From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Pornographic films are motion pictures that explicitly depict sexual intercourse and other sexual acts, typically for the purpose of sexual arousal in the viewer. They appeared shortly after the creation of the motion picture in the early 1900s. Pornographic films have much in common with other forms of pornography. Pornography is often referred to as "porn" and a pornographic work as a "porno." Older names for a pornographic movie include "adult film," "stag film," and "blue movie." In general, "softcore" refers to pornography that does not depict penetration or "extreme fetish" acts, while "hardcore" refers to pornography that depicts penetration and/or extreme fetish acts.
Throughout its history, the movie camera has been used for pornography, but for most of that time pornographic movies were typically available only by underground distribution, for projection at home or in private clubs. Only in the 1970s were pornographic films semi-legitimized; by the 1980s, pornography on home video achieved distribution unimagined only decades earlier. The rise of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s similarly changed distribution of pornography, and furthermore complicated legal prosecution of obscenity.
Pornography is a thriving, financially profitable business: according to a 2004 Reuters article, "The multi-billion-dollar industry releases about 11,000 titles on DVD each year, giving it tremendous power to sway the battle between two groups of studios and technology companies competing to set standards for the next generation".
The history of erotic films began "five minutes" after the film medium was invented.
The post-war era saw developments that further stimulated the growth of a mass market. Technological developments, particularly the introduction of the 8mm and super-8 film gauges, resulted in the widespread use of amateur cinematography. Entrepreneurs emerged to supply this market. In Britain, the productions of Harrison Marks were "soft core", but considered risqué in the 1950s. On the continent, such films were more explicit. Lasse Braun was as a pioneer in quality colour productions that were, in the early days, distributed by making use of his father's diplomatic privileges.
In the 1980s video was the new market of expansion. The 1990s was fueled by the developments on the internet.
19th century: early examples
The history of erotic films began "five minutes" after the film medium was invented with The Kiss (1896).
In the United States, William Kennedy Dickson, while working for Thomas Edison, developed the first practical celluloid film and worked on making the kinetoscope, a peep show machine showing a continuous loop of the film Dickson developed lit by an Edison light source. Dickson left Edison's company to produce the mutoscope, a form of hand-cranked peep-show movie machine. These machines showcased moving images via technique of a revolving drum of card illustrations, taken from an actual piece of film. These were often featured at seaside locations, exhibiting sequences of women undressing or acting as an artist's model. In Britain, these devices became known as "What the butler saw" machines, taking the name from one of the first and most famous softcore reels.
The idea of projecting a moving film onto a screen in front of an audience was a European innovation. In 1895 and 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière and Robert W. Paul gave their first public demonstrations of motion picture projectors.
Pornographic film production commenced almost immediately after the invention of the motion picture in 1895. Two of the earliest pioneers were Eugène Pirou and Albert Kirchner. Kirchner directed the earliest surviving pornographic film for Pirou under the trade name "Léar". The 1896 film, Le Coucher de la Marie showed Louise Willy performing a striptease. Pirou's film inspired a genre of risqué French films showing women disrobing and other filmmakers realised profits could be made from such films.
Because Pirou is nearly unknown as a pornographic filmmaker, credit is often given to other films for being the first. In Black and White and Blue (2008), one of the most scholarly attempts to document the origins of the clandestine 'stag film' trade, Dave Thompson recounts ample evidence that such an industry first had sprung up in the brothels of Buenos Aires and other South American cities by the turn of the century, and then quickly spread through Central Europe over the following few years; however none of these earliest pornographic films is known to survive. According to Patrick Robertson's Film Facts, "the earliest pornographic motion picture which can definitely be dated is A L'Ecu d'Or ou la bonne auberge" made in France in 1908; the plot depicts a weary soldier who has a tryst with a servant girl at an inn. The Argentinian El Satario might be even older; it has been dated to somewhere between 1907 and 1912. He also notes that "the oldest surviving pornographic films are contained in America's Kinsey Collection. One film demonstrates how early pornographic conventions were established. The German film Am Abend (1910) is a ten-minute film which shows a woman masturbating and performing straight sex, fellatio and anal penetration with a man.
Pornographic movies were widespread in the silent movie era of the 1920s, and were often shown in brothels. Soon illegal, stag films, or blue films as they were called, were produced underground by amateurs for many years starting in the 1940s. Processing the film took considerable time and resources, with people using their bathtubs to wash the film when processing facilities (often tied to organized crime) were unavailable. The films were then circulated privately or by traveling salesman but being caught viewing or possessing them put one at the risk of prison.
In the 1960s, some attitudes towards the depiction of sexuality began to change. European movies like I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and Language of Love (1969) were sexually explicit, but were framed as a quasi-documentaries, which made their legal status uncertain.
In 1969, Denmark became the first country to legalize hardcore pornography, followed by toleration in the Netherlands also in 1969. This led to an explosion of commercially produced pornography. Now that being a pornographer was a legitimate occupation, there was no shortage of businessmen to invest in proper plant and equipment capable of turning out a mass-produced, cheap, but quality product. Vast amounts of this new pornography, both magazines and films, were smuggled into other parts of Europe, where it was sold "under the counter" or (sometimes) shown in "members only" cinema clubs.
In the 1970s, more permissive legislation permitted the rise of adult theaters in the United States and many other countries. There was also a proliferation of coin-operated "movie booths" in sex shops that displayed pornographic "loops" (so called because they projected a movie from film arranged in a continuous loop).
