Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography

The first I ever heard of the notorious Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography was Stephen Schiff’s scathing review of it in the excellent critical compendium Flesh and Blood. “A fuzzy-headed documentary,” he called it, excoriating it for being “an anti-porn jeremiad.” He was pretty much on the money. The film is useless as a serious inquiry into adult entertainment, but it’s invaluable as a snapshot of a place and time (early-’80s Canada) where a movie like this could be taken seriously. (It apparently continues to be shown in college seminars.) And it’s of obvious cult interest as a well-meaning anti-porn flick that shows copious amounts of the stuff it condemns. In form, and often in practice, it’s a lot like the roadshow quickies of the ’30s (Reefer Madness, Cocaine Fiends, etc.), which were at least entertainingly shameless about serving up bad behavior before administering the “moral.”

Documentarian Bonnie Sherr Klein (who later suffered a catastrophic stroke and wrote a book about it; her daughter Naomi is the author of the well-regarded leftist-anthem book No Logo) doesn’t exactly craft a seething hate letter to porn; she just gives a lot of time to the seethers (like Robin Morgan, a self-described “man hater”) and no screen time to any sensible, non-sleazy defenses of porn. It’s about as unbiased a film as a Michael Moore sucker-punch, only not nearly as funny (indeed, it’s pretty grim) or as biting. Even some of the more eloquent speakers here, like Susan Griffin or Kate Millett, seem to miss the point: The true sin of most garden-variety porn is not so much that it objectifies women as that it commodifies a sacred, intimate act. And let’s not pretend that male porn actors, chosen for their penis size and their ability to screw on command and ejaculate on cue, are any less objectified by the pitiless gaze of the camera.

Filmed between 1979 and 1981, Not a Love Story is by now hopelessly out of it; porn videos, for instance, were only just starting to emerge as an industry force — most of the film’s milieu is dedicated to peep shows, strip clubs, and porno shops — and the Internet and its role in porn weren’t even dreamt of. The movie’s central figure, the innocent-looking Linda Lee Tracey, starts out as an unapologetic stripper (she brings a sense of goofiness and fun to her work that the movie doesn’t quite know how to acknowledge) and ends up an anti-porn crusader literally shouting from a soapbox outside a peep show. If the movie were made today, Linda might start out as a webcam starlet — exhibitionism and voyeurism without risk or contact.

Klein takes Linda on a tour through the scuzzier outposts of the industry, and some of what we see is fairly gross and disturbing (grainy footage of a woman fellating a gun barrel, for example). But some of what we see is also relatively harmless and affectionate. Yet it’s all treated with the same alarmist doomsaying. Is the lustful male gaze really all that evil? What about the lustful female gaze? The movie doesn’t get into porn that women might enjoy (admittedly, there probably wasn’t as much of that around at the time as there is now), and steers completely clear of gay male porn and S&M porn with the female as dominatrix — two subgenres of erotica that blow Klein’s argument out of the water. Porn is set up as the straw man that incites rape, and there was a lot of that in the air back then: heavy metal caused suicide, Dungeons & Dragons warped kids’ minds, blah blah blah. Essentially we’re talking about fear of fantasy.

Funded by the National Film Board of Canada, Not a Love Story is a rare item for the non-scholar to find (I got my copy through interlibrary loan from Wisconsin!). Anyone interested in intellectual grapplings with porno and the representation of women in film should probably sit down with it at some point, whether one agrees with its thesis. But the clear-headed, non-agenda-oriented (that means not pro-porn, either) film about pornography has yet to be made — perhaps because porn speaks so loudly for itself.

Explore posts in the same categories: documentary, porn

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