Erotism or pornography? The permanent discussion surrounding artistic films

Pornography is today a massive social fact. The total turnover of what has become a planetary industry is estimated at 20 billion dollars, including one and two billion for French territory alone. In 2012, erotic and pornographic sites captured 25% of global Internet traffic. Sexual imagery is omnipresent in the public space of Western societies and is reaching other cultural areas despite strong resistance.

Those who believe that pornography is a specifically contemporary fact insist on the constitution of pornography as a genre separate from other genres of representation; on the massive nature of its distribution; on the representation of the sexual act for itself, independently of any religious, political or even artistic aim. They are not wrong, since indeed these various elements combine in a new way between, say, 1850 and the present day. But it seems good, to follow Amy Richlin and the authors who participated in the collection “Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome” – that these elements were already present in Greco-Latin antiquity.

Sex representations throughout history

The word ‘pornographer’ is used by the rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus to 2nd century AD to describe artists who excel in the art of representing things of love. More specifically, “pornographers” are those who write (graphein) about prostitutes (pornai). From the start, text and image are associated since the “pornographers” of whom Athenaeus speaks are painters: Pausias, who represents his mistress Glykera, Aristide who paints Leontion, mistress of Epicurus Metrodorus’ favorite disciple, Nicophane, of whom we do not know who were his models. Were these women really “prostitutes”? The fact remains debated and hardly interests us. Most importantly, at least among the Romans – but also, most likely, among the Greeks – the notion of pornography is attested. So, it is normal that as long as the technique has improved, the interest on “pornography” has been increasing and taking new forms.

The major changes occur later in the late nineteenth century. Their first fruits, it is understood, appeared much earlier and we will begin by recalling them; but these beginnings are not tied together and above all do not acquire their full development until several decades after their emergence.

In this century, the process of secularization of European societies is accelerating and with it, the weight of religious reference is ever more lightened; a market for pornography is developing which pushes political or philosophical concerns to its margins. Pornography became strictly commercial and, like other branches of human activity, experienced industrial development. It benefited from major technological advances: the appearance of photography in the 1840s was a breakthrough, like the invention of the cinematograph at the end of the century. It is remarkable that pornography immediately seized on these innovations: among the first daguerreotypes were nudes and mating scenes.

A glance to the origins of pornographic cinema

The hero of “pornographic cinema” in its most “popular” form is called Pistelli, he is Catalan. Son of a family of traveling fairgrounds, he dreams of glory and fame. In 1898, he decided to go to Cuba and import the cinema there. He only has a camera and a projector to start creating his fortune. Slight problem, when he arrives in Havana, a Lyonnais, sent by the Lumière brothers, is already there. He’s even already shot a little movie with the local star. Pistelli’s dreams collapse… Well, not quite. A fellow Norman (apparently, there were a lot of French people walking around Cuba, and wait, you are not at the end of your surprises) offers him to be the associate of the owner of a brothel where prostitutes are all Norman.

In the neighborhood, competition is fierce. But Pistelli, who still has his camera, has an idea to boost the business. He then proposes to film the sassiest girls. The success is crazy and immediate. Pistelli has just shot the first erotic films in history. And, more surprisingly, his films were exported. All over the world. The King of Spain, in particular, ordered three from him. Pistelli becomes rich. And he still loves love cinema. With his money, he dreams of a real Italian cinema with a red curtain in the middle of Havana. It will be the Campo Amor, which opens on August 15, 1910. It took only twelve years for Pistelli to realize all his dreams. The whole of Havana flocked to Campo Amor, which still broadcasts gallant films, erotic films, whatever. In this story there is sex, there is money, only one thing is missing: death. What the assassination of Pistelli in 1914 will remedy definitively.

The failed attempts to censor cinematic sex representations

Faced with what they perceive to be a flood of immorality, opinion leaders at the end of the nineteenth century undertake veritable crusades against “pornography”. In 1895, the film Serpentine Dance caused a scandal… and a hit in the United States, by showing an artist performing belly dance on the screen; under the pressure of the leagues of virtue, the local censors succeed in imposing in 1907 a wide censorship in all this kind of representation. In France, it is Senator Berenger, “Father of Virtue”, who leads the fight, grouping the moral leagues in a “Federation of societies against pornography” which held its first national congress in March 1905 in Bordeaux.

Nevertheless, they cannot completely suppress the representation of the body and even of sex in the public space. At the same time, for societies of this time, freedom does not mean license and care must be taken that certain limits are not crossed. It would be best if the artists themselves, or those who claim to be such, make their own policy so that the government intervenes only in extreme cases. And that is exactly what is happening.

