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From: Tim Evanson <tevanson@erols.com>
Subject: Daniel Harris' critique of porn in "Rise and Fall of Gay Culture
Date: Tue, 03 Jun 97 21:28:16
Organization: DIGEX, Inc.

Hi...

Here's a review of a chapter in Daniel Harris' new book, "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture." Overall, I found the book absolutely not worth buying. Harris is a journalist who whines. Yes, whines. He has almost no evidence to back up his lurid assertions. In fact, I found myself thinking, "He routinely assumes that because he's a middle-aged gay man who has accepted himself, he thinks all of gay culture should reflect his values." Totally worthless book.

I bought the book only because I'm heavy into gay cultural studies, and it had a chapter on gay porn, so..... But I don't suggest that anyone elsebuy it, unless you're willing to blow $24.95.

See ya...

Tim #1

Daniel Harris. "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture." New York: Hyperion Press, 1997.

Harris' thesis is that gay culture is sick. No, I'm not making this up. In the introduction, Harris writes of gay literature in the 1980s and 1990s: "The gay community seemed hopelessly mired in an emotionally stagnant state of euhporia, forever fixated on a single moment, the admittedly triumphant occasion of coming out, an event these writers were doomed to relive over and over again ad infinitum, digging themselves deeper and deeper into the same yawning intellectual rut." I find this wholly contradictory: He calls coming out "triumphant" and than slams people for celebrating it. I wonder if he would be so harsh when people celebrate other important events in their life, such as marriage or holidays. Would Harris castigate Americans for celebrating the 4th of July holiday? Would he hurl such insults at the French for loving Bastille Day? Probably not. Yet, he heaps bile on gays for celebrating an important rite of passage in gay lives.

The reason Harris carries such invective for gay culture's social institutions is rooted, I think, in his failure to recognize that just because he, Harris, has become middle-aged and coming out isn't so important to him any more, that doesn't mean that gay culture has to make it less important as well. Harris has grown up; what's important in his life today isn't the same as what was important to him at age 13 or 18. But Harris refuses to make the distinction between what's going on in HIS life withthe needs of gay culture. He writes, accusingly: "[Gay culture] has provided [gays] with nothing more than the ... equivalent of a warm glow, a soothing .... salve for the walking wounded, as if we were all still 13 and were all still mustering the courage to come out, as if, after 25 years of gay liberation, we all still needed to be scolded and cajoled into self-acception." This callous statement refuses to admit that social forces of hate and guilt-imposition still afflict millions of gay and lesbian people. Harris refuses to acknowledge that the cultural "hype" he so despies and characterizes as "a warm glow...[a] salve for the walking wounded..scold[ing] and cajol[ing]..." may be necessary to give the closeted individual the hope and strength to come out. Harris goes even further, calling gays "Stalinists" who have undermined gay literature and art.

Harris bases his book on this critique. Harris explores the shifts in meaning in drag, diva worship, presentation of the self in personal ads,gay porn (fiction and films), gay newspapers, and presentations of the gay body. Essentially, Harris claims the following:

  • Drag has changed from being playful to gender-fucking.
  • Diva worship has gone from love to ridicule.
  • Personal ads have become less romantic and more explicit, empty of "soul."
  • Porn has become soulless and plastic.
  • Gay newspapers have become less conservative and more radical.
  • Gay body presentations (tatoos and piercing) have become less butch and

    are are now just effeminate "decorate."

  • Leathermen are no longer sadists but "macrobiotic neopagans". Harris complains that gay culture has, as well, marginalized minorities. He further claims that materialism/consumerism has destroyed the "artsy faggot" and the "mannered wit" of homosexuals, and replaced them with soulless, plastic, unfeeling homosexuals.

I find all this highly contradictory. Harris seems to adores 70s gay culture, but then castigates it for being self-loathing. Indeed, Harris actually lauds sadism in 70s leather culture and conservatism in 70s gay press! In fact, I think Harris fundamentally misconceives the role, nature, and causes of drag, diva worship, and leather. For example, observers of gay culture almost uniformly see drag (and camp) as a way to gender-fuck, as a way of subverting heterosexist norms of gender and masculinity. Harris seems wholly uncognizant of this understanding, and is "shocked, SHOCKED mind you" (to quote Prefect Louis in "Casablanca") to find that drag gender-fucks today.

In fact, I think that Harris confuses the "death of gay culture" as unique, when in fact this is NOT unique to gay culture but in fact is a normal result of mainstreaming and assimilation. Harris seems to have a romantic, normative view of 70s gay culture and is dismissive of anything that's come since. While reading his book, I kept hearing his "voice" as that of an old, disgruntled, withered, bitter Grandfather, wheezing, "When I was a boy, sonny, I had to walk to school six miles every day through 10 feet of snow, uphill both ways..."

