Saturday, August 17, 2013

Multiple Lindas

The new film Lovelace stars Amanda Seyfried as Linda Boreman, who starred in 1972 in Deep Throat, one of the most famous and profitable of pornographic films, built around the conceit of a character (that is, “Linda Lovelace”) with unusual sexual wiring (that’s the cleanest I could make that description). The film made Boreman/Lovelace briefly famous, but she later claimed her husband of the time, Chuck Traynor, forced her into the porn business and kept all the money she made from the film (which anyway, given she didn’t have any entitlement to any of the profits, wasn’t much). She found some version of God, divorced Traynor and married a blue collar guy, with whom she lived in Long Island and had two children. She became an anti-pornography crusader, although she later said she felt used by that movement too, and by her mid-forties she was willing to do a pictorial for a magazine called Leg Show. She underwent a liver transplant, and died from injuries she received in a car accident, at the age of 53.

Deep Throat

Looking at Deep Throat now, she seems like a glum, forlorn personality; you want to believe that even without hindsight, the undercurrent of compulsion or abuse should have been obvious to anyone. If it wasn’t, it might be because everyone else in the movie either looks lousy too, or seems out of it, or both; Lovelace doesn’t address this completely, but suggests the rejection of more conventionally sculptured beauty (even by the standards of then, let alone of now) was at least partly deliberate. This was surely pivotal to its right time/right place impact:  if conventional porn is a plummet into fantasy – an expression of a wish that women would have no desires, no sense of limits, no personality at all really, beyond what’s relevant to pleasuring a man – Deep Throat feels, despite its central conceit, more tethered to humdrum realities of flesh and psyche. It’s relatively businesslike about the money shots, and about concepts of sexual dysfunction; its genuine delight at the idea of Linda’s supposed special talents feels almost endearingly desperate (the movie is an explicit comedy, by the way, to a degree most pornography couldn’t possibly allow itself to be). The director’s artistic pretensions manifest themselves in bursts of silly soundtrack music and montages; most viewers surely always laughed at least in part at it rather than with it, but as it happened, this facilitated its becoming a guilt-free communal experience, rather than a furtive one.

This is hindsight again of course, but it seems to follow from the above that there could never have been much of an aftermath for Linda Lovelace. True consumers of pornography needed to return to darker and less populated rooms; for other casual visitors, the film provided no reason to return – on the contrary, the spectacle would only grow mundane at best, ugly at worst. Famous forty years too early to slide into reality shows, internet or other pop culture self-abasement, Linda made just two more failed films in the next few years, including Deep Throat II,  before moving on with her life.

Sexual Revolution

The curator of the website writes that she was “THE symbol of sexual revolution in the 1970s,” but that only seems true in the sense that profound ambiguity about the motivations of its female participants was inherent to that “revolution.” It’s certainly tempting to view Linda as an embodiment of victimhood, except that her narrative is too extreme and strange to seem like a meaningful window on oppression or exploitation more generally. It feels like a history that might productively be explored by multiple filmmakers, and indeed, there’s apparently another version of the material in the immediate pipeline (once intended to star Lindsay Lohan, whose current film The Canyons might be seen in part as an alternative treatment of the story). In the meantime, Lovelace (also available on demand) seldom feels entirely equal to the possibilities.

The co-directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, do show some interest in the ambiguity of the historical record: the film starts by providing the closest available version to the fairy tale version of her story, eliminating or downplaying all hints of violence or coercion, before doubling back to fill in the gaps. It’s not a very successful strategy though: it could only possibly have worked, it seems to me, if any viewer were sufficiently na├»ve or uninformed to be duped by the evasions of the first section, and even if they were, what would be the point? And in any event, placing the film as a straightforward exercise in blowing away the tinsel (such as it is) to show the grime beneath doesn’t maximize its effectiveness as a social or political touchstone. Saddled with a leadenly conventional approach in all other respects, including a massively overly reticent approach to sexual matters in the circumstances, Lovelace fills time efficiently enough, but no more.

Images of domesticity

Seyfried’s performance is fairly bland, which might have worked in a different context, but here just feels, well, bland. Linda Barnard pointed out how the supporting cast is filled with actors who’ve either been involved in their own “sordid screen sexploits” or else carry some other relevant connotation – Sharon Stone (as her mother), Chloe Sevigny, Chris Noth, James Franco. Perhaps the intention was to suggest the broad scope of Lovelace’s ongoing relevance, but it feels more like one of those self-congratulatory jaunts where the slightest part has to be filled by a recognizable name. In particular, the filming of Deep Throat – with Bobby Cannavale and Hank Azaria as the creative powers – comes across as an absolute hoot, in as convivial and nurturing an environment as one imagines the Sesame Street set to be.

The film ends in the late seventies, sketching her initial steps to remake her image, briefly summarizing her contentment as a wife and mother and her reconciliation with her parents. In a TV interview, she says she only spent a total of seventeen days in the porn business, and asks why that should define her life - a fair question, but not one the film can seriously engage with, given how it expends the bulk of its own efforts on that same period and its immediate aftermath. And it’s no surprise that it presents its images of domesticity as entirely positive, with no acknowledgment that in the big scheme of things, more women have been wronged in kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms than on the sets of porn movies. Still, maybe Epstein and Friedman’s failure to grapple more effectively with the messy trajectory of Linda Boreman/Lovelace/Traynor/Marciano constitutes the film’s most meaningful statement about her, if it means she lived something beyond the easy grasp of Hollywood simplification.

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