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The Golden Age of Porn Movies

Barbara Nitke - Exhibit of her Photographs at One Eyed Jack's
Barbara Nitke – Exhibit of her Photographs at One Eyed Jack’s

Did you know there was a Golden Age of Porn? OK, probably you never gave it a thought. A Golden Age is a time of prosperity, achievement and happiness, and for the porn industry that period extended from around the early 1970s to the mid 1980s. It certainly was a time of achievement and prosperity for porn movies — happiness for the actors, not so much.

One of the most beautiful visual records of that time is Barbara Nitke’s un-sentimental collection of evocative photographs gathered in her book, American Ecstasy. (Critical Pages posted about American Ecstasy some time ago.) Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age was coming to an end. To be protected by the US Constitution, the porn movies had to claim a socially redeeming value — in other words, they had to pass as artistic expression, which meant they had to have characters and a plot, not just bodies doing it. That was the achievement and that’s what brought about porn prosperity and the Golden Age.

According to Green Cine’s Sex in the Movies Guide, “between 1972 and 1983, porn — not sexy Hollywood fare, not racy sexploitation, not European art films, but pure, unabashed porn — chalked up 16 percent of total box office returns in the US.” Eventually, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the showing of large scale porn movies in movie houses. The Golden Age was over.

But not forgotten. Photographs from Barbara Nitke’s American Ecstasy volume have been enlarged and beginning on April 4th they’ll be exhibited in Great Britain at One Eyed Jack’s gallery in Brighton. Social historians, admirers of E. J. Bellocq’s Storyville portraits and anyone interested in fine photography should take a look at these astonishing photographs.

Ain’t We Got Fun?

Flappers in 1920sMaybe you’ve heard the old song, “Ain’t We Got Fun?”   (This is really a post about economics and we want to talk about the lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun?”  We promise to play the song at the end of this post, if that’s what you’re here for.  So stay with us, please.)

The lyrics were written by Raymond Egan and Gus Kahn back in 1921.  The words tell us about the newly married couple in the cottage next door who are pursued by bill collectors from the grocer, the butcher and the landlord. Despite their poverty, the couple sings these lines:

Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening,
Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money, Oh, but honey,
Ain’t we got fun?

As the song goes on we hear its most famous lines:

There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get children.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain’t we got fun?

Or, as it says further along:

There’s  nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get laid off.

Of course, “There’s nothing surer,” leads us to the rhyming word “poorer,” for which the lyrics substitute “children” or “laid off.” But what’s unsung is what we already know: The rich get rich while the poor get poorer. That’s capitalism in a nutshell. You probably know that, too.

Foreign Affairs magazine recently published a lead article called “Capitalism and Inequality” by Jerry Muller. Muller believes that “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”

You might pause here to reread and relish Jerry Muller’s use of polysyllables — half a dozen five-syllable words in a single sentence. Anyone can say that capitalism produces inequality, but not many can say it like that. And saying it that way almost makes you forget what it means.

Maybe you’ve seen the 1987 movie Wall Street. (No, we’re not going to play you the movie.) It starred Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko, a corrupt Wall Street insider whose most famous line is “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” What might be overlooked is Gekko’s declaring, at another point in the movie, that the upper one percent own 50 percent of the country’s wealth. That was back in 1987. But the rich keep getting richer and today the upper one percent own 80 percent of the country’s wealth. That’s what Jerry Muller’s polysyllables mean.

The subtitle of Muller’s Foreign Affairs article is “What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.” In his view, those on the right who want to weaken Social Security and other safety-net programs, need to know that “major government social welfare spending is a proper response to some inherently problematic features of capitalism.” And, of course, those on the left should learn that “to redistribute income from the top of the economy to the bottom” has serious drawbacks, that “preferential treatment to under performers, may be worse than the disease,” and “even continued innovation and revived economic growth will not eliminate or even significantly reduce socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.” All of which makes a fine 21-page defense of the status quo.

