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Monday, November 07, 2011

ANNIE SPRINKLE'S HERSTORY OF PORN: REEL TO REAL (1999)

WARNING!!! If the frank discussion of some of the grottier elements that can be found in porno offends you or grosses you out, you are strongly advised to give this entry a miss. And bear in mind that this warning is coming from me, so take that for what it's worth.

"Pornography is the mirror in which we can see our reflections. The same image may appear beautiful one day, and ugly the next, be liberating one year, and offensive later. How wonderful to have the opportunity to take a look. To learn and, perchance, to dream. Making porn is a lot harder than you might think. I've never even come close to capturing the magnificence of my best sexual experiences. One thing is for sure: in just twenty-five years, we have come a long way. The answer to really bad porn is not no porn, but to try to make better porn. No matter where we stand, pornography reflects us all."-Annie Sprinkle

As is probably apparent to my regular readers, I am unashamedly fascinated by pornography, not merely as a means to a solo orgasmic end, but mostly as an earthy, fleshly reflection of who and what we are as sexual human animals. And while I have been known to enjoy such material for its most obvious intended use from time to time, I’m always interested in learning about the history of the medium, a form that goes back as far as the moment when the first cave-person fashioned a curvy goddess statue from crude earth or put pigment to cave wall to depict primitive images of copulation.

So anyway, about a week back I stopped by a kiosk in Manhattan's Union Square where a couple of guys sell assorted "gray market" DVDs, and the more erudite of the two, remembering my interest in documentaries on the history of porn, offered me what he believed to be an overview of American tenderloin cinema as hosted/narrated by veteran porn star Annie Sprinkle. I accepted the disc, ANNIE SPRINKLE'S HERSTORY OF PORN, and took it home, allowing it to sit atop a "to be watched" stack for a few days before I threw it into my player for a late-night screening. (And it really was a screening and not a moment of "relaxing the gentleman's way;" I was on the phone with my equally-insomniac friend, Daisy, as I watched the first half of it, so there was no five-knuckle shuffling going on.)

Our humble raconteur and documentary subject, Annie Sprinkle (née Ellen Steinberg).

For those of you out there who have no idea who Annie Sprinkle is, she's a notorious bisexual porn star/prostitute/stripper/performance artist who was born Ellen Steinberg in Philadelphia and has re-invented herself several times throughout her career, now enriching the world with performance pieces and other works that disseminate perhaps the most sex-positive vibes in American society's hypocritically puritanical sexual landscape. For what it's worth, I really like Annie's sweet and adorable persona and the joy and utterly shameless happiness in sex that she merrily espouses like some kind of bubbly and lewd Yoda with big ol' titties, so I was totally down with her acting as a guide through the history of American porno's golden age.

Such a journey, however, was not what I got when I started watching ANNIE SPRINKLE'S HERSTORY OF PORN. It instead turned out to be a very thorough and heartfelt video autobiography/career retrospective beginning with Annie's time in assorted porn that began as conventional beast-with-two-backs reels and going up through her then-current role as a DIY sex-educator/sexual shamaness-goddess, and I could have dealt with that just fine if it had not been comprehensive enough to include footage from some of Sprinkle's more, er, "specialized" efforts. To be fair, Sprinkle herself does warn the viewer that if there's anything onscreen that they may not want to see, they can simply "cover your eyes and it'll pass, and please try to keep an open mind until the very, very end," and it's advice I wish I'd heeded in more than one instance. You see, Sprinkle's work in straight porno was already rather raunchy even by the somewhat nebulously-defined standards of the genre, and some of it could be considered "nasty" in terms of her very game willingness to do just about anything on camera, but as of the late-1970's she adventurously veered waaaaay into fetish stuff that Sprinkle claimed led to most mainstream porno directors no longer hiring her because she'd gained a rep as being "too kinky." Included during the fetish overview are segments including the following:
  • Sprinkle's signature golden shower antics
  • dwarf-fucking (the guy in that equation, Luis De Jesus, played the vile Ralphus in the "classic" grindhouse gore opus BLOOD-SUCKING FREAKS)
  • Annie shoving a toothbrush into the orifices not found on her head (don't worry, it wasn't the brushy end)
  • Annie getting seriously rodgered with a hefty kielbasa
  • heavy-duty bondage and rape-fantasy stuff
  • Annie getting fisted (stumped?) by an amputee
  • close-up removal of swamped, bloody feminine hygiene products
  • Annie being graphically fisted herself and then graphically fisting some splayed-out skinny guy with her mitt lodged up him well past her wrist, after which she introduced his sundered butthole to an enormous dildo at least two feet in length and about as wide around as a can of Chock Full O' Nuts coffee
  • an absolutely revolting "rainbow shower" segment in which our girl pukes all over some scruffy meth-addict-looking dude, barfing into his open mouth and jerking him off with fresh hurl as a lubricant (Sprinkle somewhat defuses that last bit by stating that they actually used canned soup, which is apparent when one goes back and really examines the footage, but nonetheless yecch...)
Maybe I'm just too "vanilla" but none of the stuff on that list strikes me as erotic in any way, which is not to say I wouldn't have watched it for its curiosity value if I had been truly forewarned. And, to tell the truth, I had already seen examples of all of that kind of stuff since I hit college, so none of it was new to me. (Though I had avoided the menstrually-related material; I'm not squeamed-out by period stuff thanks to the realities encountered when involved with girlfriends and also due to most of my friends being female and very candid about their "lady business" — there is nothing in that department that I have not heard about firsthand and in medically-graphic detail — but I don't find such stuff appealing as my porn fodder of choice.)

