Film Genre – and Porn

Recently in class, I mentioned that pornography is a genre that is universally recognized. I said that across the world, in various societies, and all throughout history, pornographic content has been considered the lowest form of low-brow culture, and that it is noteworthy that porn is the one thing that seemingly everyone can agree upon. Altman writes that “we all know a genre when we see one,” (495) and for the longest time (even as recently as last week) I believed this to be especially true for porn. However, this has not always necessarily been the case, and there have been several instances throughout the history of cinema in which conversations have arisen in which the specific definition of “porn” has been debated.

One such example of this is Louis Malle’s 1958 film Les Amants (Lovers) which, after being screened in Ohio, found itself at the center of a great deal of controversy and the central issue of a landmark Supreme Court case. In considering Les Amants, theater owners, movie goers, and lawmakers could not agree upon a single definition of pornography, and whether the film could be considered obscene content. As such, this case underscores the limited applicability of various theoretical definitions of film genre and highlights the ongoing challenges of categorizing films and studying film genres. Altman, Schatz, and Williams define components of film genres and theorize how film genres are connected to film meaning, and a film’s place in society more generally (Altman; Williams; Schatz). However, the case study of Les Amants and the controversy surrounding it demonstrates that these theories have limited applicability. But despite their limitations, these theories do have one major component that continues to ring true: film genres are generally connected to larger social anxieties and issues. As Schatz describes, “All film genres treat some form of threat-violent or otherwise-to the social order” (Schatz 26). Therefore, studying the issue of film genres, and body genres especially, is a useful way to analyze the connections between cinema and society.

Williams defines the three “body genres” as melodrama, horror, and pornography. These genres are categorized by excess—whether it be excess in emotion, violence, or sex—and that “the bodies of women figured on the screen have functioned traditionally as the primary embodiment of pleasure, fear, and pain.” (Williams 540). In the context of porn, excess is represented through the actual depiction of sex, presumably meant to be viewed by an active male audience. In Les Amants, there is no outright depiction of sex, but it is heavily implied. In the film’s climax, Jeanne, a young married woman, unhappy with her husband’s lack of affection and attention, enters into an extramarital affair with a stranger. Eventually, the film depicts to two of them entering a dark bedroom, removing one another’s clothes, and eventually her upper body exposed as the two embrace. Eventually, the man’s image disappears from the screen, leaving only the woman on-screen, shown experiencing an orgasm; testimony before the Supreme Court explained that this left “no other inference but that the young man is then engaged in cunnilingus” (“Jacobellis v. Ohio”). Because Jeanne’s body is situated as the primary embodiment of pleasure, this scene from Les Amants could certainly be qualified as pornography and a body genre film under Williams’ definitions.

However, this categorization of pornography was not universally accepted. The mere fact that the film was being debated before the Supreme Court underscores this fundamental disagreement. Jacobellis, a Ohio theater owner, had been convicted for violating the state’s obscenity laws by screening the film. However, Jacobellis argued that such limitation violated his First Amendment rights. The question before the court, then, was whether or not Les Amants could be considered pornography, and if it could be considered obscene. Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, and at this point in US history, the Supreme Court had yet to establish effective tests for determining obscenity. To further complicate the matter, under the current standards, obscene content was defined as having no societal value whatsoever. But as Williams suggests, even genres like pornography can have value to society by revealing broader social anxieties and concerns. Clearly, the notion of defining genres and their value to society is a tricky matter.

The inseparable nature of film genres and value to society is underscored by Altman’s assertion that “genres are simply the generalized, identifiable structures through which Hollywood’s rhetoric flows” (Altman 498). In other words, film genres matter because they are the means by which ideologies are transferred from Hollywood to society more broadly, and vice versa. As Schatz explains, film genres embody a complicated relationship between filmmaker and film viewer, and represent a “range of expression” and a “range of experience” that can vary from genre to genre (Schatz 22). This complex and dynamic relationship makes it impossible to ever definitively pinpoint the boundaries between film genres, and by extension makes it impossible to ever fully define a genre’s broader societal implications. The impossibility of this task became apparent in the oral arguments and eventual decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Les Amants. Associate Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography in the astoundingly ambiguous terms, “perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining it]. But I know it when I see it” (“Jacobellis v. Ohio”).

The Court’s inability to reach any concrete definitions speaks to Schatz’s point that genre films are very good at raising societal questions, but rarely are effective at providing answers. This is a direct contradiction to Williams’ point that body genre films can function as “cultural problem-solving,” which in the case of pornography is represented by more and better sex. The debate and controversy surrounding Les Amants, as well as the film itself,  do highlight larger social anxieties, such as issues of what is appropriate for movies, the government’s role in censoring content, what appropriate levels of sexual promiscuity are, and how sacred the ideals of marriage actually are. Especially at a time when there were social concerns about young people being influenced by ideas in the movies, it makes sense that a film such as Les Amants would stir up such controversy.

By 2018 standards, Les Amants probably wouldn’t qualify as pornography. But by 1958 Ohio standards, it quite possibly would have been easily placed in this category. Of course, whether or not it is pornography is related to, but also wholly separate from, debates about whether or not it is obscene. Regardless of their answer (if there even is a clear answer), the controversy of Les Amants provides just one example about why studying genres and theorizing about their effects can be so difficult. The definitions are nebulous and constantly evolving, which means that the definitions offered by Altman, Schatz, and Williams do have only limited applicability.  However, one important component of their theories does remain: film genre and social anxieties are completely intertwined and inseparable. Whether or not the label of “pornography” applies to Les Amants, and regardless of what genre you’d place the film into, its genre and its conventions to speak to larger social anxieties. And for that reason alone, genre theory is worthy of consideration.


References:

Altman, Rick. “From Film/Genre.” Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Baudry and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1984.

“Jacobellis v. Ohio.” U.S., vol. 378, 11, 1964, p. 184, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1963/11.

Malle, Luis. The Lovers. http://www.imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052556/. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.

Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genres and the Genre Film.” Hollywood Genres, 1981, pp. 14–41.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Baudry and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1991.

 

 

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