A pornographic movie, in contrast, to justify the price of the ticket or the purchase of the cassette, tells us that certain people couple sexually, men with women, men with men, women with women, women with dogs or stallions (I might point out that there are no pornographic films in which men couple with mares and bitches: why not?). And this would still be all right: but it is full of wasted time.

With humor and astuteness, this is what Umberto Eco wrote in one of his brief texts of Misreadings (1992), a compilation of entertainments that he regularly published in the Italian press in the 1970s. In “How to Recognize a Porn Film,’ Eco makes no hesitation in placing pornography on the same level as outstanding films in the history of cinema such as Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) or The Adventure (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960).

To establish his method of comparison, the Italian semiotician makes use of a premise so obvious that it often goes unnoticed: in art, the real difficulty is presenting the everyday; what we see in our daily lives. “In some ways nobody expects to find what we face every day in a work, and if that sometimes happens it is because there has been an attempt to in some way face that everyday life.”

And so why are pornographic films full of ‘dead time’ that reproduces, step by step, actions as banal as entering a house or taking a bus? Eco writes:

Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan. To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau.

There are obvious reasons. A movie in which Gilbert did nothing but rape Gilbertina, front, back, and sideways, would be intolerable. Physically, for the actors, and economically, for the producer. And it would also be, psychologically, intolerable for the spectator: for the transgression to work, it must be played out against a background of normality. To depict normality is one of the most difficult things for any artist – whereas portraying deviation, crime, rape, torture, is very easy.

Therefore the pornographic movie must present normality – essential if the transgression is to have interest – in the way that every spectator conceives it. Therefore, if Gilbert has to take the bus and go from A to B, we will see Gilbert taking the bus and then the bus proceeding from A to B.

If Gilbert, in order to rape Gilbertina, has to go from Lincoln Center to Sheridan Square, the film shows you Gilbert, in his car, throughout the whole journey, stoplight by stoplight.

Eco’s idea is daring but totally reasonable. With ingenuity, he shows us the mechanisms with which cinema functions as a product of cultural consumption, whatever the genre of the film. With these guidelines, the criterion is infallible.

I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

The full text is here.

A pornographic movie, in contrast, to justify the price of the ticket or the purchase of the cassette, tells us that certain people couple sexually, men with women, men with men, women with women, women with dogs or stallions (I might point out that there are no pornographic films in which men couple with mares and bitches: why not?). And this would still be all right: but it is full of wasted time.

With humor and astuteness, this is what Umberto Eco wrote in one of his brief texts of Misreadings (1992), a compilation of entertainments that he regularly published in the Italian press in the 1970s. In “How to Recognize a Porn Film,’ Eco makes no hesitation in placing pornography on the same level as outstanding films in the history of cinema such as Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) or The Adventure (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960).

To establish his method of comparison, the Italian semiotician makes use of a premise so obvious that it often goes unnoticed: in art, the real difficulty is presenting the everyday; what we see in our daily lives. “In some ways nobody expects to find what we face every day in a work, and if that sometimes happens it is because there has been an attempt to in some way face that everyday life.”

And so why are pornographic films full of ‘dead time’ that reproduces, step by step, actions as banal as entering a house or taking a bus? Eco writes:

Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan. To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau.

There are obvious reasons. A movie in which Gilbert did nothing but rape Gilbertina, front, back, and sideways, would be intolerable. Physically, for the actors, and economically, for the producer. And it would also be, psychologically, intolerable for the spectator: for the transgression to work, it must be played out against a background of normality. To depict normality is one of the most difficult things for any artist – whereas portraying deviation, crime, rape, torture, is very easy.

Therefore the pornographic movie must present normality – essential if the transgression is to have interest – in the way that every spectator conceives it. Therefore, if Gilbert has to take the bus and go from A to B, we will see Gilbert taking the bus and then the bus proceeding from A to B.

If Gilbert, in order to rape Gilbertina, has to go from Lincoln Center to Sheridan Square, the film shows you Gilbert, in his car, throughout the whole journey, stoplight by stoplight.

Eco’s idea is daring but totally reasonable. With ingenuity, he shows us the mechanisms with which cinema functions as a product of cultural consumption, whatever the genre of the film. With these guidelines, the criterion is infallible.

I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

The full text is here.

Tagged: , ,