Porn and Musicals: An Analogy

So I was watching a movie musical on TV (actually, I was watching “Top Secret,” which has a sequence making fun of movie musicals), and it occurred to me that there’s an interesting similarity between musicals and porn.

Here’s what it is: Nobody watches musicals for their plot. With some notable exceptions, the plot of a musical exists solely as filler: to provide some sort of excuse for the music/dance numbers, and to get from one number to the next. And of course, the same is true for most porn. There are exceptions, of course; but in the overwhelming majority of porn, the plot — if there even is a plot — exists solely to set up the sex scenes.

So here’s what strikes me as unfair. Nobody really objects to plotless movie musicals. Many a musical ranks high in the pantheon among fans of the genre despite its laughably predictable story. As long as the music and dance numbers are superb, people are perfectly happy to grant full marks to a musical, even if the plot is a dumb, hackneyed, formulaic joke.

But people constantly use the plotlessness of porn to point out its worthlessness or triviality. And I don’t think that’s fair. If you think “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” is a great musical despite its silly plot, then you should judge “Barbara Broadcast” or “Slide Bi Me” on the same basis. If a porn movie has great sex scenes — sex scenes that are passionate, enthusiastic, affectionate, fierce, beautiful, wild, or in any other way inspired and inspiring — then it makes no more sense to lambaste the thinness of its plot than it does with “Gold Diggers of 1935.”

After all, I’d sure rather see a porn movie with great sex and a dumb, pointless plot than one with a great plot and dumb, pointless sex. In fact, my biggest complaint about mainstream video porn isn’t the repetitive, predictable, formulaic plots — it’s the repetitive, predictable, formulaic sex. I have actually seen porn videos where I’ve fast-forwarded through the boring sex in order to get to the next bit of interesting plot. And I don’t count those videos as successes.

Now, it’s certainly true that a good, genuine plot can help a musical along. I’d even argue that it usually makes the difference between a good musical and a great one. A good movie musical can certainly carry itself on the strength of its music and dancing — but a great musical, a musical like “Cabaret” or “The Music Man” (or, I would argue, “Once More With Feeling” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), is great because it’s a whole movie, a real movie, a movie that transcends the limitations of the genre even as it embraces it, a movie that expresses something other than “Singing and dancing is fun.”

And porn is much the same way. The rare examples of truly great porn are, in my opinion, the ones that work as whole movies, the ones where the sex is blended into the story as a natural next step for the characters to take, and you care about the sex more because you care about the characters. I agree that that’s a noble goal to reach for, and I’d love to see more pornographers reaching for it. But it’s also an extremely difficult goal, especially given the limitations of porn production (see my review of “Dream Quest” and my comments about the inherent difficulties of a collaborative porn medium). I applaud it heartily when I see it… but I applaud almost as hard when I see a series of vastly entertaining sex scenes, stitched together with a bit of dental floss.

Porn and Musicals: An Analogy

7 thoughts on “Porn and Musicals: An Analogy

  1. 1

    Greta, I had this same “HEY! Wait a minute!” epiphany about porn and musicals a few years back, and shared my thoughts with a film historian. She told me, much to my interest, that “Oklahoma” was the first movie musical that tried to integrate plot and character development into the series of musical/dance numbers… and that it was revolutionary at the time!

  2. 2

    Actually that honor probably goes to “Show Boat” which was the first book musical on Broadway and was made as a movie before Oklahoma was. (Showboat was first done as a mostly silent film with a couple of songs in 1929 but even if you don’t count that, the 1936 version full on sound and music was well before the 1955 filming of Oklahoma).
    Oklahoma was revolutionary for the way it used the dance numbers to further the plot (for example the ballet in Laurie’s dream), so I guess it was the first to use dance numbers to further the plot, but Showboat definitely uses songs (which sometimes had dancing with them) that were integrated and could be argued to have furthured the plot or at least character develpment…. Ok I’m done being a geek now.

  3. 3

    It’s okay, I was having the same geek moment, going “Wait… Oklahoma? But what about Singing in the Rain? What about Meet Me In St. Louis? What about the frikkin Wizard of Oz?
    Now aparently the trick is to get Busby Berkeley to direct a porn movie. Or even better – Fosse!

