Criticism

Porn Theater

Porn Theatre is an erotically charged film, but also a thoughtful one. The sex within it is not sensationalized; if anything, it’s downright dismal. Are gay audiences really so single-minded that they’ll only go to a movie if it offers the possibility of full-frontal nudity? Apparently, Strand is counting on it.”

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Much twittering has occurred here in America over the peculiar titles our movies are often given overseas. Within the politically incorrect borders of cyberspace, lists of bogus title translations abound and, incredibly, sometimes find their way into mainstream publications. Pity the poor fact-checker at The New York Times who failed to detect that, in China, My Best Friend’s Wedding was not actually called Help! My Pretend Boyfriend Is Gay! or that Batman and Robin didn’t appear on marquees as Come to My Cave and Wear This Rubber Codpiece, Cute Boy.

Even broadcast behemoth ABC World News Tonight was suckered by the tomfoolery. Newsmeister Peter Jennings offered a mea culpa after reporting that the Chinese title for Babe was The Happy Dumpling-to-be Who Talks and Solves Agricultural Problems.

The irony is that the film’s actual Chinese title, I May Be a Pig, But I’m Not Stupid, was a perfect example of the sort of clumsy moniker typically bestowed on Western films, that loses so much in translation. Such literal-mindedness led to the Chinese re-christening of Gone With the Wind as The Confused World of a Beautiful Woman and Hamlet as The Story of the King’s Son Who Kills for Revenge.

I bring this up in order to point out that sometimes the situation happens in reverse, and when it does, the results can be just as graceless. In its native France, the newest from indie-gay distributor Strand Releasing was called La Chatte à Deux Têtes, which translates literally as The Cat With Two Heads, and, in a rougher vernacular, as The Two-Headed Pussy. This playfully evocative moniker also serves as the title of a straight porn film featured prominently within the movie.

Obviously hoping to entice as many horny homos as possible into buying a ticket, Strand has renamed the film Porn Theatre for its U.S. release. I guess that’s a fitting, if decidedly blunt, title for this slice-of-life look at a Parisian adult cinema that trash auteur John Waters called one of the ten best films of 2002: all of the action takes place within the titular establishment during an evening showing of the aforementioned Pussy.

But in addition being utterly unimaginative (at least the English dubbed it, mysteriously, Glowing Eyes), this Americanized title reeks of the same desperate promise of titillation offered over and over ad nauseum in the marketing of any remotely gay-themed film.

To a degree, Porn Theatre delivers on its implied promise. It’s part of a recent trend in French cinema to blur the boundaries between pornography and art (another example, this year’s Irreversible, was originally conceived as an extended explicit love scene between its stars, real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci). Consequently, there’s lots of what appears to be unsimulated sex happening between various men onscreen, although none of it as in-your-face as a typical Falcon release. Full-on nudity is rare, save for the female stars of the film-within-the-film. Penises are thrust discreetly through open zippers, blowjobs given in shadowy corners.

But to define Porn Theatre as the sum of its graphic sex scenes is to completely overlook the film’s clear primary intention: to serve as a character study of the various men who regularly patronize such establishments and those who work there, and to consider the complex motivations behind their behavior. Writer-director Jacques Nolot (who also stars) successfully recreates the highly charged erotic tension typical of bathhouses, bookstores, tearooms and such, but more importantly, he inhabits this environment with distinct and diverse characters: lonely gents passing time, straight men in search of an easy release, trannies and rough trade looking for a buck or, sometimes, self-validation. Watching over it all are the theatre’s employees – the cashier, a middle-aged woman with a pleasantly pragmatic attitude toward the activities she witnesses; and the projectionist, an inexperienced small-town boy with a newfound sexual curiosity.

There’s not much plot to speak of. People come and go as their objectives are met. We learn about them through snippets of conversation and, to a greater degree, by their actions. Nolot perfectly captures the intricate ballet performed by men, driven by primal desire, as they establish a place within an undeclared hierarchy of age and beauty and then set about hooking up and getting off. He demonstrates clearly the unspoken and highly developed language of furtive glances and steely stares used during such a dance. Much is made of the elaborate rituals involved, often to comic effect.

Of particular concern is the complicated dynamic between gay and straight (or straight-acting, or straight-identifiying) men during such encounters. It’s not unintentional that the action takes place at a heterosexual porn cinema; the tradeoff between gays looking for straight cock and straights wanting nothing more than a quick blowjob before heading home is a recurring theme. Everyone, it seems, uses everyone, but nobody is really happy. It’s thought-provoking stuff, and very well executed.

Which leads me back to the title, and the gist of my complaint. Porn Theatre is an erotically charged film, but also a thoughtful one. The sex within it is not sensationalized; if anything, it’s downright dismal. Are gay audiences really so single-minded that they’ll only go to a movie if it offers the possibility of full-frontal nudity? Apparently, Strand is counting on it.

(Appeared in Gay City News)

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