Black and White and Blue
by Tom Ruffles
[ bookreviews ]
It's always nice to see a man enjoy his work, and Dave Thompson clearly enjoyed the hours he must have spent closely analysing his chosen subject, the history of the stag film. He has, in the process, brought to public attention an undeservedly forgotten aspect of cinema. Thompson defines the stag film as an underground explicit sex production that typically lasts about 10 minutes and, in its heyday, often featured enthusiastic amateur or semi-pro (pun intended) performers and certainly basic filmic techniques. He sees its origins as almost simultaneous with the invention of moving pictures and, in its pure form, lasting into the early 1970s, with the release of Deep Throat.
That film is presented as a watershed, after which video, with its glossier production values and industrial processes, killed the stag film. But he does see the stag ethos resurrected in internet porn, which, with its DIY tendencies enabled by the camcorder revolution, is the successor to the classical stag. The book's subtitle is Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR, but perhaps that should be 'the Beginning of the VCR', as the book does not cover the video industry's massive growth and its stalwarts such as John Holmes and the ubiquitous Ron Jeremy.
He shows how exhibition to small groups on an ad-hoc basis, often by entrepreneurs taking the films on the road, gradually gave way to specialised sex cinemas. Stag films co-existed with soft-core films and those slightly harder ones that got away with it, such as I am Curious - Yellow, usually because they were made by Europeans who were considered to be all sex-mad anyway. But he ignores the extent to which pornography was co-opted by the mainstream cinema chains. For example, he covers Mary Millington's early dirty ones, but her softcore films I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight (oddly, they gave out badges for that one) and The Playbirds, which he does not mention, I saw at Streatham ABC. Soft- and hardcore exist in a complex relationship.
Thompson makes a good case for the value of these films but I think he goes too far when he argues that "untainted by such notions as box office or commercial potential, stag films represent the first (and possibly sole) branch of the motion-picture industry that can be described as truly free". This is surely incorrect on two counts: first, these films were driven by their commercial potential, rather than their aesthetic elements, however elevated the director's artistic aspirations; and secondly, it ignores the long tradition of avant-garde and artists' film which, often made on limited resources and with no thought of commercial exploitation, is even freer to reflect a personal vision than most stag films, which have to be made with an eye to their potential audience and profitability. And while he deals with Linda Lovelace's allegations that she was made to participate in Deep Throat under duress, he does not mention alleged Mafia involvement, nor the charge that the profit figures were inflated as a cover for money-laundering.
The story of the underground stag film industry is hazy because it operated in illegal conditions, and Thompson's narrative becomes more confident as he proceeds. Where he is strongest is in tying developments in the films to the social conditions within which they were made, and he was luckily able to interview a few actors, producers and consumers. Unfortunately he is slightly vague on the early film industry and there are a number of errors concerning this period.
One of these, repeated on the back cover, is that Edison's kinetoscope "stumbled into life in 1889." In fact, Edison's assistant, WKL Dickson, who was largely responsible for the invention, worked out the mechanism between 1889 and 1892. Thompson correctly dates its first commercial performance to early 1894, but conveys the impression that the first kinetoscope parlour opened a full five years after the device's invention. Nor were they housed in nickelodeons, as he states. Kinetoscopes were coin operated and each viewing cost a dime. He is confusing kinetoscope parlours with the nickelodeons (showing projected films) that sprang up later, in 1905 and in which the price of admission for an entire programme was indeed a nickel.
Later he refers to an unnamed turn-of-the-century German setup as the first to combine a camera and projector, but the Lumières' Cinématographe did this in 1895. He also repeats the old canard that the Victorians were so repressed sexually that the "furniture's sinful legs" were covered. Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians deals with this myth, and there is plenty of scholarship excavating the Victorians' vigorous sexual interests. The vast quantity of print pornography available at that time suggests that it was not the age of 'innocence' Thompson seems to think.
He simplifies the story of the rise of Hollywood, attributing it directly to an anti-vice campaign in New York. In this scenario the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company was an attempt to prove that the industry could police itself and thereby prevent producers corrupting morals. As a consequence of its heavy-handed treatment of those independents who did not wish to adhere to its regulations, the latter fled from the MPPC's enforcers to southern California. By the time the MPPC was broken up, New York was finished as a filmmaking centre, the centre of gravity firmly established on the west coast. The background research for this section seems have been derived principally from a viewing of Peter Bogdanovich's 1976 film Nickelodeon.
To begin with, the MPPC was not overly concerned with the protection of morals. Its primary concern was more blatantly exposed in its alternative name - the Edison Trust, which existed to allow its members to pool their patents (under Edison's leadership) and create a monopoly, which was duly broken up by anti-trust legislation. While the MPPC's way with those outside the organisation whom it considered to have infringed its patents may have been forceful, there were a number of reasons for the exodus to California, such as the dry sunny conditions that allowed year-round shooting, a landscape more versatile than that afforded by New York or New Jersey, and a legal regime inimical to the prosecution of alleged patent infringers. And in any case, although the bulk of production moved to California, New York remained an important centre for finance.
Closer to home and to the present, it is not correct to say that "as late as the 1970s, business cards affixed to the country's public telephone boxes still offered disciplinary services...". The affixing of cards of any description, disciplinary or otherwise, to phone boxes was illegal under the Post Office Act 1953. Only after the repeal of the Act at the time of the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984 (as a drone in BT's Corporate Relations Department at the time I remember it well) did these advertisements flourish, as they do today. But these errors do not significantly detract from the overall thrust of Thompson's arguments concerning stag films.
That there is a renewed interest in vintage stags is evidenced not just by their popularity on video and DVD, but by the sell out audiences for the Edwardian compilation The Good Old Naughty Days which, complete with naughty nuns and frisky dogs, entertained packed houses on the art house circuit in 2004 and is now available on DVD (as are many of the films discussed in the book). Thompson has given us a stimulating and very readable account of a large number of films which whatever one thinks of them are an important part of our heritage, and which can, as Thompson stresses, and this is not special pleading, teach us much about the mores of the times in which they were made. There is scope for a deeper analysis of adult cinema, but this is an important contribution to the field. An index would have been nice though.