Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When Marilyn Took Cannes Behind The Green Door

What better way to celebrate the first day of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival than with a flashback?

In May 1973, The Mitchell Brothers’ Behind The Green Door became the very first American pornographic film to compete for the Palme D’Or. John Hubner’s 1993 book Bottom Feeders, written about Jim and Artie Mitchell, confirms that being an official selection at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival was the ultimate validation of The Mitchell Brothers’ artistic ambitions. The film was greeted with thunderous applause at the first screening, and the crowd went even wilder when leading lady Marilyn Chambers responded by giving a speech in French. Behind The Green Door, already a commercial and cultural phenomenon in America, went on to become a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival.

In May 2002, I wrote about Behind The Green Door for my final paper for one of four classes I took with my favorite professor at Emerson College, writer Peg Aloi. It was during that semester that my first viewing of Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat sparked a life-changing fascination with the ‘porno chic’ movement in American cinema. This enthusiastic appreciation of classic straight porn has always left people confused, but I hope that my favorite essay from college explains why every movie lover should mourn for The Golden Age of Adult Films. 

Robert Jeffrey

Media Criticism and Theory: Final Assignment

                 Feminist Porn? A Look Back Behind the Green Door

If film is an emotional medium, then by definition alone adult cinema could be the highest plateau of movies; no other genre has ever managed to spark such extreme reactions among the masses, nor can any kind of film equal its emotional/physical effect on the individual watching such a film. Adult titles often retail for much higher prices than conventional videotapes and DVDs, and yet they often prove to be bestsellers, for people are willing to pay enormous sums of money for the effect that they arouse within the viewer.
However, because the genre is so adept at provoking and exciting the viewer, filmmakers often take the power of the medium for granted. Technical merits and artistic aspirations are far too often neglected in favor of letting the “onscreen action” work for itself. The adult film industry had been given new life when Deep Throat, an X-rated sex comedy released in late 1972, became a box office phenomenon that played for years to packed audiences in mainstream cinemas as well as adult theaters. This led to a so-called “porno chic” movement throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, during which numerous adult films were booked into major theaters, reviewed by mainstream film critics, and enjoyed considerable box office success to rival the profits of Hollywood films.

 In her revealing audio commentary accompanying the 1980 film Insatiable, Gloria Leonard, former adult film star and President of the Free Speech Coalition, noted that this was what made the adult films of the 1970s and early 1980s so unique. What once had been a sleazy underground genre made of short, technically inconsequential “stag films” rose up to the erotic feature films that played to widespread-and often mainstream-audiences. These films were shot on film, had linear storylines, and boasted stars that were as ambitious at becoming well-regarded actors as they were at shedding their inhibitions to engage in onscreen sexual activity. With the advent of video production, however, the genre once again slid into its less inspired roots, leading to today’s market of meaningless sex, cheap videography, and virtually absent emphasis on plot or performance (“Insatiable”).
In 2000, British film critic Derek Malcolm of The Guardian caused quite a stir with his list of the Top 100 Movies of the 20th Century. Malcolm described it as a list of “not the 100 best, [but] 100 of the best…personal favorites which, I hope, I have good reason to celebrate”. This cinematic ranking was particularly unique and provocative because it omitted a good number of films that are generally guaranteed a high perch on the filmic totem pole. Among these would be Metropolis, Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Searchers, La Dolce Vida, The Godfather, and Annie Hall (Malcolm “Century of Films”). In an article published in early 2001, several renowned film critics from the world assessed their feelings on Malcolm’s list. Some critics applauded him for his selections, particularly his more offbeat inclusions and exclusions. French critic Jean Roy, of “L’Humanite”, praised his “preference for style over stars, and for films which deserve to be reminded over crowd pleasers”, while German critic Klause Eder encouraged readers to “see his favorites and you know how exciting cinema can be”. However, the most revealing and representative comment-and the one on which I am essentially basing my ensuing reflections-came from Peter Keough, of the Boston Phoenix: “You’ve got to admire a 100 best movie list that omits Citizen Kane but includes Behind the Green Door” (Malcolm “What the Critics Say” 2-3).