The chapter on gay porn film/video is titled "The Evolution of Gay Pornography: Film."

Harris begins his essay on gay porn movies by examining the state of gay visual pornography as typified by Athletic Model Guild and underground stag films. Harris decries the lack of frontal nudity in these images as an imposition of a culture of guilt on gay men's psyches. He writes of the lack of hugging in such films, "Embracing is rarely permitted as an expression of affection, let alone of desire, but is allowed only in the form of mindless agression or if one of the actors is defenseless, immobile, unable to reciprocated, paralyzed as a living statue or as a semiconscious accident victim languishing helplessly after a close brush with death." Harris totally dismisses the legal atmosphere, the arrests, the public hatred which confronted gays in that age. Although he mentions it, Harris ignores it in practice. He does not mention the obscenity convictions, arrests, harassment, and other acts which meant that pornographers HAD to eliminate the homosexual content from their images. Harris also, I think, makes the critical mistake of calling 50s and 60s style gay sex films "erotica," as if it could be distinguished from pornography. Since I see no difference, Harris' analysis remains fundamentally flawed.

Harris complains that the early 70s saw the move to plot-driven porn movies as a "...practical response to the pitfalls of explicit sex acts, which were liable to incur the wrath of vigilant censors unless directors carefully padded their films with a perfunctory quotient of socially and artistically 'redeeming' material." I think this is sheer nonsense; most attempts to convict gay pornographers on obscenity charges or otherwise harass them seriously had ceased by the early 1970s (see John Burger's timeline in "One-Handed Histories"). Harris is also wrong when he claims that most 70s gay porn films were not plot-driven. In fact, my experience (and the research presented by Burger) is that most obscene films HAD plot; it was the the crappy films that did not.

Harris, however, does not find the movement toward plot very positive. He can't find a single good thing to say about the movement towards plot! He claims that plot was misguided; most gay pornographers, he asserts without any evidence, assumed that "...the audience would become more excited ifthe sex scenes were staggered throughout the movie ... as a form of striptease". He even claims this is DELIBERATE. But he offers no evidence, no interviews, and no logic behind his claim. In fact, from the interviewsI HAVE read, Harris' claim is absolute nonsense.

Harris then makes several claims about the role of plot in 70s gay porn that I find ludicrous. For example, he asserts that the use of significant use of plot in gay porn became less common in the mid-1980s and 1990s. He claims that this is because an increasingly educated consumerate forced directors to make plot less important in gay porn; it was more of a "decorative border" than anything else. Of course, I can't help but think, "What the fuck is he talking about? EDUCATED consumers???" Hell, we don't have that even TODAY!

Harris goes on to make further ridiculous claims about gay porn. He asserts that 70s films are "humorless". He only cites one gay porn film as support for his claim, Catalina's "Secret Sex." But I think that any reader/poster to RAME will undoubtedly know that there is probably MORE humor in 70s gay porn than in 80s or 90s gay porn.

Harris then claims that modern gay porn is in fact "antiheroic." Unlike70s porn films in which the plot followed one main character (who fucked in every scene), 80s and 90s porn refuses to focus on "...one charismatic personality..." That role "...has now been fragmented into dozens of bit parts and breif walk-ons." Harris completes his claim by arguing that 90s porn is devoid of leading men. I again find his claims shockingly ignorant of the history of gay porn. Almost anyone conversant with porn's history knows full well, that gay porn superstars arose in the 80s, not the 70s! Indeed, in the 90s, isn't gay porn SOLELY about superstars--Ryan Idol, Ty Fox, Joey Stefano, Jeff Stryker? 70s porn was about unnamed, personality-less gay men fucking on screen. 80s porn saw the development of the superstar with Jeff Stryker. And in the 90s, gay porn has continuedto push "exclusive stars." In addition, I find that Harris contradicts himself. I mean--didn't he just lambaste the 70s??? Yet, now he's lauding them for having "heroes" in gay porn! Which is it--good or bad? Since Harris never resolves the contradiction, I find his argument impossible to accept.

Harris then claims that video has had a destructive effect on porn. He notes that since any consumer can fast-forward past plot if he gets bored (and leap right to the "good parts"), plot has become even further marginalized in the 80s and 90s. Uh....didn't he just claim that plot became HEAVIER then? And what are we to make of his plea for less plot (like in the 70s)?

