At some point along Susie Bright’s fascinating life journey as a pioneering “sex-positive” feminist writer and speaker on the subject of all things sexual, someone at the San Francisco Chronicle referenced one aspect of her career and dubbed her the Pauline Kael of porn.
On the face of it such a description might perhaps scan a little flip or high-concept, but a closer look reveals that the label is actually pretty accurate. Pauline Kael grabbed hold of the subject of movies in a personal, emotional, colloquial way that made the subject her own, at times as much an ongoing autobiography of her relationship with this popular art in attempting to address movies in terms that made them, and the discussion of them, intellectually piquant but always accessible and often more interesting through the vitality of her writing. Kael’s all-encompassing, loose-limbed, masterful style made reading about movies, especially in her collected volumes, seem to reach out and become as much about everything in life that the movies touched, drew upon, addressed and sometimes blithely or clumsily or cynically ignored. In the same way, from her emergence as a cofounder and editor of the first magazine about sex devoted to women, On Our Backs (“Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian!”) in 1984, Susie Bright has taken on male and female sexuality as her great subject with vitality, determination, humor and, yes, an abiding spirit of adventure. The magazine ran for seven years, but Bright hardly stopped there. She has been a guiding voice for much of the significant writing on erotica in this country through the female-oriented erotic literature series Herotica and also the Best American Erotica Series, both of which she founded, and her weekly series In Bed with Susie Bright, distributed through Audible.com, is dedicated to the freewheeling, humor-laced discussion of serious social and sexually related topics. Even those who may not be as familiar with her writing may have been touched by her contributions as credited choreographer and consultant on the Wachowski Brothers Bound, which undoubtedly benefited immensely in the eros department through the wisdom she imparted to Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Why, she even has her own blog!
But most appropriate as applied to our purposes here, Susie Bright also became, in 1986, the first female member of the X-Rated Critics Organization and in the same year began writing feminist movie reviews for Penthouse Forum, a position she held for three years. It’s refreshing to realize just how fruitful, and how important, this unlikely artistic marriage of feminist thinking and Bob Guccione’s pornography empire actually was. Her tenure writing reviews under the banner “The Erotic Screen” and also as “The X-Rated Advisor” established a unique relationship with readers of both genders who were looking for advice and a fresh perspective that went deeper than a simple flaccid or erect dick icon to signify the quality of a given porn film. Bright engaged readers on everything from the “couples” video market, misconceptions about the S&M sub-genre and documentaries on sex workers to explicit how-to videos, erotic foreign cinema and myriad other subjects, establishing in the process her unique voice-- one which took seriously an aspect of popular filmmaking that had never enjoyed much thoughtful consideration even from (especially from) the majority of those who enjoyed it most, all the while never losing sight of the libidinous fun to be had from indulging in both porn’s mainstream and its extremes.
(Notably, Bright recognizes its stature as a cultural watermark but otherwise has no love for Deep Throat-- “Unless you’re assembling a museum, why bother renting, let alone buying, Deep Throat?” she wrote in 1987. “It’s a terrible movie by which to judge your erotic appetite.”)
I first became aware of Susie Bright in the 1995 documentary made from Vito Russo’s groundbreaking history of homosexuality in the cinema, The Celluloid Closet. The movie is a fascinating, flawed take on Russo’s examination of the coded history of representation of gay characters and themes; it presents attitudes in America and the movies toward these characters unflinchingly, with the appropriate sense of condemnatory precision, but its understandable passion sometimes gets in the way of complete fairness. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are not shy about taking scenes from modern films and using them out of context to make their larger point, regardless of whether or not the scene holds up as evidence of intolerance on the part of its filmmakers in its original context. (The use of a scene involving the violent death of a cross-dressing villain in Richard Rush’s Freebie and the Bean from 1973 is a major sticking point, and I wrote about it in more detail here.) But within this sprawling, sometimes difficult history I was immediately attracted to the way Bright, one of the film's frequently referenced talking heads, often comported herself with self-deprecating humor and geniality among the solemn surroundings, and I latched onto the intelligence of her commentary immediately. She seemed to shirk the general heaviness of the film as a whole, regarding its thesis with seriousness but resisting its dirge-inflected sensibility. One sensed there was some room for flexibility, some ambiguity in Bright’s contemplation of the documentary’s concerns, and when the movie finally got around to The Children’s Hour, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play which tells the story of two schoolteachers accused of being lesbians, Bright’s own ambivalence about the story, and her own surprising feelings which are still churned up for her when she sees it, became for me the emotional highlight of the documentary.