There’s great sense of even-handedness in the article. After all, the author points out that both left and right get it wrong when they try to change the way things are arranged just now. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there’s nothing to be done about that except to keep a safety net out there to catch the poorer acrobats – about 40 percent of the population today – as they come crashing down. And nothing can be done about it because capitalism is a fact of nature, like the furnace of the sun or the rotation of galaxies. But capitalism isn’t part of the natural order of things.

Capitalism is a creation of humankind and it can be changed for the better. That may be obvious to you, but it’s not clear to most of the people in Congress. One of the inevitable features of capitalism is the emergence of monopolies. At least is used to be. Nowadays, we have laws against monopolistic behavior, and when a company is judged to be a monopoly it can be told to break itself up and sell away parts of itself. Anti-monopoly laws don’t injure capitalism, they improve it by helping to create competition and spur innovation.

There’s a legend that Henry Ford — a very rich auto maker, not a bomb-throwing radical — improved his worker’s wages so that they could afford to buy a Ford motor car. Of course, no one is compelled to follow Henry Ford’s  apocryphal  example. Indeed, it’s still possible to allow a capitalist economy to go freely on it’s inevitable path — the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the richest of the rich ascend to unimaginable wealth, the middle class descends to abject poverty and the entire society collapses along with the economy. Ain’t we got fun? No, not when that happens.

OK, we promised you a song, and you’ve been patient,  so here it is. Click the arrowhead in the middle and enjoy the old song:

Documentary Movies

The Adademy of Motion Pictue Arts and Sciences will soon be giving a gold-plated Oscar for the best for the Best Documentary film. Documentaries have come a long, long way since Robert Flaherty’s silente Nanook of the North back in 1922. Here are the nominated films. 5 Broken Cameras is a first-hand account of a Palestinian village’s non-violent resistance to the encroaching Israeli settlements that threatens it. The Gatekeepers is about the Shin Bet from people on the inside, namely six former heads of Israel’s secret security service. How to Survive a Plague is about the early years of AIDS. The Invisible War is about sexual assult in the United States military. That’s only four of the five nominated. They are informative and engaging and certainly worth seeing. And, of course, that’s why you watch a documentary, to be engaged while being informed, usually about something important. But you probably won’t come away feeling exhilerated, filled with a sense of quirky triumph, delighted that you’ve witnessed a happy ending, real-world fairy tale. But you might if you watch the fifth movie, Searching for Sugarman. The movie is about two Cape Town men who decide to find out whatever happened to the American singer/songwriter Rodriguez who was wildly popular in South Africa, especially among the rebellious young during the opressive apartheid years. When the search begins there are differeing rumors about Rodriguez’s death, but nothing is certain, except that he was virtually unknown in the United States. How it ends is almost miraculous. (OK, there are some inaccuracies in the film, but see it anyway. You’ll feel better.)The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will soon be giving a gold-plated Oscar for the Best Documentary film. Documentaries have come a long, long way since Robert Flaherty’s  silent Nanook of the North back in 1922.   Here are this year’s nominated films:

5 Broken Cameras is a first-hand account of some Palestinians’ non-violent resistance to the encroaching Israeli settlements that threatens their village. The Gatekeepers is about the Shin Bet from people on the inside, namely six former heads of Israel’s secret security service. How to Survive a Plague is about the early years of AIDS. The Invisible War is about sexual assault in the United States military. The first two are especially recommended.

That’s only four of the five nominated. They are informative and engaging and certainly worth seeing. And, of course, that’s why you watch a documentary, to be engaged while being informed, usually about something depressingly important. But you probably won’t come away feeling exhilarated, filled with a sense of lucky triumph, delighted that you’ve witnessed a real-world happy ending fairy tale.

