Inside Deep Throat

Criticism’s stance toward pornographic films used to be about sex and female degradation. Those happy times unfortunately are gone. Today critics have to take into account an enormous business that revolves less around copulation and social suppression, and more around money and aggressive marketing. A good thing for women’s rights or are we faced with a different kind of revolution? A backward glance at one of the most talked about products of the forlorn era of porn chic could lean towards the latter.

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In June 1972, a hardcore porn movie, whose storyline was solely based on the ability of its lead actress to control her gag reflex, was shown in a midtown-Manhattan adult theatre. When opportunity arose, partly because of its feature length and some entertainment value, but mostly because of word-to-mouth promotion, this particular pornographic exploitation entered mainstream cinemas. It then not only encountered predictable political and judicial backfire, it also marked the beginning of a mainstreaming and burgeoning of the porn industry, proving to be the most profitable investment in film history (with a budget of $25,000 dollars and an estimated worldwide gross of $600 million). It also infamously named the informant of the Watergate scandal and several cocktails, forced women to expand their sexual acrobatics and introduced a new sort of stardom (Linda Lovelace as the first porn star). It is today also considered a rare event in cultural and social conscience: i.e., the way in which a film without much æsthetic merit or political intent can influence social debates. The movie was catapulted into debates on sexual liberation – although Roger Ebert commented at the time that if you had to work this hard at sexual freedom it maybe wasn’t worth the effort – and gave a welcome polemic and ardent intensity to debates on censorship and feminism.

The film’s premise of a woman who discovers that her clitoris is situated at the back of her throat in hindsight provided a twisted argumentative strength for opposite sites in a debate. Whether or not you would think that pornography is degrading or not, you could find your rhetoric partner in the visuals of Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano). A self-proclaimed feminist, for instance, could chose in those days to be ‘contra’, as the movie obviously made Linda Lovelace kneel before every male figure, or ‘pro’, as the film at least seemed to care about the orgasmic pleasure of women (even if it is hard to call it a realistic one). In short, it was a visual inventiveness that helped make Deep Throat the cult and cultural phenomenon that marked its place in popular history and language.

In February 2005, a sexually explicit documentary, whose aim is to show how Deep Throat could have brought about this change in the public’s attitude toward recorded sex acts, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Its dodgy title (Inside Deep Throat) and poster (reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ lips iconography) aside, the documentary supposedly represents different perspectives on what it nostalgically calls a revolution. Although more darker aspects of the film’s history are not omitted (including Mafia interference and the disastrous biography of Lovelace), the overall attitude is one of enthrallment over Deep Throat, as the film is regarded a peak of independent æsthetic filmmaking. The documentary’s producer, Brian Grazer, said to The New York Times, “The marketing of anything today worth marketing involves sex.” If we may believe Inside Deep Throat, the original Deep Throat was released in a time when we were not yet sexually anaesthetised and porn was made with the best of intentions.

Grazer is also the man who brought us A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001) and Apollo 13 (Howard, 1995), a man who himself knows how to sell. Inside Deep Throat gives the impression that Deep Throat weighs in the balance between cult film and cultural phenomenon more toward the second. This idea could, however, be unravelled as a marketing tool to help Inside Deep Throat profit from the success of its subject. Like many documentaries, Inside Deep Throat is eager to support its subject rather than to stay on neutral ground – but this one hopes that its subject will return the support.

Inside Deep Throat is also announced as a “celebrity-studded, sexually graphic documentary”, thereby having an excuse to provide its public not only with anecdotes told by Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Hugh Hefner, but also a nice lump of sex. A clear credibility issue could be raised about whether or not Inside Deep Throat speaks in earnest about a “cultural phenomenon” – not to mention the question of whether this nostalgic view is relevant in a time when the so-called ‘third feminist wave’ is trying to stimulate female-friendly porn and is still doing its best to shortcut the patriarchal capitalism of current porn industry (Ona Zee, Candida Royale, Catherine Breillat and Lars von Trier, among others).

A feminist view is somewhat absent from this production. Can we be persuaded to believe that any such negligence is the price to pay for the overabundance of themes and voices in Inside Deep Throat? With such a diverse range of content, it is understandable that the documentary leaves certain elements underdeveloped. And the feminist side does share in the blame because not many (former) feminists were eager to participate. But what could be the reason for this hesitance? Could it be that feminism had a hangover regarding the issue ‘Deep Throat’? Or was it merely because they anticipated a mere entertaining documentary? But to think of the tone of Inside Deep Throat as a Hollywood effect, rather than an essential part of the rise of pornographic features, is to be blind for the more intimate connection between Hollywood-narrative and the rise of porn industry. What has criticism made of Deep Throat‘s success?