I’ve followed her career with interest ever since, so needless to say I was somewhat floored when one day, after the posting of yet another SLIFR quiz, I received a link to a list of answers from Susie Bright. The Susie Bright?, I thought to myself. Is it possible? Then a simple click on the link confirmed that, yes, indeed, Susie Bright had answered an SLIFR quiz!!! I was beyond tickled, and she has been a faithful participant ever since, always publishing the answers on her own blog, raising my spirits and those who read her answers every time she does so.
And as for her own film writing, last year Bright published a terrific volume encompassing her movie reviews for Penthouse, her writing as the X-Rated Advisor, and a slew of excellent and provocative essays and interviews with filmmakers like Christopher Rage, Sharon Mitchell and Russ Meyer, all under the banner Susie Bright’s Erotic Screen Volume 1: 1967-1989—The Golden Hardcore & Shimmering Dyke-Core, and damned if that writer from the San Francisco Chronicle wasn’t right. This immensely entertaining book, which demands in the most seductive way possible that the reader see the golden age of pornography, the video revolution, and the very idea of the social and artistic value of sex on film, through the prism of her warm, probing, critically attentive perspective, reads like Bright’s version of I Lost It at the Movies, Pauline Kael’s seminal first collection of essays. (It’s no stretch to imagine that Kael, whose own books were graced with sexually shaded titles and who frequently demonstrated a healthy and witty interest in the subject herself, would have appreciated Bright’s irreverent and forthright intelligence concerning sex and movies.) I’ve devoured Bright's book twice now— once for fun, once so I could scribble notes all over the margins (It’s okay; I got the e-book and printed it out) and, if you’ll pardon me, I had a ball both times.
I was taking the notes furiously because I knew I wanted to talk to Susie Bright about some of the stuff that the book deals with. While I was doing that I got an e-mail from her wondering, since she enjoys the SLIFR quizzes so much, if I’d be interested in collaborating on a quiz of her own composing that would encompass the history of porn and its sometimes casual, sometimes crucial connection to mainstream Hollywood. The quiz would look at both the depiction of sexual material during porn's classic era (roughly, the early '70s) and examine the players and filmmakers who worked both in porn and in “legitimate” cinema at different points in their careers. I thought it was a great idea, providing of course that Susie exercise her voluminous knowledge of the subject and do all the writing; I would relegate myself to the role of suggestion-maker and eventual publisher of said quiz. And so, six months or so later, life making demands on both of our allotted time as it usually does, we’re finally ready to bestow an honorary doctorate and SLIFR staff status upon this sharp, entertaining writer and unveil Professor Susie Bright’s Brazenly Cinephallic, Unapologetically Vulvacious Porn Movie Quiz. Professor Bright’s quiz works just like the usual SLIFR quiz, but this one may make extra-special demands upon both your movie intelligence and your willingness to step out and get conversant in a public forum with some of your personal responses to the soft-and-hard-core genre. On top of that, Susie is offering something no other quiz has ever offered, and I'm not just talking about the opportunity to indulgence in a fun discussion about erotic movies. Yes, Susie's got prizes! (More on that below.)
As a way of warming you up for this very special quiz and encouraging you to read the book, I submitted 11 questions to Susie Bright, which were inspired by The Golden Hard-Core and the Shimmering Dyke-Core. Considering the depths of knowledge and experience she has to share, this is admittedly the interview equivalent of a quickie, but hopefully it is one which will get you in the mood for the more demanding, but no less tingly academia to follow. (I guess that kind of makes me the SLIFR fluffer, doesn’t it? And what is the female equivalent of one who has this job, by the way? Now, there’s a question I should have asked Susie!)
Dennis Cozzalio: In your view, what is the biggest misconception about porn?
Susie Bright: That it's "all the same." There's far more variety in erotic movies than there's even been in television programming. Also, that porn is separate from the rest of the movie-making business, on its own planet. The cross-over, particularly below the line, behind the camera, is dense.
DC: Is there a classic era for porn in the way that there might be said to be a golden age of Hollywood?
SB: Oh, yes, and it mirrors one of Hollywood's golden ages, the '70s, the Easy Rider-Raging Bull era. The emergence of the "X-rated" title, of sexual liberation, was a creative breakthrough in Hollywood and porn independence. It's impossible to speak of one without the other.
DC: Pauline Kael famously tried to talk her editor into allowing her to review Deep Throat for the New Yorker, with no success. Have you ever “crossed-over” and written about sexuality in mainstream movies?
