Roger Ebert used to review porn movies. No, this was not a third-string assignment, nor was he moonlighting for Hustler or Oui. He saw them in his capacity as esteemed first-string film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
How times have changed.
Pornography is, of course, bigger than ever these days, in rural red states and their blue-dot cities as well as the bluest of the blue states. It’s as bustling a business in Texas, Florida, Missouri and Arkansas as it is in New York, California, Illinois and that liberal bastion, Massachusetts.
The huge cultural change since the 1970s is that now it’s consumed at home on video and the web, not in steamy movie theaters and dank peep-show booths. (For a poignant and thrillingly entertaining look at that transition from celluloid to videotape, watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s "Boogie Nights" – a kind of exhilarating "Nashville" for the porn business.)
A “60 Minutes” segment in September, 2004, reported:
“In the space of a generation, a product that once was available in the back alleys of big cities has gone corporate, delivered now directly into homes and hotel rooms by some of the biggest companies in the United States.
”It is estimated that Americans now spend somewhere around $10 billion a year on adult entertainment, which is as much as they spend attending professional sporting events, buying music or going out to the movies.”
And so, as the free-marketeers might say, it's another triumph for America’s market-driven system -- supply and demand, giving the people what they want.
But things have turned out far differently than porn insiders expected back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when films of varying degrees of sexual explicitness were shown on big screens -- from pseudo-medical films, to Russ Meyer super-sexathons, Swedish nudie flicks seized by US Customs and banned in Boston to all-American XXX hard-core date movies. Sometimes the theaters were seedy, run-down downtown porn palaces, maybe near the waterfront (see "Cinderella Liberty" for a peep at Seattle’s once-notorious First Avenue; or "Midnight Cowboy" for a gawk at the off-screen action in a sleazy Manhattan movie house).
Others were more or less mainstream theaters that played the new X-rated, adults only films -- from the all-out porn of "Deep Throat," "Behind the Green Door," and "The Devil in Miss Jones" to new foreign and domestic films exercising the new freedom the MPAA parental advisory ratings had given them – films like Bernardo Bertolucci’s emotionally bruising "Last Tango in Paris"; Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic wallow in ultra-violence and the old in-out in-out, "A Clockwork Orange"; Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione’s Bacchanalian "Caligula," and the aforementioned "Midnight Cowboy" (the first and only X-rated film to win an Oscar for best picture).
You can get some idea of the confusion and turmoil this new freedom created in some quarters when Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) takes Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porn movie in Martin Scorsese’s "Taxi Driver." And you can see it in the new documentary, "Inside Deep Throat."
All of these films were originally rated X by the MPAA. The idea was that these were not prurient films with no redeeming social value (but, hey, what if they were? The point of the ratings system was to alert parents that these movies were not intended for viewing by minors, but were for adults only. It wasn’t until the porn industry started using the X rating as an advertising gimmick (the more Xs the better, as far as they were concerned), and America turned more Puritanical under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, that X and porn became synonymous in the public dirty-mind.
And when NC-17 came along decades later, that was supposed to wipe away the porn stigma – but because some theater
chains and video stores like Blockbuster refused to offer NC17 rated movies no matter what they were about, the new classification didn’t have its intended impact – which was not to label a film as smut, but to forbid kids under 18 from seeing it no matter what.
But now let us return a simpler time, the thrilling days of yesteryear, when Roger Ebert walked the mean streets of Chicago and filed reports from the front (and the back) of the porno revolution....
X X X X X
Reviews by Roger Ebert:
"Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," (1965)
Take away all the jokes, the elaborate camera angles, the violence, the action and the sex, and what remains is the quintessential Russ Meyer image: a towering woman with enormous breasts, who dominates all the men around her, demands sexual satisfaction and casts off men in the same way that, in mainstream sexual fantasies, men cast aside women. Meyer's extraordinary women are of course fascinating to those with breast fetishes, but look a little longer and you will notice that the breasts are not always presented as centers of desire. Instead, they're weapons used to intimidate men.
"I, A Woman" (1967)
Somewhere, somehow, moviemakers got the idea that it was an "adult" film if it had a lot of skin in it. But an adult film, surely, is a film which examines with maturity and compassion the real laughter and sadness of life. "I, A Woman" doesn't. It exhibits the maturity of a 13-year-old cranking the handle on the penny-peepshow at a county fair. It was apparently made for the sole purpose of exhibiting the not extraordinary body of Essy Persson, a young Swedish actress who resembles a cross between a skinny Sophia Loren and an ill-tempered Pekingese.
