Words

Nick Pinkerton

Tales of Cinema No. 4 – The Porno Restoration

With the proliferation of X-rated internet material, will adult films ever rediscover their artistic side?

Inspired by Miguel Gomes’ tactic of story collecting for Arabian Nights, we set out in search of off-the-beaten-path true tales in the hope of glimpsing the soul of cinema today. These are stories of obsession, accidents, gambles and mortality…


Sex sells – it also comes with a sell by date. The internet pornography era and the public’s inexhaustible appetite to see every variety of the human animal engaged in every possible act of the act of physical love means that thousands upon thousands of new fuck flicks will flood the market every year, sweeping yesterday’s product off of the (now mostly virtual) shelves. But as time marches on, this ceaseless in flux only serves to underline the scarcity of adult films produced before the porno-industrial complex had streamlined its production methods, those films – real, analogue films – which survived offering tender commemoration of sex acts which occurred in faraway, fantastical times, like the Ford administration.

One of the first films commercially distributed by Thomas A Edison, Inc. in 1896 was the 18-second kiss between stage actors May Irwin and John Rice, and ever since, the unblinking lens has borne witness to countless acts of staged intimacy. “Smokers” and stag reels soon proliferated the world over, projected clandestinely in brothels, basements, and lodge meetings. You may get a glimpse at typical examples of the material in a 2002 compilation film assembled by Michel Reilhac, Polissons et Galipettes, comprised of silent pornographic vignettes filmed between the turn of the last century and around 1930. It had a modest boutique release in the English-speaking world under the title The Good Old Naughty Days.

What vintage adult films remain today, however, represent only a fraction of the total produced – in no area of film history outside of the silents is such a small portion of total output made to stand in for the whole. The reasons for this are manifold. Men who owned blue movies were not generally inclined to pass them along to posterity, and many studios who produced adult films during the porn chic era discarded their film holdings en masse during the VHS changeover, disregarding the use-value of these films beyond immediate salacious salability. Certain productions have additional value as film art, even those that don’t possess intrinsic historical interest.

Adult films are beloved of art directors for the glimpses they offer of period interior décor untouched by the hand of a set dresser, and cherished by sexologists as documentaries illustrating how folks – or at least professionals – fucked in bygone years. So what is happening to our dirty movies? Who is minding our world heritage of smut, and assuring that these remembrances of orgasms past will not disappear from this earth?

Legend has it that the pornography collection at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University spans the breadth of the moving image’s lifespan and is second only in size to the holdings at the Vatican. Though the Kinsey Institute have a significant spank bank, the nearest thing to a proper “archive” dedicated solely to the collection of X-rated material is in the possession of The Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS), founded in 1976 in San Francisco by Rev Dr Ted McIlvenna and Laird Sutton, two former Methodist ministers who over the course of a half-century amassed a collection of some 2,000 feature adult films and 20,000 loops, including material they themselves produced. Other American archives, particularly University of California at Los Angeles, have significant adult film holdings, though these are almost never the films singled out for preservation attention.

Dan Streible is a professor of archival research at New York University and the organiser of the Orphan Film Symposium, who in 2010 played a role in restoring a stag reel, The Janitor (circa 1930), from the Kinsey Collection. “Most film archives have pornographic materials in their collections,” Streible tells me, “but they don’t advertise as such, and they don’t put it in their catalogues. They don’t destroy it either, but in terms of expending preservation dollars, it’s rare for these things to be prioritised.”

Long before the digital changeover affected the rest of the industry, adult theatres were already purging themselves of 35mm analogue equipment, and today the porno theatre as an institution barely hangs on, a shadow of its former self. As a young man I was acquainted with the Foxchase 3 in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, DC, which divided its three screens between XXX and second-run art house fare. (I saw The Royal Tenenbaums there with my mother; it was demolished in 2005.) Where adult theatres can still be found at all in the United States, they function as pick-up places for a mostly greying, Grindr-illiterate clientele on the make for same-sex action – this is certainly the case with the Fair in Queens and the Cinema Kings Highway, New York City’s last remaining jack shacks.

The public screening of adult films has today entered its museumification period, though many institutions remain hesitant to touch material which is widely viewed as having been created for the express purpose of stirring tumescence. Here, as in archiving and restoration, one must contend with the board’s conservatism. The programmer of one New York City institution tells me that the only time his higher ups ever vetoed a programming decision was when he tried to play Deep Throat. In more recent years Radley Metzger and Joseph Sarno, both principally known for their softcore efforts, have been honoured with NYC retrospectives, while Anthology Film Archives has hosted a recurring “In the Flesh” series, projecting 35mm prints of thematically grouped hardcore titles. In 2012, the International Film Festival Rotterdam played an 18-film tribute to the transgressive sex-death cinema of São Paulo’s ‘Boca do Lixo’ – the name translates as ‘Mouth of Garbage,’ and refers to a grotty, working-class neighbourhood in the centre city roughly equivalent to Times Square – including fresh 35mm prints struck by the Cinemateca Brasileira.

“Over 10,000 hardcore features were produced during the theatrical heyday of adult movies.”

