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Invictus, Part Two: The Long and Winding Road

by Rich Moreland, October 2018

In this post, we’ll take a look at Invictus’ visual appeal. In particular, what are the images that best communicate the film’s collective focus? And, how do the sex scenes reinforce the narrative?

Spoiler Alert. This review reveals vital story elements that may influence viewers.

If you wish to see Invictus for you own take on the film, it is available online at Sssh.com.

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The Eyes

As mentioned earlier, one of Invictus’ most important images is evident in the opening scene. Jane passes a deteriorating billboard that has weeping eyes. In faded colors it proclaims that “climate change is real,” setting the tone for a narrative that challenges climate change deniers and fake news believers.

Invictus’ roadside advertisement is similar to the symbolism found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In that tale of misplaced love, a billboard with the eyes of Dr. T.J. Ekleberg lord over the industrialized segment of New York City (the “valley of the ashes”) that separates the lower classes from the moneyed elitists.

Both stories employ the billboard symbol to comment on America’s moral decline. We need only look at the eyes to see.

But there is more. In Invictus, the woods are filled with eyes, those of human creatures who struggle to hold on to their humanity. And don’t forget there is a particular set of eyes belonging to a mysterious man who watches Jane from afar, following her every step.

In this film, the eyes have it, so to speak, both figuratively and literally.

An Abandoned Pathway

Invictus’ other prominent image is the long and winding road–if we may borrow a musical/literary phrase–that runs through the entire film. The pathway is abandoned, reflecting the landscape that has become Jane and Paul’s milieu.

As their journey progresses, they also follow railroad tracks as derelict as the roads they walk. With their once fast-moving trains, the rails suggest the sense of urgency that pounds away at the story.

Upon reaching an urban area, the couple moves through streets of desolation and destruction. Leaving the city, they follow a broadened highway before reaching an airport runway. On it is a wrecked plane.

All along their trek, the carcasses of broken vehicles—cars, buses, planes—remind the viewer of civilization’s destruction. What once was filled with vitality is no more.  What once ran full speed is now dead.

Incidentally, most of the roadway shots are taken from high above the walking figures, emphasizing their loneliness and isolation.

In fact, height is important in the film and presents its final image. Rising above the misery of this post-apocalyptic world, a helicopter keeps the story’s metaphorical promise.

One more point is worth a mention. Like a Grimm fairy tale, the woods are always present to stoke our primal fear of the unknown. Notice, for example, Jane and Ava agree to reunite in an open field away from the hidden “wild people” who infest the wilderness.

Despite ever-present danger, we can’t forget that our travelers are seeking Invictus’ Land of Oz (the fruit-laden north). We are reassured that there is a yellow brick road, no matter its form, to all destinations of peace and plenty.

But peril always lurks a mere misstep away. Even Dorothy and her trio of friends in L. Frank Baum’s tale never knew exactly what or who was in the woods along the way.

The Wall

Outside the city, Jane and Paul come to a wall that symbolizes much of what this film is about.

Graffiti proclaiming “Art Prevails” is painted near another illustration, the silhouette of a strong man with a hammer. He has created a “hole” (or portal) in the barrier that reveals a footbridge across a body of water.

Is this the route to the North and the Land of Fruit and Happiness? Or does it have a more literal meaning? To reclaim a lost America, we require bridges, not walls.

Is the muscular hammer attacking ideological bulwarks that seal off protest and freedom of speech, something Invictus implies the government has taken away? Does the film assure the viewer that when much seems lost, art is a beacon that penetrates the darkness?

As we’ve mentioned above, Jane and Paul enter the city and walk among abandoned buildings that suggest a community destroyed by riots or a Chernobyl-like disaster.

The scene is a reminder of catastrophe and our travelers do not linger because revisiting the past holds no future in this emerging Distopia.

In This Together

As we have seen, the helicopter reminds us that the quickest way forward lies not on ruined roads but in soaring above the chaos to a new place and a new way.

Of note is this. Remember the four circling birds of prey we first see when Jane reaches the house where Paul is in hiding? Their vision was earth-ward waiting to feast on death, i.e. the past.

On the other hand, in the final scene the helicopter lifts upward, transcending destruction in pursuit of rebirth.

Finally, the voices of director Angie Rowntree, Delirious Hunter, Ava Mir-Ausziehen, and Joeydotrawr close the film. They start and finish sentences for each other in a “we’re all in this together” moment.

Here is the centrality of their message.

If we stand together and fight for each other, there is hope.

“Those who would pit us against one another . . . talk of making life great again . . . But greatness can’t be driven by fear.”