Anyway, following that overwhelming fetish-pummeling, Sprinkle's focus mercifully shifts to 1982's DEEP INSIDE ANNIE SPRINKLE, which she claims was the first porno film conceived from a woman's point of view, and from which she moved into crafting a more female-centric pornographic experience. Then, as the 1980's got going and the era of "new age" healing and philosophy dawned (which, if you ask me, was little more than a re-discovery of the Eastern stuff the '60's counter-culture dabbled in, only now seasoned with dashes of neo-paganism), Sprinkle hooked up with a Tantric adept who guided her into her first deeply spiritual experience with sex and sexuality. She emerged from her time with him a woman energized and transformed, who sought to share her epiphany with all whose hearts and minds were open to it, as well as seeking to educate the people on safer sex so awareness would be raised and the very act of loving would not continue to be a sensually-disguised Grim Reaper in the age of AIDS. That era in Sprinkle's development can be seen as akin to a narrative in which the protagonist, having undergone the assorted tests that would forge them into a hero that rang true to Campbell's theories on "the heroic journey," comes back to the world they left behind in search of adventure and learning imparted through said trials, returning with a beatific sense of wisdom and self. Some would find such espousing of these sentiments to be just so much self-serving hippy-dippy bullshit but I definitely get where Sprinkle's coming from when she discusses it, and my buying into what she has to say on the subject goes back as far as when I read her excellent and highly recommended book, POST-PORN MODERNIST (1991).

From there, Sprinkle expanded her horizons by identifying as a lesbian and becoming an artist who appeared in pornographic "art" films and performance art pieces, such as the now-infamous "Public Cervix Announcement," in which she would appear seated onstage, sans undergarments, schlamp a speculum up herself and let intrigued audience members check out her cervix, up close and personal (which is unfortunately not covered in this documentary). She then addresses the fact that she's getting older (she was forty-our at the time) and approaches that aspect of life as another avenue or exploration and the gaining of wisdom and self-understanding. There's even a "how to make a porno" fantasy sequence in which Sprinkle appears as an aging mermaid who initiates a younger mermaid into the pleasures of the flesh and eventually dies, but not before happily passing the torch on to the younger generation, secure in the knowledge that those who succeed her will only expand upon what she has imparted. Though kind of goofily presented, that coda was actually quite beautiful and filled with more genuine meaning than anything found in any three-thousand garden variety porno flicks that one could provide as counter-examples.

This career retrospective/gentle manifesto could not possibly be more sexually explicit if it tried, and some of its content will most likely be objectionable to some members of the audience, but I, for one, greatly appreciate and admire the efforts of this porn icon who used her position as a "sacred whore" of the media to enlighten and inform. What some would condemn as a sordid career path can be seen here by the open-minded as a celebration and exploration of the limits – or rather the non-limits — of human sexuality and the positive power of self-reinvention, and if anyone is going to be a guide through those waters, I'm glad it was Annie Sprinkle. Armed with a cheery, sunshiney sense of humor and an air of earthy, womanly sweetness, I can't help but find her utterly appealing and quite adorable, and in every way the welcome antithesis to the faceless, emotionless replicants who infest the porn landscape and render it so largely joyless. If only there were more individuals with her warmth involved, maybe the porn industry would not be as reviled of an entity as it unfortunately is.

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