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Eros: Part Two

by Rich Moreland, March 2018

Now that we’ve introduced student filmmaker Davyana San Miguel, let’s have a conversation about what makes Eros a striking accomplishment.

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Experimental

To begin, Davyana describes the film as “an audio-visual experience that explores themes of pornography and feminism through experimental filmic techniques.”

Without doubt, it accomplishes that.

After viewing the film, I wanted to share my thoughts with Davyana. One of them concerned how she chose to represent herself on-screen. As the film opens, the viewer’s first impression is Davyana with her back exposed to the camera by a very low-cut dress. To push an avant-garde button, she has buzzed her hair.

Was that intentional? Here’s what I found out.

Davyana shaved her head during a trip to London. Her hair was always long and a close trim was something she wanted to do, but her friends weren’t exactly supportive.

“According to their opinions, I wouldn’t be beautiful or feminine anymore if I shaved my hair,” she recalls.

Moving forward nevertheless, Davyana discovered an opportunity to put her new look on-screen in an interesting way.

“I decided to insert myself in the film to join the conversation and redefine the notions that a woman is defined by her adherence to traditional gender roles.”

What about baring her back?

“My outfit choice and camera angle are intentional but shouldn’t be over thought.” She comments. “There is no deeper meaning. I simply enjoyed the aesthetics of the shot.”

Unfortunately, I stand guilty of over thinking. Let me give you an example. 

In a film review I did a couple of years ago, I interpreted a painting as cleverly defining connections within the plot and its characters. Later, the director thanked me for the observation, but the painting was incidental in the scene and lent no special meaning to the film, he said.

Well, this time around I argue that Davyana gave her film “deeper meaning” by putting her image in it and I agree with Dr. Augsburg who claims, “I think she also underscores the importance of feminist art since the 1960s–or what I call feminist ars erotica— by depicting herself working with paint in the film. She seemed literally to turn her back on the male gaze as well.”

The good professor is spot on.

Simply a Business

Eros incorporates the feel of early film. There are sprocket holes continuously on-screen accompanied by flickering to create the effect of a reel-to-reel experience. Do the boxes on each side of the film have multiple meanings other than sprocket holes and did Davyana employ them to enhance the theme of the narrative? 

I think so. Grainy reel-to-reel images remind viewers there’s a bit of history going on with what they are seeing.

Incidentally, the effect confronts the male gaze engendered by stag films, the earliest version of motion picture pornography. If this is her intention, Davyana exposes how women’s sexuality has been viewed in our culture over time.

Here’s what she had to say, mixing in some techie talk with the film’s message.

“I’m intrigued by the psychological effects of subliminal messages. The grid pattern of 16mm hand-painted clear leader simply came together through experimentation. The strobing effect of the 16mm was achieved by filming the live projection.  Every frame is intentional and represents something related to the adult industry. I don’t want to give too much away; a lot is up for the audience to decode.”

Regarding Marilyn Chambers (in a clip taken from a TV appearance) and Andrea Dworkin as opposites in the film, Marilyn seems nervous; whereas, Dworkin is her usual forceful self.

Selecting those clips for Eros is astute filmmaking because Marilyn symbolizes the early days of the emerging 35 mm pornography phenomenon that is not quite sure of itself; whereas, Dworkin is a statement of suppressed (or repressed?) female sexuality, a longstanding cultural expectation then and now.

Does Davyana consider the two women as antithetical?

“Andrea Dworkin was included to represent the anti-porn feminist perspective and Marilyn Chambers represents the pornography feminist,” she says. “I wanted to showcase both sides of the feminist debate that spanned the 1970’s.” And into the 1980s, I might add, so Davyana has encapsulated a large chunk of porn history in momentary images.

Having said that, what do we do with Dworkin and Annie Sprinkle?

Davyana elaborates.

“Andrea Dworkin’s intensity and overconfidence (in her point of view) really helped to show the different sides of feminism that exist.  That visual (in the film) about porn people leading happy lives is all thanks to Annie Sprinkle! That’s the very message I wanted to get across strongly (about porn) . . . this is simply a business.” (Notice the dollar sign in the title card reproduced above?)

Buckley and Days Gone By

What about conservative commentator William F. Buckley? Where does he fit in?

“I found his reactions as a moderator quite funny and left his shots in there. Talking about pornography and feminism can be overwhelming and tiring, hence the need for comedic relief,” Davyana comments.