The film comes full circle with, “The only answer to divisiveness is unity. The only response to hate is love.”

Go Forward

Produced by the woman-friendly website Sssh.com, Invictus is an adult film. But it differs from typical porn fare.

On-screen sex is employed in three scenes with the intent of exploring human passion. Beyond that, the sex is vital to understanding the narrative and is no way gratuitous to the story. We learn quite a bit about the characters when we see them intimately engaged with each other, no holds barred.

Director Angie Rowntree makes one thing clear in these scenes. She wants her characters to “go forward” in their development especially if it means revisiting past events. We see this when Jane spends moments of reverie about her intimate relationship with Ava.

In the first sex scene, they are shown making love with a strong emphasis on gentle kissing and passionate bodies in motion.

Later, when Paul guesses Ave and Jane were once lovers (she affirms his comment when she tells him they met before same-sex relationships were a crime), he delivers the film’s central theme.

During his feverish sleep, Paul dreams of the past when all was normal. But he knows returning to that is impossible because it’s nothing more than an imaginative realm of what once was.

They need to go forward to something better. Jane acquiesces to his thought and in the process draws closer to him.

But what to do with remembrances of Ava?

From Fantasy to Reality

As previously mentioned, the first sex scene with Ava and Jane is a memory, a look backward. The second sex scene is Paul’s fever-induced vision when he is asleep. It departs from Jane’s reverie because it affirms Paul’s notion of what can be, not what was. Things are no longer “normal.”

The sex is graphic, of course, and woman-friendly. There’s male-on-female oral, caressing, and the standard positions found in porn.

Delirious Hunter makes each sex scene special. She is a rough-and-ready porn girl who can shoot with the best. In particular, her modeling resume of BDSM and gangbang scenes are bold and raw.

On the other hand, the sex in Invictus paints a different picture by transcending porn’s sameness and venturing into art. Delirious is up to the task with sensuality galore.

Because she and Joey are lovers responding to each other, Delirious sets just the right romantic tone to make it all work. Close-ups of her face and Joey’s capture the on-screen ecstasy and energy they draw from each other. Their lovemaking drives the film and reinforces the story of Jane and Paul.

That is noteworthy, by the way, because in real life Delirious and Joey are married. The sex is as authentic as it can get, one of the hallmarks of female-friendly porn.

The conflict of past and present and where to go from here is clearly the theme of Invictus’ sex scenes. Referencing the new film genre mentioned in Part One of this review, Angie Rowntree establishes a purpose for the Jane/Ava and Jane/Paul encounters, something not widely found in porn.

In other words, the sex itself is an image in the narrative.

Finally, the third sex scene is fantasy that becomes reality. The couple relaxes on a blanket, Jane eagerly discards her clothes and the intimacy happens because she chooses to make it so. It’s a feminist statement.

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Angie Rowntree has proven once again that an adult film deserves mainstream accolades. Like its predecessor, Gone, Invictus presents a solid script and an engaging story. The sex is never thrown in as a promise to the viewer. Rather it is a tool within the narrative that helps to clarify the interpersonal actions that move the story forward.

The characters define themselves with their sexuality and their sexual expression. Ava and Jane are lovers as are Paul and Jane. The question becomes, can Jane simultaneously exist in both relationships?

Possibly. Take a look at the final scenes and reach your own conclusion.

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A completed project is always a call for an all-for-one moment.

Celebration by cast and crew, left to right: Delirious Hunter, Argus Hammer (partly obscured), Rob Tanguay, Brad Benton, Angie Rowntree, and Joeydotawr

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Here is the trailer for Invictus. It’s Not Safe for Work because of graphic content. But if you’re not offended, please take a look!

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Invictus, Part One: The Rendezvous Point

by Rich Moreland, October 2018

Invictus is a film by Angie Rowntree and stars Delirious Hunter, Joeydotrawr, and Ava Mir-Ausziehen. Also appearing in speaking roles are Argus Hammer and Cat Belmont.

Spoiler Alert. This review reveals vital story elements that may influence viewers.

[Invictus is available online at Sssh.com. All photos included in this two-part review are likewise courtesy of Sssh.com.]

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Angie Rowntree is a noted feminist filmmaker whose stories are relevant to our times. Her directing talent is exceptional and her cast dedicated to producing an indie film suitable for mainstream viewers. Though Invictus doesn’t forget its adult film roots, it seldom dwells on them.

Jane and Paul

Invictus is a futuristic fantasy. The US has devolved into a chaotic dystopia and the few remaining freedom-loving souls (what we loosely would call “patriots”) are fighting to keep hope alive.

