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Black and White and Blue
Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR
By Dave Thompson, Jennifer Hale
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2007 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
The Flesh That Flickers
Stag films. Blue movies. Smokers. Beavers. Coochie reels. Dirty pictures. Between about 1900 and the late 1960s, if you wanted to see a film of other people having wild and uninhibited sex, those were the phrases you kept your ears open for, in the hope that sometime, somewhere, in the course of your normal day, you might overhear somebody — a workmate, a chance acquaintance, a face in the bar or a man at the barbershop — mention that a few of the guys were getting together that night to watch a few.
The very mention of such things was loaded with a host of little triggers.
Men in masks and women in wigs — The Three Masketeers, as one 1930s movie punned appallingly. Fearful of being recognized by family or friends (which does make one wonder what sort of family and friends they had), the casts of these films frequently employed entire wardrobes full of disguises. Some donned a pair of sunglasses; others wore peculiar hats. Some went the Groucho Marx route, with spectacles, a false nose and mustache. Some picked up masquerade masks or even pulled ladies' stockings over their heads. And, in one memorable movie, the lovers — a woman at her ironing board, a middle-aged man who was as stiff as one — spend so much time trying to keep their camouflage in place, it's a wonder they accomplish anything else at all.
And black socks. Why did the men in these films so rarely take their socks off? And why were those socks so often black that their very mention quickly became another euphemism for a sexy film? Someone would tell you they were off to see some "black socks," and you knew they weren't talking about a baseball scandal.
The films were usually in black and white. And silent. A few hardy entrepreneurs toyed with color and sound, but it didn't really make a difference, any more than 3-d made a difference. The average onlookers were seldom searching for a master class in the latest movie techniques, and half of them didn't particularly care if the film was even in focus. Just so long as there was plenty of wriggling, oodles of close-ups and a lot of shots of moist, yielding flesh, the audience was happy. More than happy — it was boisterous, and often boastful as well, because there was always one guy in the room who'd done it all and was only too happy to tell everyone else about it. Very loudly.
It was a communal experience, after all — a room full of guys stoked on alcohol and adrenaline, the air thick with smoke and heavy with voices. Some people called the films "smokers," because that's what a lot of men did while they were watching them, until the fog was so all-pervading that the screen was barely visible. Others called them "stags," because that's where a lot of them were shown, at the no-holds-barred, men-only parties thrown to bid goodbye to a friend on the eve of his marriage.
But they could as easily have been called "frat films" or "dare-date films" or "retirement-bash movies" or even "auto-plant Christmas party entertainments," for any occasion that brought a group of guys (and sometimes girls) together was an excuse to hire in some fellow and his 8mm reels, and then hoot and holler all night long — or at least until you told the wife you'd be home.
And still we haven't touched upon all the names these little films have been known to travel under. "Blue movies," because that color has been associated with the loudly ribald and obnoxiously obscene ever since it was first hijacked from the New England Puritan lexicon, where it contrarily denoted rigid moral and religious observance.
"Beavers" and "coochie reels," because those words had slang connotations that could not be mistaken. In London in the 1940s the films were often referred to as "Charlie flicks," a term derived from the same ingenious double rhyming slang that gives us the English Masterpiece Theatre-esque insults "a right Charlie" and "a proper Berk." Charlie Smirk was a jockey who rode for the Berkshire Hunt. Smirk rhymes with Berk, and Hunt, of course, rhymes with coochie.
Whatever one chose to call them, viewing such movies was a rite of passage, a young apprentice's opportunity to prove to workmates that he knew which end of a woman was up, a college boy's chance to boast to his buddies about the gals back home who did all that and more.
But such get-togethers were more than simply meeting places for teenaged hormones and middle-aged testosterone. Today, when guys want to hang out together and shout and drink and act like kids, they order in a cable sports channel and do it at home. But what did they do in the years before cable, or if there wasn't a game being broadcast that night? They went out to where the other guys were — the bar, the Elks, the va club, wherever. And when the talking ran out, or they just fancied a change — "Hey, how about we call up that feller with the films we had last Christmas and see if he'll put on another show for us?"
When Fred Flintstone hooked up with his Water Buffalo buddies, when Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton headed over to the Raccoons for the night, when the Moose moved together and the Oddfellows closed their doors, it wasn't all funny handshakes and secret whistles at the door. They had a lot of fun as well, which is why a conservative estimate claims that, by the 1950s, "one-third of all adult males over age nineteen were members" of fraternal orders in America.
Neither is it any coincidence that, when the fraternal societies started to fade from everyday life, sometime around the late 1960s, the world in which their favorite films flourished commenced a similar decline. The forces that caused the end of one were much the same as those that killed another — expanding options, broader alternatives, competing attractions. Society was shifting, and its components shifted with it.
