Many small distributors have made great business out of collecting classic grindhouse and exploitation films and giving them solid transfers to DVD and blu-ray for collectors. These old films offer a garage band approach to filmmaking often telling socially and politically charged stories masked with over the top action, gore, or nudity, or all of the above. Some of the greatest grind-house movies include The Road Warrior, Vanishing Point, Candy Snatchers, Cannibal Holocaust, Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, and many others. The thing is there were only so many of these movies made. Eventually everything would just be out there. Often the rights to these movies would expire with one distributor and another would pick up those rights and reissue the film sometimes with different bonus features but eventually the opportunities for discovering fun old grind-house films became really slim.
A new sort of throwback to the films of a bygone age has started to find its way to DVD: retro pornography. Some distributors are now looking at pornographic films from the 70’s and 80’s as the new grind-house films, or at least they are treating them as such. So the question is are these films really as collectable and influential as the grind-house films of the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. Well in my opinion the overall answer is no. I don’t think Behind the Green Door has much influence on modern filmmakers, it just doesn’t. In comparison you can watch a film like Cannibal Holocaust or Candy Snatchers and look at films by Eli Roth and see the influence or an even more obvious comparison is the impact those films have had on Quinton Tarantino’s career. Because these pornographic films aren’t as influential as more traditional grind-house films does that make them any less worthy of being saved from the abyss? Ralph Wittington, a one-time archivist for the Library of Congress would tell you that these films are absolutely worthy of being saved. As shown in Jeff Krulik’s classic short film Kingo of Porn Wittington spent a great deal of time properly archiving all aspects of pornography from movies to sex toys and all sort of other paraphernalia. His collection is eventually moved from his home to the Museum of Modern Art.
Impulse Pictures, a division of great grind-house and import film distributor Synapse Films seems to be at the forefront of bringing back these “classic” pornographic films. Impulse may be best known for their huge catalog of Asian sexploitation films but recent releases have been films such as Sexcula (a pornographic film from Vancouver British Columbia), Oui Girls, and Same Time Every Year. Sexcula may be a perfect bridge film because it feels like a foreign version of a Roger Corman sexploitation film until the action starts and it ends up being hardcore pornography. There is room to argue that these films should be “appreciated” as a form of erotic storytelling that isn’t present in modern erotica. These movies were shot on film with complete scripts unlike today’s shot on video sex scene compilations that are most common. As a time capsule featuring everything from hair styles to set pieces from the era in which the films were made there’s no doubt that these are from the 70’s and 80’s.
From a more scientific approach these films could be studied as far as the filmic fantasy representations of sex in the 70’s and 80’s versus the fantasy representations of the modern era. These classic films aren’t riddled with the gonzo approach to sex that is so common (and in my opinion gross) in today’s pornographic films. In these films it was simply fantasy sex but one could argue much of modern porn is about humiliation as much as it is about sex. So it’s possible that someone much smarter than me could write a paper using these films as reference material. Here’s the real question; is this all just pillow talk? Is this just the same as when people say they get Playboy to read the articles? It’s a conversation worth having because distributors like Impulse Pictures are making these movies easily available on places like Amazon. That’s right, you can basically order pornography from Amazon. Can you get that Prime?
If these films are supposed to be archived for posterity then why aren’t the distributors putting more work into the preservation of them. Synapse has given us fantastic restorations of classic grindhouse films like Street Trash but the latest pornographic film on DVD from sister company Impulse Pictures looks like the film was balled up before it was transferred to DVD. It’s riddled with scratches washed out colors, artifacts, and virtually every bad issue unrestored old movies suffer from. Sure this is kind of fun in a way with old grindhouse films because you imagine watching a movie that looks this rough is the same way many people back in the day saw the film in a beat up cheap theater that showed the worn out film print for the 200th time. Do you really want that theatrical feeling with a pornographic film though? Again, I guess it truly depends on why you are watching it. Why are you watching it? Really?
After much thought on the subject as a film purist I have to say that I believe these films should be recovered, restored, and made available and maybe even kept along with the King of Porn’s collection at the Museum of Modern Art. This was a valid and successful form of theatrical release filmmaking for many years, only to dwindle away due to the availability of video and home viewing options. Also, there are some films pushing boundaries, mostly foreign, and including real sex scenes within moderately budgeted and professionally scripted films. Some examples are 9 Songs, Brown Bunny, Antichrist, and Short Bus. One could argue that these highbrow often considered “art” films are absolutely influenced by the hardcore films of the 70’s and 80’s. So while I don’t necessarily need these on my shelf I do see reasons both lurid and historical that the films shouldn’t simply disappear. This will be an ongoing conversation as more of these films find distribution and as modern films become more and more boundary pushing. What say you?