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  • Dirty Little Secrets:Scholars, Archivists, and Dirty Movies
  • Eric Schaefer (bio)

[Theater operator] Richard L. Davis, Jr. of Des Moines predicts the death of the "triple X" films in two or three years. They'll die, he says, from lack of interest not because of moral objections.

—Boxoffice, 1971

Erotic films are here to stay. Eventually they will simply merge into the mainstream of motion pictures and disappear as a labeled sub-division. Nothing can stop this.

—William Rotsler, 1973 [End Page 79]

So much for predictions....It's hard to believe that there was a time when some people talked about adult films disappearing due to audience boredom, while others thought it inevitable that adult movies would merge with the mainstream. Indeed, it was not infrequently suggested that it would only be a matter of time before stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty would be doing hardcore scenes in major releases. But just as it may be hard to imagine that people could have been so wrong in their assessments about the future of adult films little more than three decades ago, it is just as difficult for many to understand why such movies now receive the same serious attention once reserved for films made by the likes of Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jean-Luc Godard. For some it is an affront. Others feel that it is only logical that a form that generates so many dollars and so much political discourse should be taken seriously.

A mark of that seriousness was the first "Dirty Movies" panel convened at the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference in Boston in 2002. The panel, organized by Brian Graney, brought together several archivists and scholars to talk about issues surrounding the collection, preservation, and study of "dirty movies."1 It also brought in a standing-room-only audience of conference attendees eager to share their insights and stories surrounding the collection and use of "adults only" material. Several times over the years I have spoken with people who work in archives who have told me, "Oh, yes, we have some of those—but no one really knows about them," or "Well, we're really not supposed to talk about those." Adult movies are often treated like a dirty little secret. But what took place in that crowded room late on a Saturday afternoon at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel was an open dialogue about the promise and the peril of dealing with such material. The room was charged with a sense of both relief and excitement: relief that, finally, some of the dirty little secrets about moving image archives were coming out of cold storage; excitement about the scholarly and philosophical questions that surround these materials being voiced.

We talk much of "orphan films" these days—those movies that have been left to turn to dust by uncaring producers, indifferent scholars, and overtaxed archives. Adult films are perhaps the loneliest orphans. Many of the films have fallen out of copyright, and an even larger number were never even registered. Pirated, discarded, and disreputable to begin with, they have long been considered by many as almost untouchable, the lowest of the low. But that is beginning to change. In this essay I would like to point to the evolution that has taken place in film studies over the past several decades, paying particular attention to the growth in interest in adult films. Throughout the essay I will [End Page 80]

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Figure 1.

Adult films encompass not only features but the thousands of short films and loops made for the home market such as this one from London Film Industries, a California-based company from the 1960s.

use the term "adult film" to encompass a wide range of moving images designed to be shown to adult audiences. Such material is shot and distributed commercially on film (35mm, 16mm, 8mm) and video and can be both hard-core (featuring nonsimulated sex acts) and soft-core (featuring nudity and provocative situations up to and including the simulated presentation of sex acts). The term "adult film" encompasses early exploitation movies (nudist films, sex-hygiene pictures, and...


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