Throat Culture

Two Accounts of How Porn Went Pop

Open wide: 'Deep Throat' meets its public

By Terri Sutton

The jokes and tittersbefore 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.

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 kinda...um, 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?

 

How 'Deep Throat' Went Down in Minnesota

By Rob Nelson

Three days after President Nixon brought a halt to military operations in Vietnam, another offensive maneuver was just beginning in Minneapolis. More than 100 people queued up outside the Rialto Theater at Lake and Chicago to catch the long-awaited Minnesota premiere of Deep Throat...at 9:00 a.m. By noon the same day, more than a thousand tickets to the X-rated movie had been sold at three bucks a pop. Even the Minneapolis Tribune's critic Will Jones was moved to acknowledge the film's "rather remarkably staged scene of simutaneous gential, anal, and oral passion."

One of the many Minnesotans who attended Throat's opening on January 18, 1973, was an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department's "morals squad," sent by the city attorney's office to take notes on the film. Those notes, like Nixon's uncut Watergate tapes, weren't revealed to the public, although the general direction of the watchdog's thumb wouldn't remain a mystery for long. Less than a week after opening day, Municipal Judge Edwin P. Chapman ordered Deep Throat's Midwest distributors to appear at a court hearing on obscenity the following month. The judge also requested a print of the film--presumably for use in his private chambers. The corner of Lake and Chicago was no place for a judge. And the lines at the Rialto were long. And it was cold in January.

The story of Deep Throat in Minnesota, as in many other states, is one in which only a few of those connected with the film could be said to have, you know, gotten off easy. Minnesota Cinema Society president Jim Nelson, a junior at the U of M in '73, did manage to secure free tickets for himself and nearly 200 law school students. (Score!) But that was only after Nelson had gotten the shaft from Paul Cashman, the U's vice president for student affairs, who had forced the film society to replace its two scheduled screenings of Deep Throat at the West Bank Auditorium with a quartet of W. C. Fields shorts. "The fact that the film [Deep Throat] has been done in color and is considered professionally excellent does not matter," argued Cashman. "It would not serve an educational purpose." Nelson, perhaps sensing class prejudice in the university, complained to the Minneapolis Star that a rival film society hadn't had any trouble selling Cashman on campus screenings of The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival.

Competition between local exhibitors may have played a part in how Deep Throat went down. Though the U would eventually lift its ban on the film, Nelson told the newspapers that it didn't much matter by that point, since the Rialto's exclusive run--ten screenings a day, seven days a week--had proven too successful for anyone but the cops to disrupt. (A Trib article speculated that Throat's staying power could exceed even that of Sexual Freedom in Denmark, which lasted more than a year at the Empress on West Broadway before petering out.) Still, the Rialto was feeling the heat. The theater's attorney Robert Milavetz, whose federal petition had succeeded in postponing the city's obscenity hearing, accused the police department of harassing the independently owned venue. Theater management went further, claiming that exhibitor chains were behind the city's effort to have the Rialto's success literally taken away.

In March, after Federal Court Judge Miles Lord remanded the Throat case to the municipal level, officers of the police department's morals division did manage to confiscate the Rialto's print with the help of a warrant from Hennepin County Municipal Court Judge Eugene Farrell. But the theater--owned, like three other adult cinemas, by New Brighton's Benedict J. Jochim--hardly took the Deep matter lying down. Two replacement prints were successively screened--and seized--after Farrell watched the first one and deemed it "hardcore" (in the pejorative sense). Milavetz somehow won a temporary restraining order against the cops and kept the movie open through mid-April, when the Minneapolis City Council voted 9 to 2 in favor of denying Jochim's application for a theater license. Jochim was able to obtain another temporary restraining order to prevent the city from closing his theater until the end of the month. And he had at least one supporter in Alderman John Cairns, who not only voted against the denial, but told the St. Paul Dispatch, "All we're really doing is giving our friends on the morals squad another opportunity for an infamous midnight raid and a cheap shot at publicity."

Cheap or not, those shots appeared to be winning the war. In Duluth, where a member of the city attorney's office, along with two cops, decided that Deep Throat was beyond the pale, a print of the film was confiscated, and the projectionist at the Strand Theater was arrested and booked. Not even elected officials were safe from the cleanliness crusade. Benjamin Berger, a member of both the Minneapolis Park Board and the state Parole Board, saw his company's Aster Art Theater at Sixth and Hennepin come in for bad publicity when two dozen kids in town for the state high school basketball tournament were busted for entering the cinema to watch a double bill of Love Toy and It's Not My Body. For allowing the juveniles into the theater, the Aster's elderly employee Michael Wainstock was put behind bars.

Though Wainstock was 69 when he went to jail, the most colorful example of the decisive shift in Twin Cities Throat culture is the case of St. Paul's Capitol Theater, whose owners were persuaded in the summer of '73 to close their run of the film after eight weeks of protests from irate neighborhood homeowners. After negotiating for the free film-booking services of a family-friendly theater chain president, St. Paul Mayor Lawrence Cohen announced that the Capitol would be turning immediately from an X-rated theater to a G-rated one with the August 1 opening of Oliver! Washington, alas, would remain dirty for at least another year, though Minnesota's Capitol and capital both were washed clean in a single stroke. You could say it was a New Morning in Minnesota: Even Milavetz, the Rialto's libertine lawyer, went on the record to praise the mayor for "using his leadership position to benefit the community." Cohen won reelection the following April; three weeks later his wife filed for divorce.

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