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Lighting Garbo’s cigarette
Kissing, once the sex act for all occasions, is today's foreplay and afterplay, says film-studies professor Linda Williams.

| 14 October 2004


For Linda Williams, screen kisses of the past were less lascivious than today’s, but far more interesting. (Peg Skorpinsi photo)
In our Sept. 30 issue we published the first part of an interview with Linda Williams, professor of rhetoric and film studies and former director of the campus Program in Film Studies. Williams, a pioneer in the field of academic pornography research, spoke about the pervasiveness of moving-image pornography and the accompanying change in the public’s attitude toward that cinematic genre. Pornography, she maintains, is no longer “hidden away” but has incrementally become more visible — first in the early 1970s, when it began to show up on movie-theater screens, and on into the present day, where it comes into the home via videocassettes, DVDs, and the Internet.

Williams described the nature of academic porn analysis, focusing on changes in the field since the late ’80s in the primary context of heterosexual porn. In this week’s conversation, Williams discusses her long-running interest in cinematic “body genres” — among them horror films, melodramas, and pornography — that aim to move the viewer “in often quite literal ways.” She also explores the distinctive imperatives of gay porn (both male and female), and discusses the many ways in which it can’t be truly said that “a kiss is just a kiss.”

Does queer porn differ from straight porn?
Yes, in many ways. And this is why it is unfortunate that so many of the debates around pornography from the very beginning assumed that it was only heterosexual. One of the first ways feminist critics began to look at heterosexual pornography was to identify the problem of a “male gaze” at an objectified woman. Man was seen as the subject, woman as the object of the gaze. But in gay male porn there aren’t any women to be objectified. More importantly — and this is something interesting I appreciate in both gay porn and lesbian porn — you get these reciprocal, cruising looks. I look at you and you look at me and it goes back and forth. It’s not always perfectly reciprocal, but it has that potentiality for reciprocity which straight porn, geared to the man boffing the woman and the woman exhibiting a sometimes very fake-looking ecstasy, rarely has. Gay and lesbian porn has that quality of reciprocity in the sex acts as well: The roles of penetrator and penetrated shift; positions change. There is also a very different aesthetic in gay pornorgraphy: The men tend to be more beautiful and narcissistic, the films are often more playful and artful, and from the very beginning there was less plot, more fantasy and sex.

Ultimately, isn’t the male gaze about power? I’m looking at you. You look away. You’re objectified.
That whole way of thinking about the power of the male gaze, which was an important breakthrough for thinking about heterosexual film in general in its day, is pretty clunky when you add pleasure into the mix, and especially so when we turn to gay and lesbian looks and desires. First of all, even in heterosexual instances, the theory of the male gaze assumes that the one who is gazed upon — the woman — cannot in turn find a subtle kind of power in being looked at. It’s like sadism and masochism. Though there is a larger framework of patriarchal power that operates in both, the masochist and the exhibitionist do have power within that larger framework. Feminism is very good at pointing out the power dynamics of looks in films, but it is less good at considering the power and the pleasure. The fun of gay and lesbian pornography is that it complicates these givens even more.

Does queer porn have any historical import?
From the start of the explosion of pornography in moving images, which is to say from the early ’70s, homosexual pornography was not only widely seen in the emerging gay community, it was more important to gays than heterosexual porn was to the straight community. It carried more value; it was more a place where people would go to form that community.

Is the dynamic of gay male porn significantly different from straight and lesbian porn because it doesn’t involve women?
The dynamic of gay male porn is different from heterosexual porn because it is not about revealing sexual difference. There may be other differences — one guy might be hairy, one guy smooth; one guy might seduce, another be seduced — but they are the same gender, and that absence of normativity means that the sex is always about a certain making public of gay sex. It is one of the reasons that so many of the sex acts in these films actually take place in public places — bars, theaters, and, in one famous instance, in a float during a gay pride parade.

What about when two women are involved?
There’s a long and interesting history there. An essay in my new book Porn Studies, by Heather Butler, claims that lesbian pornography — that is, pornography made for lesbians, not just heterosexual pornography with a so-called “lesbian” scene that is really a “warm-up” for heterosex — tends to be marked by the presence of the highly visible “butch” who, unlike the femme, wears her sexual preference. Butler finds that butch figure in some early soft-core sexploitation films and traces her presence through recent lesbian pornography, where women refuse to both “fake it” and “take it” as they do in conventional heterosexual porn. Once again there is no “male gaze,” no performance of sex for an imagined or real male viewer — though, interestingly, there is quite often a dildo or some other form of refunctioned phallus.

Is there lesbian porn that’s not butch/femme?
First of all, it’s important to note that there’s not a large quantity of lesbian pornography period. What I have seen that seems to speak to an actual lesbian community has had a predominant butch/femme differentiation.