SB: Oh, sure, all the time. I live-blog the Oscars. I consider it my duty— as well as a lot of fun— to follow big-cinema's love-hate relationship with sex. I feel for Pauline K, one of my heroes. The New Yorker is pretty stuffy. They've only covered my work as a legal plaintiff (ask Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer about what he thinks of my erotica!) -- they aren't keen on analyzing erotic forensics. (Bright was also polled recently by the Criterion Collection for her top 10—DC.)
DC: What makes a porn film great?
SB: It's all the same things as great movies in general: a smoking script, mouth-dropping cinematography, actors that grab you by the throat, movie charisma. With porn, there's this extra "high-wire" aspect to it, the acrobat in fuck instead of in flight. To stay in character, to stay on script, completely believable, while engaged in a tremendous physical effort— it's a rush of its own. That, and a little originality, is what made my years as an early porn critic, exciting.
DC: Critic Howard Hampton wrote that Smoker, made in 1983, is the “one work of authentic pop art in porn’s past” and drew a parallel between that movie and Godard’s Made in U.S.A. Your own writing suggests that porn may have its own standards for what might be considered pop art and that it's possible to approach porn seriously on its own terms, with a mixture of fun, precision and openness to perception. Who’s more resistant to this kind of bridging of sensibilities, film buffs or porn connoisseurs?
SB: I find film buffs and porn connoisseurs are often the same person, as Howard Hampton demonstrates! The people who are resistant are the bean-counters who run the business, whose conservatism and disrespect for their own product is just tragic.
DC: You write about actors Jim-Ed Thompson and Ellen Eddington as the Fred and Ginger of S&M erotica. How else do the parallels between porn and mainstream film extend, beyond parody of popular Hollywood films?
SB: I praised Jim-Ed and Ellen that way because they were so graceful, so effortlessly suave in their demonstration of something that would make most people feel pretty awkward. Robert McCallum, one of the most prolific directors in porn's golden age, was Orson Welles's DP for decades-- his real name was Gary Graver. The man is a genius with a camera in his hands. Who wouldn't want him to shoot sex? That's not a parallel, it's just a case of a great guy working with big budgets and little budgets. An actor like Georgina Spelvin or Jamie Gillis— they are the Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro of their world. Okay, so Spelvin didn't do accents, but she played every kind of character. I would've liked to see Jamie in the upcoming prequel to the Godfather series.
DC: Your piece “Working on the Sex Line” concludes with a question: “I don’t know why the sex industry can’t make a decent film about itself.” Do you still wonder? Or has one emerged since the piece was written?
SB: This is an area where there's been a lot of improvement.. I think there are many movies that are far more authentic and nuanced about sex work than the cliché-monsters we used to laugh over. It's not just movies, either— the performances we see on Cable TV about sex work have been some of the most innovative. A small film I saw recently, Meet the Rileys, wasn't any big whoop-de-do, but it captured a moment that has some poignant realism and refreshing absence of moral judgment. The movie I'd like to see now is something that would directly indict the "rescue industry" and how they exploit sex work worse than anyone else.
DC: What did you think of the Hughes Brothers’ American Pimp?
SB: Well, it was very entertaining. I'm sure no one leaves the room when it's playing. And if you're involved in sex work, you feel like you're having a running argument or "you-go-girl" conversation with its captivating subjects. In fact, anyone in the entertainment industry who relies on an "agent" to do their business will relate to these pimping documentaries. They are the no-B.S. middleman. But the Hughes Bros are not feminists, they aren't queer, and they're religious. They miss a lot of the big picture because of their blind spots. Sex work is multi-ethnic-- there are so many overlapping traditions. The line between straight and gay is irrelevant. There are women running women, women running men, every kind of intermediary is doing their little operation. This is one little piece of it, a little bit of eavesdropping.
DC: There seems to be a concern running through the “X-Rated Video Adviser” columns about availability. As you edited the book, how concerned were you about the fact that, despite the development of the Internet, it might still be difficult to locate some of the films you were talking about?
SB: I'm distraught. Many of these films have been destroyed. The masters were destroyed after the Meese Commission prosecutions, much like silent films were destroyed when talkies superseded them. People just flushed away the "product" like it was worthless. This is a situation where only crazed collectors are going to end up saving a legacy.
DC: Clearly video changed things for porn, making it more a private matter than a public one. How else has the move to video been significant for porn?
SB: It brought in a new era of creators, of artists who hadn't been part of the Rat Pack. It brought in women, it brought in the punks, the outliers, multi-media artists. I think video is directly responsible for the end of the Ratings Board for all intents and purposes. NC-17, or being unrated, is a result of video.
DC: Has porn improved since the X-Rated Video Advisor first appeared in 1987?
