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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Into the Back Room: Modes of Storytelling in Porn

Porn is one of those genres that has a hard time dragging itself into the realm of art--partly because theorists keep creating arcane bullshit arguments for why pornography is definitionally incompatible with artistry. It seems like the majority of people interested in quality have just dismissed porn, leaving it to the normal Joe Bloe(job) (sorry) who doesn't care much about relative quality levels in porn, science fiction, blockbuster movies, food, or anything else for that matter. It's difficult to find a system of connoisseurs when it comes to porn, so there's no one to really draw the quality level upward.

But that's not the only problem. The other issue is the fact that people don't seem to really know what to do with porn artistically. I mean, where do you go with porn? The goal--erotic satisfaction--is so... well... simple. How do you artistically expand upon that while not complicating and subverting the goal?

Remember that article on modes of storytelling that depend upon a single scene or moment or image acting as a catalyst for the brain to generate a whole sequence of other ideas? I think this might be the best way of looking at and understanding the artistic side of porn. Ultimately the question I want to ask here is what can porn do, and what makes it count as art.

To do that, though, let's take a trip back into the more private booths in the depths of the pub. Oh, you didn't know these were here? Come, let's take a look.

This is what we call the Private Dining Room of Academia, where all the more dubious stuff takes place. Note the prints on the wall, they're Edo-era Shunga. And the light fixtures? That's Deco stuff, privately produced. Not sure it was ever seen on the public market. You can see why, obviously. Watch you don't put your eye out on one of them ahaha. Anyway, if the Pub is a metaphor for open discourse and the riotous dialogue between cultures (and trust me, it is, whether I realized this when I first created the setting or not--I'll be writing another column about this later), The Back Room is the place where you can hear the discourse going on in the distance, but you're really alone with your own small bunch of aficionados, enjoying stuff that might actually get you in trouble if you talked about it in the Pub itself. For our purposes, it represents the continued taboo nature of some forms of sexuality in academia, but it could just as easily represent a number of the other hidden sides of culture and academia. It is our Darknet.

Now that we're here, let's take a look at some of the possibilities of porn and narrative, and where we might go artistically with the genre.

Consider my description of how we can build characterization through minor bits of information. What does this tell us about porn characters? Well, it tells us that a lot of porn is full of really bad characterization which is then also poorly acted out. See, we do read porn actors as having characters, and porn movies are often framed in that way. The characterization simply only extends to "Cum Guzzling Sluts!" or whatever. It's a shallow personality based on a porn star archetype, but it's just as much a persona as the movie version of Eragon,1 and about as effective.

Characterization has a lot of possibilities to it, though. I see two potential ways of treating this artistically. One is to take an existing personality and character--what the laity refer to as a "human being"--and use the techniques of documentary film to bring those characters out. This is something I think Abby Winters, in particular, does well by simply putting two people with good chemistry in a bedroom and letting the cameras roll, polishing things afterward with cutting and so on. This mode essentially takes an existing real life sexual persona and makes it accessible artistically to an audience.

This image is a good example of that:

I unfortunately know buggerall about the actual shot and its creator, truecolorvince, since the flickr post isn't something I can access without an account, but we can read a lot of characterization from the body language. Look at the almost defiant pose of the woman on the left, with that bold grin. She's covering herself, but she doesn't seem particularly shy. The woman on the right seems a bit more shy, and there's something very intimate about the way she runs her finger along the small of her companion's back. I think there's definitely a palpable sexual energy to the picture that pushes it, for me, into the realm of the erotic, but it's still a great example of the kind of characterization-made-apparent I'm talking about.

The other method, of course, is to explore a created persona. I think it might be quite a bit more difficult, but a really skilled actor with a good director should be able to pull it off. Mainstream porn simply seems to have a decided dearth of actors and directors willing to experiment with these personas. The difficulty, I think, lies primarily in the disconnect between a sexual characterization and a fully fledged character. Consider the big-budget porn parody Pirates, for example. The big problem with that film 2 is that there is little to no carryover between the two forms of characterization, as far as I could tell. For goodness sake, people do have different ways of having sex, and how people have sex quite often adds nuance to their character. Look at Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for example: every sex scene in that film is also a characterization scene. But it does no good if everyone just has sex in the exact same way.