No doubt, but let’s not forget that Buckley’s resume includes supporting McCarthyism, segregation (he was no friend of civil rights), and opposing multiculturalism. With her avant-garde lens, Davyana gives him the zapping he deserves, if ever so subtle, in a film that addresses a pair of ideas that would appall him: feminism and pornography.

Another segment of interest in Eros is the scene of women and typewriters. It presents a 1940s snapshot of the corporate world that Buckley would certainly endorse. Jobs are stamped out; typists are cloned. They are hardly in charge of their image.

The vision is an innovative way to move the history of women forward because of how it defines society and the female statement within it.

“The shots of women training to be secretaries are included as a visual juxtaposition to the idea of an independent female who works in the adult industry,” Davyana declares. “These secretaries represent the women oppressed by a patriarchal society.”

Coexistence

Finally, how does Annie Sprinkle fit into Davyana’s message?

“I learned about Annie Sprinkle through Dr. Augsburg’s course,” the student artist says, and offers a “shout out” to her professor for “inspiring the themes discussed in Eros.”

Davyana explains that she needed “a credible source to help my argument that feminism and pornography can coexist.  What better person to ask than Annie Sprinkle, who has worked in the industry and created a successful art career because of her experiences.”

When I asked Dr. Tanya Augsburg about Davyana’s commitment to excellence, she said:

I’m so impressed that she took the initiative to interview Anne Sprinkle, Shine Louise Houston, and yourself. What I appreciate so much about her remarkable film is that is also quite the feast for the eyes. She presents a full range of feminist perspectives in mesmerizing ways.”

I could not agree more and am most flattered to be a part of Davyana San Miguel’s continuing journey into filmmaking.

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We have one more Davyana San Miguel post in front of us. This time we’ll talk about the artist up close and personal.

 

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Eros: Part One

by Rich Moreland, March 2018

When I was researching feminism in adult film, my intention was to provide a historical resource for the college classroom. In the spring of 2017 that became a reality at San Francisco State University.

A student from the university was introduced to my work and contacted me concerning a film project she was undertaking. The discussion was an enjoyable role reversal for me because someone else was asking the questions.

The outcome of her effort is extraordinary considering this is a student film, not the product of a professional filmmaker. For that fact alone, it is a remarkable accomplishment.

(All visuals in Parts One, Two, and Three of Eros are courtesy of Davyana San Miguel except that of Dr. Tanya Augsburg who granted me permission to use a her image.)

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Five Minutes

The filmmaker is Davyana San Miguel and the film, Eros, is a comment on how we as a society must create a space for a woman’s take on her own sexuality and, more importantly, how she expresses it.

Early porn feminists, specifically Annie Sprinkle, a member of Club 90, the original feminist support group in the industry, and the late Marilyn Chambers, who did not openly identify as a feminist but was in control of her image, are included. For a more recent take on feminist porn, the narrative offers a moment with director Shine Louise Houston whose Pink and White Productions is a well-known studio in the queer porn genre.

Additionally, the ideas of two feminists from the heady days of second wave feminism are juxtaposed as part of Eros’s message: Andrea Dworkin’s anti-porn feminism and “the erotic is power” philosophy espoused by African-American lesbian, Audre Lorde.

By the way, the film is brief, running a bit over five minutes. But don’t let that fool you, it is smartly done with an artistic verve.

Challenging Social Stigmas

So, who is Davyana San Miguel?

“I’m a filmmaker and multimedia artist,” she says. “As of right now, I’m finishing up my bachelor’s degree in Cinema from San Francisco State with an emphasis in Experimental Filmmaking.

“I’m originally from Hawai’i and moved to California when I was seventeen, spending the first three years in Southern California and now residing in foggy San Francisco.”

Davyana explains that her filmmaking focuses on “challenging social stigmas.” To do so, she explores “open conversations about topics that may make people uncomfortable,” such as feminism and pornography.

Of course, modern artists must take care of the technical aspects of their work. In Davyana’s case, she and her “creative partner” Mehran Karimabadi operate “DSM Visuals, a production company and art collective that creates diverse and original content,” she says.

Sex-Positive

Early in her time at the university, Davyana took a humanities class, Images of Eroticism, from Dr. Tanya Augsburg, an Associate Professor of Humanities in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies who describes herself as “a humanities-trained interdisciplinary feminist performance scholar, critic, and curator.”

I invited her to talk about her course.