Yet you might if you watch the fifth movie, Searching for Sugar Man. The movie is about the search by two Cape Town men who decide to find out whatever happened to the American singer/songwriter Rodriguez who was wildly popular in South Africa, especially among the rebellious young during the oppressive apartheid years. In fact, he was bigger than Elvis. When the search begins there are  a couple of rumors about Rodriguez’s death, but nothing is certain. The first thing they learn is that the man known to everyone in South Africa is virtually unknown in the United States where, as one man in the music business says, Rodriguez sold maybe six records.  How it ends is almost miraculous.

OK — if you must be fussy fussy and picky picky — there are some inaccuracies in the film, but see it anyway. We think you’ll feel better.

The Fairy

Fairy movie poster Most likely you haven’t see The Fairy, a French movie with a story composed of brilliantly funny sequences of almost silent comedy. Advertising for the film compares it to the slapstick work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati and in a sense that’s true — especially in regard to some of the work of Jacques Tati. But slapstick is a small part of this curious film.

The two central actors are Dominique Abel (playing Dom) and Fiona Gordon (playing Fiona), two members of a well known comedic trio that includes Bruno Romy who has a small role in this movie. The story is set in a gritty stretch of urban seaside in the ugly industrial port city of Le Havre.

Dom is the night clerk in a small hotel when Fiona, barefoot and in a rain-soaked jersey and baggy sports trousers, enters and asks for a room. She also announces that she’s a fairy and will grant him three wishes. Dom asks for 1) a motor scooter (during the credits we saw him peddling a bicycle with a loose chain through the rain) and 2) a lifetime supply of free gasoline. He can’t think of a third wish and Fiona tells him to take his time.

It has to be said that neither Fiona nor Dom are beautiful people. Quite the contrary, they have extraordinarily plain faces and thin angular bodies. But they have a certain fluidity of motion, especially Fiona, and after they fall in love the viewer is on their side, hoping they’ll survive the twists and turns of the movie. (The not-so-beautiful faces of these two reminds us that you don’t have to be beautiful to be genuinely in love, and it can happen in an ugly industrial port city, too.) The plot is a bizarre linear farce in which each scene leads logically to the next, but always with unexpected results.

Fiona can grant Dom’s wish for free gasoline by giving the woman who manages huge gasoline storage tanks the key to her hotel room (the woman needs a place to meet her lover) in exchange for the key to a storage tank outflow pipe. In the movie there’s a café named Love is Blurred — an inexplicably odd name until we get to the café and discover that the owner, played by Bruno Romy, isn’t blind but extraordinarily nearsighted. (It may take a moment to get that one.)

There are a couple of minor sub plots which are neatly linked to the main plot. The central story is that Fiona disappears and Dom finds her in a hospital for the local nut cases from which she probably escaped prior to reaching his hotel. In the course of the movie Fiona gets pregnant more or less by willing it, producing a bulge with the speed and sound effects of blowing up a balloon.  And later she delivers the baby in an equally unusual fashion. Whether Fiona is truly crazy or just a simpleton fairy doesn’t really matter. How he  rescues her and how they get away together makes for 94 minutes of very, very light entertainment. This whimsical tale is on DVD disk in French with English subtitles. Check it out.

Standard Time

Harold Lloyd in Safety LastWe’re back on Standard Time now. That means you drive home from work in the dark. Hawaii and Arizona never left Standard time, so they don’t have to mess with their clocks. Some of us liked it better before the world began organizing time. Some of us right here at Critical Pages, for example, get suicidal when twilight creeps up in the middle of the afternoon.

But suicide isn’t necessary. A study by professors Paul Fischbeck, at Carnegie Mellon University, and others, found that after the time change pedestrians walking during evening rush hour are nearly three times more likely to be struck and killed by cars than before the change. Which is another reason we don’t like messing with the clock.

Fooling with clocks is always lethal. “The Monday and Tuesday after moving the clocks ahead one hour in March is associated with a 10 percent increase in the risk of having a heart attack,” says Martin Young. Professor Young is in the Division of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of Alabama (Birmingham), so he probably knows what he’s talking about. Furthermore, he says, “The opposite is true when falling back in October. This risk decreases by about 10 percent.”

