Tagged: Constance Penley

The Smoker: A History of Stag Films at Light Industry, but No Smoking, Please

As I get older, I forget about some of the things I’ve done that not many others have. Case in point: I took two pornographic film classes as part of the my film studies curriculum.

The first was as an undergraduate at UCSB that was taught by Constance Penley, who Rolling Stone called a notorious professor in 1998. By the time I took the class, it had been taught several times and was not the hot-topic around campus as much as it was when it was first offered. Nonetheless, Penley ran the class as an historical survey of pornographic film, no different than any other professor would teach a survey of animation, documentary, or French cinema.

The second class was as graduate student at NYU, although our instructors were a bit sly about the subject matter of the class. They called it Explicitly Independent, insisting that we were studying experimental, independent film that pushed the boundaries of representing sexuality. This class was not meant as a broad survey of explicit film, as my undergraduate class was, but instead was meant to address a number of topics that our instructors were studying.

Both classes made clear a couple of facts about pornographic film:

  1. it has been around a long time: about as long as motion pictures themselves have been around.
  2. more people consume pornography than you think: it’s pretty much close to 100% of film viewers.
  3. a stylistic history of pornography tracks closely to the stylistic history of cinema at large: the golden age of pornographic film is in the 1970s, which is the same decade as the golden age of New Hollywood.

Light Industry is presenting nine short films on Tuesday, February 20, beginning at 7:30 PM: a program they call The Smoker: A Brief History of the Stag Film. The term “smoker” refers to the smoke-filled rooms where men—and only men—would watch sex on film as part of some weird homosocial ritual to prove that each guy wasn’t “a homo.” If you ever wondered what your grandfather did with his buddies at an Elks Lodge meeting on a Saturday night, it was probably watching these films.

As someone who watched a lot of these kinds of films with an audience that isn’t there for sexual gratification, I will tell you will initially feel a bit awkward when you recognize the situation of watching porn while sitting next to strangers.

Light Industry seems to recognize this. They will screen the films silent in the spirit of historically accuracy. It was common for men to hoot-and-holler while these films played, and indeed, Light Industry’s website notes “in the spirit of smokers past, we encourage attendees to provide their own soundtracks.”

I would go a step further and encourage you to provide your own beverage, too. But, remember that this is the twenty-first century: there no smoking during these smokers.

Remembering Chantal Akerman and Her “Feminist Horror” Film

Chantal Akerman, an internationally renown filmmaker who made her first film in the late 1960s, has died in Paris at age 65. Le Monde reports that she committed suicide.

I first learned of Akerman in college in 1997. It was then that I watched one of her films—Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), that changed my life. I’m not exaggerating.

As a newly declared film student at UCSB, I was already watching quite a few films, although most of them were standard commercial, narrative films from a variety of countries and a range of time periods. This film, however, was different. It ran for about three-and-a-half hours, very little happened in terms of story, and most of the film seemed to be shot from the eyeline perspective an adult’s hip.

Jeanne Dielman endlessly preparing food at home

This film is very hard to watch, but that is exactly the point.

I was taking an interdisciplinary course that was equal parts women studies, film studies, and art history and was taught by film studies professor Constance Penley and Abigail Solomon-Godeau from the art history department. The class was a survey of women in art history, and it met twice a week on Monday and Wednesday afternoons for our lecture/discussion period. We also usually convened for two hours on Wednesday evenings for a film screening. One week, Professor Solomon-Godeau warned us that, on this particular Wednesday night, we would be staying late. We would be watching Jeanne Dielman, a film she described as a “feminist horror film.”

This may have been the first time I understood the relationship between content and form, and how a spectator can relate to an onscreen character. Jeanne Dielman is a single mother who spends almost the entire film cooking and cleaning. We watch her wash each dish, one by one, that is more boring to watch than the proverbial drying-of-paint. By showing each of these household chores in real time, or maybe even expanding the duration, we experience Jeanne’s ennui along with her. It is one thing to have a character explain how bleak her life seems as a domestic servant, but it’s quite another to have to endure the never-ending dreariness of household labor.

Akerman’s oeurve was a lot more eclectic than this one feminist film with avant-garde tendencies. She made documentaries, narrative shorts, as well as other narrative features throughout her life. But for a student getting his feet wet studying film, Jeanne Dielman was the first film I saw where it began to make sense.