book review by David Ng
Those of us who regard cinematic porn with snide disdain may learn a thing or two from Babylon Blue, a new book that surveys the entire genre from its crude birth in the late 19th century all the way to its renaissance in the late 1990s. Written with enthusiasm bordering on ecstasy by David Flint, Babylon Blue just manages to "[scratch] the surface of a hugely prolific industry." This is both its curse and saving grace. There’s information galore, but it’s all foreplay. The facts don’t culminate to any sort of peak. If anything, Babylon Blue is masturbatory. The author is having all of the fun.
And yet the book emits an undeniable magnetism. The titles alone – Hienie’s Heroes, Nude on the Moon, and my favorite, Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS -- are enough to keep the most detached readers reading. The language is appropriately blue. The words fuck, dick, and cunt make frequent appearances. And interspersed between chapters are interviews with the porno industry elite. The best interview is with actress/producer Jane Hamilton who recounts her life in porn with the plucky enthusiasm of a Girl Scout. The glee with which Babylon Blue tackles its subject is infectious. Porn emerges as a fully-formed genre as complex as the Western and film noir.
Babylon Blue will work best for those unfamiliar with adult films. Its chronological retelling is easy to follow and makes few demands on readers who want to learn about the genre without plunging into its darkest bowels. We learn about Deep Throat whose 1972 release proved that porn could be titillating and respectable. Deep Throat ushered in a string of arthouse porn – adult movies with high production values aimed at the couples audience. Among them were The Devil in Miss Jones, The Resurrection of Eve and Through the Looking Glass. Then came the 1980s. The availability of video recording equipment meant that anyone could churn out a quickie video in a matter of weeks. Production values plummeted. Audiences no longer entertained the possibility that adult movies could be legitimate form of cinema. Not until the mid-90’s did an infusion of talented filmmakers (most notably writer Antonio Passolini) bring hope to the fallen industry. This stunning string of events is a grand soap opera about an empire won, lost, and, perhaps, regained.
Readers who are already acquainted with filmed erotica will probably find Babylon Blue shallow, lightweight and shapeless. There is no sustained argument, no thesis, that glues the chapters together. The author does little more than rattle off a laundry list of movies and dates. He barely lands on one before flying off to discuss another. It is also unclear from which direction he is approaching his subject. Is it as a dispassionate reporter? Or as a critic? He peppers his often journalistic prose with judgmental asides ranging from adulation to insult. But before he can consummate his commentary, he has moved on. "The history of filmed pornography is almost as long as the history of film," wrote critic Roger Ebert. To cover this enormous history in a single (and slim) volume is virtually impossible.
The result is a book with a lot of contour and zero depth. Had the author focused on one chapter and expanded upon it, Babylon Blue would have become more exploratory and less journalistic. One potential prospect is the chapter entitled "Euro Porn." In the 1960s and 70s, European filmmakers were more successful than their American counterparts at infusing artistic merit into their porn productions. Films like I Am Curious, Yellow (Sweden), The Last Tango in Paris (Italy/France) and In the Realm of the Senses (France/Japan) pushed the genre towards pioneering levels of seriousness. Sex stands for something else in these movies, something abstract and introspective. Even the infamous Caligula (Italy/Britain) aspires to more than just orgiastic debauchery. How Euro porn flirted with various levels of artistic sophistication is a rich subject that could have easily been its own book.
Despite its inherent flaws, Babylon Blue approaches what no mainstream book about movies would venture near. It imparts dignity to a once disgraced movie genre. It also accomplishes its stated goal: to inspire its readers to further research. Without question, the book accomplishes its objectives, but does not attempt to reach beyond. The author, who praises porn auteurs with spiraling artistic ambition, ought to heed his own insight.
Babylon Blue: An Illustrated History of Adult Cinema by David Flint is now available in a trade paperback edition from Creation Books. 256 pages. Suggested list price: $22.95. For more information, check out the Creation Books Web site.