  4. 4

    So what _are_ those porn movies that so beautifully integrate hot sex and a functional plot? Is there a porn equivalent to Cabaret? Jeepers! Bob Fosse choregraphing hardcore! Now that would be something to see. I’ve seen a few movies that were visually spiffy (I confess to a strong visual bias, so plotless stuff like House of Dreams works just fine for me), but none that didn’t make me wince once the actors started to talk.

  5. 5

    There aren’t many. Most of the porn videos that I think of as transcending the genre’s limitations do so visually rather than narratively — Maria Beatty’s silent kink movies being the prime example. (Her stuff is great, btw — a lot like German art films of the ’20s, as if Murnau or Fritz Lang had a dirty sideline.)
    That being said, there are some pornos with plot where both the plot and the sex are worth watching. None of them are brilliant, IMO — I don’t think the porn “Citizen Kane” has been made yet — but they’re certainly on a level with a decent action movie, or a flawed-but-interesting indie debut effort.
    “Dark Angels.” A supernatural vampire crime thriller. The writing and acting aren’t embarassing (usually), and it actually gets you sucked into the story, which makes you care about the sex more. This one is very high on my list — the acting and writing are mostly quite decent, and the production values are excellent, with a distinctive visual style. Watching it is very much like watching a “real” movie, and I never wanted to fast-forward through the plot — I wanted to find out what would happen.
    “Revelations.” This is one of Candida Royalle’s videos (Candida started Femme Productions, the first adult video company to target a female audience). It’s a “1984”-ish futuristic dystopia about sexual repression — a young woman comes across a stash of home-made porn videos in an empty apartment, left behind by someone who’s been hauled off by the government. When I worked at Blowfish, people who bought it would sometimes write to complain that it was too “political.” Of course, that’s exactly why I liked it. And not just for the politics — I thought it did a good job of conveying the excitement of sex that’s forbidden. (Candida’s movies generally do a decent job with acting and plot — the ones that aren’t just sex pastiches, anyway — but this is the one that stood out for me.)
    “Conflict.” This is cheating, I guess — it’s a series of vignettes, not one full-length story. But each short scenario has a mini-plot, and the plots are integral to the sex, and while the plots aren’t earth-shaking, they’re pretty interesting. Basically, each vignette is based on some sort of conflict that turns into sex. There’s the road-rage people who pull off the road to scream at each other and wind up fucking (still screaming, btw); the woman who catches her fiancee with another woman; an argument in the line for concert tickets; that sort of thing. Instead of just having them fight and then start fucking out of nowhere, in most of the vignettes they expend some effort to make the transition between the two plausible, and to keep up the conflicting energy even during the sex. I guess they’re trying to tap into the “hot sex after a fight” vibe. And it works. (It makes you realize that the overwhelming majority of porn videos are set in this blissfully perfect world where everyone is easily aroused, easily satisfied, and game for anything.)
    “Edge Play,” with Marilyn Chambers (the middle-aged comeback Marilyn Chambers, not the ’70s Golden Age Marilyn Chambers). She plays a businesswoman who meets a wealthy couple that devotes their life to making women’s sexual fantasies come true. But instead of just being a series of fantasy scenarios, it explores this process unfolding and how the main character feels about it. This is another one where the story makes the sex hotter, and the sex makes the story more interesting. And it’s fairly honest about the reality of acting out fantasies in real life — it shows negotating, safewords, fantasies that are too much and have to be called off in the middle, that sort of thing.
    “Enema Bandit Strikes Again.” No, just kidding.
    Anyone else? What are your favorite pornos with plots?
    Oh, if you want to see Bob Fosse’s porn movie, you have to see “All That Jazz” (if you haven’t already). Just one dance sequence, and it’s not explicit (exactly)… but it’s one of the hottest movie sex scenes I’ve seen.

  6. 6

    Porn plots stink! They are merely a waste of time. Instead of boring me to death with terrible plots and acting, give me more sex without the nonsense.

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