In the United States, for example, in 1920, the federal-state asked William Hays to develop a code of decency for American films; this code will serve as a reference for the profession, which will itself manage its supervised freedom. Self-censorship also operates in French cinema of the early XX century: a cinema “saucy and spicy nature” is imposed on himself the content and operating restrictions: heterosexuality there is appropriate but confined to inconsequential caresses.

The development of porn business meets the adhesion of a growing fringe of Western populations, young, educated, sensitive to the theses of “sexual liberation”, which has access to control over its procreation and claims the right to pleasure. The creation of contact journals in which desires and frustrations are expressed with less and less restraint (the journal Union was created in France in 1972) is one of the manifestations of this, the success of the works of Wilhelm Reich, especially the Sexual Revolution – republished in paperback by Christian Bourgois, who also publishes classics of eroticism – is another.

It would be interesting to determine with precision the nature of the relation which one guesses between the rise of pornographic mass culture and the militant activism of groups that associated sexual liberation and political revolution.

The movie that changed everything

Released more than 40 years ago, “L’empire des sens” (In the realm of the senses, 1976) is to be classified in the category of absolute masterpieces, the genre of film whose images, crazy poetry, and scale mark a whole generation. Nagisa Oshima’s twentieth feature film, “L’empire des sens” is set in the 1930s and takes place in a middle-class district of Tokyo. Kichizo, owner of an opulent inn, and Sada, one of his servants and former prostitute, will live an autistic and self-destructive love story, a passion pushing the limits of love and sexual intercourse. , confining them both to the sacred and to a raw triviality which is not unlike the writings of Sade and Bataille.

Known for its sublime and disturbing ending, “L’empire des sens” is also a great film about female desire. This film is the perfect opportunity to return to the course of an underground film, born from the meeting between a French producer fascinated by eroticism and a Japanese director in rebellion. Based on true facts occurred in 1936, when a young Japanese woman was found wandering the streets, the inert sex of her lover in her hand. Arrested, she admits to having killed his partner by erotic asphyxiation because the latter asked her to.

During the trial, she tries to explain to her judges her mad love in every sense of the word and manages to completely turn public opinion. Sentenced to only 6 years in prison, she will be pardoned after 5. Icon of absolute love, Sada has often been presented as a victim of men. Oshima will reverse this idea and make Sada the symbol of a strong and assertive feminine desire, also taking the opposite view of Pink Eiga, a style of porn very popular at the time in Japan which marries, like indeed the quasi- totality of pornographic films, a male point of view.

At the time, Japanese cinema lived under the yoke of censorship, a sort of Japanese Hays Code establishing a list of very precise rules on the question of the representation of sex in cinema. With “L’empire des sens” violating them all, the reels of film were sent directly to France to be developed. Shooting in the greatest secrecy in Kyoto, the film crew saw themselves as a group of misfits sharing far-left political ideas and Oshima’s rebellious spirit. Nevertheless, we are talking about a tense and trying shoot. To limit the pain, Oshima only works with a small team on the sex scenes. Beginning by turning off all the lights and not turning them back on until the actors ask him to, he often only does one take

Success among the specialized critics, the film is also a public success since it garners more than 1.7 million admissions and is placed in the twenty biggest successes of the year. Meanwhile in Japan, the government will only broadcast a cut version with blurred areas. Worse, Oshima was sued for obscenity, his house was raided but he was finally released in 1982. If the sequel to the film, “L’empire de la passion” (1978), is less successful, “L’Empire des sens” has gone down in posterity as a work pushing back the limits of the representation of love and sex in cinema, a fusion of bodies which banishes reason for passion, a scathing attack on desire with unaltered power.

A question that will remain open for the artists

We lack the space to do more than sketch the evolution of the most contemporary pornography, but we can try it. If pornography – integrated into the much vaster set of sexual imagery – has indeed not ceased to “proliferate” to the point of becoming commonplace, its main characteristics are far removed from the rediscovered harmony depicted by Catherine Millet. The sexual revolution has not happened, or not the one predicted by its most politicized activists.

This development was facilitated by the appearance of new media, video, which took over from cinema at the start of the 1980s, and digital technology, which developed in the following decade. The pornographic experience takes place in a private, even solitary setting, even if at the same time forms of conviviality have blossomed around the exhibition of the intimate.

The other effect of the rise of these new media has been to strengthen the hold of the visual on the field of signs, where a certain code has been imposed on the sexual act and its representation: reduction of sexuality. in the genitals (shaved), fragmentation of bodies by the use of the close-up, imposed figures of oral sex and sodomy, an amalgamation of sex and violence…

The question of the influence of these codes on other areas of representation (contemporary art, classic cinema), on the amorous imagination and on behavior has been asked with insistence in recent years.

