- Microhistories and Materiality in Adult Film History, or the Case of Erotic Salad
To my surprise, I discovered how important to me were, unknowingly, books I had never read, events and persons I did not know had existed.—Carlo Ginzburg
Writing more than fifteen years ago, Eric Schaefer detailed the state of the study of adult cinema in film studies in relation to the place of sex films in archives.1 Many of the conditions he described exist largely unchanged. Master copies and source materials of adult films are not housed in any single archive, nor are they necessarily located at designated film archives (the UCLA film archive being one specific exception). Many adult films have been lost, but those that remain are found across varied locations and sold by for-profit video distributors.2 Whereas producers and studios have been less likely to bequeath their collections to academic institutions, private collections of commercially released material have made their way to archives more readily, especially gay adult films.3 It is not that adult film does not exist in archives; rather, it is collected, accessed, and framed a certain way, and thus assumes specific meanings. Adult films are rarely considered as cinema in their own right; they are treated as emblematic of their sexual content and their lowly status, as defined by public perception.
More recently established distributors such as Vinegar Syndrome, and private entities and collections such as the American Genre Film Archive, have made efforts to collect, restore, and circulate sex films on video. In many ways the fan and collector video market has long provided the preconditions for research on adult film and has shaped the kinds of questions and histories pursued. But a comprehensive [End Page 147] non–commercially driven archive of sex cinema is a pipe dream for most adult film historians. This fact sits in stark contrast to another incontrovertible reality: the sheer vastness and multiplicity of adult film and media in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a gargantuan volume of stuff that includes discarded analog media as well as digital material. Print-based and production records of historical adult film practices, when they exist, are spotty or held by private individuals—if they have even been saved at all—and are difficult to parse. More commonly they are not available or are poorly recorded. Box-office figures and industrial and economic details must be pieced together ad hoc through various industry trade sources, such as Variety, Boxoffice, and Independent Film Journal. Such approaches also presume accurate reporting of grosses by exhibitors.
This archival landscape presents many challenges. One difficulty is balancing local histories and case studies with broader trends and practices. As with all film history, adult films raise the question of the relationship between canonical or representative works and less typical, singular, or “anomalous” cases. But the persistently “disreputable” nature of adult material only catalyzes what can be said to count as a viable object of study. The idiosyncratic, disorderly, uneven nature of the adult film archive as a body of films—simultaneously opaque and voluminous—necessitates different strategies for scholarship. Adult film historians have to contend with how to choose a suitable object, one that might map practices most comprehensively. One of the processes of legitimation for adult film history has been evidenced in macroscale studies that look at adult films not at the level of individual text but as industry, movement, genre, and mode of production.4 But in thinking about individual films that make up this broader history, do we choose and analyze typical or exceptional cases?
This question emerges from my research on sexploitation cinema—nonexplicit, feature-length sex films made in the decade before hard-core porn’s public ascendance, and which featured female nudity and salacious situations. In the book that emerged from this research, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, I argue that sexploitation films foregrounded spectatorship as the mode’s animating problem in a period in which cinema had not yet gone “all the way.” At the time, I was attempting to ascertain the workings of a mode of production with a specific shape and period—US films...