Preservation Man

Film archivist Justin LaLiberty on the importance of preserving adult films on home video.

Justin LaLiberty is a projectionist, film programmer and archivist, currently working as the director of operations for OCN Distribution, the sister company of Vinegar Syndrome. He is also a member of the curatorial panel overseeing the recent addition of adult titles to Letterboxd, which you can read more about here.

Adult films and home video go in tandem to the point that when most viewers think of adult cinema, they conjure an image of a gated-off video store back room with an 18+ sign, or a box of discarded, dusty VHS tapes (likely in big boxes with salacious art adorning all sides). However, while adult cinema did flourish on VHS and subsequent video formats, it’s a fallacy that it was predominantly a video-based industry.

Adult films began their existence just like other types of moving images did: on photochemical film, on which they were shot, cut and exhibited to audiences for years before video even existed, let alone was adopted by the general public.

We tend to think of sexually liberated content as something newfound, as if our ancestors were much more puritanically minded, but erotic cinema (including moving-image depictions of unsimulated sex acts) has existed for as long as cinema itself, with striptease films being produced in 1896, the same year that saw films from Georges Méliès and Louis Lumière stun audiences around the world. That said, they weren’t always legal, and producing them, possessing them, and certainly screening them, could mean fines or even jail time depending on territory.

From the 1920s and going into the 1930s, the prohibition of pornography (not just in moving image form, but still images and even illustrations) existed alongside the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, the result of which was stag films; secretly exhibited short reels of film that graphically depicted sex acts, and were not always concerned with narrative—some of which may more closely resemble the internet porn of the 2000s and on (with respect to gonzo material) than the more lavish, narrative-driven productions of the Golden Age. Like films of the silent era in general, many stag films (impossible to estimate how many) have been lost due to lack of preservation efforts and murky or non-existent means of distribution.

In recent years, more of these have been preserved by unlikely sources. Despite what many may think, film archives (yes, even the most well-known ones) have plenty of adult films in them. They, after all, are cultural repositories, and even though popular film discourse may ignore our cinema’s horny past, archives by their very nature really can’t. However, regardless of what content they provide necessary cultural stewardship to, those holdings are rarely—if ever—made public, and restoration funding is typically targeted at projects that are more likely to circulate and/or garner more donations towards future preservation efforts.

Rather, the more public means of preserving films like the once-underground stag films of decades past is home video; in this case, the expansive 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection from Synapse Films imprint Impulse Pictures, which is now onto volume 49 of the popular DVD series collecting hundreds of stag films from the 1960s through to the 1980s. All of these films were circulated on 8mm-projection copies via sex-magazine mail order or distributed to peep-show booths found in adult stores in urban centers.

A vintage 8mm print of The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), offered for sale by a private collector.
A vintage 8mm print of The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), offered for sale by a private collector.

While these peep-show films aren’t all too concerned with narrative, they offer a window into how audiences interacted with sexually explicit material both in public and private at a certain point in history. In most other eras, there existed a dichotomy between the public and private, as 35mm (or, in some cases, 16mm) film prints were distributed to movie theaters for exhibition and, later on, VHS or Betamax copies were sold and/or rented for home use. But these 8mm stag films existed in one format for both modes of viewership—either in the privacy of one’s home via a tabletop projector, or in the public space of a store for a viewing fee.

Now available to be viewed at home—again—uncensored, and contextualized in a multi-volume series, these films that have rarely, if ever, been discussed in regards to cinema history can be a part of the conversation again. If not for the content of the films themselves, at the very least in regards to film distribution and spaces of spectatorship.

Existing before, after and in tandem with the 8mm stag films were adult feature films. Typically attributed to the success of titles like Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil In Miss Jones (1973), these narrative features included hardcore sex in context with a story and, oftentimes but not always, higher production values than many of the more underground sex films that predated them. This period, usually referred to as the Golden Age of adult cinema, is the easiest era to point to in regards to the historical and cultural argument for including sex films in film canons alongside other important movies of the era.

However, despite noted historical importance, not all (or even most) of the feature sex films made during this period were necessarily well-preserved, and a good number of them also fell into the public domain over time, making the provenance of materials not always easy to trace. As such, outside of companies like Distribpix, which has been around for nearly six decades as a distributor and archive of adult films, there hasn’t been a great deal of attention paid to preserving even the most notable adult films, at least by major organizations.

We at Vinegar Syndrome maintain a large archive of print and pre-print materials (negatives and intermediate elements) for sex films from various decades. We have made a sincere attempt to restore and distribute many of those on home video, as has Distribpix with its own, expansive catalog, including titles like The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975). Keeping these elements in cold storage, conserved and available for scanning and/or exhibition is only one part of the fight to make them accessible and part of the conversation around film history.

35mm reels of The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975) at Distribpix.
35mm reels of The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975) at Distribpix.

The other major piece to this is home video. As with the aforementioned Peep Show Collection from Impulse Pictures, home video (in this case DVD, Blu-ray and even 4K UHD) allows these films to be readily accessible at home for many viewers who weren’t alive or otherwise able to see them in theaters when they were released. It’s also a chance, as with canon titles from boutique labels like Criterion or Kino Lorber, to allow for continued study and scholarship to be gleaned from these films as texts. Both Vinegar Syndrome and Distribpix regularly include supplemental materials that contextualize and enrich the experience of viewing these films in a home space, offering a chance to engage with the content beyond the (very high) entertainment value and/or requisite sensational potential.

Home video also allows for those who want to view and/or study these films to bypass the internet, which poses many hindrances for adult films, despite being the leading avenue for their continued existence, usually via tube sites like Pornhub. But, existing in tandem with contemporary tube sites are venues like Hotmovies and that make a concerted effort to showcase new restorations and even un-restored scans of vintage sex films, offering both an alternative to home video as well as a companion to it.

In recent years, scholarship around adult films has become a burgeoning field. Home video gets its close up in Peter Alilunas’ book Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video, while the exquisitely edited collection of essays, Porn Archives, focuses on the archival canon. It is clear that the further removed we become from these films, the more accepted into the canon they are, yet the more that time goes on, the more risk is posed to their physical elements. The continued support of these titles on home video is paramount to their survival both physically and culturally.

Expecting every cinephile to sit down and watch Behind the Green Door (1972) or Thundercrack! (1975) with an open mind, ready to approach it objectively, is wishful thinking. We all know that sex can, will and often does complicate things both on and off screen. But the very act of making these films accessible to viewers who wish to view them, and bringing them onto a platform like Letterboxd for continued discussion, seeks to fill gaps in film history and criticism—and to offer increased cultural context (such as the intrinsic importance of all-male sex films to the roots of gay cinema, as outlined by Evan Purchell).

However you cut it, adult films started at the inception of cinema as we know it and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They helped make cinema, for better or worse, and we owe it to the films, their creators and audiences past and present to preserve their history, integrity and passion for future generations.

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