We will not interfere in this complex debate, except to note the astonishing absence of memory that characterizes certain positions. As if, for example, the problem of incitement through representation dates to the digital video era.

If pornography has its roots in history, porn – and today in particular web-porn – is only around twenty years old and already stands out clearly from its grandmother, pornography. Because today porn is a cinematographic genre. Films provoke emotions (joy, horror, sadness, and compassion), and porn causes excitement, which is also its primary function.


Erotism in the early days of cinema

The film industry is extremely lucrative and so is the sex. For this reason, this article is about one of the most daring genres and after reading it you will have a different approach to the history of eroticism in the cinema. It is undeniable that the web is full of adult content, some more explicit than others, but the truth is that eroticism is related to sexual passion. Generally, a person can feel desire, due to the influence of sensuality and mischievousness and cinema is a very powerful trigger for this kind of sensations.

The history of eroticism in the cinema becomes interesting, when through a screen, the libido increases. It is normal for a person to feel arousal when viewing erotic movies. In fact, that is the goal of producing this type of work. Actually, this kind of genre seeks to attract attention, through spicy images, that denote sensuality and promote sexual desire. However, these productions were not always so simple. The versatility, including eroticism, with which it is found today in almost any type of content, was not the same a few years ago. The history of eroticism in the cinema turns out to be interesting and attractive. Surely, it will be exciting to know the transformation that eroticism has had through the big screen.

It has been a long way since the first time erotism was shown through the lens of a camera. Some of the most important steps on this process are the next:

The disruptive photographer

In 1880, photographer Edward James Muggeridge included nude images in his photo gallery. This caused quite a stir in the film industry. However, the main objective of these photographs was to capture the sequence of the movement. In 1901 a small edition entitled “The Human figure in Motion” was published in London. The main purpose of the photographs was to serve as sketches for the artists. They were like an immense atlas of human and animal locomotion: 781 plates with more than 20,000 figures, in almost all phases of the movement.

The most suggestive poses that did not have the possibility of being disguised as anatomical studies were sometimes, by their daring, secretly ordered and sold. During the reign – between 1888 and 1918 – of Kaiser Wilhelm II, when male friendship was interpreted as one of the pillars of the system, there was an increase in the demand for potentially homoerotic snapshots related to Mediterranean arcadia. Forbidden pleasure was mixed with art.

Her hips didn’t lie but they were too much for her country

Coochie Cooche Dance is film from the United States, directed by James A. White and William Heise and created through its production company Edison Manufacturing Co. in 1896, showed nothing more than Fatima Djemille, the most recognized belly-dancer in the United States due to her spectacular performances at the Universal Exposition in Chicago in 1893. This small film presents the first recorded version of her show and, although more videos of dancing women emerged after this film, it became famous for being the first to be censored, due to the poor concept of belly dancing that conservative American circles had about it, misunderstood as directly related to sexual advances.

It is impossible to forget the very first kiss

Among so many millions of kisses collected throughout the history of the seventh art, the first one that showed a film took place in April 1896 in a one-minute shoot in which the kiss was given by the mustached actor John C. Rice and actress May Irwin for 16 endless seconds, in a movie titled ‘The Kiss’.

‘The Kiss’ was shot by Thomas Alva Edison using his kinetoscope, a box in which after inserting a coin and bringing two holes closer to the eyes, a brief moving image could be seen. Many Americans think that Edison was the true inventor of the cinematographer due to this invention, two years ahead of that of the Lumière brothers, but Edison’s kinetoscope, presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1895, was made to entertain people through an individual experience, while the invention of the French brothers was an experience created to be seen by many people at the same time.

The first femme fatale. Cleopatra, Salomé and Madame DuBarry, in a world where women where saints or whores, she decided to be the villain and even thought the puritan mind of her times tried to finish her, Theda Bara became the first woman to seduce millions of men through the lens of the camera. Women would disapprove her in public, wishing to be like her in private. “A fool there was!” (1915), it is the first film where we could see her act and became a superstar. Some may discuss she was a sex symbol created only for the pleasure of men, but Bara defended her role: “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist”. And yes people, these words come from a woman born in 1885.

The beginning of pornography

It was in 1915, when the first tape with pornographic content, called “A free Ride”, came to light. This movie was released without synchronized sound. In it, you could see sexual images between a driver and two women. To avoid censorship, this production was presented clandestinely, in private places exclusively for gentlemen, such as brothels. However, despite not being released to the public, its premiere marked an important milestone in the history of eroticism in the cinema. Its boom was such that, years later, it was projected in the sex museum.