However, once you get some kind of sub-sub-genre that develops itself, the one thing you can count on is that someone will come along and challenge it. Then you can get butch/butch and femme/femme, but no longer in that highly glamorized way intended to please the male.

You’ve focused in your academic work on melodrama, porn, and horror films — all genres that are not particularly respected.
Well, not entirely. I have actually written just a couple of articles about horror film. And my first book, Figures of Desire, was on surrealist film. Surrealism is regarded as high art — in its day it was scandalously shocking high art — and the surrealists loved the Marquis de Sade. The popular “body genres” that interest me now are often dismissed as culturally unimportant. I think they are important, but there is a difference between the “highbrow” appeal of surrealist art and film and the supposedly “lowbrow” appeal of pornography. Actually, I think it is really the “middlebrow” appeal of melodrama that is the hardest form to get people to take seriously.

Harder than porn?
Yes, because intellectuals, like those early surrealists, are willing to take an interest in pornography. Because so much of society regards pornography as beyond the pale, it can sometimes even seem avant-garde. But melodrama is the stuff of mainstream popular culture. It is all about black-and-white distinctions between good and evil, as in soap operas, Titanic, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the rhetoric of our president. Melodrama is the fundamental mechanism our culture uses for generating self-righteousness. It is much more pernicious than pornography.

People seem to have an emotional response when they’re watching any of these genres.
Yes. I don’t entirely like the word “genre” for everything that I’m doing, since melodrama is broader than a genre. But I am interested in moving images that viscerally move us. Instead of just taking the process of being moved for granted, as too obvious to be worth examination, I want to start there, see how this “being moved” works.

Will you be pursuing these questions on your sabbatical this year?
I certainly plan to, yes. I have a fellowship to write a book that I am tentatively calling Watching Sex. I’m interested in how American culture moved from a time when a kiss was all one could expect to see of sex to the present era, when audiences expect to see Hollywood actors at least simulate specific sex acts, and then expect to see a great deal more than that in their own homes. This book will include pornography but it is interested in the broad shift that took place in the wake of the sexual revolution. Whatever else that sexual revolution that began in the second half of the 1960’s has wrought in the way of actual changes in American sexual behavior, the one absolute change is that we have watched — on movie screens that have become smaller, and home screens that have become larger — a much greater variety of sex acts that now go “all the way.”

It certainly seems like kissing was once the only visual signifier of two people having sex in films.
Before the 1960s there was, in essence, one sex act that could be viewed for all occasions. To watch sex in a legitimate mainstream movie before the sixties was typically to watch two people kissing. However passionate or chaste the kiss, it stood in for all the sex one was likely to see. So how did we get from the era when the kiss was everything (and what was that everything anyway?) to the era we are in today where we expect some measure of graphic depiction of sex acts and we want to know not only if the character had an orgasm, but what kind of orgasm? That’s the key question I’ll be thinking about over this academic year.

How do you begin to look at this kind of topic?
Right now I’m looking at these old Hollywood kisses, from movies made both before and after the production code, which was very strict about how much sex could be seen. Just this afternoon, I wrote about this Greta Garbo/JohnGilbert kiss, in a 1927 film called Flesh and the Devil, that’s just spectacular.

Could you describe it?
The ruse for the kiss is that Garbo needs a light for her cigarette. (Really, she wants to seduce a young officer who does not know she is married — we don’t know it either at this point.) She puts a cigarette dead center in her mouth as the young officer, John Gilbert, fumbles for a light. But then she suddenly takes the cigarette out and puts it in his mouth. That penetration of his mouth by her cigarette just electrifies him. He fumbles for the light some more, then, once he ignites the match, she blows out the light [laughs]. Eventually he kisses her. It’s really beautiful, the way the cigarette goes between them. She’s teaching him how to kiss, and how she wants him to kiss her, with the device of the cigarette. After he learns the lesson, they throw away the cigarette. She also mouths the word “you” — it’s a silent film — which of course makes her mouth open and pucker. You don’t get this kind of extreme focus on the oral pleasures of the mouth in today’s kisses.

That makes me wonder, as you’re describing that kiss, if there’s something that’s been lost.
You could say that. And we can be nostalgic, but actually the kind of kiss you get in 1927 was already lost by 1934, when the Production Code began to be enforced and kisses could not last more than three seconds. I’ve been looking at the kisses in Casablanca as well. They are much shorter and don’t offer as much oral lingering. So there are many phases of the history of the kiss that we can observe — in 1927, 1933, 1942 and so on.

What “phase” of the kiss are we in today?
Today a kiss is foreplay and afterplay. It can be more “lustful and lascivious” — to use the words of the Production Code — than it could be in that era, but it tends to be far less interesting in itself. Today we want to know what happens after, to what kind of orgasm the kiss leads. But that’s another chapter!