Denmark started producing comparatively big-budget theatrical feature film sex comedies such as Bordellet (1972), the Bedside-films (1970–1976) and the Zodiac-films (1973–1978), starring mainstream actors (a few of whom even performed their own sex scenes) and usually not thought of as "porno films" though all except the early Bedside-films included hardcore pornographic scenes. Several of these films still rank among the most seen films in Danish film history.
The first explicitly pornographic film with a plot that received a general theatrical release in the U.S. is generally considered to be Mona the Virgin Nymph (also known as Mona), a 59-minute 1970 feature by Bill Osco and Howard Ziehm, who went on to create the relatively high-budget hardcore/softcore (depending on the release) cult film Flesh Gordon.
The 1971 film Boys in the Sand represented a number of pornographic firsts. As the first generally available gay pornographic film, the film was the first to include on-screen credits for its cast and crew (albeit largely under pseudonyms), to parody the title of a mainstream film (in this case, The Boys in the Band), and to be reviewed by The New York Times. Other notable American hardcore feature films of the 1970s include Deep Throat (1972), Behind the Green Door (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), Radley Metzger's The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975) and Debbie Does Dallas (1978). These were shot on film and distributed in movie theaters. In New York, Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat gained particular notoriety and a certain social acceptance, giving rise to the term "porno chic", perceived as a cultural trend. Many predicted that frank depictions of sex onscreen would soon become commonplace, but culture soon shifted to the more conservative side and that fantasy never came true. William Rotsler expressed this in 1973, "Erotic films are here to stay. Eventually they will simply merge into the mainstream of motion pictures and disappear as a labeled sub-division. Nothing can stop this."
One important court case in the U.S. was Miller v. California (1973). The case established that obscenity was not legally protected, but the case also established the Miller test, a three-pronged test to determine obscenity (which is not legal) as opposed to indecency (which may or may not be legal).
1980s: New technology, new legal cases
With the arrival of the home video cassette recorder in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the pornographic movie industry experienced massive growth and spawned adult stars like Ron Jeremy, Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn, John Holmes, and Traci Lords and directors, such as Gregory Dark. By 1982, most pornographic films were being shot on the cheaper and more convenient medium of videotape. Many film directors resisted this shift at first because of the different image quality that video tape produced, however those who did change soon were collecting most of the industry's profits since consumers overwhelmingly preferred the new format. The technology change happened quickly and completely when directors realised that continuing to shoot on film was no longer a profitable option. This change moved the films out of the theaters and into people's private homes. This was the end of the age of big budget productions and the mainstreaming of pornography. It soon went back to its earthy roots and expanded to cover every fetish possible since filming was now so inexpensive. Instead of hundreds of pornographic films being made each year, thousands now were, including compilations of just the sex scenes from various videos. One could now not only watch pornography in the comfort and privacy of one's own home, but also find more choices available to satisfy specific fantasies and fetishes.
Similarly, the camcorder spurred changes in pornography in the 1980s, when people could make their own amateur sex movies, whether for private use, or for wider distribution.
It has been suggested that, among other things, Sony Betamax lost the Videotape format war to VHS (in becoming the general home video recording/viewing system) because the adult film industry chose VHS instead of the Sony system.
The year 1987 saw an important legal case in the U.S. when the de facto result of California v. Freeman was the legalization of hardcore pornography. Ironically, the prosecution of Harold Freeman was initially planned as the first in a series of legal cases that would have effectively outlawed the production of such movies.
1990s: The Internet age
Two technologies became prominent in the 1990s that changed pornographic movies: the DVD offered better quality picture and sound, and was embraced by pornographers just as enthusiastically as it was embraced by major Hollywood studios and by private consumers. DVD allowed innovations such as "interactive" videos that let the user choose such variables as multiple camera angles, multiple endings and computer-only DVD content.
However, the Internet arguably changed the distribution of pornography more than any earlier technology: rather than ordering movies from an adult bookstore, or through mail-order, people could watch pornographic movies on their computers. Rather than waiting weeks for an order to arrive from another U.S. state, one could download a pornographic movie within minutes (or, later, within a few seconds).
Internet pornography is distributed by means of various sectors of the Internet, primarily via paysites, video hosting services, and peer-to-peer file sharing. While pornography had been traded electronically since the 1980s, it was the invention of the World Wide Web in 1991 as well as the opening of the Internet to the general public around the same time that led to an explosion in online pornography. Like videotapes and DVDs, the Internet has proved popular for distributing pornography because it allows people to view pornography (essentially) anonymously in the comfort and privacy of their homes. It also allows access to pornography by people whose access is otherwise restricted for legal or social reasons.
The Internet also complicated legal prosecution of obscenity cases: if someone downloads a video clip that no one else in their town sees, are community standards violated? If a pornographic movie is produced in one U.S. state and downloaded in another state (after having been routed through half-a-dozen states via an Internet service provider), in which jurisdiction should the legal case be introduced? These and related questions are still being sorted out in U.S. courts.
That same year, Zentropa also produced Idioterne (1998), directed by Lars von Trier, which won many international awards and was nominated for a Golden Palm in Cannes. The film includes a shower sequence with a male erection and an orgy scene with close-up penetration footage (the camera viewpoint is from the ankles of the participants, and the close-ups leave no doubt as to what is taking place). Idioterne started a wave of international mainstream arthouse films featuring explicit sexual images, such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, which starred pornstar Rocco Siffredi.
In 1999, the Danish TV-channel Kanal København started broadcasting hardcore films at night, uncoded and freely available to any TV-viewer in the Copenhagen area (as of 2009, this is still the case, courtesy of Innocent Pictures, a company started by Zentropa).