Jack’s Naughty Bits: Umberto Eco, Come riconoscere un film porno (How To Recognize a Porn Movie When You See One)

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Jack's Naughty Bits

psychotherapists make a big deal of kids seeing their parents screwing. Many a shrink, confronted with my battery of functionality-disabling neuroses, has asked if I ever snuck a peek. No way, man! — at least not that I remember. “Ja,” they note, “not zat you remember. Very interestink.” And then they write in their notebooks. Creepy, that write-in-the-notebook thing, though they were probably just making grocery lists.


For me, the real concern is not seeing your parents having sex, but seeing yourself having sex. That’s what’s fucked up. As John Barth points out in his first novel, The Floating Opera, “If you are young and would live on love; if in the flights of intercourse you feel that you and your beloved are fit models for a Phidias, for a Michelangelo — then don’t, I implore you, be so foolish as to include among the trappings of your love nest a good plate mirror. For a mirror can only reflect what it sees, and what it sees is screamingly funny.” He’s right, of course, it is funny — disastrously so, what with the, in my case, lily-white booty up in the air, the tongue aloll, the arms and legs oh-so akimbo. Sex is a grim reminder that there are spectator sports and there are sports that are better just to play. Despite the success of porn as evidence to the contrary, it is clear that the beast with two backs does a most curious jig. To watch it successfully (pleasantly, that is), you have to divorce the act from the humans involved. The moment of peril comes when you recognize, Oh my god, that’s ME! Yuck! To see copulation with anonymous or at least superhumanly famous participants allows ample abstraction for the indiscriminate sex button to be pushed (like the prostate G-spot that is supposed to make men come automatically), but to know the humans involved is to see sex non-symbolically, to uncover it as the atavistic twitch that it is.


Pornography is thus dependent on a certain distance from the everyday while at the same time reliant on the illusion of realism (or at least the hint of possibility) that encourages the viewer to superimpose her or himself over the protagonists. This need for mundane normalcy is the topic of one of Umberto Eco’s hysterical “Instruzioni per l’uso” (User’s Manuals), short essays he wrote for an Italian magazine on everything from how to avoid infectious diseases to, in this case, how to recognize a porno movie. After reading this, you, like former Supreme Court Justice Stewart, will know porn when you see it.

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From “Come riconoscere un film porno”

(How To Recognize a Porn Movie When You See One) by Umberto Eco

Translated by Jack Murnighan

I don’t know if you’ve ever happened to see a porn movie. I don’t mean a movie that has some erotic elements, like Last Tango in Paris, for example . . . but a pornographic film, whose one true aim is to bring forth desire from the viewer, from start to finish, in a manner where, other than the various and variable images that evoke said desire, everything else is gratuitous.


Magistrates often have to decide if a movie is purely pornographic or if it has some artistic merit . . . And, as it turns out, there is a criterion that can be used to decide; it is based on a calculation of time wasted . . . Porno movies in order to justify the price of the ticket or videocassette, need to have certain people having sensual relations: men with women, men with men, women with women, women with dogs or horses (I’ll note in passing that there are no porno movies where men have sex with dogs or horses; why?). All this would be fine, except they are full of wasted time.


If Gilbert, in order to rape Gilberta, has to go from the piazza at Cordusio to Buenos Aires, the film shows Gilbert driving, stoplight after stoplight, the length of the trip . . .


The reasons are obvious. A film in which Gilbert did nothing but rape Gilberta, from the front, from behind, from the side, wouldn’t be sustainable, neither for the actors, nor economically for the producer. Nor would it be for the viewer: in order for transgression to work psychologically, it has to take place against a background of normalcy . . .


And thus porno movies are forced to represent everyday life, in a way that the viewer will recognize it. If Gilbert needs to take a bus from A to B, it shows Gilbert taking a bus from A to B.


This annoys the viewer, who would prefer if there were only scenes containing the unspeakable. But that’s an illusion. One wouldn’t be able to withstand an hour and a half of scenes of the unspeakable. The dead time is necessary . . .


And thus, I repeat: if you are in a movie theater, and the time it takes the protagonists to go from A to B is longer than what you would like it to be, then it means the film is a porno.