First, she tells me that Images of Eroticism “is a popular upper-division general education humanities course” that has been part of the university curriculum for quite some time. Dr. Augsburg is one of several professors who have undertaken the challenge of defining the sexual and its place in our culture.

“Each instructor teaches it differently, according to their own interpretation of what ‘images of eroticism’ means as well as their own areas of expertise,” the professor points out. Though one instructor teaches the class as a porn studies offering, Dr. Augsburg’s version is not quite that.

Her approach is broader, examining a variety of erotic “representations” that focus on “art, philosophy, literature, film, and contemporary pop culture.”

To give me some specifics, Dr.Augsburg mentions that her course encompasses “erotic imagery” as it connects with “sex-positive cultural representations of women that are created by women and those who do not identify with toxic heteronormative masculinity.”

Dr. Augsburg uses a variety of sources. For example, she includes “clips from the ‘golden age of porn’ and Annie Sprinkle’s films,” on one hand, she says, and “the art of young ‘fourth wave’ and ‘sex-negative’ feminists such as Ann Hirsch and Leah Schrager,” on the other.

The professor also mentions Cheryl Dunye’s film, Mommy Is Coming.

(Note: I met Cheryl Dunye a few years back by way of Pink and White’s Jiz Lee who was impressed with what Dunye brought to the cinematic table.)

New Erotic Imagery

Although the college atmosphere often resists changes in methodology (we often teach as we were taught), Dr. Augsburg’s students are not passive receptacles of professorial pronouncements (my professorial words, not hers!).

“In Images of Eroticism I challenge students to create new erotic imagery that is consensual and that represents their own communities and/or interests. Students can take up that challenge for their final as long as they draw from the course material,” the professor explains.

Some will write “erotic short stories that draw from the course material as well as their own experiences,” she continues. “I’d like to think that Davyana also took up that challenge after the class was over in her film class.”

(Indeed she did. Eros was a project Davyana developed for her Experimental Documentary Workshop at the university.)

What impressed Dr. Augsburg was that Davyana incorporated elements from her course in her student production. Among the literary examples that stand out for the humanities professor occurs in the final frames.

“Davyana ends the film with a shout-out to yet another course text, the novel Story of O with the masked man and woman.”

And, of course, the young filmmaker boldly steps into her own production prompting high praise from Professor Augsburg.

“My class featured many examples of feminist art and performance so I was delighted to see Davyana doing her own performance art in the film,” she says.

The “Porn” Class

From Davyana’s perspective, Dr. Augsburg had a significant impact on a young woman’s educational journey.

“Images of Eroticism was one of the first classes that I took at SF State. I was intrigued by the name. My roommates at the time told me that it was known as the ‘porn’ class. Well, maybe, but it was more than that.

In fact, firsts were everywhere. Not only was the class new to Davyana, it was Dr. Augsburg’s first time teaching it and she was the first woman at the university to do so.

The experience was rewarding. Dr. Augsburg “gave the class a critical analysis and historical overview of erotic art and its effects on society from a female perspective,” Davyana says.

A couple of decades ago that would have been unthinkable and certainly not conventional when it comes to the erotic.

Incidentally, Davyana mentioned that the class read parts of my take on adult film feminism because it “represents a counter-narrative to the consequences of traditional gender roles.”

She goes on to say,

“My copy of your book is littered with post-it notes and I read the whole book after the course was over. When I studied your text and related films, the concept of feminism coexisting with pornography, no longer felt foreign.”

Cool. That is exactly its intent.

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The filmmakers of DSM visuals.

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Next we will delve a bit into Eros, the film.

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A Triumph Over an Adolescent Male Mind

by Rich Moreland August 29, 2011

When I discovered there were feminists making adult film I was astounded. Not your mother’s feminism, I assure you. In my limited experience with the women’s movement a feminist was, when it comes to sex, not exactly ready to take on all comers.

My interaction with adult film was equally as limited. My adolescent male mind was focused on the action, not the value of the people who created it, their intelligence, their politics, and their art.

With little prompting, intellectual curiosity got the better of me as it often does. I decided to seriously investigate the adult film business. Rather than living with myths, or what others told me, I wanted to know the people who work in the industry because I suspected they were pretty interesting. This decision was the beginning of the end of my adolescent male mind.