For the Elks and their ilk, that shift was the start of a long, slow and ultimately near-fatal decline, in prominence if not importance. For the stags, on the other hand, it was the signal for a complete rebirth, out of the clubhouse and, via the peep-show arcades, into the theaters, out of the gutter and into the mainstream.
I was sixteen when I first learned that such movies existed, although the discovery stirred little more than a vague curiosity in my mind. Only with the benefit of hindsight does it now seem a most serendipitous introduction.
It was 1976, summertime, and the London streets were just beginning to blaze to the sounds of the barely emergent punk rock. And just as stag movies, the often clumsy, frequently flawed, but never less than fearless clatterings of so many cinematic do-it-yourselfers, had once been proclaimed the very antithesis of everything that Hollywood held precious, so punk — equally amateurish, similarly sloppy — was swiftly lowered to a likewise leprous standing in the music business.
If ever sound and vision were born to be together, punk rock and stag movies were the happy couple. That's why Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's boutique on the King's Road in London's Chelsea district specialized in the fetish wear that, in turn, costumed a slew of late-1970s British sex movies. That's why many of the Pistols' earliest live shows took place in a Soho strip club. And that's why, when the Pistols came to make a movie (1979's The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle), it co-starred Mary Millington, an actress who got her own cinematic start in a series of still-spectacular late-1960s English stags.
There were other points of linkage, both musical and sociological. Punk portrayed real life, as it was lived by real people. So, if one bypasses the one-dimensionality of their subject matter, did stag films. Punk was constructed around excitement, spontaneity, immediacy — if a song could not make its point in three minutes flat, it was dead. Stag films had around ten minutes, but the principle was the same.
Both were made, for the most part, by people with no more training and expertise than they could pick up from a library book. Punks, sniffed the serious musicians of the day, could barely play their instruments. Stag-makers, movie buffs still insist, scarcely knew one end of a camera from the other.
And they all reveled in a subterranean, almost subcultural outlaw status that so successfully defied polite society's attempts to rein them in that, today, punk rock is an integral part of the modern musical landscape, just as the erotic ("adult," in twenty-first-century terminology) film is the most profitable aspect of the modern movie business.
None of this was apparent at the time. Nor would it become so for some years to come. Rather, my introduction to the stag film, through the paradoxical auspices of the movie mainstream, remained the sum of my firsthand exposure for another two decades, not because I didn't seek out further information, but because I didn't even think to do so.
Director John Byrum's 1974 movie Inserts was my universe. At a time when movie sets were growing to absurdly behemothic proportions (burning skyscrapers, sinking liners, crumbling cities), Inserts reversed the trend by showing nothing more than the open-plan living room of a Hollywood hacienda, and then condensing that scenario even further by erecting its own miniature film set in one corner of the room. There, Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss) — once a fabled silent-film director, but now a has-been hacked down by the arrival of the talkies — shoots stag movies with another fallen star, Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), and the up-and-coming Rex the Wonder Dog (Stephen Daves).
A visit from Boy Wonder's financier, an aspiring hamburger mag-nate named Big Mac (Bob Hoskins), ignites the movie. He has come to deliver the moviemakers' wages: cash for the boys and drugs for Harlene, who promptly overdoses and dies. Mac and Rex disappear to dispose of the body; Boy Wonder is left alone with Mac's girlfriend, Miss Cake (Jessica Harper), to contemplate the fate of the unfinished film. The main sequences were already in the can. All that remained to be shot were the inserts — the close-ups that distinguish the suggestion of sex from the full-bloodied actuality of it. And Miss Cake believes she can help.
Inserts wasn't the first movie to revolve around a stag film. A Doppia Faccia (Double Face), with Klaus Kinski, from 1969, and Get Carter two years later, with Michael Caine, both based their respective heroes' behavior around a glimpse of a familiar figure in a stag (Kinski's dead wife and Caine's missing niece respectively). But Inserts was the first to star two major American heartthrobs. Inserts was Dreyfuss's first motion picture since American Graffiti, while Harper was still the bewitching ingenue whose startling performance and startled-doe demeanor were the high spot of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise.
It was also one of those rare occasions when we Brits got to see something that the movie's domestic audience never did. At almost two hours in length, British prints of Inserts were some fifteen minutes longer than the heavily censored version released the previous year in the United States. So you knew it was going to be at least something approaching hot.
In truth, the film that Boy Wonder is shooting, a violent near-rape occasioned by Harlene laughing at the Wonder Dog's manhood, is scarcely typical of any period of American stag film. A number of movies did suggest the use of force, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s: The Clown, Forced Entry, the two-reel combination of New Ways and (the avowedly heterosexual) Gay Times, and others. There was even a lesbian gangster assault, captured in the 1930s-era Love Affairs of Jane Winslow.