As the viewer joins the story, an authoritarian government has weaponized climate change, turning citizens into ‘wild people” who prey on one another for survival. But all is not lost. A mission to save a once multicultural collectivist America is on the time clock.

The opening credits roll and we get glimpses of the back story. A succession of quick news reports about the social issues of our time pass in review–the most important being climate change. Then everything suddenly falls silent as we hear, “signing off.”

We later learn this references the end of independent newscasts. Not surprising since the government is suppressing free speech.

The scene shifts to a solitary female figure with a backpack walking a lonely paved road. Passing a billboard that proclaims “climate change is real,” she comes upon an abandoned and disheveled house that offers momentary refuge. Note that her arrival is marked by four birds of prey circling in the sky.

In voice over, the hiker says, “It’s been nearly two weeks since I left Mount Weather.”

In fact, she is on a mission but her food and water are in short supply and she estimates making “the rendezvous point” is in doubt.

From here the narrative moves quickly. The woman is scientist Jane Darling (Delirious Hunter) and in the trashed dwelling she meets its squatter resident Paul Young (Joeydotrawr). He claims the building is not much but does have a “vibe” he humorously describes “post-apocalypse chic.”

Jane is unmoved by his levity and trusts no one. Her reaction is to defend herself and she is armed. This chick is not to be fooled with.

Pro-Government Thugs

Invictus has three major themes. The first emerges early: freedom of the press and the supposed rise of fake news.

Paul was an independent newscaster who avoided capture when “they” came to arrest everyone at the station, he tells Jane. He suggests that she may have seen his face on billboards and declares people now chase “fake news” which we tacitly understand is government-controlled propaganda.

Paul rolls an apple across the floor to Jane, an “Adam meets Eve” gesture that sets up the explicit love-making we see later. She’s skeptical that the fruit is real before a bite convinces her it is. Apparently, the delicious treat came from rumored farmable land up north, Paul declares, and wants to find out if such a place exists.

Having established the fake news theme, the narrative moves to its second and overriding message–climate change and how the nutty fundamentalists have abetted the earth’s destruction. On that note, there’s revenge of sorts at film’s end.

Jane warns Paul of “pro-government thugs” who are out to hunt down “people who aren’t patriotic” which brings up a question. Can a person be a patriot and criticize the government? The film lets the viewer decide.

In the meantime, Invictus’ story line is set. Jane and Paul decide to unite for the journey they must take: she to the rendezvous point, he to the land of the fruit. This introduces the central image of narrative: the road.

We will look at that in Part Two.

Survivors

There is one more element of importance in the film. From her backpack, Jane produces a flash drive that holds the key to an encrypted computer Ava, her colleague and friend, could not save when their offices were raided.

Jane is from the World Protection Agency, she tells Paul, and what is on the flash drive could save humanity. She and Ava plan to meet on her birthday in the field where they once admired a meteor shower together. The place has both an emotional and moral meaning for them.

In a broader sense, Invictus is a moral journey to save mankind. More simply, it’s the trek the flash drive must take. Jane and Paul are merely couriers, survivors navigating a “new apocalyptic world,” as Paul describes it, in which desolation and isolation are mankind’s enemies now.

Circumstance has brought them together. Both avoided arrest when their professional environments fell under assault. He wasn’t at the news studio and she was not at Mount Weather when the government raided both.

Now they are a new age Adam and Eve striving to regenerate civilization.

As the film progresses, their moxie is tested. The country has fallen into chaos: tribalism rules the countryside and the unlikely pair encounters violence on the road. Later in a fight over Jane’s backpack, Paul is stabbed. The attackers flee and his three-day recovery brings them closer.

Out of that, their personal visions and reveries lead to the film’s first two sex scenes, but more on that later.

A Comment on Filmmaking

Invictus is as much a tale steeped in symbolism as it is an adult film highlighting nudity and lovemaking. Because it is a rare combination of literary expression and art mixed with see-it-all sex, the film raises an important question.

Is it possible for an adult film created by industry directors and actors to become a Hollywood-worthy production? Does such an offering bridge the divide between two film worlds: pornography and mainstream?

To put the question another way, is Invictus part of an alternative genre created by independent filmmakers who believe uninhibited sexual expression is part of their storytelling and, by extension, the development of their characters?

Like Gone, an earlier award-winning Angie Rowntree film, Invictus does just that. What’s more, this production is also pro-woman and made by a feminist. But it takes a further step.

It also addresses an adult film audience that is often short-changed by the industry’s standard romantic comedies: couples. With Invictus, they get love in a turbulent world where fighting for a cause is preferable to a date night of fun and frivolity.

