COMES NATURALLY #55
Spectator Magazine - February 7, 1997
(c) David Steinberg
Larry Flynt Meets Albert Brooks: Some Thoughts on Sex, Class, Age, and Dear Old Mom
Wankers of the World Unite: You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Shame
I can't say that I liked The People vs. Larry Flynt as gushingly as Greta Christina did (see Spectator, January 10), but I certainly did have a good time watching it. More than that, I'm really glad to know that this film is out there in 4,364 movie theaters from Anchorage to Ypsilanti, being shown to the multitudes five times a day as a piece of effective, basic, and impassioned, if not particularly profound or groundbreaking, defend-the-First-Amendment-against-all-those-who-wouldlike -to-impose-their-particular-points-of-view-on-the-res-of-us propaganda.
The People vs. Larry Flynt is what an old friend used to call "small entertainment" -- enjoyable, amusing, uplifting, even if not particularly artful, complex, or deep. (Understand that that's a friendly description, not a put-down; even I don't need complex and deep all the time.) You've got your good guys (Larry Flynt and his wife, Althea) and your bad guys (Charles Keating and his anti-porn crusade, Jerry Falwell and his sanctimonious anti-Satanic crusade, a would-be assassin and his high-powered rifle, a small-minded, smalltime, small-town Cincinnati judge -- played by Flynt himself). You've got what is obviously right (the freedom in this purple mountain majestic land of ours to speak one's mind even if what you say riles the bejesus out of the guy next door, or even all the guys next door). You've got what is obviously wrong (refusing to uphold the Constitution when it's emotionally or politically inconvenient to do so, imposing one's point of view on everyone else). You've got what is unquestionably laudable in a human being (a sense of humor, playful rebelliousness, tolerance of other people's differences, the courage to stand up for what you believe in against unlike odds) and what is unquestionably flawed in a human being (moral hypocrisy, uptightness, sanctimoniousness, closed-minded ignorance). The issues are cut and dried, Oliver Stone style, even though Stone did not direct and only produced this particular film.
Unless you're picking up Spectator for the first time, you know the drill as it pertains to the First Amendment, pornography, and the importance of fighting to maintain everyone's right to say and publish points of view that may be upsetting, heinous, distressing and so on, to the few or to the many. I won't put you through the recitation, although God knows it's an important drill to keep oiled and at the ready as the forces of repression gather themselves together for the umpteenth time, as Bill Clinton seems to be ready to feed free sexual expression as a bone to the right wing, buying him political time elsewhere, as Spectator itself prepares to make the arduous journey to the Supreme Court in pursuit of the simple right to sell papers on the streets.
Like I say, I'm glad The People vs. Larry Flynt is being a presence out there, making the good First Amendment pitch to people who probably haven't heard it as many hundreds of times as you or me. But what I liked most about this film, and what I thought was a valuable and notso -familiar addition to the long-standing porn debate, is it is unapologetically about a self-proclaimed sleazy guy marketing a deliberately sleazy product, not Robert Mapplethorpe or Henry Miller or the hallowed halls of high art.
The People vs. Larry Flynt doesn't set out to make us like or respect Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine or, for that matter, to hate Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine. (Director Milos Foreman maintains, pointedly if disingenuously, that he has never so much as read or looked at Hustler). Whether Larry Flynt is a good guy or a bad guy, whether or not he molested his daughter as she claims, whether or not his profligate and indulgent life has internal meaning or stands as an inspirational model for the rest of us -- these questions of judgment are entirely and intriguingly irrelevant to the film. What does matter in this film is standing up for the right to have what Flynt flaunts as bad taste defended as fully and forcefully and righteously as what is crafted and refined, to have the mutterings and yearnings of the little guy, the regular man or woman on the street, given every bit as much right to exist and be distributed as the erudite words and images of the educated elite, even if the material itself turns out to be (as regularly seems to happen in Hustler) racist, anti-Semitic, and virulently misogynist.
Now I don't know enough about Larry Flynt to know whether his portrayal in the film is accurate or not. (Surprisingly, for all the media flurry that The People vs. Larry Flynt has generated, none of the big-time journalists seem to have come up with very much significant information about the real Larry Flynt either. An opinion piece in The New York Times, purporting to have the backstage skinny on Flynt, doesn't address any of the character issues that would be enlightening in terms of understanding who this guy is, or why and how he does what he does.) But, if the film is to be believed, Larry Flynt's one possible mission in life, other than getting rich and thumbing his nose at the world, is to defend and uphold the sexual outlook of all the unpretentious, perhaps uneducated, certainly unsophisticated and unrefined guys out there, in the face of a status-ridden culture that constantly berates us to believe that you have to be lofty, pretentious, refined, and wealthy before you have the right to be seen as successful, to be treated with respect, or just to be allowed to live your life and be left alone. The People vs. Larry Flynt is most basically a movie about class and the insidiousness of class bias, which does make it an important addition to the grand and forever debate about pornography (and prostitution). As far as I'm concerned, the one issue that consistently gets neglected in the ongoing furor about these things is precisely the issue of class bias.
