Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on August 29, 2010
A friend recently brought my attention to a Craigslist posting for some 16mm films that were being sold by a private collector in Denver who was offering a 16mm Kodak Pageant 2505 projector, take-up reels, plus a collection of vintage 16mm shorts. Titles listed included: Grand Hotel, Matinee, The Plumber, and Krazy Kat. It seemed like a screaming deal, so I instructed my assistant to make the purchase for the Film Studies Program and then anxiously awaited their delivery to screen some of these shorts as part of my backyard cinema series. I did, and I’m lucky my neighbors didn’t call the police. The Krazy Kat short was actually titled Krazy Kat House, and while it did hearken back to the silent-era, the only thing animated about this was the sexual libidos of the lesbians engaging in various graphic and explicit acts. Grand Hotel? This was no excerpt of the John Barrymore classic but rather the sexcapades of four people in a hotel room. Although it was hard to tell, due to the angles and the way it was shot, I’m pretty sure it did not involve Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. These women, however, were certainly ready for their close-ups, but mainly in the gynecological sense.
I will admit to experiencing a bit of a thrill upon seeing the rusty cans along with their contents. Not a sexual thrill mind you – especially while watching the films in question because, in most cases, the participants seemed a bit lax in both areas of personal fitness and grooming. Also, heating bills must have posed an exorbitant cost to the average stag-filmmaker because when it came down to “business time” the sexual gymnasts usually had their socks on, if not shoes too.
No, the thrill I had was more of an ethnographic one combined with the air of mystery that comes from opening a package that so clearly came from another time – like an archeological find. Porn nowadays is ubiquitous and free on the internet, but back during the silent era, it was truly forbidden stuff. Or was it? We have a way of assigning a lot of innocence to the past, especially when it’s a time many of us associate with our kindly and (we like to presume) wholesome grandparents. However, as I read some of the labels pasted to the film cans now in my possession, including words such as “bottle insertion,” I can’t help but remember the Fatty Arbuckle scandal that ruined his career.
These vintage stag films that fell into my possession did not go so far back as the arcade nudes of moving-image entertainment, but I’d guess some were definitely from the thirties, and I was able to pinpoint others as belonging to the 1940s. Some of the film canisters are labeled as “US Army Rolls” and make me wonder whether these porn films provided some form of sanctioned military service. In Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, which follows Werner Herzog and his film crew around as they shoot Fitzcarraldo in a very remote jungle area, Herzog admits to hiring prostitutes to keep the men from rioting. Might these silent stags have been employed in a similar way for The Greatest Generation? I don’t have answers, only questions.
I think it’s hilarious that one of the most parodied tropes in porn, that of “the plumber” who comes to fix a woman’s “pipes” – got it’s start very early on. Indeed, while watching The Plumber, I felt like perhaps this was the pornographic equivalent of The Birth of a Nation; an original template that sets the standard. The intertitles for The Plumber remind me of another name by which such fare was known, as it self-knowingly refers to itself as “a whoopee picture.” That sounds like way more fun than watching some “smut,” doesn’t it?
Other observations: As Viagra had not yet been invented, a surprising amount of time is spent by the women to make sure their male counterparts can rise to the occasion. (The very niche vocation assigned to “fluffers” must have been the invention of a later time.) I also find the yellow Post-It notes assigned to each reel by the collector interesting: he helpfully lets me know which of the shorts might be a “good one” vs., say, just “ok.” The short that I’d originally thought was titled Matinee was actually Matinne – and the closest it came to featuring John Goodman was in the opening scene when a small man is making “whoopee” with a larger woman he refers to as a “water buffalo.” He is then distracted by a sexier lass. This short film wasn’t just “good,” according to the notes by the collector, this one was worthy of being designated a “good movie.” Of course, taste is a very subjective thing, but I can see why he liked Matinne; the blonde seductress in this one is quite the looker. Here are some still from that one:
Obviously, to go through some of these reels and avoid traumatizing the school children in my neighborhood, I moved operations from the large screen in my backyard to the smaller and private one in my living room. While snapping pictures off the screen for the purpose of the blog, I quickly realized that I was far more interested in the intertitles than the hanky panky of the men and women onscreen who were (as previously said, and often quite literally) knocking boots together. One Hollywood Art featurette provided a welcome relief from the otherwise lurid collection.
As I waded through a couple other reels featuring such intertitles as “MISS BOMBSHELL TRIES A RADAR TUBE – TO FIND THE DEPTH OF HER BOX” followed by “HERE COMES HER G.I. JOE – READY FOR ACTION” my initial fascination quickly waned and reminded me of a quote from Fear of Flying author Erica Jong: “My reaction to porn films is as follows: After the first ten minutes, I want to go home and screw. After the first 20 minutes, I never want to screw again as long as I live.” (There may be a gender divide on this issue as, in my case, the quote only applies if the time estimates on either end are doubled.) I’ll yield the floor to two other women on the subject, with quotes that I wholeheartedly agree with and which need no further adjustments: “Pornography is about dominance. Erotica is about mutuality.” (Gloria Steinem) “The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.” They’re both right.
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