Finally, speaking of female power in a patriarchal world, Delirious Hunter’s character portrayal is the film’s driving force. Her acting skills are noteworthy and her sex scenes reveal a woman’s touch that compliments Angie Rowntree’s directing talent.

 

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All good filmmaking requires a team commitment . . .

And some fun along the way.

 

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Check out the trailer for Invictus. Bear in mind it is Not Safe for Work because of nudity and graphic sexual representation.

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Controlled by Dinosaurs: Part 1 of Mindbrowse with Candida and Jacky

by Rich Moreland, July 2015

For porn fans unfamiliar with what’s on the web (there are probably few of you actually), let me draw your attention to a podcast called mindbrowse.com. The host is Chauntelle Tibbals (Ph.D) and her show is moving the industry closer to mainstream entertainment. For a taste of what mindbrowse is about, here are some takeaways from a recent show featuring feminist filmmakers a generation apart: Candida Royalle and Jacky St. James.

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals Photo courtesy of Adult Video News

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals
Photo courtesy of Adult Video News

Over the last thirty years, a woman’s voice in adult film production has moved from its embryonic stage to a viable maturity. More than anyone, Candida is responsible for this sea change.

Her company, FEMME Productions has cleared a space for women in porn’s patriarchal boardroom. Creating content for women and couples using “a woman’s point of view” is Candida’s raison d’être. But, cultural attitudes are tough to overcome.

Pick up a Camera and it’s Feminist Porn

Our society is invested “in this idea that women are innocent, that they are delicate and don’t want hardcore pornography,” Candida says.

It’s a double standard, the New Yorker points out, which allows men to have sexual adventures while women keep hearth and home. Traditionally, women are “arbiters of morality” and that extends to pornography. But attitudes are in flux. For the most part, Candida says, younger women “are much more comfortable watching porn” now than ever before.

This has fueled a “leap forward” in the business, she declares. Modern female filmmakers in adult are “creating their own vision,” but there is a downside.

Candida with her book! Photo courtesy of rottentomatos.com

Candida with her book!
Photo courtesy of rottentomatoes.com

“Whenever the culture sees something new happening,” it becomes a media darling, before being “eaten up” and losing “its intensity or significance.” Candida says.

This has happened with adult filmmakers. “All you have to do is be a woman and pick up a camera and its feminist porn” she states. In other words, if it is female created, it must be feminist. That may be too simplistic.

In fact, Candida prefers to avoid porn in describing her films because it is a broad avenue that includes content she would not shoot, like facials and harsh gonzo.

“Some of what I see is not very different from what the guys are doing,” Candida concludes, hinting that modern female directors and cinematographers shoot their scenes with a harder edge than does FEMME.

But the future looks bright. Candida hopes as more women come into porn, they will “do something that is truly different and truly unique.”

Return on Investment

Add a couple of decades to Candida Royalle’s perspective and we have Jacky St. James, the leading woman filmmaker in adult today. Candida is the pioneer and Jacky is the benefactor who is moving the legacy forward . . . with a broadened approach.

The native East Coaster offers that a woman’s fantasy cannot be put in a box that insists “it has to be a certain way or it’s not pro-woman.” Hardcore porn can be shot with “a feminist perspective,” she insists, and there are several filmmakers, such as Spain’s Erika Lust, out there today doing just that.

Jacky brings up tube sites which she finds troubling. Their content is free and reflects the triumph of gonzo. As everyone knows, tube sites are damaging the industry financially while shaping viewer preferences in the process. Hard and nasty are as popular as ever.

For all pornographers, the most important factor dictating content and profit is distribution which may not be important for tube sites since they are piracy in action.

We have “to cater to whose distributing our films,” Jacky says, and that determines what she can shoot. To make matters worse, “a lot of us don’t have full control” because many “distributors are owned by men with certain expectations.” Jacky asserts it’s about “return on investment” and “they might not be in line with what your overall perspective is [as a feminist filmmaker].”

Jacky shows the best of her work. Photo courtesy of Jacky St. James

Jacky shows the best of her work.
Photo courtesy of Jacky St. James

Pleasing other people in a business sense is every woman’s albatross in today’s market. “Until you are your own producer, your own distributor, it’s kind of hard right now.”

There are parameters imposed on shooting that include the time devoted to each sex scene and the amount and variety of penetrations. That robs filmmakers of “creative control.” For women, it’s the oldest struggle in the business, Jacky insists,“fighting the men” on what to shoot and how to shoot.

The Market is There

Listening to Jacky, Candida asks, “Is it still that way, because it was always that way?” She fortunately had her own investors in her early days which helped tremendously. Candida believes a woman should “start her own distribution company” if possible, “because the market is there . . . there is a huge audience out there waiting for something truly unique, artful, and interesting.”