In the old days — we’re thinking of the 1800’s here — every town and city set its own time. When the sun was directly overhead, that was twelve noon, so they set the big town clock to twelve and everyone in town set their timepieces by the local clock. That worked fine until railroads became an important feature of life. British railroads switched from local time to the time set by the British observatory at Greenwich, hence what we call Greenwich Mean Time. And by most folks it was called Railway Time. During the 1800’s the British and the French were competing to set standards — standards for weights, lengths, time, and where the zero meridian should be placed. The French wanted it to run through Paris. The British won out, so it runs through Greenwich. On the other hand, the French won on length and had the final word on how long a meter was.

But we digress, as usual.  The illustration for this post is a still from the 1923 movie “Safety Last” starring Harold Lloyd. It’s an example of how dangerous it is to mess with clocks. Check it out — if you have a few minutes of Standard Time.


The Vatican and James Bond

Skyfall movie stillL’Osservatore Romano, the 151-year-old newspaper put out by the Vatican, has gone gaga over James Bond. Or, maybe we should say that the editor, Gian Maria Vian, has taken to heart the Pope’s suggestion to liven up the daily. Some years ago L’Osservatore Romano praised The Blues Brothers, surprising just about everyone, but that was ages after the movie had premiered and, after all, it was a comedy and the plot featured John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on a “mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. (By the way, though it came out in 1980, the film is still a blast.)

But praising the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is different. This time the Vatican newspaper has five different articles related to the movie, all of them laudatory. “Skyfall does not disappoint,” says the Vatican. “The 23rd Bond film is one of the best in the longest cinematic story of all time…” Furthermore, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the film “does not lack any of the classic ingredients which have made James Bond a legend — the title credits song, adrenalin pumping action, amazing hyper-realistic chases, exotic locations, extremely beautiful Bond girls, the usual super villain and the essential vodka martini.” At the same time, Bond himself is “less attracted to the pleasures of life, darker and more introspective, less invulnerable physically and psychologically and because of this more human, even able to be moved and to cry – in a word, more real,” said the newspaper’s film critic, Gaetano Vallini. Not bad, especially when you remember he’s talking about a womanizer with a license to kill.

About the the hurricane Sandy and what it did it did to New York and New Jersey, the paper reported today that ” Sandy mette in ginocchio New York e il New Jersey” or, as we say in English, Sandy brought New York and New Jersey to their knees. Now that’s the kind of metaphor we expect to find in the Vatican newspaper. Frankly, we’ve never thought of  L’Osservatore Roman as a source for movie reviews, so we missed the edition with the Bond mania. We’ve relied on the translation supplied by Britain’s Guardian.


Hysteria with Maggie Gallenhaal and Hugh Dancy
Hysteria with Maggie Gallenhaal and Hugh Dancy

You probably didn’t see Hysteria, the movie directed by Tanya Wexler.No great loss, as it’s a very silly comedy. On the other hand, if you’re facing a blank weekend and a lonely evening, a silly comedy will do. Maybe we should say right now that Hysteria is about the invention of the massage-vibrator. Yes, that one, the one used primarily by women for sexual relief. As the movie begins it announces that it’s based on “true events. Really.” Yes. Well. Sort of.

Hugh Dancy plays handsome Mortimer Granville — an enlightened doctor of the late 1800s who believes that germs exist and that washing your hands is a good thing to do if you’re a surgeon. In fact, his advanced ideas cause him to lose his job. Fortunately, he finds work as an assistant to Dr. Dalrymple, an upscale physician who caters to women diagnosed as having hysteria, a Victorian female problem with a collections of symptoms: insomnia, fatigue, sexual frustration and general nervousness.