Harris continues to castigate 70s porn, however. And I continue to findhis assessments appalling. For example, he claims that poor cinematic techniques and the tendency of 70s actors to have long hair both conspire to hide the genitals of porn stars from view. He continues, arguing that 70s stars' furry assholes hid the sphincter itself from view. There was little or not VISIBILITY of the sexual orgasn, Harris whines, and thus 70s gay porn actually INCREASED the guilt gay men felt about their sexuality. He claims that 70s porn's worst sin was that it wasn't liberating, but rather clamped the manacles of self-hate tighter.

I think that's total crapola. Although a larger percentage of films in the 70s were cinematically inferior than today, actually most 70s porn films were NOT like Harris describes. Long hair was common, but it was also pushed out of the way (usually behind the ears when the sucker is leaning over the man he's blowing, and it's not a concern when he's kneeling in front). In fact, I can't think of one scene in the 70s porn I've seen where long hair was a problem! When it comes to furry asses, my assessment is that consumers DEMANDED the furry ass; naturalism was in!

Harris continues to use his claim of "murky film-making" to assert that 70s porn had a "funereal gloom," and that this was largely due to the technical incompetence of the film-makers. Harris' claim is simply a matter of taste. I hardly find 70s porn "funereal"; the sometime-murkiness makes it feel more like real life. It also happened to create a greater desire for the glimpses of cock, balls, and ass that we did get. As for the supposed incompetence of the film-makers, I think Harris couldn't be further fromthe truth. It's commonly understood that the use of FILM (versus video) didnot mean incompetence. Rather, film fostered EXPERTISE! After all, "Golden Age" films (and I DO mean "film") are considered masterpieces of sensuality--not guilt-inducing ego-destroyers.

Harris even goes to far as to claim that the "gloom" in 70s porn createda "decadent" atmosphere that only served to point up the "sick" nature of homosexuality. I find this in total contradiciton with the claims Harris makes that 70s porn liberated gay men from the horrors of 50s gay porn. Harris claims that 70s films' gloom also reflected the "trips" commonly seen positively in the drug culture; that the films' gloom hid gay sex, and thus showed acceptance of the moralism of hets who hated gay sex; and tended to show gay characters as always high, and thus unable to confront their sexuality.

I think Harris is a loon. Yes, gay porn in the 70s tended to show drug use. But it wasn't because gay porn directors hated gay sex--it was the TIMES! It was common for EVERYONE in the early 70s to do drugs. What sort of a-historical nonsense has Harris spouted here? Indeed, Harris claims that gay porn actually put down gay sex. But it was PORN! It ACCEPTED gay sex! It showed gay men having intercourse for the FIRST TIME. While not perfect, it was a FAR cry from the disastrously campy and cloaked gay culture of the 60s and 50s.

Harris makes a host of similar, ludicrous claims:

  • He cites the 70s gay porn film "Destroying Angel" as proof of his claims. But this is a film no one ever saw or heard of! *I* certainly have never seen reference to it. Burger doesn't even mention it in his book,and he's excellent when it comes to 70s gay porn.
  • Harris claims that the murkiness, off-color film, and odd camera angles and fuzzy focus of gay porn in the 70s showed that gay sex could only occur in a demonic, otherworldly, infernal realm. Thus, gay porn is seen as "bad" in such films. I don't believe that for a MINUTE! And in fact, Falcon's loops (which were extremely popular) were usually set out of doors! And did Harris forget that he lauds the sadistic aspects of 70s leather culture? Small wonder, then, that Fred Halsted and Christopher Rage would set their porn films in dark, dank, sleazy settings.
  • Harris claims that the darkness in gay porn in the 70s createda "sense of shame"; he cites "Kansas City Trucking Co." as "...a fantasy in which headless truckers, tormented by unnatural lusts, lunge at the protagonist's defenseless body with an air of starving desperation." But that is a gay sex CLASSIC! What the HELL is he on--or watching?? "Kansas City Trucking Co." is almost universally seen as one of the high points of gay sexuality.

Harris' nonsense also includes claims that "neogothic" gay films appealed to internalized guilt, imposed a sense of moral turpitude, and reinforced image of gays as decadent and degenerate. He claims that the brilliantly lit porn films of the 90s are clinical, and thus free of guilt. He asserts that sex scenes in the 80s were "chopped up" by "heavy editing" which "scrambled [them] into a sort of cubist collage. Well into the 1980s, the viewer was presented, not with intact bodies that we are allowed to examine in their entirety, but with a mosaic of details. ... a garbled patchwork of incoherent blowups stitched together in such a way that the viewer cannot even determine which cock belongs to which charcter. ... The medleys of body parts in early gay pornography were not simply a result of the director's ineptitude but were the conseuquence of his conviction that an endless succession of rapid jump cuts and tumultuous sequences of blurry, dismembered shapes contributed something irresistibly erotic to the sex scenes."