Like Jacky, Candida used “a traditional distributor” which meant that “you had to do this, you had to do that” held sway in content.

Not much has changed. “We’re still controlled by dinosaurs, unfortunately, who think they know what people want” and maintain a tight grip on budgets, Candida adds.

Despite these restrictions, Candida Royalle and Jacky St. James are feminist all-stars in the porn universe, verifying that the wisdom of two generations, mothers and daughters if you will, indicate the future is bright for sex, romance, and a woman’s view.

 

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A Re-Visioned Pornography: A Woman’s “Right to Be Horny”

by Rich Moreland, September, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In her introduction to Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, Pamela Paul writes that pornography is “seamlessly integrated into popular culture,” creating an “all-pornography, all-the-time mentally” that is literally “everywhere.” Sweeping generalizations rarely take into account personal tastes, cultural and political variances, or in this case, alternative views on sexuality. There is little doubt that sex is commodified; in fact, it is ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture. But continued presence does not translate into unrelenting offensiveness. In fact, sexuality can be enlightening, educational, and a tool for women’s equality, especially when reconfigured to celebrate a female “gaze.” Feminist pornography is doing just that and Anne G. Sabo’s newest study is a welcome addition to the debate

In After Pornified: How Women are Transforming Pornography and Why It Really Matters, Sabo amplifies feminist scholar Linda Williams’ concept of re-vision and explores a reconfigured porn for women. Sabo’s book is a montage of female filmmakers with samplings of their work embedded in summary reviews. Following the trail of American film visionary Candida Royalle, these new century women are not merely playing on the edges of a man’s world. They have a message for society’s “neo-Victorianism,” a cultural condition the late feminist Ellen Willis insists circumscribes female sexual expression. A reworked feminist pornography is symbolic liberation for all women.

Re-vision does not mean revision, Sabo explains. It is not a cleaning up process, but a radical rewrite. For clarification, she quotes German-born director Petra Joy who asserts that “erotic and pornographic images” are not exclusive to men. “Why should women not create and enjoy films that express their sexual desires . . . ?” Why not, indeed? Joy wants women to target men as “objects of desire” who focus their sexual expression on pleasuring their female lovers. Joy believes feminist adult film captures authentic sex in a way that creates a different entity, “transformed porn,” an alternative to the established male product that carries a female objectifying label.

A Swede now living in Spain, Erika Lust is part of this new breed of filmmaker. “I see porn as a tool for excitement, education, and pleasure,” she says, and a very powerful one at that. I agree and share Sabo’s delight for Lust’s short film, “The Good Girl” which takes one of the oldest stag film formulas, the delivery boy, and turns it around. When the pizza is delivered and the sex ensues (not without some doubt at first) the female protagonist captures the standard male “gaze” and alters the outcome. By seizing the action to get what she wants, our heroine moves from object to subject, possessing her own “gaze.” The story can stand by itself, but Lust has more in mind. She artistically infuses her film work with an urban MTV flavor that is a tasteful delight of energy and sex, in this case swirling around a pizza box!

The opening chapter on Candida Royalle is a must read for any novice to feminist pornography/erotica. If nothing else, Sabo’s review of Royalle’s professional standards from safer sex to “content and style” is an educational primer. Royalle is unique. As a filmmaker she weathered the political storms of feminism’s second wave “sex wars” when anti-porn feminists excoriated adult film. Her political efforts fighting censorship in Feminists for Free Expression and her classic film on oppression, Revelations, preserve for the New Yorker a seat among the liberal icons of our age.

Modern sex-positive feminists package adult film into a fast-paced, music dominated product. The short vignette is their cinematic bread and butter. Of particular interest is the “cell phone art porn” of another Swede, Mia Engberg. Her question, posed in the Dirty Diaries collection, is central to feminist pornography: how do women “liberate” their “sexual fantasies” to escape the commercialization of porn that Paul sees around us everyday? Offering takes on that question, Sabo deconstructs film narratives, casting a light on the message of all the filmmakers she presents. This process is particularly informative in the Dirty Diaries series. Incidentally, I commend Sabo’s emphasis on the Dirty Diaries manifesto, an enumeration of the elements composing the mission of feminist porn. Here are a few that stand out. “[B]eauty ideals” are of no consequence in feminist porn, it is a sexual collage of any body and every body. The genre confronts “narrow gender categories,” encouraging “gender plurality.” And, best of all, the practice of safer sex is foremost because feminist porn supports a woman’s “right to be horny.”