"What is the difference between pornography and erotica?" This has to be the most frequently asked question on the book tour/talk show/radiotv /symposium-conference circuit. Do we have to talk about that? Tomay -to/to-mah-to. Let's face it: The biggest signifying distinction people are looking for in imposing the pornography-erotica dichotomy is the distinction between what is high on the caste-class social hierarchy and what is low. The people who make a fetish of knowing how to label one example of sexual material as pornography while another gets called erotica are people to whom it is very important to separate what is high class from what is low class.
With sex as with other things, what the socially elite do and what they like has value by definition, while what the common wo/man does and what s/he likes lacks value by definition. Assigning of social status to different tastes and behaviors, after all, is done by the elite, and one thing that is forever important to the elite is being able to distinguish itself from, and make itself superior to, everyone else. It therefore becomes important to know what is sexually proper and improper, sophisticated and unsophisticated, aesthetic and crude, admirable and despicable, simply because the elite thinks it's important to make these distinctions.
They think it's particularly important to make these distinctions with regard to sexual matters, and with regard to sexual matters, the lower classes are assumed and defined to be horribly crude and animal, which means that the elite relishes anything that removes sex, sexual appeal, and sexual desire from the realm of what could be called crude and animal. This elitism is not limited to sexual matters, of course. Proper grammar, the wearing of stylish, expensive clothes, enjoying opera and symphony, and so on are other class-defining signifiers that are tremendously important to the elite, separate from any real function or artistic sensibility. But when the values of the elite are applied to matters sexual, the implicit judgments become especially virulent.
In any case, the upheaval around pornography as a social and political issue began when erotic material migrated beyond the protected preserve of the elite (where they had been part of the scene, albeit in an underground and discrete way, for quite some time) into the hands of the common people, which is to say the riffraff, which is to say you and me. Stimulating and pandering to the base sexual desires of the underclass feels dangerous to the elite in a way that is totally separate from whatever ambivalence they may have about their own sexual proclivities. The masses, after all, are assumed to barely have their sexuality under control to begin with. Welfare mothers popping babies all over the place, lowlifes and prostitutes transmitting sexual diseases, black men being likely to rape our women -- that whole mythology. Pump these people up with readily available porn -- first through cheap and available paperbacks and magazines, then through cheap and available videos, then through cheap and available television -- and who knows what kid of hedonistic hell will be loosed to lay low social decency?
Hugh Hefner and, to a lesser degree, Bob Guccione, deal with this class bias by trying to distance themselves from what is crude and base and to force their way into the respected halls of the high and mighty. What sort of man reads Playboy? College-educated, well-to-do, sophisticated, the best and the brightest -- the people who drive expensive cars, wear expensive clothes, and drink expensive whiskey. Or so Playboy would have us and their advertisers believe.
One of my favorite scenes in The People vs. Larry Flynt has Flynt looking through an issue of Playboy and zeroing in on the class snobbery immediately. "Playboy is mocking you," he says to the roomful of friends sitting around his living room watching football on tv. "It's as if they think that no one who makes less than $20,000 a year jerks off!" And in that moment, we are told, Flynt gets the inspiration of publishing a magazine that will do anything but mock the base desires of those who are forever being turned away at the gates of Good Taste Heaven.
And leaving good taste heaven behind is precisely what Larry Flynt, with Hustler and its many subsequent knockoffs, undeniably does. What Paul Krassner and Lenny Bruce did in the halls of respected, sociallyconscious political satire, Larry Flynt did in the halls of strugglingto -become-socially-acceptable porn,. For better or for worse. For better and for worse. I have to say, that separate from being appalled by the really horrible racism and sexism of Hustler, and not being particularly turned on by its raunchy photographic style, I did love the magazine when it first came out, simply because I found its absolute irreverence of all sacred cows wonderfully infectious. Santa fucking Mrs. Claus with a huge erection, and even, if I remember correctly, the reindeer. Chester the Molester, looking over the shoulders of the Magi at the Nativity scene in some December issue, while the entire nation basked in Christmas spirit, thinking to himself, "Damn, it's a boy!" (This was long before child molestation was an identified social issue, an issue that I, for one, take extremely seriously. Child molesting is not what's funny about this cartoon; it's the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Perhaps this doesn't require explanation, but people tend to lose perspective on this particular issue, and Big Brother is watching, so I want to be very clear....)
