*. It’s a truism that some cultural products — books, paintings, films — attain a status or level of importance far above their worth or any artistic merit they might have. For whatever reason they become iconic, or mark a particular historical moment, and thus become part of the hive mind.
*. Which brings us to Deep Throat. The title itself is instantly recognizable, even among those who haven’t seen the movie. Indeed the title was writer-director Gerard Damiano’s one claim to inspiration, as the act itself hadn’t been labeled yet and “deep throat” certainly stuck. But what a horrible, awful movie it is.
*. Damiano himself later admitted it was no good. The art director, Lenny Camp, thought it was “a piece of shit film, one of the worst porno movies ever made.” I agree. Al Goldstein, on the other hand, thought it was the greatest porn film ever. But he was young at the time and easily aroused.
*. It’s very bad, and all bad. In the first place, it’s horribly dull, even though it has a running time of only 60 minutes. The opening credits, which have Linda Lovelace (“as herself,” whatever that means, since Lovelace wasn’t her real name) just driving around in her car, seem to drag out forever. The acting is embarrassing, even for porn. Ditto the lighting, as some shots simply disappear into darkness. The music — including a title track (“deep throat, deeper than deep your throat”) that should be so bad it’s funny — is consistently irritating. The one song, “Bubbles,” complete with bubble sound effects, even manages to be a bit disgusting when played in context. There are various attempts at humour, none of which are even remotely funny. The premise — a woman whose clitoris has found its way to the back of her throat — is unerotic and off-putting.
*. Then there’s the sex. For a film based on this particular specialty, the oral technique is awful. Lovelace performs the titular act of sword swallowing with gritty competence, but most of the cast keep their eyes closed as they get on with it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lethargic cunnilingus. Roger Ebert: “If you have to work this hard at sexual freedom, maybe it isn’t worth the effort.”
*. Finally, some mention has to be made of the squalid back story. The movie was financed (if you can call a budget of $25,000 “financing”) by the mob. Lovelace claimed she was being raped on screen, performing with a gun to her head. Her husband, Chuck Traynor, was allegedly pimping her out. People point to the scene where she’s sitting poolside and the bruise on her leg as a sign of abuse. Others have expressed doubts. The general impression I have is that she led a very unhappy life. In any event, there’s no end to the ugliness of this film. I find it simply unwatchable.
*. And yet, it has a place of some significance in film history. It was one of the first porn movies to have an actual story, instead of just being a bunch of unrelated sex acts. It remains, arguably, the most profitable film ever made, though we’ll likely never know the actual take (mob accounting being nearly as opaque as Hollywood’s). It became a political and legal cause, resulting in a number of landmark cases. And finally it was one of the first porn flicks to get widespread release and receive mainstream critical attention. It stands at the beginning of what’s been called the Golden Age of Porn, or “porno chic” (so christened in a New York Times article by Ralph Blumenthal).
*. This was the annus mirabilis of porno chic, with Behind the Green Door and Devil in Miss Jones (another Damiano project) appearing soon after. Together, these are often considered the Big Three films that made porno chic, though only the latter two are still worth watching today. It’s hard to imagine how a film as ugly as Deep Throat could have ever been considered chic, a word that better applies to the sensibility of Andrew Blake (whose Night Trips only came out in 1989).
*. Deep Throat has certainly had its defenders. Legally, I stand behind it all the way. But then I’m a bit of an absolutist when it comes to free speech and I’ve never understood the schizoid American fascination with brutal violence and puritanical prudery when it comes to matters of sex.
*. I don’t put a lot of stock in other defenses that have been made of it. In the excellent documentary Inside Deep Throat several of these are canvassed. We are told that its production was a courageous act of countercultural rebellion. Hogwash. It was a tawdry piece of exploitation. It was also argued (in court no less) that it was a kind of feminist manifesto, as Linda was seeking her own pleasure in the form of a clitoral orgasm. I think that’s nonsense too. Having her clitoris in her throat just makes Linda into a caricature male fantasy, as she proves when she finally hears the bells and sees the fireworks after blowing Harry Reems and then announces herself “a fulfilled woman” who wants to marry him and “be his slave.”
*. The Inside Deep Throat documentary also makes an interesting point about how, at the time, it was thought that Deep Throat and porno chic were going to be precursors to a merging of porn with mainstream entertainment. That didn’t happen. In Norman Mailer’s words, porn didn’t become an art but rather “dwindled into a mediocre commodity.” I think this is in part because porn doesn’t want to be art, but is content to provide raw stimulation. As such it wants to be more generic and ubiquitous, like fast food. Mailer: “Money is not interested in the little alleys of artistic endeavour. It wants the main highway.” Porn’s home ground would be that highway, the Internet, which it had a big hand in building. You can stream Deep Throat there now, for free. But I don’t think many people do.