"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)
It’s hard to imagine a time when the “money shot” wasn’t a signature of the smut industry. The shot — where a male porn performer ejaculates, usually on a partner, and the camera captures the action in luxuriating detail — is the defining aesthetic of contemporary pornography, both gay and straight. But it wasn’t always that way.
The “money shot” can be traced back to the premiere of “Deep Throat” in 1972, according to Linda Williams, a film studies professor at UC Berkeley. That isn’t to say that male performers didn’t bust outside the body before then, but the legendary film “introduced narrativity in the genre and coined the cum shot as its defining figure,” she writes in “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible.” Williams explains, “Where the earlier short, silent stag films occasionally included spectacles of external ejaculation (in some cases inadvertently), it was not until the early seventies, with the rise of the hard-core feature, that the money shot assumed the narrative function of signaling the climax of a genital event.”
The question of why the money shot has since then, ahem, exploded in popularity is more complicated. The most obvious explanation is one of pure mechanics. “It has to do with the real physiology of orgasm and ejaculation,” says Lisa Jean Moore, author of “Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man’s Most Precious Fluid.” “The way that male orgasm is external, as opposed to female orgasm, which is internal, it sort of lends itself well to cinematic capture.”
In terms of evolutionary biology, the money shot also triggers sexual competition. Ogi Ogas, author of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” a book that explores human sexuality through popular porn genres, says, “The penis itself is a sperm competition cue, unconsciously triggering arousal designed to motivate a man to have more vigorous sex with a woman than the man who just finished,” he says, drawing on theories in evolutionary psychology about sexual competition. (For example, one study showed that heterosexual men produced more potent ejaculate when masturbating to images of two men having sex with a woman, compared to porny shots of three women together.) “The sperm might also function as a sperm competition cue in the same manner,” he says.
It’s also simply the case that viewers desire proof that the pleasure they’re seeing performed on-screen is authentic — and in the age of Viagra, an erection itself isn’t convincing enough. “The money shot actually implies that what we are seeing is real,” says Cindy Patton, a professor of sociology, anthropology and women’s studies at Simon Fraser University.
The irony is that such proof actually requires suspension of disbelief, because “the male pornographic film performer must withdraw from any tactile connection with the genitals or mouth of the woman so that the ‘spending’ of his ejaculate is visible,” writes Williams. “Within convention, viewers are asked to believe that the sexual performers within the film want to shift from a tactile to a visual pleasure at the crucial moment of the male’s orgasm.”
In recent years, in a bizarre sleight of … penis, some “pornographic videos, and particularly the cover photographs that entice one to buy, feature partially concealed artificial yet very realistic phalluses that shoot decidedly unrealistic quantities of artificial semen when squeezed,” writes Michael Thomas Carroll in “Popular modernity in America: experience, technology, mythohistory.” He explains, “This desire to provide the ‘evidence’ of male sexual pleasure has given way to ‘natural magic’ and illusory spectatorship.”
Some cultural commentators have paradoxically argued that the money shot is the result of the relative invisibility of the typical female orgasm. “The problem of an equally irrefutable and visible proof of female orgasm, at a physiological level, both leads to the convention whereby male orgasm stands in for female orgasm and to attempts to convey female orgasm by more indirect means,” argues Bill Nichols in “Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary.”
Williams writes in “Hard Core,” “While undeniably spectacular, the money shot is also hopelessly specular; it can only reflect back to the male gaze that purports to want knowledge of the woman’s pleasure the man’s own climax.” She calls the cum shot “a poor substitute for the knowledge of female wonders that the genre as a whole still seeks.”
Some would rather explain this gender divide in terms of sexism. In heterosexual cum-shot porn, Carroll argues, chauvinism is evident in the “domination of the standing male/kneeling woman stance that is one of the most popular forms of this image, but also in the implied degradation of the phallus ‘spitting’ on the woman’s face — that part of the body which is most closely associated with one’s individual dignity and personality.” (It’s worth noting that a similar dom-sub dynamic plays out in gay porn, too.)
In some but not all contexts, Moore sees the money shot as a way of “marking” a partner as “territory or property.” In a paper titled, “Cocktail parties: Fetishizing semen in pornography beyond bukkake,” she and co-author Juliana Weissbein wrote, “The most prominent type of [cum shot] video on X-Tube … was of disembodied males masturbating to ejaculation onto a still photo of a female,” they explain. “The women in these photographs, often difficult to see, are described variously as ex-girfriends or ex-wives, famous models or actresses. Ejaculating onto photos of a specific woman allows the man to claim her as his property.”
Perhaps most important is the impact of AIDs and HIV since that seminal moment in “Deep Throat” four decades ago. “In heterosexual contexts, women have avoided semen for a long time, partially to prevent pregnancy,” as well as various STDs, says Moore. But the AIDS and HIV crisis gave ejaculate an even greater “toxifying, disease-ridden” image. “Semen is something we’ve tried to sanitize and protect ourselves from in a prophylactic sense — we’re covering the body up, or covering the penis up, figuring out ways to avoid contact,” she says.
The funhouse mirror of sexuality often eroticizes that which we most fear and abhor, thus “a fantasy develops about somebody actually wanting [semen], and they want it so badly that they want to drink it and they want to slather it all over their bodies and they want you to wipe it all over their faces,” Moore says. “The messages that are so adverse and make semen to be this abject, disgusting substance have had this other effect of making male spectators want to live out the fantasy that women and men actually want it and are celebrating it.”
Carroll argues that it “is not merely a carnal fantasy; it is also an emotional one — a fantasy of ‘unconditional acceptance’ in which the female” — or male, presumably — “seems to say ‘I exist wholly for you. I will never reject you. You cannot disappoint me.”
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)
Every weeknight, Salon lets loose with Salon -- After Dark, our series of edgy and smart sex stories covering everything from porn to sex-themed art to the science of getting it on. Check back at around midnight ET (9 p.m. PT) Monday through Friday, for fresh new stories. For more information, click here.