Sabo raises a contentious question that is still a work in progress among feminists. The chapter on Puzzy Power films hints at this conundrum. The Puzzy Power credo prohibits scenes “where women are subjected to violence or coercion,” though “rape or assault” passes muster if the woman is “living out her fantasy” with someone she can trust to accommodate her desires. Sabo references second wave feminist Robin Morgan whose fantasies of sexual stimulation via domination presented difficulties for her though she apparently got off on her mental images. Likewise, Sabo mentions third wave journalist Martine Aurdal who frequently “caught herself in a role-play right before orgasm” that centered on “power relations.” This was vexing for Aurdal because it represented “gender roles” locked in a Paleolithic mentality. But one suspects she liked it. The question then becomes: Can women enjoy role-play if it means they are submissive and dominated? Take a look at Erika Lust’s two short films, “Handcuffs” and “Love Me Like You Hate Me” to get a spin on this question. Later when reviewing the work of feminist directors Anna Span and Tristan Taormino, Sabo brings up a another issue that is also divisive among feminists: gonzo porn, a method of filming often condemned for degrading women. Sabo lets us know that both Span and Taormino shoot in a gonzo style: the camera and director participate in the action. Character portrayal is abandoned and performers play themselves for the pleasure of the sex alone.

Can women like rough BDSM oriented sex if it suits their fantasy and they are equal participants in it? Can they actively support close-ups of piston shots, oral sex, and external ejaculations that might be deposited on the eyes rather than the belly? Tricky issues for a female cinematographer because gonzo has a male reputation dating to the early work of Evil Angel’s John Stagliano’s Buttman series. Sabo’s suggests that gonzo female-style is more about legitimating the voyeur in all of us; and those who are watched are there by “mutual agreement.” Fair enough. I’ve always believed women can have sex for its pure raw fun. Now that feminist porn is inching closer to the longstanding male gaze, gonzo represents a long awaited evolution for women. Like Sabo, I believe that it works if it is framed from a female POV, represents the director’s artistic vision, and is a legitimate turn on for both performer and viewer.

My interviews with feminist director Bobbi Starr (who as a performer is noted for her BDSM, rough edged gangbangs, and anal shoots) reveal that gonzo is her filming taste. Starr is open about how she does things her way and being male-identified, should that criticism be raised, is not a concern. Queer feminist performers Dylan Ryan and Madison Young (who sits in director’s chair on occasion) also relish the submissive role and are no strangers to anal scenes and facials. So, what does this tell us today about feminist re-visioned porn? Are women directors succumbing to an ensconced filming that appeals to a male fan base? Or have women, mainly through their indie companies, seized ownership of the very thing that anti-porn feminists insist is their source of oppression? Sabo introduces this question and for that alone, After Pornified is worth a read.

The organization of the chapters merits comment. Sabo reviews various movies to give the reader a feel for her thesis. I am a social scientist/historian, not a film studies scholar, so I appreciate her in-depth look at the narrative and stylistic format of film. Sabo sets off her movie analysis in gray print to distinguish it from the rest of the text. I found this to be an effective tool that enabled me to get a complete picture of her message. It is a boon for any reader who, like yours truly, is largely unfamiliar with the intricacies of film study techniques.

Sex-positive feminist porn filmmakers are making a difference in how a “pornified” society looks at modern adult film. Anti-porn acolytes in the manner of Pamela Paul will continue to fire salvos at pornography as intrusive on society and debasing to women. Give them their due and move on. Take porn, re-vision it, and in the process pay close attention to Anne G. Sabo’s newest book.

 

 

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An Air of the Extraordinary

Annie Sprinkle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Vera, Veronica Hart, Candida Royalle. Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

by Rich Moreland, June 2012

In mid-June Amtrak took me north to New York City for day trip. I haven’t visited the Big Apple since its transition to the “gentrified” New York. My last remembrance of the city was walking to Times Square with a couple of my buddies, looking for smut shops while avoiding the winos, druggies, and other assorted street people. That was a few decades ago.

This excursion to Manhattan was not a whim; it was book related and by invitation. I was accompanied by a friend and colleague in academia who doubles as my photographer. If nothing else, I’m assured of good pics  if my writing fails to capture the scene.

In 2008, I discovered the apparent contradiction that feminism and adult film are bedfellows (or bed sisters) in an industry that is patriarchal to the core. Deciding to chronicle this odd combination, I first wanted to know what other historians, journalists, and commentators had to say on the subject. At every turn in my research, the name “Club 90” came up. Scholarly paths pointed back to this circle of five women, actresses in adult film when acting was valued and expected.

