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Blue Artichoke Films
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SMART NEW BOOK ON FEMALE-MADE PORN JUST RELEASED

December 4, 2012

The groundswell of recent public interest in genuine female sexuality, and in alternative ways of showing and talking about sex, makes me deeply and giddily happy. I’m extremely proud to be a part of it.

 

But funnily enough, until now there has not yet been a single proper book about it. Berkeley professor Linda William’s seminal academic tome “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible” (1999) was an absolute must-read for me and for my fellow female filmmakers who were looking for a roadmap to understanding what we loved about porn and how to maybe even make it better. But, firstly, the only progressive female filmmaker Williams could discuss was Candida Royalle, because, well, that’s all there was back in 1999  — at least when it came to not-exclusively-lesbian porn. And secondly:  Jeez, you’ve gotta have your reading glasses on when you sit down to Williams’s book. Film theory terms like “diegesis” and “narrative integration” make it more an academic textbook than a pleasant diversion you can easily recommend to your best friend when you want to show her that porn can be progressive and feminist as well as fun.

 

So it’s a big relief to finally see a thoughtful, easy-to-read discussion of the newest movement in pornography . Linda Williams came on the scene just in time to mark the very beginning of the movement; Anne Sabo’s “After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography and Why It Really Matters” (2012) comes on the scene just as the movement is establishing credibility, variety, and cultural clout. Sabo’s book is, finally, a well-researched and multifaceted exploration of what I hope will be a historic moment in the history of cinema.

 

Sabo herself (Norway/USA) is a gender studies academic with a sincere interest in porn and the knowledge to back it up. I was particularly impressed that she was invited by the Norwegian Media Authority (a ratings body like the Motion Picture Association of America) to educate them about pornography, given that at that time in 2005 porn was still considered “offensive” and thus illegal under Norwegian law. On the basis of a single half-day workshop she gave them, they actually CHANGED their national regulations such that many types of progressive porn are now legal in Norway. Holy crap, that must have been quite a workshop!

 

But anyway, back to her book. Sabo’s choice of filmmakers to focus on in “After Pornified” is pleasantly surprising. She interviews world-famous figures like Candida Royalle and Tristan Taormino alongside filmmakers who have achieved acclaim in their own countries but who are still well-kept secrets elsewhere, like Murielle Scherre (Belgium) and Sophie Bramly (France). Also appealing is Sabo’s mix of traditions: While all of these filmmakers are making purposefully arousing films, some women come from an unapologetic porn tradition (like Anna Span), some from a political/activist tradition (the Swedish “Dirty Diaries” feminist project) and some from the artfilm world (Eva Midgley).

 

A few of the things I especially appreciate about Sabo’s approach:

 

1. She’s thoughtful about the issue of terminology: Are these new films best called “porn”? “Porn for women”? “Alternative pornography”? “Explicit erotic film”? “Adult cinema”? She points out that each of us filmmakers chooses our own terms, but that other factors (like distribution access) play a big role. She also points out that porn critics like Gail Dines carefully circumscribe their definitions of the term “pornography” so that only the most degrading (and sometimes illegal) porn examples are under discussion, pushing to the side huge volume of not only regulated mainstream pornography but also, more importantly, pushing aide the growing body of female-made progressive and feminist pornography that Sabo is highlighting here.

2. When evaluating the relative “progressiveness” of these works, not only does Sabo explore the more apparent film elements like plot and aesthetics, but also she analyzes the films’ specific shot choices. Specifically, she suggests ways that shot angles and editing choices may shift viewers’ feelings about the characters and plot as a result. As a filmmaker myself, I can see that she appreciates that these ‘invisible’ choices are a big part of cinema’s impact, whether we directors put careful thought and planning into those decisions (like I try to at Blue Artichoke Films), or whether they ended up being simply a natural expression of the way that particular female director views sex.

3. Sabo is critical, in an evenhanded way. This isn’t just a lovefest of the “re-visioned” female-made porn category; more than once she notes how she feels directors have missed the mark trying to enact their own stated ideals on the screen. I appreciate this, because it encourages Sabo’s readers to approach the genre with an active eye, thinking about their own beliefs about sexuality and comparing them to how they feel when they watch these films on screen.

 

In a perfect world, I’d love for Sabo expand her approach to include the new group of “queer” female porn directors (Shine Louise Houston, Emilie Jouvet, Courtney Trouble, Madison Young). But Sabo — perhaps wisely – tells us she chose to focus this book on female filmmakers who have made a name for themselves depicting male/female partnerships in a new light (though, incidentally, many of us also show gay, lesbian or queer couplings too.) This seems fair to me, because the political issues in depicting same-sex couples, particularly female-female couples, are just plain different.

 

In short, this book is unique. I’m pleased to see a serious academic making a strong case for the revolutionary potential of progressive pornography. In a world where “porn = bad” has become a weirdly reflexive and sensationalistic cultural equation, I want to applaud Sabo for taking seriously this slow-growing movement that demonstrates something that’s blazingly obvious to me as an erotic filmmaker — women are happier, more at ease, and more confident when they come to see their own true sexual desires reflected on screen. Needless to say, far too many of the people I love will be receiving this book as a gift from me this holiday season.

 

[Update: I posted a shorter version of this review on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk]