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A scene from the film "Emile" (Handout)
A scene from the film "Emile" (Handout)

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Erika and Julie and Sarah (and many more) make a porno Add to ...

The film’s opening shot places viewers in the doorway of a dark room, a bed in the corner, a cigarette lit and smoking on a peeling window ledge. In the background, a contemporary mix of strings and techno music begins to hum. And then, suddenly, we see pink lips exhale smoke, a swirl of cream being added to coffee – and close-ups on the faces of masturbating women.

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A half-dozen people are watching all this unspool from a film projector above Toronto’s Good for Her sex shop. But their discussion of this and other pornos on show isn’t what you might expect. One viewer compliments the costumes and makeup. Another lauds the characters who ironically puff on cigars as they hump. And there’s lots of talk about aesthetics. “This is a gorgeous film,” says one woman.

The film-crit talk stems from the fact that these viewers are judges for the seventh annual Feminist Porn Awards. And while there’s no avoiding the sex on film – the trophies handed out for the award this Friday are glass sex toys – it’s not the key criterion. Instead, from their long list of 41 nominees – yes, including titles such as Babes in Bondage 4 – the awards panel is looking for artistic resonance. Porn, yes, but underscored by the hallmarks of traditional dramatic filmmaking: excellence in lighting, set design, cinematography and even dialogue.

It’s quaint in a way. Porn – especially free porn – has become so ubiquitous even the $13-billion business behind it is under threat. And the feminist hand-wringing of the 1990s – can porn exist apart from victimization and objectification? is watching it an act of liberation or submission? – has given way to a culture steeped in the tropes and expectations of pornography.

For better or worse, porn shapes us now. And that, of course, includes women. As the title of these awards suggest, there’s a growing body of porn by and for women. And women are demanding more: not just feminist sex, however that might be defined, but porn as art. As directors such as Canada’s N. Maxwell Lander and Spain’s Erika Lust insist, their films are works of art about sex.

Well, okay, but there remains an invisible, heavy line defining depictions of sex and porn in the public realm. As the judge in the landmark porn Jacobellis v. Ohio case of 1964 famously put it, he might not be able to define porn, but he knew it when he saw it.

That remains true today ... sort of. Here are some examples of what would normally be called “pornographic art:” Electro-pop performer Austra recently released the video for Beat and the Pulse, which features topless dancing women, sometimes giving lap dances to other beautiful women. In Toronto, the new magazine Up & Coming is publishing what editor Mike Feswick says is art that “explores sexual diversity.” (You still have to confirm that you’re 18 or older before accessing the website.) A Tumblr blog dubbed Hipster Porn posts nude and suggestive photos with that faux-vintage photography look. Or look to 2002, when the Tate Britain gallery showcased Turner Prize-nominee Fiona Banner’s Arsewoman in Wonderland – a project that enlarged a transcript from a porn film onto huge billboards in pink ink.

These projects are art because they comment on sexuality, and what turns us on. No matter what you feel when confronted with Arsewoman in Wonderland, it’s the correct feeling. Porn, however, has a defined function – it should get you off.

So if the very nature of porn prevents it from being art, how does “artistic porn” work to overcome this?

Lander’s film Emile relies heavily on lighting and post-production editing to create a gauzy, polished look. There is no plot and the only characters are two girls on a bed, with music suggesting softness.

And Lander, of Toronto, says she never set out to make porn. “It’s an easy way to describe it,” she says. “But it’s an easy way to devalue what’s happening.” What’s happening, for her, is the development of an idea – which includes lighting, casting (she works with specific muses) and music. “I’m kind of making music-video porn, which is an intentional choice,” she explains, although she acknowledges that “everything sounds a bit porny” when people are having sex to it.

Erika Lust also grapples with calling her work art rather than porn – though her films are at the aesthetic forefront of the industry. “I work with a [director of photography] and we watch films to establish the look we’re going for,” she says. The look is clean, fresh – something hard to achieve in porn – and looks like movies you’d see in a theatre.

“It’s difficult to portray sexuality. I’m trying to show more than just the plain image of it. I want to transmit the emotional journey that my characters are on.”

Still, during the screenings for the judges, and afterwards, when a DVD of the nominated films arrives in my mailbox, these arguments about porn as art fade away.

Regardless of feminist or artistic intention, this porn is still porn. Some of it looks like Handycam work. One nominated film, Tristan Taormino’s The Expert Guide to Advanced Anal Sex, is exactly what it’s billed as, with no frills. Sure, the nominated films stand out in their depictions of sex between real couples, people of colour (such as Oakland filmmaker Nenna’s Hella Brown) and transgender men and women. Yes, there are some directors doing beautiful filmmaking about sex. But in the end it’s just that.

And there’s the difference – this is not how you feel when you stand in front of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Porn is formula, maybe 20-per-cent dialogue and setting, 80-per-cent sex. And so dissent comes from those who believe that since it has such obvious form and function, it cannot be art.

“Pornographic art is indeed the oxymoron it appears to be,” argues Jerrold Levinson in his paper, Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures. Levinson, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, believes the aim of porn actually engages in a type of “war” against art: Porn wants the viewer to ignore aesthetics to simply gawk at sex; art fights for aesthetics that focus on sex only partly in relation to those qualities that may or may not turn us on.

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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