by Rich Moreland, November 2011
Historians thrive on primary sources, the stuff that comes directly from the persons who lived the events. We reference them, quote them, and analyze them. Lincoln’s short speech at Gettysburg is a primary source as is Billie Holiday’s sultry voice in “Easy Living” and Linda Lovelace’s testimony before the Meese Commission on Pornography. You get the idea.
Approaching its fortieth year of legitimacy, adult film and its players are now a part of America’s cultural history that deserves to be chronicled. In resurrecting her magazine column from its tucked away past, a leading feminist thinker has produced one woman’s interpretation of modern porn’s early years. The result is a new collection of primary source material cataloged under the title Susie Bright’s Erotic Screen Volume I: 1967 – 1989 The Golden Hardcore & Shimmering Dyke-Core.
I read Susie’s book to spot connecting points for my research. I was not disappointed. However, beyond the academic fill-in-the blanks what rivets me to Susie’s writing is attitude. Butt kicking is her specialty. Susie’s knack is “outing” the bigotry of our culture’s sexual history, a past that spills from a prudish society and dampens our desires. We get wet, but it’s a dunking that chills the spirit.
Susie dries us off and tells we can get wet again, this time for pleasure. She tells us there are no “rules” in the sexual, no definitive boundaries to what we do or when and how we do it. Her words put heteronormativity on trial.
“Pleasure is not about being the same as your lover,” Susie insists, “or doing the same thing to them as they do to you.”
These remarks are found in a 1995 piece entitled “The Blatant Lesbian Image.” Though it skirts the original time frame of the book, the essay is a perfect concluding message. Though lesbian as a sexual identifier is dated for some in today’s queer community, it was alive almost twenty years ago in defining a marginalized group. Lesbians, once sexual outliers whose loving and hard fornication had no voice in the girl-on-girl pseudo-sex of Porn Valley, were joining gay males in erasing their erotic invisibility. Gay women had endured reactionary attitudes in an age in which authentic sex troubled a fractured feminist movement. But as sexuality legitimized its fluidity into the new century, the once mired sexual turf became solid ground. In producing its own porn, today’s genderqueer population should appreciate the history lessons Susie brings to the text.
Her message drew my thumbs up. Look at what she says next.
“If what people do in bed together encompasses the true spectrum of humankind, then sex is as much about hugging as it is about drinking piss or being spanked on a Naugahyde couch.”
Love those words, but here’s the zinger.
“Our society’s notions of normality are completely fake and meta-trendy, since they rely on the changing standards of superstition, religion, Christianity, and gender bias to define.”
This last portion of the book is its best from my perspective, but that opinion is not intended to discount Susie’s selected essays from her Forum days and her time as On Our Backs’ editor. She covers lots of chronological ground. Her film reviews, for instance, are historically valuable. She points out that some movies were edited to avoid government scrutiny and the originals may tragically be lost.
Personally, I share her admiration for Veronika Rocket’s 1983 Smoker and F.X. Pope’s and Rinse Dreams’ 1981 Nightdreams and recommend them to you. Both are filled with artistry and recall a bit of the industry’s feature film format celebrated in the 1970’s.
Putting the information she gives the reader into a political framework heightens the impact of her words, especially considering they originated in a time when the conservative backlash of the Reagan years swept through the social side of American culture. The government had pornographers on the run, take a look at her comments on BDSM film and the shunning of penetrative sex, and the women’s movement was filled with anti-porn feminists, not a playing field that any sex-positive feminist would consider to be level.
Susie remained undaunted. Her essay on racism in the adult film business, “The Killed Story: Jim Crow and Adult Video,” should be required reading even for those uninterested in the general history of filmed pornography. She explains that her original 1986 opinion piece was tabled by the editorial powers-that-be and she rewrote it for her journal. The winners of her forethought then are her readers today.
Susie exposes 1980’s racial attitudes that feel quaint and farcical in our current age. Introducing the reader to the beginning of black adult film, she focuses on the making of Lialeh (1973) by African-American musician Bernard Purdy, validating its place in film history. A note of interest is in order here. Because the book is Kindlized it is interactive. Instead of the reader having to seek out more information on a person or film, a click to a webpage brings it home. For Lialeh the movie’s opening musical number is instantly available through YouTube, a plus for the under-forty crowd who needs to frame it in the 1970’s.
Susie relates that there were early makers of interracial movies, most notably Drea, a female director, and Greg Dark (the Dark Brothers), both very white. Taken within this context, Purdy’s film was groundbreaking. Susie rightly believes that Lialeh’s “naturalistic black perspective” was unique at the time and she compares it with the Dark Brothers’ “cynicism and mania between black/white relations.” In fact, it’s Dark who claims there are no “sensitive” moments in his films.