But I digress.

Except, really, I don't digress that much. Because when you throw a bunch of implied characters in a room together and observe their interactions often what you get is an implied narrative or, if it's placed in a particular context, an implied history.

Check out this image:

I can't find the source for this one, tragically. (It showed up two years ago on the wonderful sexisnottheenemy tumblr, but the owner posted the pic without a source.) Again, though, I think this is an interesting example for this article. There's the body language again, the dingy settings, the way the girl gives you this distant, almost standoffish look while her half-seen companion closes the door... it all adds up to a compelling, ambiguous image. We don't know what exactly is going on here, but it is in that space of unknowing that we can begin to construct our own fantastic suppositions, and from those fantasies comes, of course, erotic stimulation. For me, the creepiness of the image adds to its impact and its mystery and allure.

This is, for me, the most effective proof of my claim that artistry and narrative are not fundamentally at odds with the erotic goals of porn. The fantasies generated by the blank space between the catalytic story element and the craved-for full narrative or characterization result in a much more intimately personal experience. This is a type of artistic storytelling that has little to do with the bigger budget narrative porn productions of today.

Like food, then, 3 pornography shares values and, ultimately, a number of methods with other art forms, and deserves critical analysis. After all, if more critical analysis results in better, nuanced, more effective pornography, we'll all benefit. Because, let's be honest, most people will, at some point or another, look at and use porn. It's basically a staple of human civilization. We demand excellence in so many other areas of our life, why not demand excellence here?

And maybe when we start to look more openly and critically at porn we can step out of the back room and into the rest of the pub. Sex is a wonderful part of the human experience. It seems a shame to relegate it to this smokey, sticky room away from the riotous world of discourse when it has so much to offer.

Welp, getting kicked the fuck off of Blogspot for this one! If this blog still exists in the morning, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations in the space below, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 Remember that movie? No? The books? No? Ugh, nevermind.

2 Ok, ok, one of the big problems. Depending on the reaction to this article, I may do a full breakdown (possibly with the help of some guest writers) on just why Pirates fails to work on a number of levels, erotic, aesthetic, and artistic.

3 Holy crap, I'm building a whole theoretical framework here across the course of seemingly disconnected articles! It's almost like I have a plan for this blog or something! 4

4 But only almost. I'm working these ideas out as I type them, so forward planning is a bit tricky.


  1. I just have to note that if your blog gets removed for this, I might just punch a baby in the throat. In preparation, though, I do hope you have several backups of these.

    I honestly can't think of many good examples, because you just don't come across good porn very often. >_>

  2. We talked about this on google+ before, and I don't really have new insights. I also don't have that much experience with porn, since I can't bear to watch it (I watched Pirates with my girlfriend, but we turned it off halfway in, because we were bored). I do watch some hentai, mostly because the story and characters are actually there, sometimes.
    And I guess you're right. Porn needs intelligent commentators, but no-one is willing, since there's hardly any (vocal) demand for them. For most people, porn is fine as it is, which doesn't really gives anyone incentive to improve, while there is still a lot of room for improvement. And those that improve, don't reach mainstream, because porn isn't seen as a mainstream thing.

  3. Honestly, my recommendation will always be to check out Abby Winters. They don't have strict narratives like a lot of hentai does, even, but it has that fascinating documentary characterization that I talked about. It... really is hard to think of other good examples though. -_-

    Yeah, the biggest barrier here is people's apathy combined with a lack of a real discourse about porn. It might be interesting to compare that to the positive effects that the gamer and comics communities have had on their respective media... [files that away for future reference]

  4. If you do that Pirates article and need another writer or something, lemme know. That sounds like fun tymes.


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