On a cool and rainy June evening in mid-town Manhattan, the Museum of Sex on 27th Street paid homage to this venerated “club.” The museum is a storefront with a basement bar and an upper floor gallery. On this night the upstairs contained a long table and folding chairs neatly arranged into a relatively cramped space. Everything was ready for a panel discussion featuring these “Golden Girls of Porn,” as the event was labeled.

Josh and I made an effort to arrive early. I had communicated with all of the ladies individually, but up to this moment I had met only two in person, Annie Sprinkle and Veronica Hart. Gloria Leonard and Candida Royalle were telephone voices to me and Veronica Vera was an email correspondence and a postal address.

The women were “stars” in the “porno chic” days of the 1970’s when 35 mm film reigned and the big screen was where sex came alive. Adult movies demanded dialogue and plot to compliment the cinematography. Making a good picture required location and days of shooting. Nowadays porn films are cranked out quickly and, with some exceptions, very little style. Needless to say, there is rarely an aspiring actress in sight. But the seasoned Club 90 performers were blessed, if that can be said in pornography. They worked for some of adult film’s noted early directors like Radley Metzger, Gerard Damiano, and Joe Sarno, true artists who considered movie-making to be a craft. A sense of panache and acting ability was requisite.

As the “porno chic” days wound down, the five were transitioning away from being on camera. There were reasons: the HIV menace was one, while marriage and family became another. In short, they were getting on with their lives.  They organized a mutual support group to ease through the changes and named it after the address of Annie’s Manhattan apartment where their initial get together took place. Over the years, their collective friendship has endured.

By sheer happenstance I broke into their group. I attended one of Annie’s university speaking engagements and later sent an inquiry to Feminists for Free Expression which resulted in a surprise email from Candida. That began three years of correspondence with the group that formed the linchpin of my research.

Stealing Moments Before the Show

I got a big hug from Gloria Leonard before the gala began. She is classy (an overused word, I know) and a butt-kicker through her devotion to the political principles she holds dear. She also is the group’s grand dame. Gloria entered the adult business in her late thirties, much like the Club’s dear friend and another of porn’s venerable ladies, Georgina Spelvin. Working in adult paid better than nine to five, Gloria later told the audience, a bonus because she had a daughter to support.

A Hug From Gloria
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

Gloria has her views and the personality to back them. She and I have a mutual acquaintance in the adult biz, Bill Margold, who has his own set of notions about the history of adult film. Bill has told me much about Gloria. He adores her and I can see why. She has a political conscience in an industry that often lacks ethical behavior, and she cares about performer health and welfare. Her position on safer sex in the infamous 1998 HIV scare is a testimony to her concern for the industry. As President of the Free Speech Coalition, the political wing of the business, Gloria got funding for the start-up of Adult Industry Medical (AIM) so that talent could be more secure health wise on the job.

Reminding the audience that defending free speech is important to everyone, Gloria believes in the principle that “no one should tell you what to watch or hear.” Her words raised a bright round of applause.

I also stole a moment to impose on Candida Royalle to say “hello” face-to-face. Phone conversations and emails are not foreign to us and her support for my work is appreciated more than she will know. Like Gloria, Candida brought an air of the extraordinary to the room. Both women were elegantly and conservatively dressed as if they planned to attend a charity bizarre . . . at the country club, of course . . . sponsored by the ladies auxiliary. But the country club set could never imagine the elegance that comes from Candida. She is an industry luminary of the first order and has no parallel. She runs her own production company, FEMME, out of New York and specializes in woman-friendly erotica and couples porn. To suggest that Candida is a ground breaker in adult film erotica is a mammoth understatement. She not only turned the soil, she constructed the edifice that is feminist pornography, though I know she shudders with my use of that word; erotica is her preference. In the initial Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto years ago, Candida was the first honored. That’s what it means to be a living legend.

Chatting with Candida before showtime!
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

Candida told the audience that during her acting days she felt “ambivalence about being in adult movies” and was “conflicted” about what the impact might be in her life. Seeking therapy, she learned the value of self-analysis and decided that there was nothing wrong with performing in adult film. A woman’s voice was what the adult product lacked. Candida vowed to correct that perception and make pictures for women. It was fortuitous timing. The arrival of home video provided a safe place for women to view porn, she said, and a market was birthed.

Annie Sprinkle was her usual loving self when I renewed acquaintances with her. Annie’s career as a sex worker and lover of men, women, and transpersons is too vast and complex to even attempt to summarize here. I was honored to interview Annie in her home (we sat in the kitchen and enjoyed some iced tea) on a visit to San Francisco a couple of years ago.