Susie suggests that Dark’s movies reflect the new wave phenomenon that marked ‘80’s culture. During his college days in Oakland, California, Dark chummed with blacks on the neighborhood tennis courts, interactions that gave him some legitimacy as a filmmaker of black sexuality. Susie proclaims that in the porn business, “[i]f Greg Dark made his cross-cultural link with black tennis players, he’s one step ahead of most other white production teams who make black tapes.”
The essay further confronts another not so hushed issue of racism at the time. White females claimed they would not film with blacks.
“In porn starlet interviews from the early days of hardcore,” Susie writes, “the fan mags would pose questions like, ’What Won’t You Do on Camera?’ The most common reply from a white ingenue would be, ’I don’t do anal, and I don’t do blacks.’ Instead of greeting that statement with laughter or disbelief, everyone would just say, ’Oh yeah, of course.’”
Susie reminds the reader that “[b]efore the 90s,” not surprisingly, “there was no such thing as ‘multi-culturalism’ in porn.” But history never remains static; time and attitudes are in constant flux. Susie explains. “It’s become clear that inter-racial projects have moved up from underground stigmatized loops that could ‘ruin a girl’s career,’ to a everybody’s-doing-it theme that is destined to become as common as the pro forma lesbian scene.”
Today we have websites like blackonblondes.com that give the viewer lovely Caucasian girls being penetrated every which way by well-endowed men of color and apparently relishing every minute of it.
Popularity bred a new age of tolerance and real sexual fantasies. For those filming on the erotic margins, African-Americans, queers, BDSMers, and others, theirs were released from a closeted lockup in the “secret museum,” if I may reference Fordham scholar Walter Kendrick. Pornography became the big tent it was always intended to be. Susie’s text is a reminder of this journey.
From the feminist perspective, Susie honors Candida Royalle’s FEMME Productions as pioneering “couples” porn, endorsing sex from a female view, and Fatale Video, the earliest coming out of lesbian sexuality. Both studios framed and reinforced the cinematic “gaze” from an alternative female context. Most important, Susie pays tribute to the groundbreaking courage of gay male porn and its influence on the development of lesbian adult film.
I might add that the early efforts of each ultimately created an environment that abets the independent films of San Francisco’s current queer porn community. Moreover, Susie’s militant “dyke-core” attitude insists that not all women prefer a softer, gentler porn universe. Her view supports the artistry of directors like Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, and Carlos Batts. Queer performers Madison Young, Syd Blakovich, Jiz Lee, Dylan Ryan, April Flores, Billy Castro, and Buck Angel, to name a few, are the soul of this emerging hard edged adult film. They owe their genre’s success to those trailblazers who stood firm against the reactionary tide of the 1980’s.
Susie Bright gives us a valuable look into adult film during one of the most conservative atmospheres in twentieth century America. Her assessment of feminism and marginalized sexuality is why I searched the book’s locations (Kindle has no pagination) for those primary source nuggets that offer insights for my own work. I do have a suggestion. I wish Susie had added a few more updates to connect her history with today’s adult film world. There are some moments when she does, as at the end of her interview with Sharon Mitchell in mentioning the demise of AIM. But I would like to have encountered more. Perhaps in Volume II we’ll see those connections.
There is so much more in Susie’s text that explains how we got from here to there in adult film history. I can only toss a partial list your way in passing: a review of “super directors,” the meaning of lesbian erotica, Susie’s struggles to get out her message during her On Her Back days, a look at Christopher Rage, and a revisited glance at the hilarious Snuff controversy that continues to feed the paranoia of old anti-porn feminists. And one more, read her 1988 column on “What Do Women Want?” It’s delightful.
Susie Bright presents a kaleidoscope of stories and personal views that allow the reader to cherry pick what is of interest. Get a copy of Susie Bright’s Erotic Screen Volume I: 1967 – 1989 The Golden Hardcore & Shimmering Dyke-Core and see what you like.
If I may borrow her reference to the old Hustler peter-meter as a rating gizmo, from my cis-gendered view Susie Bright deserves a full literary joystick. Or to use her words for her devoted feminist readers, “clits up!” You’ll enjoy the ride.
Susie’s book is available online and is published by Bright Stuff, 9-30-2011. To find copies go to:
[References to the book used in this review are documented at Kindle locations 169, 742, 839-843, 858-864, 1074,2739, 2749-2752, 2802-2803, 2852-2854,2893-2895]