SB: Oh my. Let me shed a tear. In many respects, the decline has been significant. Certainly erotic "film," real films, have gone the way of the dodo bird. And the scale of video and Internet porn has made big budget affairs, with all their attendant production values, a thing of the past. What's interesting now in video and streaming live performances is the Wild West nature of it, the inter-activity, the intimacy and rawness of it. It's like performance art gone wild. I'll tell you what has improved though, remarkably in porn-- fetish and props. It's been a geek's paradise in sex movies.
Okay, kids, the wait is over. Time to pick up your #2s and get ready for a real treat, the very first guest appearance by an honest-to-murgatroyd cultural icon writing and hosting a SLIFR quiz. If we had stock to buy and sell, it would most certainly be up at this point, as will be some other things as you dive into the unique interview test that follows. And now, with no further hesitation or interruption, SLIFR is proud to present Professor Susie Bright’s Brazenly Cinephallic, Unapologetically Vulvacious Porn Movie Quiz. Take it away, Susie!
I sit upon a lonely throne in a singular Hall of Fame: The X-Rated Critics, 5th Estate Division.
It is a rather solitary honor, as there are few people who've reviewed and critiqued erotic film ephemera for decades without spontaneous combustion.
Last year, I published the first volume of my vintage porn memoirs: The Erotic Screen. For those of you who love sleepers, high- and low-brow sex in cinema, the glory days of glory holes, I know it is a special treat.
Now it's time for everyone to share.
Behold the digestif —The first Brazenly Cinephallic, Unapologetically Vulvacious Porn Quiz, a game of memory and sweat-soaked splendor that will test your literary and celluoid wits to their limit.
I dare you to get lost in a thousand peep show wet dreams. Give me your HD money shot. Drown in erotic nostalgia— the very best kind.
How to Play
This is a parlour game, for our mutual amusement and edification. There are no "right" answers, just juicy ones.
Feel free to research questions you don't have immediate opinions on— or skip to those you do! It's best to settle into our quiz like a good bedtime story or a drive-in movie night.
There are two ways to publish your replies:
1. On your own blog... send us the link in the Comments section below!
or 2. Write your heart out in the Comments Section below. When you answer the quiz, be sure to copy and paste the questions,along with your answers— so readers will not have to constantly scroll up and down referencing what you're talking about!
I was provoked to compose this quiz by the legendary Dennis "There's Nothing Wrong with That" Cozzalio, master of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule movie blog, who has posted an array of brilliant movie quizzes for years, in this same vein.
As Dennis says: "We value your your honesty but equally so your loquaciousness, your willingness to participate elaborately.Answers are always much more fun to read if they go beyond the simple one or two-word response. Your logorrhea will not be punished here, only your reticence."
Got your blue pencil ready? Everyone who posts answers to at least 20 of my questions will receive a free copy of The Erotic Screen (email me for your freebie, along with the link to your quiz notes or comments!)
1. Match The Quotes with The Writers-- Or Instead, Just Pick Your Favorite:
A. “Sweden: Heaven and Hell was probably the best sexploitation soundtrack ever made, but was anybody listening?”
B. “I prefer theaters in which men strip completely bare-ass in the balcony and slouch down in their chairs with one foot on the chair in front of them, whilst other men crawl up up the balcony steps on all fours, meaningfully.”
C. “Then she says, now dig this she says . . .” and he broke up laughing, a strange rasping laugh for maybe the fourth time since he started what was shaping up to be an interminable story, “. . . she says: “Listen, who do I have to fuck to get OFF this picture??1?” And he began his final light, his boss laugh, the kind that quickly, smoothly, turns into a monstro cough.
D. “No Matter What Kind of Porn Movie You make, the audience must always believe the actors are getting off.”
E. “The East Coast has always lagged far behind in the production of sex films, probably due to the lack of experienced people willing to work in this area, plus not enough free-swinging girls.”
1. William Rotsler,Contemporary Erotic Cinema, 1973
2. Boyd McDonald,Cruising the Movies,1985
3. Terry Southern,Blue Movie,1970
4. Jim Holliday,Only the Best,1986
5. Stewart Ziplow,The Filmmakers Guide to Pornography,1977
2. The First Time You Peered Into a Peep Show— What Did You See?
1. a sequence of pictures viewed through a lens or hole set into a
box, traditionally offered as a public entertainment
2. An erotic or pornographic film or show viewed from a coin-operated booth
3. Jamie Gillis vs. John Leslie ?
4. Your Favorite Genre of Stag Film?
a) Typical Nudist Colony Volleyball Match
b) Candy Barr stripping in Smart Aleck
c) How To Deliver an Enema, a US Navy Production
5. Linda Lovelace BioPic Casting
In the two new Linda Lovelace flicks coming out, several actors have already cycled on and off the casting roles, including Adrian Brody, Demi Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matt Dillon, Mary Louise Parker.
