirst for liberation and its sexism--was as much shaped by American society as its viewers were. In the documentary, Erica Jong laughingly describes the transparency of the throat clit notion: Because I get off on getting sucked, she should get off on sucking. "Guess what?" Jong snorts. "It's not true." Bailey and Barbato roll with that blow, but they're less willing to consider that Lovelace might not have been having fun during filming. The star's ability to not gag on inches of engorged flesh is portrayed--via sweeping music and awed male commentary--as a miraculous gift. Lovelace's later allegations that her then-husband Chuck Traynor was beating her, forcing her participation in porn, and even training her to "deep throat" are swept aside as the ravings of an opportunist willingly brainwashed by feminist activists. "Linda always needed somebody to tell her what to do," dismisses Damiano tellingly.

Isn't it possible that someone as weak as Lovelace shouldn't be told to fuck dogs? Isn't it possible that Traynor and Damiano were the opportunists--and that an act that looks miraculous could feel, gaggy? Bailey and Barbato include an amazing archival clip of Susan Brownmiller telling Hugh Hefner that she'll believe in his sexual revolution when he sports a bunny tail. I say: Imagine a woman fisting a man in the throat. He's not gagging--he must love it! (Damiano cuts to footage of fireworks and rockets to illustrate Lovelace's throat orgasm, and no wonder: It's impossible to find the appearance of pleasure in her distended mouth and jaw.) The documentarians feature plenty of female porn-star talking heads, so the viewer knows it's a job that many women choose and enjoy. Isn't it also possible that some women didn't choose it--and/or found it wounding? Do we have to claim that one side or the other is lying? (This is a question for antiporn feminists as much as porn supporters.)

The filmmakers treat Lovelace's ever-ready costar Harry Reems with chummy if titillated respect--even as he tells a similar story. With his participation in Deep Throat, he says carefully, he had given himself a "certain stigma" that prevented him from landing nonporn roles. Crushed, he continued in porn while drinking and drugging himself senseless. Alcoholics Anonymous finally "told" him to become a sober Christian, and now he's a real estate agent happily helping to promote the documentary. Bailey and Barbato mock Lovelace for posing for Hot Legs after her antiporn days; Reems is allowed to be the author of many contradictory second acts.

Inside Deep Throat allows its heroes their subtleties. (Damiano the hack actually saw himself as the visionary who'd bring porn and art together.) But the movie won't offer the same to their adversaries, who are presented at once as statically menacing and foolishly hypocritical. Feminism, for example, has always included agendas in favor of sexual expression as well as those against it; Lovelace's Hot Legs appearance came during a pro-sex period. As for conservatives, I believe federal prosecutor Larry Parrish when he says he wishes he didn't have Deep Throat images in his head. The truth is, you don't scale a chasm by throwing all your weight on one side of the divide. Can't we hold two truths in our minds at once? For example: A movie is exploitative and liberating, ugly and exciting? Can't we try to see how our repression and rebellion are connected, how the forms of each bear the imprint of the other?

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