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December 1993


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 19 Dec 1993 18:38:13 EST
Your message of Fri, 17 Dec 93 00:11:05 -0500. <[log in to unmask]>
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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James Schamus poses some interesting observations regarding his discomfort
teaching pornographic texts in his classes. I think the questions he poses
are key ones many of us confront as we try to encorporate new research
in pornography, the insights of HARD CORE, CAUGHT LOOKING, DIRTY LOOKS, etc.
into our teaching. I thought I would share a few experiences I have had dealing
with porn in the classroom.
   I teach sections from Linda Williams in my Film Analysis seminar. The
group is a mature one, mostly juniors and seniors, mostly students I have
had in previous choices and nudged to take the course because of their
serious interest in film. I teach the pornography fairly late in the term,
after they have a vocabulary for talking about film style, after they have
read Laura Mulvey for instance and worked there way through Bordwell and
Thompson. I screen a tape of shorts made by Candida Royale and the Femme
collective, which I rent from a local video store which has a porn selection.
The tape, called FEMME, includes a variety of different sex acts, explicitly
presented, but reflecting the feminist remaking of the genre which Royale and
her collective members have sparked. In that sense, the selection is a fairly
safe one -- aestheticized, without the most controversal aspects of porn,
produced by a self-proclaimed feminist, although still well within the hardcore
genre. I told the students a day in advance what we were going to be seeing and
the context in which we would be studying it. I told them that they did not have
 to come to the class and that they would not be required to write on the
material if they choose not to do so. (In two classes, I have never had a
student choose to skip this particular class session, nor have I had a
single complaint about its inclusion, except from the occasional student
who knows the genre well and thinks I could have made a more adventurous
choice.) We talk about the narrative content of the films -- the relations
between the characters, the power dynamics and the subjectivity that is a
central concern of Royale and Femme. We talk about the camera work and
editing -- the dependence of this group upon long takes, fluid cameramovements
which create a "full body eroticism" that contrasts sharply with the rapid
cuts, fragmentation, and fetishization of traditional pornography. We talk
about the production process and about the contexts in which the videos
will be seen. We talk about the students' reactions and the political
debates surrounding pornography. The students are encouraged to deal with the
films like any other film as posing a range of aesthetic and ideological
questions. The discussion is lively, frank, but it never has gotten out of
hand. I take two additional precautions, primarily because I still don't have
tenure and while I am following the university's guidelines in handling such
materials, I don't want to raise too much public profile. I list the screening
on the syllibus as TBA, since syllibuses tend to circulate beyond the class.
And, I have the students get the tapes directly from me if they want to write
about them, rather than checking them out through the usual library proceedures.
   I have found this a rewarding teaching experience that allows me to
directly confront issues that matter in the students' lives. I recommend it to
other teachers but I think you have to work through your own comfort with the
images first. Screen the tape yourself several times until you have become
quite dulled to it. You need to be there to provide support for students who
may be more uncomfortable with the images.
   The second time I taught the course, I found that I had only a few women in
a largely male group, so I asked a female academic friend of mine, Eithnee
Johnson, who has written about the Femme collective, to join me for the
discussion and that proved very helpful in allowing the women to feel more
comfortable participating within the exchange. The other change I made the
second time I taught the video was to include clips from more mainstream porn
movies. I found that many of the students had no familiarity with any specific
examples of the genre and it seemed important for them to see what porn often
is so that they can understand how Femme is remaking it. We choose to show clips
 from a tape of the Adult Entertainment Industry Awards, to show mainstream
scenes which were chosen as outstanding examples of the genre, and which
display some of its dominant characteristics. Again, I stressed the academic
rationale of the exercise and created a climate which was serious yet
 comfortable for discussing the images.
   I don't think it is helpful to deal with any aspect of popular culture in
purely abstract or theoretical terms. If we are going to teach this new work
on pornography, our students need to anchor it with specific images and we
need to take some risks as instructors to insure a full exchange about those
images. I think one needs to consider the context and the students involved
before taking such risks. I think one needs to work through your own emotional
relationship to the images first, rather than presenting your own discomfort
to the students as a role model for how to thinking about such representations.
I think you have to accept that students will have a range of responses, some
emotional, some intellectual to the material, and you have to allow them to
discuss those responses and discourage too much backlash against any ideas
--Henry Jenkins