When other porn magazines were afraid to show any pussy at all, Larry Flynt was getting positively gynecological, with huge multifoldout centerfolds of cunts ten times larger than life, the nakeder the better. (This is one way that Hustler's perspective does coincide with my own!) There was even Hustler's pioneering, if ineffective, foray into the world of scratch-'n'-sniff technology, an attempt to raise pussypresence to a new level of intensity. At a historical time when people had not yet begun to connect the high and the mighty with anything like sexual existence, it was Hustler that did the spoof of Jerry Falwell fucking his mother in an outhouse and published naked pictures of the woman who was at once beautiful and the most unimpeachable female before Mother Theresa: Jackie Kennedy Onassis. ("First pussy!" Flynt calls it, exuberantly, in the film.) No sacred cows. No sacred cows whatsoever. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Amen.
So, yes, Hustler really is awful in many ways, and I hear from several people that Larry Flynt really is an asshole. My own taste in sexually explicit material tends to run to the artistic, subtle, quieter stuff that is more easily tolerated by the elite than Hustler or Spectator fare, and my work in the sex publishing field has been to publish work that demonstrates that sexual writing and photography can be other than garish and lurid and sensational and exaggerated and still be hot. But even if my book (Erotic by Nature) tends to circulate at the so-called high end of the sex publishing spectrum, I'm also a loyal red-diaper baby who's forever pissed off at how often and how easily the selfappointed guardians of taste and demeanor sneer and sniff at the unannointed. It's that part of me that will always be ready to stand behind the likes of Larry Flynt, and it's that part of me that comes away from seeing The People vs. Larry Flynt happy and satisfied.
Albert Brooks's film, Mother, is hardly a deliberate exercise in sexual consciousness expansion, but I was delighted to find that it does have a number of sex-related moments and themes of the I-wish-I-saw-this-moreoften -in-the-media variety. The premise of the film is that middle-aged John Henderson (Albert Brooks), after his second "failed marriage," decides to move into his childhood home with his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), and try to unravel the roots of his problematic relationships with women. The film goes through a series of entertaining and surprisingly insightful episodes through which Brooks and Reynolds alternately and simultaneously annoy and enjoy each other, playing out the mother-son naggings and complainings developed over a lifetime.
What makes the film sexually noteworthy is that it is built on a level of semi-erotic engagement between a son and his mother that is far beyond anything we're used to seeing in mainstream comedy fare -- indeed beyond anything we're likely to see in mainstream media of any sort. John, determined to enlist his mother's enthusiasm for, as well as her tolerance of, his manic project in emotional regression, courts and woos her with the kind of delicacy and determination usually reserved for would-be lovers and life soulmates. And the way that he courts her is so ingenuously delightful and playful that it comes off as the ultimate in wholesomeness, rather than as some sort of disturbing psychological aberration.
Beatrice starts out behind skeptical of her always-a-little-odd son, but is progressively charmed and finds herself swept away by John's infectious enthusiasm to the point that she actually begins to favor him over Brooks's brother, the habitually favored son, the ultimate motherpleasing, financially successful, happily married, normal-in-allrespects good boy. There is one delightful scene in which John, gaily mall-cruising with Beatrice, whisks her into Victoria's Secret, ostensibly for the purpose of buying himself some underwear, but actually for the forbidden delight of involving his mother in a bit of sexually outrageous play. Taking off on his mother's embarrassment to even be in such a place with her son, John tells an inquiring salesperson that he wants to buy a pair of crotchless panties for his mother. At that point, Beatrice (who is nobody's patsy) takes charge of the situation and determinedly steers her son out the door once and for all, but she is also clearly delighted to be fooling around with her son in such a sexually naughty and provocative way.
Later, to its grand credit, the film gives Beatrice a very real and active sex life of her own, an ongoing relationship with a man named Charles who comes and spends the night with her regularly. Out on the town with Charles, the two debate the nuances of whether she can be comfortable being sexual with Charles while her son is in the same house, just a room away. Charles understands her dilemma, but also pushes her a little, tempting her with some especially enticing sex video that he's gotten for them to watch together, and reminding her that being sexual with him with her son around has been one of Beatrice's favorite sexual fantasies. Beatrice, for all her motherly fluttering and 65-year-old propriety, is clearly no prude about sex. In the end she agrees to watch the video, be sexual with Charles, and let him spend the night, if her son is asleep when they get home, and Charles agrees that if John's awake he'll just go home. As it turns out John is awake and other developments intervene to take precedence over this particular situation, so we don't get to actually witness Beatrice and Charles being sexual. But it's truly delightful, highly unusual, and more than a little sexy, to watch two older people flirting and talking about their sexuality in ways that clearly reflect their age and yet are not tainted with the slightest hint of condescension or dismissive ridicule.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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