No Tragic Endings Here

Annie was the lead-off hitter in the panel line-up. When everyone was finally seated, she mentioned that many people have the widely accepted belief that porn stars have “tragic endings.” “They don’t know us!” she said with her typical high spirits. During her brief remarks, people continued to trickle in; the shortage of chairs turned the event into SRO. I don’t know how many the museum planned for but attendance must have exceeded expectations. And, not every face in the crowd was an old friend or admirer. There were a number of young people who perhaps were looking to understand the past through a vision of the present.

Annie after the show.
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

In the opening moments of the discussion, Annie put the almost thirty years of Club 90 in perspective when she declared her time in porn has been an “amazing journey” and her goal is to keep it rolling. “I want to get to fifty years in sex!” she said with the innocence and playfulness of a flower child whose years have been spent pleasing and being pleased.

Annie carries the mien of San Francisco’s hippie past. Her leopard print floor length gown reminded me that Annie’s performance art, and that of her club sister Veronica Vera, is studied in academia.

Veronica Vera had expedited my research by sending valuable documents my way. She, like Gloria, was intensely political in her younger days. When we briefly spoke, I imagined what it must have been like for her to testify before the 1984 Senate Committee investigating adult film. The Reagan administration was going after porn as harm to women and the industry was under siege. Veronica recalled the now famous bondage photo she showed Senator Arlen Specter on that October day. The picture is a historical precursor of modern day BDSM performance art that has captured the imagination of a sexually marginalized community.

Veronica got into the adult business through famed photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. She told the audience she had worked on Wall Street then “decided to take an honest job” and went into adult entertainment.

Her wedding was the catalyst for this reunion, the group’s first in seventeen years.

As the event was breaking up, I finally got a chance to embrace Veronica Hart. Her 1983 baby shower brought the ladies together for the first time. I visited with Veronica in Las Vegas a few months ago and know her on a more personal level than the others. She is the youngster of the group and is considered one of the great beauties ever to grace adult film.

Veronica showing her big HeART!
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

Except for a retired Gloria Leonard who now lives in Hawai`i, the women remain active in the adult world. Veronica Hart works in her hometown at Vegas’ Erotic Heritage Museum. She still directs in L.A. and keeps close tabs on the adult business. Candida Royalle continues with FEMME and has branched out into an adult product line, distributing through Adam and Eve, a Phil Harvey enterprise in North Carolina.

Annie Sprinkle and her partner, Beth Stephens, are expanding their venture into ecosex,  “a subject matter or identity,” Annie explains, that moves beyond a performance art. “We are . . . excosexual aritsts,” she says, exploring “a new area of research” that delves into “places where sexology and ecology intersect in art, theory, practice, and activism.”

If that sounds intellectual, it is. Beth, who moderated the event, is finishing her Ph.D. which will make two in the family as Annie already has hers.  Incidentally,  she is the first porn star gain such status. Sharon Mitchell, an old friend of Club 90 and long time director of AIM, is the second.

The fifth member, Veronica Vera, runs her own school for cross dressers, “Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls” located in New York. The studio where many of her events take place is on 54th Street. Veronica’s program is for males and transpeople who want to challenge gender barriers and get in touch with their feminine side. Working with transpersons is a value shared with Annie. (I recommend Shannon Bell’s Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body [1994] for an account of Club 90’s Franklin Furnace stage show in 1984 and Annie and Veronica’s performance art.)

With the evening winding down and attendees milling about, I allowed my imagination to have some fun. Among the audience were acquaintances of Club 90 who had been involved in adult film industry. Observing some of them reunite with the five in conversation, I mentally turned the clock back 30 years, erasing the nasty joke that time plays on all of us: age, something the young firmly believe will never happen to them. I fancied everyone in just such a room, setting up for a porn shoot: director, P.A.s, grips, and cameramen, hustling around with perhaps a make-up artist adding some final touches to faces destined to be hardened in a tough business.

In those early days of the modern adult film era, the business was east coast oriented. New York was home for Club 90. This Manhattan evening wrapped itself around them and their friendships with memories treasured. In the midst of skyscrapers and traffic punctuated with the ubiquitous New York cabbies, the affair had a small town feel and I was honored to have been invited.

When Josh and I headed back to the train station, the rain pelted ever hectic New Yorkers scurrying under umbrellas to get from here to there. The scene itself was a stage, a piece of living history, illuminated by lights embedded in mist and shrouded in the past.

———————

If you visit the Museum of Sex on the corner of 27th and 5th Avenue, consider in a quick snack across the street at Naturally Tasty. Ask for Magdalena. She’s service with a smile.

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