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Flesh Need Not be Mute: The Pornographic Videos of John Leslie

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 3, July 1997
pp. 115-148 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0015

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Wide Angle 19.3 (1997) 115-148

Figures

One of the major challenges for the hard-core filmmaker has been the placing of acts of intercourse within the narrative. In the thirties the director Marcel Pagnol once caught his cameraman with some pornographic footage that the latter was shooting on the sly. Wasn't it difficult to shoot naked people for a stag film? asked Pagnol. No, said the cameraman, the problem was creating a story to make the sex credible. In a sense a naked body makes its own story, but sex can halt it: however much taboos have dissipated, the sight of actual sex still disrupts continuity. Linda Williams, following Richard Dyer, suggested that heterosexual hard-core films are structured along the lines of musical comedy, with ejaculations climaxing quasi-musical rifts; hers is a useful, charming interpretation. Few critics, however, have improved on the theoretical succinctness of Roberta Findlay's comment on the construction -- or deconstruction, since pornography has always "deconstructed" itself -- of pornographic scenarios. According to Findlay, hard-core porn films resemble opera: "You have the opera story, but then everything stops when the soprano has to sing. It's the same thing in sex films. The story goes on, then it stops, then they have to screw."

Such difficulties have never stopped directors of pornographic features from trying to "justify" scenes of intercourse. The commercial hard-core film and video industry -- as distinct from the negligibly-profitable stag film of earlier decades -- is now two generations old. Among signs of the industry's maturity (a term of negative and positive connotations) is the graduation of actors and actresses into the ranks of directors. A far from exhaustive list would include Sharon Kane, Randy West, Chris Cassidy, Ron Jeremy, Britt Morgan, Brandy Alexandre, Paul Thomas, Eric Edwards, Candida Royalle, John Stagliano, and John Leslie.

The most talented is Leslie, a veteran performer in more than 300 hard-core loops and features. From 1975 to 1987, casting directors sought the gritty style and macho insouciance he brought to characterization. The Other Side of Julie (1978), Every Woman Has a Fantasy (1984), Talk Dirty to Me (1980), and Nothing to Hide (1981) earned him industry awards, top billing, and mild dislike from male competitors. Leslie claimed seniority on the set, recalled Jerry Butler, who pointedly mentioned his rival's age and bald spot, and suggested that Leslie's fondness for wine, art, and golf were signs that he thought himself of a higher class than other people in the business. Leslie considered himself the "best actor" in the industry, said Butler, and since Butler laid claim to that honor for himself, clashes were inevitable. Rivalry aside, the years of performing taught Leslie a great deal about the nature of pornographic film and video. The curve of his career is that of an industry inventing and discarding strategies for depicting intercourse.

During the seventies and well into the eighties pornmeisters crafted romantic plots designed to enclose, soften, and justify the intercourse. Eight millimeter loops were one thing -- though they often had mini-plots too -- but features required a script of reasonable continuity. Standard tropes usually did the job: ribald stories of travelling salesmen, private detectives, and mistaken identity, earnest tales of sexual frustration on the part of one spouse or the other, sociological dramas of secret passions in suburbia, amused exposés of the hypocisy of politicians, lively accounts of intercourse in doctor's offices, corporate boardrooms, and exotic oudoor locations, and so on -- the stuff of shopworn melodrama and comedy. Among the most reliable standbys then and now were artifacts of mainstream popular culture, whose plots could be ripped off in parodic versions, a time-honored function of pornography, whether one call the practice subversion or appropriation. Features in that category bear titles such as Little Orphan Sammy, On Golden Blonde, Expose Me Lovely, Blazing Zippers, White Men Can't Hump, Whore of the Roses, Juranal Park, and Hindfeld. Scripts didn't have to be polished, just shootable; improvisation filled in the gaps.

On the margin of a still marginal industry, however, lurked a ridiculed cameraman, almost a parody himself. This was Ugly George, who decked himself out...


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