Dalrymple’s successful cure consists of a discrete massage (masturbation is the word we’d use today) of the patient under something like a fancy red shawl that conceals what’s going on down there. Dr. Dalrymple happens to have two daughters: passive & conventional Emily, who lives with her widowed father, plays Chopin and studies phrenology, and feisty Charlotte, dramatized by Maggie Gallenhaal,  who has left home to work in an impoverished settlement house, educating children of the poor, taking care of the sick and injured, a bright energetic woman with advanced ideas about medicine and women’s rights and sex.  OK, you’ve got the setup.

But handsome Mortimer abruptly loses his smarts and, encouraged by his mentor Dr. Dalrymple, begins to court passive & conventional Emily! Young Dr. Mortimer becomes quite skilled at the massage cure for hysteria, so skilled that his patient list grows and he develops carpel tunnel syndrome. As it happens, his very rich young friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe, an inventor, is at work on a hand-held electric fan. It doesn’t work so well as a fan— it vibrates! OK, you get where the movie is  going with this.

Viewers can enjoy being aghast at the hypocrisy and willful ignorance of Victorian society (as portrayed in this cartoonish movie) and can anticipate with pleasure Dr. Mortimer’s last-minuet recognition that smart, cheerful Charlotte, who looks terrific in a strapless gown, and who believes in germs and the washing of hands, but doesn’t believe in hysteria, a woman who is vibrantly sexual and who will take a husband as an equal, yes, our Charlotte is the one he admires and loves —why, he’ll even go down on one knee in the snowy courtyard of the settlement house to propose to her! And she’ll accept.


There was a doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville who is credited with inventing the electric percussive massaging instrument, but he refused to use it to cure women suffering from “female hysteria,” an affliction which rose to prominence in Victorian times and was, indeed, treated as portrayed in this movie.

American Ecstasy

American Ecstasy book imageIn 1982 Barbara Nitke began to take still photographs on pornographic movie sets. “The porn business is my alma mater,” she’s written. “I learned the craft of photography there, from the cameramen, the lighting guys, and all the other hopeful kids who came into the business straight out of film school.” Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age of Porn was coming to an end. (You didn’t know porn films had a Golden Age? Now you do.) Eventually, the social scene, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the large scale movies she had been photographing, along with the actors and directors. Nitke’s attention shifted to the SM scene and in 2003 she wrote Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism, a collection of photographs of sadomasochistic couples published by Kehrer, a distinguished German company  producing books on culture, fine art and photography. Kiss of Fire was too hot for an American publisher to handle.

E. J. Bellocq’s photos of Storyville prostitutes waited fifty or sixty years before they were published by the Museum of Modern Art, but Barbara Nitke didn’t want to wait that long.  Nitke  worked through Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website,  and today we have American Ecstasy, a memoir in pictures and words of the years she spent taking still shots on porn movie sets in New York City. It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book with superb color photographs, a fluent text by Nitke herself and an introductory essay by Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and former art critic for The Nation.

American Ecstasy contains sixty-eight large color shots. A  few, a very few,  are of bodies (a back, an arm or a leg) but all the others are portraits. These are  portraits of people caught in the midst of a sexual encounter or, far more often, pausing or waiting in the act, gazing inwardly, bored or sleepy or curled up asleep on some fancy bed that was used in an earlier scene. And often a camera intrudes, a 35mm machine — bulky, glittering and dark — edging in from the margin. It’s the camera’s alien presence, of course, that produces the dissonance in these pictures.  The women themselves, and it’s mostly women we see, often look looked wiped out — maybe they’re dulled or maybe just emptied by hours of work.

Barbara Nitke has given us people in moments of bizarre comedy or innocence and even tenderness.  Her color work, those gauzy whites, soft tans and gentle defining edges, evoke a kind of pathos, for the photographs are chromatically beautiful whereas the people are working in a porn movie and that kind of  work is not beautiful. Nitke’s text doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticize the porn movie industry.  She’s a responsive photographer with a deep understanding and affection for her utterly human subjects, and those qualities raise her images beyond mere documentary or social insight into the realm of  art.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.