The 1972 film Behind the Green Door was directed by “The Mitchell Brothers”, a collective dub for San Francisco adult filmmakers Jim and Artie Mitchell. Behind the Green Door was more than a movie. It was a phenomenon, and one that helped-perhaps more so than any other film of its time-to revolutionize the adult film industry. “Serious critics reviewed the film, while it raced up the list of the most popular movies as if nothing untoward were happening at all” (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door”, 2). “One of the most popular and recognized adult classic titles of all time” (Spooky 1), the low budget production went on to gross $100 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable films of the 1970s (Adult DVD Reviews 3).
 The story is so simple that it’s star has often described it one sentence, but for the sake of an understanding of the film’s effectiveness, I’ll offer a few more words than that. Gloria (Marilyn Chambers, in her debut leading role) is an exquisitely beautiful young woman staying alone in a somewhat secluded hotel. One evening she leaves the hotel, extremely well coiffed as if attending a formal date, and is abducted by two masked men. She is taken to the backroom of an isolated location, which we soon learn is a theater-cum-sex club, where an older woman comforts her, massages her, and tells her to prepare to embrace “the most exquisite moment” of her life. Gloria soon finds herself walking into the elaborate sex club (from “behind the green door”), onto a stage where she is surrounded by beautiful, caped women, and in front of an audience composed of upper class couples comprising a variety of sexual orientations, body types, ages, and ethnic groups. What happens throughout the rest of the film is a bizarre, garish, gorgeously photographed and almost overwhelmingly erotic chain of sexual events, occurring both on stage and within the audience.

Contemporary porn films show sex. They do not “deal with” sex, because they generally cater to an audience not interested in the before-or-after effects of human sexual behavior. Behind the Green Door is perhaps the best example from the era of films that did, in fact, explore with the subject. What makes it especially unique is that the “before” and the “after” are secondary to the “right now”, in that the movie is about what is going through the mind of the central character while she is being subject to an experience that is at once frightening and intensely exciting and pleasurable. Chambers specifically requested that she not know what events would transpire when the character of Gloria walked onto the stage. She felt it “would be more interesting from the audience point of view by making it more realistic by not knowing what was going to happen” (Chambers 1). Gloria’s character never utters a word throughout the film, and this gave Chambers the chance to deliver a performance that is completely internalized-and which in turn is arguably more empathetic than a dialogue-driven work would have been. We do not simply look at Gloria; we feel what she is feeling. Her experiences are our experiences, as we, too, are taken to this exclusive sex club, unaware of what will transpire. And if the effect that “BTGD” had at the box office and on popular culture is in any way representative, we too are changed by the events of that night. 
Indeed, the biggest asset to Behind the Green Door on an artistic level (it was undoubtedly the best thing going for it from a commercial perspective) may be the presence of its debut star, Marilyn Chambers. Chambers, in her first (and most famous) leading role, truly personified the “girl next door” appeal that the Mitchell Brothers sought. Although strikingly beautiful, she was neither sultry nor glamorous; her beauty was simple, pure, perhaps even plain. She embodied the ideals of feminine innocence and virginal superiority, and her ultimate fusion of such qualities with genuine sexual exhilaration was as much an advancement for women’s equality as was any other feminist achievement in film. What makes her experience a unique feminist statement is that her liberation comes not through denying her femininity through dissolution into “a man’s world”, nor abandon any part of her personal identity to embrace more traditional feminine elements (i.e. Maternity, marriage). Rather, she fulfills her womanhood through exploring and appreciating her sexuality. Although some feminist groups have slammed the porn industry for degrading women, Behind the Green Door tells the story of a woman who pushes the limits of ingrained feminine ideals (purity, simplicity, asexual persuasion) before rejecting them altogether to engage in passion and pleasure with men and women alike. And despite the stigma attached to the genre, the message clearly shone through. Derek Malcolm pointed out that “there were as many female commentators who approved of the film as disapproved, since it was about a woman totally liberated by experiences that had previously been part of her private and unattainable fantasies” (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door” 2).