But even the unequivocally titled Rape, a 1950s stag in which an escaped convict pounces upon a girl as she sits painting a landscape, loses its impact the moment it transpires that the woman is thoroughly enjoying herself. Boy Wonder's vision, however, did not allow for that eventuality. There would be no happy ending.
Neither is Inserts' characterization especially believable. For all the rumors, myths and urban legends that surround the involvement of "name" persona in these unnamed epics, only one example has ever been proven true, when B-movie legend Ed Wood turned his hand to anonymous hardcore in the late 1960s.
There were no Hollywood Boy Wonders in the story of stags, and no disgraced Griffiths showgirls, either. (Or, if there were, they have yet to be identified. Film historian H.C. Shelby suggests one of the women in the 1930s stag Bare Interlude was "quite probably ... a professional actress during the early era of the Hollywood cinema," but he fails to explain why this should be, which means she equally probably wasn't.)
But Inserts rings true regardless. It is a film about obsession, insularity, desperation and, of course, sex — four terms that capture the essence of the stag film as well as any words can encapsulate a mood or an emotion.
Like the pioneering punk rockers of the mid-1970s, the majority of men and women who made stag films did not dream of fame, did not imagine that five minutes of frenzied fucking on a motel mattress was their passport to international superstardom. They did it because it was fun, because it was different, because it paid better than "real" work and because — without delving, unqualified, into the psychological swamps of exhibitionism — it scratched an itch that "nice people" would not even acknowledge existed.
Inserts celebrated all of this and, even today, it remains the most compelling study of stag ethics yet committed to screen. Not that it has much (if any) competition. Considering how many miles of documentary footage have been lavished upon every other aspect of movie history, and how closely linked they are to the modern world of adult entertainment, stags themselves remain outsiders, pariahs — the monstrous relative walled up in the attic. Film historians often speak of "orphans," movies that — through neglect, obscurity or simply bad luck — have been allowed to molder on uncaring shelves. Stag movies are the saddest orphans of all.
Why should this be?
Why is it that, again and again in the pages of movie history, the story of hardcore erotic film leaps almost unimpeded from Thomas Edison's The Kiss in 1896 to Russ Meyer's The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959, yet neither feature anything even remotely approaching the vistas revealed by the average stag?
Why is it that, on the occasions stag films are mentioned in the course of such works, it is only so that they can be shrugged away with a haughty sniff?
And why is it, in an age in which the most insignificant piece of ancient footage is pored over by scholars, analyzed by experts, even memorialized by historical societies, the stag film is almost completely overlooked?
Writing in The Moving Image in 2005, Kentucky-based movie archivist Dwight Swanson recognized that, while "every general archival film collection of any significant size almost inevitably ends up with some pornographic films in its holdings, pornography, when it is kept, is often stashed away in dark recesses of collections, joked about, infrequently cataloged, and generally ignored."
Swanson had been working at his own first archival job, with a historical society's photography collection, for almost two years before one of his colleagues apprised him of "a collection of hard-core pornographic pictures that was kept in a 'secret' folder in an obscure drawer in the stacks" — an all-too-common fate that not only skews the historic record, but is also a betrayal of "our roles as keepers of the totality of cinematic history."
Part of the reason is the sheer obscurity of the history and development of such films. In 1967, Playboy magazine noted that, "although everybody knows about stag films, nobody knows very much about stag films."
Forty years later, that single sentence continues to encapsulate the subject, despite it representing a body of work that was produced consistently and copiously throughout the Western hemisphere (and beyond) for around seventy years, from the late nineteenth century until well inside the mid-twentieth. Even today, the life and times of the stag movie remains absorbed by an aura of such elusiveness that many studies would rather dismiss them out of hand than attempt to acknowledge how little is known of their story.
The situation is changing, though. In 2002 in Boston, the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference hosted its first ever "Dirty Movies" panel, in front of what author and historian Eric Schaefer described as "a standing-room-only audience ... charged with a sense of both relief and excitement: relief that, finally, some of the dirty little secrets about moving image archives were coming out of cold storage."
One cannot necessarily blame or even fault those earlier students' disdain. One does, however, object to the inaccuracies and generalizations that, by virtue of their authoritative tone, have become the accepted mantra of almost every subsequent author who has had cause to mention stags somewhere within his ruminations.
Lo Duc's L'Érotisme au Cinéma (Eroticism in the Cinema), one of the classic works on erotic European cinema, dismisses "le film pornographique" as "subjective eroticism, addressing itself to only a specialist plurality of perversions: fustigation for the sadists, sodomy for the homosexual," and so on.
Excerpted from Black and White and Blue by Dave Thompson, Jennifer Hale. Copyright © 2007 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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