Shortly after beginning my research, I discovered performers who identify as feminists—Nina Hartley, Madison Young, Bobbi Starr, Dylan Ryan, April Flores, Jiz Lee, and Lorilei Lee, to name a few—who are staking out their space in a male-dominated business. And the roll call includes innovative directors like Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Tristan Taormino, Nica Noelle, and Carlos Batts, all artists in their own right.

Further investigation revealed I had only scratched the surface because no current feminist in adult film can celebrate her/his craft without paying homage to the past. The pioneers of feminism in adult film, actresses like Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle and their sisters from the 1980’s known collectively as Club 90, set the standard for today’s feminism in the industry. They surpassed all expectations of women who made their reputations in adult film. Annie with her performance art, Candida with FEMME productions, Gloria Leonard with her political activism, and the two Veronicas—Vera and Hart—deserve icon status.

So, where did this leave me? I realized how wrong I was in broad brushing feminism. Chalk up a feminist victory over the adolescent male mind.

In truth, I admire the traditional feminist movement for its political and social contributions in changing America’s cultural landscape. Unfortunately, a few decades ago the anti-pornography faction of the broader movement seized the media limelight, preaching an anti-sex, pro-censorship message while decrying the evils of porn. Thus a feminist reputation was created and shaped my reference point on the movement.

I was not alone. My conversations with Candida Royalle revealed that she struggled with reconciling feminism and her on screen career in adult film. She drifted away from the movement when demonizing pornography was feminism’s popular mantra before returning under a pro-sex feminist banner.

As with all movements feminism was not monolithic; factions developed over all sorts of issues. Some feminists disaffected with the movement’s anti-sex direction encouraged a woman’s ownership of her sexuality. They identified as sex-positive feminists and countered the movement’s popular belief that porn promoted harm and degradation toward women. These feminists supported a woman’s right to buy, watch, perform in, and get off on porn if that was her desire. In time, sex-positive feminism gained a foothold in academia and spread to adult film.

Though the earliest of the sex-positive crowd wasn’t real thrilled with Linda Lovelace’s talents in Deep Throat (1972), the film actually celebrates her sexual pleasure. Remember, she is seeking orgasm. But feminists wanted to see the narrative from a woman’s point of view and felt short-changed. Some were not opposed to Lovelace’s performance; they just thought porn/erotica could be made better and more appealing to women.

Beginning in the mid-1980’s that demand became reality and feminism found its place in the pornography industry. Today, the space they own is home to a variety of expressions. To give you an idea, consider the following samples: the erotica of FEMME Productions and Girlfriends Films, the mainstream films of “Porn Valley’s” Tristan Taormino and Belladonna, the edgy genderqueer performances of San Francisco’s Queer Porn Mafia, and the BDSM internet offerings of Kink.com.

Remember, it is all about choice. Everyone’s sexual expression is legitimate and never deserves to be stifled by anyone. So watch an erotic movie if you wish or a hard edge bondage scene if that is your thing. It’s choice and feminist porn celebrates that.

An addendum. Embedded in this venture is a celebration of women’s sexuality that has endorsed each woman’s individual pleasure, regardless of her interest in porn. Businesses like Good Vibrations in San Francisco and Good For Her in Toronto have given women the permission and privacy needed to explore their individual desires. And, no venture into sex-positive feminism is legitimate without mentioning the innovative art space in San Francisco known as Femina Potens.

So, I decided to tell the story of sex-positive feminism in adult film, seeking to discover how modern day feminists in the business got to their present state. In other words, how did veterans like Royalle, Sprinkle—and their close friend, Nina Hartley—spawn the likes of Madison, Bobbi, Jiz, Courtney, and the others listed above? The most effective way to handle that mission was to ask them personally and then tie their stories together with scholarly writings on the subject and the actual history that took place.

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I’m happy to report that my adolescent male mind has morphed into a more mature state and is now feminist oriented, at least the sex-positive kind and its vital connections to adult film. I credit feminist scholar Linda Williams with the academic insight I needed to figure it out. By the way, if you have any inclination to read a brilliant work on the ways to view pornography check out Williams’ books, especially her classic, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible.’” (University of California Press: 1999).

In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away and just maybe get all this finished so the story is recorded for America’s cultural history.

A final and honest word is in order here. For all you out there who excoriate the adult film business, I understand your views. However as you moralize, criticize, and vilify, consider taking a moment or two to actually sit down and talk with people who work in the business. As a group, they are well-educated, articulate, and very middle class. People very much like you and me.

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