I wonder if Harris knows anything about film theory. It really sounds as if he's describing 90s porn, not 70s porn! 70s and 80s porn focused on quick editing to ENHANCE eroticism (in accord with classic film theory, which dictates quicker editing to heighten tension); 90s porn is usually criticized as "boring" because it does NOT feature quick editing. 70s and 80s porn also was not full of "blowups" which created "incoherent...garbled patchworks". Full-body framing was FAR more prominent in 70s and 80s porn than 90s porn. Jesus, what the fuck was Harris watching????

Harris castigates 70s gay porn for its "mysticism" which eliminated individuality. This is part and parcel of his insistence that gays have become homogenized (his term, not mine). He writes of 70s porn:

"Pornographers believe they were filming two people, not in the act of fucking, but of merging, of coalescing, a process that involved the dissolution of their separate physical identities as they melted together, losing their definition as individuals. Sex was supposed to effect a muystical union of two lovers whose spiritual integration in the heat of passion was represented aesthetically by actively confusing their bodies, carving them up into small pieces, and then grafting them back together in intricate visual puzzles. Much as obsessive closeups were based on an extremely literal notion that the proximity of the lens to the body brought the viewer closer to the scene, so these erotic collages, which often spoil the films of the 1970s, were based on the literal notion that erasing clear visual demarcations between two bodies allowed the audience to relive the sweaty exhilaration of actors melding into one."

Is he describing 90s porn--which is 100% guilty of these sins--or 708s porn? Harris CLEARLY has no clue about 70s porn, or about 80s/90s porn. I wonder how extensive his experience with gay porn really is, after such hilariously loony assertions such as this. After all, this entire chapter is almost totally devoid of any evidence, or any claim to have surveyed porn, or any claim to having ANY experience with gay porn. It's as if we have to accept his claims SIMPLY because he is gay. Huh? I literally burst out laughing at this claim of Harris' when I read it in a conference at work. It's that funny to me. It is TOTALLY inaccurate about 70s porn.

What caused all this horrible self-loathing in 70s gay porn? Harris claims that the fragmentation of 70s film technique (all these extreme close-ups, heavy editing, etc.) was a product of the nasty, dirty, filthy context in which they were watched--theaters. He even claims that porn in the 70s was supposed to be a sort of sexual Muzak, fit not for watching but only for fucking to, for heightening arousal so gay men could screw in porn theaters. This is sheer nonsense. (Hell, in the book "Policing Public Sex", a whole chapter is devoted to NYC Public Health Department reports which showed that most porn theaters were not full of sex; the DPH found sex only 10% of the time.)

I think that's also crap, since most directors had NO SUCH SETTING IN MIND when they did their films. I don't think Arthur Bressan, William Higgins, and John Travis were sitting around thinking, "Gee, this will be seen ina theater, so I might as well make a crappy film since no one will pay attention to it." Harris claims that various kinds of sex were conflated together--few seconds of kissing, a few seconds of fucking, few seconds of sucking, few seconds of kissing again...they were edited together without rhyme or reason. It was all out of linear order, Harris claims. If so--I never saw this in gay porn!

Harris argues that the increased emphasis on plot in 80s video meant a director had to cater to the undivided attention of the viewer. If the viewer got bored, he'd fast-forward. So, plot became EXTRANEOUS during the 90s. Maybe. But probably of more importance is the LONG TERM trend away from plot from the 70s through the 90s. This trend is well documented in Burger's book, but Harris has porn moving from no plot to heavy plot to minimum plot again. I don't see it. Neither has anyone else who's surveyed gay porn.

Harris continues by arguing that 70s porn estranged the viewer with an abscence of sound and/or the use of dubbed sound. He claims that synchronized sound was prohibitively expensive, and that's why it wasn't used. Of course, many consumers today feel that BAD DIALOGUE estranges the viewer even worse than dubbed dialogue or sound! Harris also ignores the example of Kristen Bjron, who is VERY popular and hardly estranges people--and yet he uses dubbed sound! Indeed, when Harris claims that synch-sound was expensive, I think he gets it wrong again. From the interviews with 70s directors in "Manshots," I don't get the impression that synch-sound was too expensive. Rather, no one KNEW HOW to do sound, because it took a lot of technical skill to match soundtrack to film.