Seconds after Gloria enters from behind the green door, there is an unseen narrator, speaking to the audience within the film-as well to the audience of the film. He encourages the audience not to fear for the young woman onstage, for instead of being in any way harmed or pained, she will be “loved as never before” and free to leave at her own will once this experience is complete. Thus, he states, they (or perhaps we) should sit back and enjoy what is about to happen. The subsequent effect that the film has on its real-life audience is reflected in the response of the filmed audience members. As the events involving Gloria proceed on stage, the editing frequently cuts to how the audience is reacting. As the film goes on, the audience becomes more and more aroused, beginning to engage in their own sexual fulfillment, and their post-Free Love antics are every bit as titillating and fascinating to watch as is the stage show in which Gloria is the lead participant. Again, the themes of feminism and sexual liberation are forefront in the audience reflection. A good number-if not the majority-of audience members watching Gloria’s transformation are women, and their pleasuring of themselves at the sight of Gloria with men and women is perhaps the first onscreen acknowledgement in film history of women’s own titillation in response to erotica. Although the Mitchell Brothers probably were not suggesting that the sexual free-for-all of the audience within the film should be mimicked by the audience in front of the movie screen, clearly they were endorsing the notion that women should take part in the enjoyment alongside their male counterparts. Again, this effect also proved successful as Derek Malcolm noted that the Mitchells “were delighted that women were the bedrock of their audience” (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door” 2).

After the feminist statement being made by the film, another socially significant and widely discussed aspect of the film’s sexual content is that the very first heterosexual encounter is between Marilyn Chambers and a black man, boxer Johnny Keys. An interracial scene “is commonplace today, but probably turned a few heads in the early 70s when the title came out” (Spooky 2). Indeed this sequence seems to have been directed with the Mitchells extremely conscious of the effect it would have on audience members. The notion of interracial sex was clearly still a hot spot in the early 1970s (to a different extent, it remains so today), and the Mitchell Brothers played up the sequence by enhancing the stereotypes associated with the white female and black male involved. Marilyn Chambers-with her luminescent blue-green eyes and curly blond hair-was certainly the personification of America’s obsession with clean, virginal purity as whiteness; it’s no wonder she was once selected to be the young mother on boxes of Ivory Soap. The sequence begins with her lying on her back on a bed, with six females, clad in black, surrounding her as if holding her down. Johnny Keys enters through the green door, clad in tight white pants with a hole cut out of the crotch, thus presenting his fully erect genitals. He has lines of tribal make up on his face, shark’s teeth strewn around his neck, and prowls like a predator as a combination of the jazzy score and “jungle beats” blend in the musical soundtrack. Thus the symbolism is clear: the carnivorous black man is about to pounce upon the helpless white virgin, thus robbing her of her innocence and respect. The twist in the Mitchell Brothers’ film is that Gloria does, indeed, enjoy the experience, and it solidifies her shedding of inhibitions and sexual maturation. It further underlines her rejection of feminine ideals placed upon women by white male society, for she is a “good white girl” enjoying sex with a black man. It is at once honest in its enticingly taboo subject, while still socially conscious enough to break down this black-white barrier through graphic sexuality.  Thus what began as a fearful becomes sexual, extremely erotic, and perhaps even beautiful; indeed, the Mitchell Brothers had achieved in turning the tables on the audience conventions of interracial sexuality. That the audiences of a pornographic film would share such internalized stereotypes is indeed representative of the ingrained racism in America, and the Mitchells were more than willing to utilize such feelings to enhance both the social and erotic effectiveness of their film.

