Readings: After Uniqueness + Smutty Little Movies
After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation
By Erika Balsom
Columbia University Press
Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video
By Peter Alilunas
University of California Press
Less and less does cinema live exclusively in the movie theater. Despite the relative boom of repertory theaters in metropolitan enclaves, the temptation of streaming services, bootlegged torrents, or DVD/Blu-ray means that viewers—especially if their visual appetites deviate from the norm—have other options. Orthodox film scholarship still remains overwhelmingly committed to tracing the lineage of the Hollywood studio system or the European art movie, leaving many varieties of moving images on the periphery. Two recent books have aimed to reassess the history of moving image distribution via the two disparate, but nonetheless criss-crossing, vantage points of the art world and the adult film industry.
Published this spring by Columbia University Press, Erika Balsom’s After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation is a gallant, much-needed bid at outlining and discussing the various opportunities, problematics, and ambivalences created by moving image reproduction in contemporary art. Experimental cinema, artists’ film, video art, time-based media: a variety of non-synonymous categories of art practice began to emerge in the second half of the 20th century, and the prospect of these works moving beyond the walls of the cinema or the gallery had stakes. Italian art historian Germano Celant gives the most generous characterization, calling the free circulation of art a potential “small utopia.” But for others, there were frictions and obstacles to achieving the ideal, not to mention the aesthetic limitations.
We learn of Jonas Mekas, Gregory Markopoulos, and Stan Brakhage’s scheme to transpose the joys of record-collecting to experimental film, proposing an ill-fated distribution service for home-use 8mm prints of 16mm shorts. The Film-maker’s Cooperative and Bernard Stollman entertained the idea of an ESP Disk videocassette imprint, but it never materialized and the plan fizzled. Bruce Conner, too, had immediately seen the possibilities of home projection, but after a flirtation with small edition 8mm prints he ducked out. There just wasn’t yet a big market. Brakhage eventually did get a fairly popular 8mm release. Lovemaking (1968), distributed by the mail-order Evergreen Book Club, was a surprise underground success. Featuring depictions of sex (three intimate scenes between Paul and Frances Sharits, a homosexual couple, and dogs, and a depiction of nascent childhood sexuality), the film captured the zeitgeist of sexual revolution and through its inclusion in the 8mm compilation Erotic Celebration 1 became a bestseller. Brakhage later pulled the film from distribution following the 1982 Supreme Court decision in New York v. Farber, fearing it would provide artillery for pedophiles justifying exploitative material.
After Uniqueness is filled with similar such forgotten episodes in the history of moving image art. Balsom gives careful histories of media reproducibility, film co-ops and distribution institutions, artists’ editions, and video in transmission. She gives equal play to circulation’s greatest resistors. Markopoulos, once an advocate, came to regard film distribution as “sheer gangsterism,” eventually dedicating his life to the construction of the Temenos, an idealistic site that could permanently and specifically host and screen his works.
Balsom shows that these tensions are still sorting themselves out. Through more recent debacles like Josiah McElheny’s installation The Past Was a Mirage I’d Left Far Behind—featuring uncleared, low-res projections of UbuWeb videos—or the Mousse-affiliated bootleg transmission website vdrome.org, she demonstrates the heightening confusion that the rapid-fire circulative capabilities of the Internet have caused for questions surrounding copyright and moral rights. Accordingly, the book ends on an ambivalent note. Balsom suggests that, given the post-scarcity of the moving image art system, the desire for an original rare work is merely a “dissimulated form of commodity fetishism,” but she’s also quick to point out that this has its advantages in the age of the image-laden, attention-deficit Internet.
Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video by Peter Alilunas is a recent addition to the burgeoning field of porn studies, a media studies back room that took off with Linda Williams’s foundational 1992 study Hard Core and now enjoys its own peer-reviewed journal Porn Studies. Alilunas’s book begins with the task of resuscitating the legacy of ‘80s adult video. As the popular imaginary would have it, the ’70s were adult entertainment’s unquestionable Golden Age—an era of higher public visibility and popularity. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights dramatizes this account: the dreams of sophisticate Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) that porn would one day be fully legitimized are crushed by the advent of video, and he’s soon making schlock in the back seat of a limousine. Scholars are equally guilty, tending to focus on the Big Apple “porno chic” era and jumping ship once adult film leaves the cinema.
Alilunas suggests that, on the contrary, video saved porn. The moral panic, the early ’80s recession, and the worn-off novelty meant a dwindling audience and nose-diving returns. Home video provided newfound privacy and a new audience (including more women, Alilunas says). He also makes a compelling case that porn helped catalyze home video distribution, and that some of the earliest figures, entrepreneurs, and distributors were adult entertainers. Even Blockbuster, the video rental behemoth that eventually overwhelmed its competitors and banished X-rated titles from its stock, had based its business model off Hank Cartwright, a former adult video distributor.
Not unlike After Uniqueness, Smutty Little Movies is at its best a far-reaching history of the moving image industries that developed out of the sight line of cinema. He provides a hearty pre-history of home video rental, beginning with the movie jukebox playing innocuous musical numbers (for instance the Panoram, developed by James Roosevelt, son of Franklin Delano) and moving into the film loop machines that populated dirty bookstores. He pieces together the story of how hotels began to offer pay-per-view through closed-circuit television, how George Atkinson jump-started the rental industry with Technicolor projectors and Sony U-Matics, and how the underground bootlegging economies on the edges of Hollywood began to calcify.
It was industry newsletter Adult Video News (AVN) that began to legitimize porn distribution—Alilunas dedicates a full chapter to its origins and an analysis of its marketing techniques (hint: downplaying the sex, playing up the industry). He goes on to claim that, despite its characterization otherwise, the video era enabled women to have a more pronounced role in production, and details the careers of Ginger Lynn, the adult actress who leveraged a say in the marketing of her videos, and Candida Royalle, a performer-turned-director who pioneered a turn to women-friendly, sex-positive videos. Parallel to adult video’s moves toward respectability was the steadily loudening roar of the culture wars, and the concluding chapters become about the rise of Reaganite cultural conservatism, the Meese Commission, the activities of anti-pornography feminists, and the corporatization of video rental.
In both books, the authors try to free their respective subjects from the silos of “disciplinary study.” Film studies has never completely welcomed hardcore pornography into its ranks, but as Alilunas demonstrates, the history of video could not be told without it. Balsom’s book will undoubtedly prove to be a crucial, accessible skeleton key for understanding the weird world of moving image art circulation—the informal underground economies, the dogmatic film purists, and the conceptual battlefield of the politics of distribution.
Tyler Maxin lives in New York. He does institutional work for New York arts organizations Blank Forms and Electronic Arts Intermix, and is a senior contributor of daily film listings website Screen Slate.