"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Those who come of age online tend to think they know everything there is to know about pornography. I should know, I’m one of them — or I was until getting a smutty education from author Susie Bright.
For my generation, and much more so younger ones, the archetypical discovery of a stash of Playboys has been replaced by stumbling across Dad’s X-rated Web browser history. These days, the typical pubescent search for sexual information amounts to opening Pandora’s box of online porn. As Rule 34 of the Internet states, “If it exists, there is porn of it.” Words like “gonzo” and “bukkake” can easily enter teenagers’ vocabulary before they’re even exposed to sterile sex-ed jargon.
So, when I went to see Bright, a respected sex writer and former Salon columnist, revive her presentation “How to Read a Dirty Movie” for the first time in over two decades this past weekend in San Francisco, I expected to be entertained by her whip-smart commentary — but not to experience anything particularly new. Those of us who have been culturally disparaged as being part of the “pornified” generation are entitled to claim some triple-X expertise, right? But I was humbled to find that the decades-old porn clips that she played during her lecture were personally challenging — but not in the way that porn today confronts the viewer.
This wasn’t the visual assault of sexual freak-show theatrics (i.e., “One chick, ten dicks!”) that currently rules the Web. Instead, they were shocking largely because they were part of an actual story, a feature-length film. In one clip, a male character strangles a hit woman disguised as a prostitute during sex — and, in context, it’s actually an artful scene, believe it or not. Then there was the brutal honesty of another clip in which a real-life recovering drug user is interviewed before masturbating on camera for money. This was sex as a multilayered act — one that’s sometimes sad and tragic, sometimes exuberant and life-affirming, and certainly not always sexy.
Inspired by her smutty lecture, I asked Bright, author of “Big Sex, Little Death,” to talk at greater length by email about the “golden age” of porn and her days as the first independent erotic movie critic.
What can we learn from pre-Internet porn?
Erotic movies “before” the Internet were movies, full-length features, often shot as films and shown theatrically before they were converted to VHS, and then DVD. They had a Big Life. Some of you film buffs may know that legends like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Last Tango in Paris” were originally X-rated. It was all part of the independent film movement of the ’60s which broke away from major Hollywood studios and said, “Enough with the squares and the rules! We’re going to do our own thing and find our own audience.”
Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger, Gary Graver, Roger Watkins — they were the sexy side of the same movement that debuted Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns or the beginning of the sci-fi scene on-screen, as clumsy as it was. The production values weren’t always as high as MGM’s, but the original ideas and approaches to photography and “real life” were. Characters who’d never been seen on-screen before made their debut — it was the end of Tab Hunter and Sandra Dee, the Ozzie and Harriet ideals. These were characters who had sex, all kinds of sex.
When home video became available, there was another new generation of artists who had rebellious ideas, most notably, filmmaking women who’d been shut out of the old boy’s network. Feminist erotica is impossible to imagine without video and Mac technology. The heyday of erotic film and video were those moments where “revolution” was in the air, before commodification and conformity took over every single little detail. Those are the kind of erotic movies I treasure and collect!
It’s incredible to think that people once had to go to an adult theater to see a porno. Has the current privacy of porn viewing changed the content itself?
That’s funny, I wonder if people will one day say that about PG and R-rated features: “Wow, people used to see that in a theater?” I felt very private, in my own little world, at the Pussycat theater when I’d review the latest X-rated 35mm spectacular. It wasn’t like other audience members “butted in.” Except, one place I remember that was open 24 hours would sometimes have this drunk vet guy who would scream “Kill Charley!” at really random moments. The main difference was I had to get out of my pajamas and drive down to the theater to see my pictures!
Why aren’t there more high-quality, plot-heavy movies that happen to have explicit sex scenes?
Well, there are, actually, and they’re screaming for attention. These days, the best ones are unrated, independent from Porn Valley and Hollywood. They might be a “foreign film,” or they might come out of an art school. It might be an interesting experiment a sex worker is running with a webcam. But you have to seek them out, they’re not in heavy rotation with multimillion-dollar ad budgets!