I suppose it would be prudish, if not downright ignorant, to gloss over the film’s depiction of sexual activity. Indeed, it is the most well remembered aspect of the film among mainstream audiences, and is the foundation of its appreciation among adult film fans. As mentioned before, the sex in the film is indeed erotic; so much that I would go so far as to call it beautiful. There is no pain or power playing in the film. Domination and submission are foregone in favor of unrestricted, unbridled sensuality. The actors in the film seem to be enjoying themselves, and thus there is not the mechanical, “I’m only here for the money” feel found in today’s pornographic films. Also, being the early 1970s, the exploits of the actors are clearly influenced by the hippie “Sexual Revolution” movement. There is no apparent preference among the actors on the stage or in the audience. They seem to have little interest in the gender of their partners, nor in their age or physical description. One of the most frequently featured audience members is an extremely overweight woman, something that would not likely be seen in a major pornographic production today.
The sex in the film is also extremely well staged and well photographed; the actors may give the impression that they are simply being “caught on camera”, but clearly the Mitchells were adept at giving their vision a natural feel. “The Mitchells opted for “art” and respectability [and] the film does have a charge that you can’t deny” (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door” 2). The brothers’ artistic ambition is most evident in “the ultimate moment in [the] film” (Adult DVD Reviews 3), when they take the so-called “money shot” (an industry euphemism for male ejaculation) of pornographic films and give it a wildly original spin that has never been surpassed. Although the portrayal of an ejaculation would seem impossible in any artistic context, Derek Malcolm points out that “the Mitchells could at least claim some imagination in making it” (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door” 2). The scene is shot in slow motion, but is then processed in such a way that the film’s color scheme becomes truly bizarre, giving the sequence the look of an Andy Warhol painting. The scene is played over several times, using different colors, strange, ambient sound effects, and a number of different, surreal angles, some of which are “mirror shots” that give the scene the look that Gloria’s face is reflecting itself. Although Malcolm describes the scene thirty years later as “more hilarious than arty”, I would disagree. Although it might come off as amusing to jaded contemporary audiences, this disorienting piece of psychedelia perfectly caps off the Mitchell’s grand ambitions to change the face of adult cinema by creating their own breed of “art porn”.

Reading this assessment of the film (and, perhaps as much, its genre), one might question whether I am talking about the state of film or simply the state of adult film. In fact, I am talking about both. I would argue that the two industries are strangely proportional, considering that the same peak years of American adult cinema saw a surge in quality films output by Hollywood studios. This is true today as well, as the sophomoric, “gynecological” (Chambers 2) adult films that dominate the market coincide with Hollywood films that aim towards a lowbrow mentality among predominantly teen and twenty-something masses. The quality-and perhaps more importantly, the popularity-of 70s adult cinema was representative of a Cinema of Grown-Ups, people who went to the movies in their 30s and 40s and sat down for intelligent entertainment that catered, as opposed to pandered, to their tastes. Adults crave sexual stimulation as least as much as they crave intellectual stimulation, and 1970s adult features provided both in spades.

I do not consider Behind the Green Door a film that transcended its genre. Rather I consider it the film most representative of a genre that was, for a brief but glorious time, transcending itself. “Pornography has been a staple of the cinema from the year dot,” wrote Derek Malcolm in his reflection on the film. “At no time, however, was it more respectable as in the America of the early 70s. Respectable couples did not care a jot if anyone saw them going in or coming out…[and] there were breakthrough porno movies that deserved at least some of the limelight they were once afforded” (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door” 1).
With that having been said, however, it should be noted that even among such well-crafted adult films of its day, Behind the Green Door was something truly special. No adult film before it was so consciously ambitious in its attempts to affect-and hopefully change-its audience. The movie sought to lure female viewers into adult films, and to encourage them to achieve personal liberation through sexuality. It broke down interracial barriers, and in fact dissolved any kind of dividers between two human beings interested in engaging in passionate sexual activity. “This was the most stylish, and some say the most erotic, of all of these [“porno chic”] movies,” wrote Derek Malcolm (Malcolm “Behind the Green Door” 1). I would certainly agree, but such an opinion is merely scratching the surface. In addition to being sexually charged to a degree rarely seen in adult films, it achieved something much more: bringing sex to the forefront of audience discussion. Although Deep Throat had achieved this same feat, Behind the Green Door was perhaps more impressive in this regard since it managed to do so without the need to lighten up the subject matter with bawdy humor. It encouraged audiences to become acquainted with their sexuality, to appreciate it, to be unafraid of it, and to use it to enhance their self-identities. Indeed, this was a truly “grown up” movie.

1 comment:

  1. Very good stuff!!
    I love this movie.. And I've spent a lot of time looking for modern movies with this sort of erotic effect... have you found any over there?