"Therese and Isabelle" (1968)
Like its predecessors, "Therese and Isabelle" is a terribly serious movie, perhaps because everyone involved is doing his damnedest not to laugh out loud. There is something preposterous in the sight of two adult women (Essy Persson and Anna Gael) costumed and cast as schoolgirls. The effect is roughly as convincing as Jonathan Winters in a Cub Scout uniform.
Five years ago it might have been necessary to devise all sorts of defenses for Russ Meyer's "Vixen," finding hidden symbolism and all that. But I see no reason why we can't be honest: "Vixen" is the best film to date in that uniquely American genre, the skin-flick…. "Vixen" is not only a good skin-flick, but a merciless put-on of the whole genre. As Terry Southern demonstrated with his novel "Candy," you can't satirize pornography without writing it.
"Camille 2000" (1969)
Well, Daniele Gaubert is presented in the nude all right, but with about as much erotic effect as an Arid ad. She has a lot of love scenes with Nino Castelnuovo. The way they make love is interesting. Their key technique is to assume the conventional configuration and then . . . not move! Mostly, they're looking at themselves in the mirrors. There are mirrors all over her bedroom. No matter where they look, they see themselves in the mirror. Danielle and Nino aren't too bright, I guess. They're just about to start making love when their eyes wander, and they get interested in that beautiful couple up on the ceiling. I kept wanting to shout: "That's YOU, dummy!"
"The Best House in London" (1969)
The movie's premise is that all the women in it (Miss Pettet excluded) are delighted at the prospect of becoming prostitutes. This view is well enshrined in Victorian pornography, but it is demeaning to women and disgusting. One of the "laughs," for example, comes when a 14-year-old girl sells her virginity and is dismayed to learn she's been purchased by a reformer and not a madam. Har-har-hardee-harhar, eh?
There was a time, a year or two ago, when X-rated films looked like the salvation of the small marginal theater, or the first-run house temporarily starved for product. So we got "Fanny Hill" and "I, A Woman, Part Two" and "The Female Animal," and all those other ding-a-lings. And the same dimwitted audience kept turning up and accepting these films that had no humor, no imagination, no wit, no sense of satire or even of perspective. All they had was sex.
"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970)
[Ebert wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer's "BVD," and wrote about seeing it again 25 years later...]
If the movie were to be rated today, it would probably get an R rating with a few small cuts. It was avery mild X. That was because Meyer and the studio were aiming for the R rating. When they didn't get it, Meyer believed the ratings board had felt obligated to give the "King of the Nudies" an X rating, lest it seem to endorse his movie to the Majors.
Because the movie was stuck with the X, Meyer wanted to reedit certain scenes in order to include more nudity (he shot many scenes in both X and R versions). But the studio, still in the middle of a cash-flow crisis, wanted to rush the film into release. Meyer still waxes nostalgic for the "real" X version of BVD, which exists only in his memory but includes many much steamier scenes starring the movie's many astonishingly beautiful heroines and villianesses.
"The Lickerish Quartet" (1971)
By this point, Mike Royko's friend Slats Grobnick would be squirming in his seat and wondering who told him this was a skin flick. He'd have company. The movie isn't good enough to succeed on the level of its ambition, and it doesn't even try to succeed as a skin flick. So why see it?
"History of the Blue Movie" (1971)
It is a melancholy landmark in the disintegration of our age that genuine hard-core pornographic stag movies are now assembled into documentaries for young couples to see on Saturday night dates…. We live in an age so compulsively permissive that I sometimes wonder whether anyone under 21 would know a forbidden thrill if he felt one.
Nobody smiles anymore, on the screen or in the audience. Pale, sad faces lift themselves hopefully toward the screen where some con-man "doctor" illustrates the finer points of gynecological plumbing. I can't imagine how the recent sex "documentaries" could arouse anyone but a vivisectionist. Yet audiences pay their $3 or $5 and sit there so solemnly you'd swear they were still in the back room of a local hall on Friday night, eyes glued to Candy Barr, a whiff