Harris then argues that 70s film romanticizes sex so that porn films resemble New Age exercises more than sex. HUH?????????????????????????? What the fuck was Harris watching? He contradicts himself badly, too--"Kansas City Trucking Co." is alternately "murky and gloomy and funereal" and then "New Age sweetness and light and fluff." Oh sure, yeah, I saw that too... :/

Harris moves on to a critique of 90s porn last. He argues that 90s porn shows how normal, dull, average, and idiotic porn really is when compared to real life. No argument there. But then he claims that sets in 70s porn were irrelevant because of their murkiness. Nonsense, I say. Setting was OBVIOUSLY important to Halsted, Rage, and Falcon. Harris then claims that sets and backgrounds in 90s porn are sterile and obtrusive. Obtrusive yes; sterile, no. Although The hyper-wealthy mansions most porn is set in are intrusive and unrealistic, I don't find them sterile. Sterile sets would NOT intrude.

Fundamentally, Harris is wrong because he mischaracterizes 70s and 80s porn. He writes, "By the 1980s, however, pornography became less and less a seller's market in which any amateur who dabbled in film could hawk his dingy and defective products to buyers willing to settle for whatever they could find in the stores." Of course, no selling went on because most of 80s porn was still shot on film and film was not sold that much. Of course, if 80s porn HAD been sold in stores, then this would contradict Harris' claim that porn was a communal experience in theaters, as he did above.

Harris claims that this sterility extends even to raunch, which is highly sanitized. He cites the 90s film "The Trip to Hopeful," where a "dirty" tearoom floor is really just paint splatters on a poorly constructed set. That may be true. But I doubt anyone at Shotgun Productions, or Pig Play, would agree. They'd say that their fisting clubs are REAL, and really what they seem to be. And I have to ask: What about those videos filmed in real clubs (such as The Zone, or other sex clubs)? THEY are real. Where's the sterility, the sanitization?

Harris finally begins to get down to his claim that gay porn--like gay culture--is dying. He claims that gay porn has spawned a new gay archetype that is now truly gay: The yuppie. He cites the film "Two Handsfull 2", which shows only rich, upper-class, cultured yuppies. Masculine models of yore, Harris says, were het models built on het gender roles, and their use in gay culture and gay porn showed self-hatred. Of course, Harris neglects to say that these masculine models were use to show REJECTION of hets' stereotpye of gay men as "poofters" and "pansies" and "effeminate." Harris also neglects to note that the new archetype is roundly REJECTED by most viewers of 90s gay porn.

Harris finally claims that this new archetype permits consumerism to affect gays with a force never before seen, since the yuppie is inherently materialistic. I, of course, find this crap, since the yuppie model is NOT accepted by most consumers of gay porn. Harris claims that as porn became better lit and more clinical, it brought an obsession with the ultimate body. Yet, he provides NO evidence or reasoning why this should be so.

Harris claims that Joey Stefano is the perfect of this "ultimate fitness" ideal. Of course, that's crap--Stefano was not gym-bot! And just to show how little Harris knows about gay porn: He misspells Joey Stefano's name here!!!

Harris concludes by claiming that gays have adopted a culture of looksism. I have no problem with that. BUT: Where did this looksist culture come from? Indeed, didn't the WHOLE SOCIETY become looksist? If so, then why is looksism a problem SOLELY of gay culture? Harris continues by claiming that lookist porn stars are largely ornamental; he claims that porn never shows horizontal sex any more for that would obscure this ornamental body.

But, again, I find that this contradicts what he said above, where he claims that the abstract representation of gay sexuality and gay men was true of 70s porn, not of 90s porn. Harris also claims that 90s porn is too clinical; the focus on fucking means that the actors almost pull away from each other, as if they hated one another. But, gee, which is it: 70s porn or 90s porn that is self-loathing? But gosh, didn't Harris just say that 90s porn created a truly gay image which SHED the self-hate of 70s porn? Gee, which is better?--70s, or 80s, or 90s porn? One of them HAS to be better, or Harris' core argument (that gay culture ROSE and then FELL), is shattered! While Harris nails dead-on the problems of "plastic looks" in 90s porn, he fails to provide any explanation of wherethis looksism comes from.

Harris provides a sort of epilogue to the chapter, which addresses AIDS. Harris claims AIDS has led only to celibacy and mutual JO. That, demonstrably, is total and sheer nonsense. Yes, some men have become so cramped in their sexuality. But Harris obviously is addressing that tiny minority--not the MAJORITY which makes up and rules gay culture. Harris ends this epilogue by claiming that 90s porn forces us to be judgmental and critical of one another since we only want bodily perfection. While I may agree that gay culture is too demanding and judgmental, I disagree that this is coming from gay porn. ALL of American culture is suffering from the same trend, and I can't see how gay porn is the sole source.

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