Who would you cast— living or dead, porn star or A-List— to play:
Linda Lovelace’s Mother?
Evil Porn Pimp/Linda’s Old Man?
Secret Linda Lovelace Lesbian Lover?
6. For Perfect Art House Masochism, make your case for the very best:
a) Bunuel: Belle de Jour
b) Bertolucci: Last Tango in Paris
c) McQueen: Shame
7. Name One Classic Element of Swedish Erotica
(Wanna cheat? Go here.)
8. Who's your favorite sex symbol who keeps turning up in the oddest places?
It’s hard to name many actresses like Patti D’Arbanville, below, who has done sex and Hollywood and soap opera with much aplomb— and years without respite.
9. What is Your Porn Star Name?
Mine is "Lady McGee."
Here's how to decipher yours:
Your First Name = Name of First Pet You Remember
Your Last Name = Name of First Street You Lived On
Put it together and you have something legends are made of.
10. What Do The Following Five Films Have in Common?
11. Annette Haven vs. Seka?
13. What is Your Favorite Sex-Drenched Vampire Movie?
14. What Was the First Nude Scene That Made an Impression on You?
Choose a scene from a movie-- not illustration or still photograph.
15. Name Your Most Esteemed Cross-Over Director
Roger Watkins, "Last House on Dead End Street" horror director who worked in XXX as Richard Mahler
Gary Graver, Orson Welle's D.P., who directed in XXX as Robert McCallum
Joyce Snyder, directed XXX "Raw Talent" and horror film "Pledge Night"
16. Who's Your Favorite Cross-Over Star? Pick One Male, One Female Lead
So many casual viewers believe porn and civilian-Hollywood never cross paths, but quite the opposite is true. There are dozens of distinguished cross-over actors, of which I've just selected a few for your difficult decision-making.
Marilyn Chambers, Rabid
Traci Lords, Crybaby
Carol Conners, The Gong Show
Sasha Grey, The Girlfriend Experience
Paul Thomas, Jesus Christ Superstar
Aldo Rey, from G-rated Green Berets to X-rated Sweet Savage
Rocco Sifreddi, Anatomy of Hell
Ron Jeremy, Orgazmo
Spauling Grey, the X-rated Farmer's Daughter
17. What was first and last X-rated movie you saw in movie theater?
18. Who's the Best Male Porn Star Who Played both "Gay" and "Straight"?
Bonus Points: Speculate why all these men were known spectacularly for their penis dimensions, more so than their bisexual roles.
Jack Wrangler, pictured above.
Jeff Stryker (imitating Aldo Ray, come to think of it, in "Stryker Force")
20. Plugz vs. Wall of Voodoo
There are two contenders for Best Song Recorded for an Original XXX Soundtrack.
They are both New Wave classics. Listen and defend your favorite!
Plugz, New Wave Hookers
Wall of Voodoo, Nightdreams
23. What could a sex film director do right this minute to give you an incredible thrill?
Forget ratings and just think your "perfect world."
21. Did You See the following "household name" porn films? In theater or on video, DVD, or streaming? Which is memorable?
Devil In Miss Jones
Behind the Green Door
22. Depending on your mood, what is your favorite or least-loved erotic/porn movie cliché?
My friend Spain says it's the neck scarf that was ubiquitously worn by Swedish Erotica peepshow loop girls.
24. Best post-feminist erotic/porn flick you’ve seen yet?
This could include Candida Royalle, the lesbian videos from Fatale, the Crash Pad series, Tristan Taormino's work for Stagliano and Vivid, SIR Video's Bend Over Boyfriend— or anything you might have seen posted in the Toronto Feminist porn awards.
25. Were there any adult films that you were initially excited about, only to be disappointed with?
26. On a more positive note, did you encounter any films that you went into expecting the worst and walked out being pleasantly surprised?
27. Last One: Who is your Dream Team for the ultimate erotic movie?
(Actors, actresses, directors, writers, composers, etc.)
It took me 25 years to write, index, and video-hyperlink my book The Erotic Screen— a handy reference if you're trying to research this quiz! It took about six months to compose and design this blog post, with Dennis' encouragment. Thank you to all the artists who've been a part of my long strange night at the movie theater! Can't wait to see your replies...