Criticism doesn’t seem able to provide a conclusive argument on why Deep Throat was such a success. For one, it is not an especially good movie. There have been better, just to mention Behind the Green Door (Mitchell Brothers, 1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (Damiano, 1973). Even at its most basic level, Deep Throat lacks from a narrative inconsistency, as we can see Lovelace rubbing herself during intercourse when one is supposed to believe that ‘it’ is not where it normally should be? And how about ethical criticism, can that enlighten?

Deep Throat came out during a crossroad in feminist evolution. Before the 1970s, there was a standard “against pornography” comment. All energy was put into judicial censoring action, finding allies within the Right – thereby showing a vehement conservatism within feminism. But this idea about pornography, based on old 10-minutes loops, weakened when features began to appear. Linda Williams, forerunner of the porn-study writers, said that Deep Throat was special because now you had this feature that managed to integrate a variety of sexual numbers into a narrative that was shown in a legitimate theatre. Any serious comment on porn movies had to take the narrativity of the genre into consideration. For instance, what the business names the ‘money shot’ (visible ejaculation) is not a realistic element but a narrative convention to enhance the believability of what happens on the screen.

So a second feminist wave renounced a simple judicial approach, no longer identified pornography with two-dimensional sex, and instead increased rhetorical studies in this field. Once you believe that pornography is the representation and staging of an erotic scene, rather than sex itself, you can think it possible to control those elements that construct sexual representation and presuppositions about sexuality. The result was ambitious and ambiguous: there could be “good pornography” – that is, pornography that could let people think about what they believe sex entails and, by inspiring the imagination to a change in perspective, one could change real male-female relations. Whether or not Deep Throat had such a potential remains to be decided.

But what the historical effect of Deep Throat actually did show was that narrativity is also an essential part of the rise of a porn industry. On closer inspection, even cheaply produced loops turn out to be (badly) staged and lighted films. The jump to feature films meant an increase in revenues. The presence of narrative elements is not a question of artistic freedom but of profitability: you have to construct something that you can sell.

Still, Deep Throat does appear to indicate a certain functionality of sex. Orgies are intended to find out why Lovelace’s character not find her orgasm through intercourse. And after her diagnosis and cure, her escapades are instrumentally used as therapeutic means for others who have different sexual issues. But to solely see this in the light of the possibility of representational politics, as a means to change thoughts about sexuality, as the second feminist wave tried to study and what the third is trying to achieve, is to miss the story of what happened to Deep Throat in the years after: the becoming of Cult.

The tone of the documentary unintentionally shows that the legacy of Deep Throat is that it showed pornography how it could speak to a larger public. What pornography learned with Deep Throat is that it wanted to be mainstream all along. In this regard, the strange functionality within Deep Throat demands us to think about the functionality of porn itself. Is the function of sex in porn to sell anything besides itself, namely political ideas, concepts or æsthetics?

There can be three voices working in criticism of Deep Throat. What there is of revolution in art criticism, is that with such pornography æsthetics or ethics no longer rule criticism, but a sense of the economic value – a strong camaraderie between narrative techniques and money-making. This third element is something you can not study by means of the internal structure of the film, but is found between its production and the history of its reception. The way in which Inside Deep Throat treats contemporary porn viewers as ‘desensitised’, in that they always need more and harder sexual deviance, rather than sexual liberty and enjoyment, could be called an outdated (ethical) stance in porn criticism.

The “sex is money” meaning of Deep Throat shows us why it didn’t turn out to be what feminism would have wanted it to be. Ironically, it can be said that the earlier loops, which were considered so degrading, are closer to sexual liberation. As porn star Nina Hartley said, “In the early days more women made porn because they loved sex. They were hippies. Now all these young girls do it not because they love sex but because the money is good.”

Criticism needs to see how ‘sex’ is not just a marketing element, but that money is an essential element of judging pornography, beyond good and evil. When Brian Grazer says that “The marketing of anything today worth marketing involves sex”, then his statement is not wrong, though unhappily formulated. Sex functions as a marketing tool in shower gel advertisements, or even for the documentary itself, but not for selling porn. Porn doesn’t need to sell anything besides itself.

About The Author

David Theelen studied Philosophy and Literary Science at the University of Leuven. His main interests include rhetoric in film, and the relevance (or lack of it) of film criticism.