When you ask that question, you’re asking either, “Why doesn’t Hollywood do sex?” — or, “Why doesn’t Porn Valley do high production values?” Hollywood has refused to deal with sex, authentically, since the earliest days of the Hays Office crackdowns. Prison and political pressure scared them off good. Porn Valley operates on a budget and system that’s very conservative, turning out their soup cans, making movies in hours or a couple of days. They’ve accepted their ghetto-not-really-art-just-porn status. It’s typical of America that way, that we crippled our film industry with a double standard.
Has porn gotten better or worse?
That’s like asking, “Have movies gotten better or worse?” “Have books gotten better or worse?” Sex in our storytelling lives is a sign of the times. I think the concentration of all the money in this country into very few hands has been bad for art and bad for sex and bad for erotica. The trend against democracy is always bad for sexual speech and creative independence.
You mentioned in your presentation that female viewers were eventually made to feel more comfortable about watching smut — how did that happen?
There were about a dozen women in the ’80s who started making their own movies, magazines, images, and we fought against all the naysayers. Then, to everyone’s shock, the women’s erotica movement made significant sales. Into the middle of that mix, came along a filmmaker named Andrew Blake, who did a series of very high-tone, music-video-style X-rated videos. There was no narrative; they were all similar to a very long commercial for luxury goods — with sex in them.
It was just Blake’s thing; he had no particular interest in women viewers. But these movies were wildly popular with women. For all the ranting and raving everyone had made about wanting “a good story,” that turned out to be untrue. What novice female viewers wanted, without being able to say it, was class-conscious reassurance that one could be a nice, well-dressed, well-kept woman, and indulge in “erotica” while maintaining your dignity and marriageability. Everyone looked like a millionaire in Blake’s movies, and that turned out to be the ticket. Not story, not orgasm, but reassurance that you weren’t a terrible worthless slut to be looking at such things.
I found that discovery enlightening but depressing. I wish women wanted to look at sex stories and movies because of their unapologetic sexual self-interest. Luckily, once many women got through the Andrew Blake gateway, they loosened up and started enjoying other things that were more personal to them.
One theme I saw in the clips you presented that I don’t see in today’s porn is the link between sex and death. Why is that?
It’s not just death, it’s any drama, any tragedy, religion, loss, grief, despair, betrayal, race, class, gender issues … you name it, it’s been excised. It’s an unnatural situation, because as that famous rabbi once said, “All pleasures contain an element of sadness.”
The Great Stupidification trudges onward in the film business, and it’s really affected porn. The various political vendettas against sex, like the Meese Commission, ruined a great number of films and potential. The artists who are doing the most interesting material now are either underground, the Web counterculture, or out of the country. Sorry to sound so critical, but anyone who’s looked at the crap at this weekend’s multiplex theater cannot be so surprised to find that the so-called adult movies are just as tepid and commodified. If we were really grown-up, we’d stop calling them “Adult.” — with a label like that, no wonder no one feels inspired.
There’s a lot about life and sex that’s not for kindergartners, and I’d like to see movies about those themes. They should just be called “movies,” and judged on their own merits. The only “adult biz” features that are thriving right now are ones about celebrity ding-dongs gone bad. It’s a rubbernecking show. The rest of mainstream porn is focused on making little scenes, material that can be consumed in a few minutes, much like the old peep show formulas. The Web streaming business is about tidbits.
What will we be saying about today’s porn in 40 years?
Well, that’s what I’m writing about now. I have two new e-books coming out on the cinematic history and future of erotic cinema, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it! One’s called “The Erotic Screen: From Golden Hardcore to Glittering Dykecore,” and the second volume is “The Erotic Screen: How to Read a Dirty Movie.” I think I’ll open them with my most optimistic quote from H.P. Lovecraft: “Stupendous and unheard-of splendors await me — and I shall seek them soon!”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)