Due to the morality of the time, in the 1930s, the Hays Code was implemented. Its function was to restrict the content of the productions through a series of rules. With the creation of this code, there was a lot of censorship to which cinematographic works were exposed, especially those that sought to highlight the sexual essence in their stories.

However, despite the censorship of the time, the American artist, Mary Jane West, was able to take advantage of some loopholes that the restrictive system had even if all this attempts to censor films prevented the history of eroticism in cinema from evolving. However, Mae West always found a way to still denote sensuality, taking advantage of perfect figure that made her more striking in the male audience. Nevertheless, her talent was dedicated to various facets. In addition to being an actress, she was also a screenwriter and playwright. Mae West was the protagonist of a scandal that took her to prison. The arrest was carried out during the presentation of her work “Sex”, which was about the hazardous life of a prostitute. Due to its spicy and provocative style, it was classified as immoral. The bad girl of the time was known for bragging about her sensuality. Years later, it was known that her success in evading the Hays Code was based on using explicit phrases to focus the attention of the regulators, while on the other hand, she placed suggestive scripts en cachette.

Later, in the year 1933, erotic cinema underwent a significant advance when presenting “Ekstase”, where its sexual content was explicit. However, this work did not escape the restrictions of the code and was confiscated by the American authorities. There were other productions that marked the history of eroticism in the cinema. Such is the case of Sex Madness, which showed promiscuity and hints of a lesbian nature. This tape was also exposed to censorship, due to the immoral scandal that represented this type of relationship at that time.

Censorship and cinema, an impossible affaire

Perhaps it is surprising to know some of the restrictions to which the history of eroticism in cinema was exposed many years ago:

  • The stories could not show kisses lasting more than three seconds.
  • No film with promiscuous content could be presented, as this led to sin.
  • Vulgarity was not admitted on any level.
  • Films that evidenced excessive use of alcohol were censored.
  • Tapes evidencing an attack on religion were not authorized.
  • Images depicting adultery were prohibited.
  • Passionate kisses and suggestive poses were not allowed.
  • Hugs with a sensual character were not allowed.
  • Passion could not be recorded for exaggerated purposes.

The beginning of eroticism in the cinema has been influenced by a series of factors that have revolutionized productions with a sexual character. Many scandals were necessary to end the Hays Code. Some of them were starred by their own defenders, such as the case of Joseph Breen, who was the pioneer in launching the first issue of Playboy magazine with Marilyn Monroe. The lucrative nature of productions in Hollywood was especially influential in ending restrictive laws that banned erotic content. Above all, with foreign investment, and global competition.

Today, there are many options that represent sexual diversity. Even celebrities have joined the fashion of presenting intimate videos that demonstrate their sexual appetite. There are various film productions that have reached large sums of money thanks to their erotic content. That is why the history of eroticism in cinema has grown over the years, thanks to good acceptance, larger budgets and leaving censorship behind.

Alfred Hitchcock: The man who knew too much

Hitchcock made a very personal use of the Hays Code, always trying to find those strategies that were within his reach to avoid censorship, always with his own way of making movies. Among these strategies, one of the most recurring was to interrupt the action in the passion scenes, as we can see in the kiss scene from the movie “Chained” or in the kiss scene between Grace Kelly and James Stewart, which are quite similar. By doing this, what he achieved was that kisses of more than a minute in total managed to overcome the censorship by interrupting himself before reaching three seconds.

Another of the most widely used strategies in his filmography to avoid censorship was the use of metaphors, as we observed in the scene of the skies at the end of the original “Marriage”, in the fireworks of the hotel scene in “Catch a Thief” and in the closing scene of the film “With death on his heels”, the train entering an endless tunnel. All of them to represent sex scenes that could not be explicitly shown.

Some other strategies he also resorted were to use narration and innuendo instead of the images themselves especially to bypass the Code’s prohibitions of adultery and sexual perversions, as we observed in “The Paradine Case” that occurs with Mrs. Paradine, in the case of adultery, and with “André Latour”, in the case of homosexuality. Also use short shots to avoid the prohibition of integral nudity, as we see in the scene of the shower of “Psychosis” in which she uses very short shots of the woman’s body so as not to show the entire naked body and still give a sensation of nudity; or use the blur as we also see in the scene of the chest in Psychosis.

In short, Hitchcock had a very personal way of interpreting the Code, always trying to influence it as little as possible in his productions, sometimes using it to his advantage, including scenes that he knew he was clearly going to be forced to eliminate to divert the attention of those I wanted to keep. Thus, using the strategies, he managed to include scenes of adultery, passion, sex or nude in his films, without the censors doing anything to avoid it. The fact that sexuality was censored by the Hays Code did not prevent it from being present in Hitchcock’s films