Even in stuffy, Quaker Philadelphia there have been changes afoot – in 2014 the city’s International House hosted a “Cinema of the Sexual Revolution” program which included some of the so-called “pattern films” produced by McIlvenna and Sutton under the auspices of the Multi-Media Resource Centre (MMRC), sex-positive shorts recruiting the services of avant garde filmmakers like Constance Beeson, James Broughton and Barbara Hammer. “Sex in San Francisco” at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts focused on home-grown material from the late ’60s and early ’70s, including 1968’s Meat Rack, the sole directorial outing of Michael Thomas, the former Strand Theatre owner and Strand Releasing founder.

Los Angeles’ Cinefamily has proven friendly to adult films, as has the Brooklyn-based microcinema Light Industry, whose catholic programming includes Underground, exploitation, and gallery-world work, and who have dabbled in X-rated material — MMRC shorts, Meat Rack, and a recent program by filmmakers Gabriel Abrantes, Alexander Carver, Benjamin Crotty and Daniel Schmidt, tracking the trajectory of queer imagery from Jean Genet and Kenneth Anger to the “bourgeois lifestyle fetishism” of a 2014 gay porno called Kiss•Hug•Fuck•Love.

An invaluable resource for information pertaining to all of the above, and a mover and a shaker in more than one of these series, is Joe Rubin. Co-founder of the digital restoration lab OCN Digital, since 2012 Rubin and his partner Ryan Emerson have run a home video company called Vinegar Syndrome, named after the telltale stench emitted by celluloid that has begun the process of irretrievable decay. While preparing this piece I spoke to Rubin, a serious proselytiser for adult film, who eschews the term “pornography” because he feels that it “pre-supposes the intent of the creator,” and puts a premium on restoring the original visual texture to the films that he works with, so to encourage their re-evaluation as works of art rather than mere vehicles for the delivery of filmed sex.

An inveterate collector with an ever-growing collection of holdings to choose from in his Bridgeport, Connecticut facility, Rubin estimates that over 10,000 hardcore features were produced during the theatrical exhibition heyday of adult movies, between the late ’60s and the beginning of the ’90s. The process whereby he decides which among these films are worthy of resuscitation is a compromise between commercial considerations and personal passion, what he calls striking a balance between “average movies that I’m pretty sure will make money” and “movies that I think are interesting, important, or worthy.” In the former category he places the films of the prolific Carlos Tobalina, like Champagne Orgy, in the latter, releases like Bob Chinn’s Prisoner of Paradise – described as “an ambitious Nazi-themed action period piece that feels like a regular exploitation film that just happens to be hardcore” – or the double-feature of Baby Rosemary and Hot Lunch, two excursions into XXX by the prolific horror director John Hayes.

Other boutique Blu-ray labels like the Euro-centric Severin, Synapse (through their Impulse line), After Hours and Blue Archives have released adult movies sourced from film materials, while labels like Gourmet Video, VCA, VCX, and Caballero, focusing on the “Golden Age” of porn, tend to work from 1” video sources. Aside from Vinegar Syndrome, Distribipix are the only company who’ve been so single-minded in their dedication to home video releases of X-rated material taken from original film sources. Founded in 1965 by partners Arthur Morowitz and Howard Farber, Distribpix, Inc were a prolific producer of original material for the adult circuit, distributing films by Metzger and Sarno and featuring stars like Annie Sprinkle.

Unusual among their contemporaries, Distribpix, who never moved shop from New York, retained the negatives of their own films as well as the Sam Lake Enterprises catalogue, and under the ownership of Arthur’s son, Steven Morowitz, they’ve continued to add to their library. Steven, who prefers the term “erotically-charged films,” took on the administration of an archive of “thousands of elements, hundreds of films” at the end of the wholesale DVD boom times in the early ’00s, but today concentrates on “quality and limited runs,” giving what he called “Criterion-type treatment to Inside Jennifer Welles,” boasting of single-minded devotion to each release resulting in “60-page liner notebooks, two pounds when they ship, they’re big, they’re gorgeous, every part of it reeks of soul and love.”

Morowitz, a one-man industry who says he runs Distribpix “like a deli,” along with Vinegar Syndrome, represent a hardcore of hardcore, dedicated to ensuring the preservation of America’s adult film heritage. Abroad, parallel efforts are made: Rubin speaks highly of the Danish Film Institute’s willingness to celebrate their nation’s history as adult film pioneers, the first country in the world to legalise pornography. Alpha France, founded in France in 1969, would appear to occupy a position roughly analogous to that of Distribpix in the US, making available high quality versions of their own archive titles. Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest movie studio, are as willing to celebrate their Roman Porno and “pinku eiga” output of the 1970s as any of their more traditionally prestigious accomplishments.

More often, however, adult films languish in neglect, fitting Streible’s definition of an Orphan Film: “a literally abandoned piece that has wound up in an archive with no one acting in its interests… virtually anything that’s outside the commercial mainstream whose copyright owners are either unknown or absent.” And in this vast ocean of neglected, largely unexplored material, there may yet be untold treasures – so do keep an eye out when clearing grandpa’s attic.

Published 30 Apr 2016

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