Of the twelve silent pornographic shorts compiled in his new movie, The Good Old Naughty Days, director Michel Reilhac says “They are now a part of our history and certainly a part of the secret history of cinema. In their own amusing way these images involve us in a very direct, physical and intimate relationship with the good old days. They show us how human nature really operates, has continuously remained the same and will certainly never change.”
The latter part of Reilhac’s statement is at least partially true. The universal appeal of sex is what gives The Good Old Naughty Days its power to charm, amuse and arouse seventy or eighty years after the films were originally made. But if sex were seen the same in every time and every place, then there would be no reason to shell out ten bucks for admission to an art house instead of renting a tape at Good Vibes or Frenchy’s for your evening’s smut intake. There would, for that matter, be little reason for Reilhac himself to have painstakingly combed through approximately 150 one-reel films to finally select the 67 minutes of smut that make up this feature, which has toured European film festivals such as Cannes and the Regus London Film Festival with great success since its release last year. On March 28, it made its American premiere in New York and will appear in limited release in selected cities, including San Francisco.
The very creation of the film reveals some interesting differences in sexual cultures, especially now, when patriotic Americans are being urged to prove their patriotism by renounce anything even vaguely French. Except for one American animated short at the end, the films in The Good Old Naughty Days are entirely French, made in the 1920’s for the entertainment of clients at Paris’s best brothels while they waited for their turn in one of the more private rooms. Over 300 of these smutty one-reelers were discovered in the attic of a “respectable” family, and over half have been archived and restored by the Centre National de la Cinématographie, the governmental institution in charge of promoting France’s cinematic heritage. The same political thinkers in this country that most disparage the French are also those who daily make me feel that my right to watch films such as Reilhac’s is dwindling. At this point, I am grateful enough to be able to watch pornography, privately and without legal interference, without the hope that our cultural watchdogs will look upon it as a real part of our history.
One of the most striking things about the shorts included in The Good Old Naughty Days in comparison to modern porn (other than the presence of pubic hair) is that there’s a much more playful air to the sex than is found in most of today’s productions. Maybe it’s an effect of the intense social atmosphere that accompanied the sexual revolution, but one recurring element in porno films today is an almost priggish sense of over-seriousness on the parts of the talent and the producers. The weird facial contortions that the actors put themselves through — supposedly to show arousal and orgasm — too often betray the fact that the actor isn’t actually in their body; they’re looking at themselves through the camera lens, rather than enjoying a good solid fuck. Besides the natural quality of the bodies, the erotica of the early- to mid-twentieth century lies in the fact that you rarely see open, unguarded smiles in the films and photography that make up the bulk of the market. Look at the faces of today’s porn stars as they fuck and suck, and the expressions of intense focus that they wear look like they’re concentrating more on giving the fuck-you to their moms, dads, teachers, family priests, and everyone else who told them to keep their pants than feeling actual pleasure.
The shorts that Reilhac has collected aren’t stingy with the raunchiness; they’re as explicit as anything coming out of the San Fernando Valley today, but they also have a gleeful whimsy to them. The theater where I watched The Good Old Naughty Days was filled with laughter, which is often thought of as incompatible with arousal. But the laughter wasn’t the ironic, sneering kind used by sophisticates to establish distance and superiority; neither was it embarrassed, prudish giggling. For the most part, the audience’s response reflected the lust and whimsy on the screen.
The structures of the films themselves are quite familiar to anyone with even a cursory education in porn: two lesbian nuns pleasure themselves at breakfast while the cook surreptitiously watches; two nurses give a man “therapy” in a clinic, restoring his long-depleted sex to its full vigor; a teacher keeps two of her most disobedient students after class for “punishment.” The nun fetish is one that recurs in two films, showing the long-established power of the Catholic Church not only on the French government and culture, but on the libido as well.
If there’s anything more important to French culture than the Catholic Church, it’s their reputation as gourmands. The latter is displayed with even more enthusiasm than the naked nuns; there’s an enormous amount of oral sex throughout The Good Old Naughty Days, enough so that one of the first things my girlfriend said to me as we left the theater was “Wow, those French really did enjoy eating pussy.” That’s an understatement; more tongues than dicks go up twats in these movies. In a movie titled “The Musketeer’s Breakfast,” they even combine the love of cusine and cunnilingus as a lovely, nude woman is borne to a musketeer’s garden table on a silver platter.
Another remarkable thing about these movies is how much genuine bisexuality is involved in them. In the first film, as the convent chef watches two nuns fondle each other, he is caught in the act by another man. Instead of joining in the lesbian action, the second man grabs the cook from behind and starts buggering him. During an impromptu garden orgy in another film, the four participants switch from opposite-sex couples to same-sex and back again.
There is also a certain inherent charm to silent pornographic films, especially considering how unconvincing either the dialogue or the screams of “ecstasy” are in your average smut flick. There really is not that much lost when the sound is stripped away, and sometimes its absence is more of an asset. Reilhac has continued one of the weakest parts of the porn tradition, however, in placing a very generic soundtrack over the films. In its way, it’s just as anonymous as the films themselves; a single piano playing traditional silent-film music in a way that does little more than fill up what your ears would otherwise perceive as empty space.
But Reilhac is right about these films being part of our history, despite what George Bush and the Religious Right would like us to think. It’s too easy to think that sex was invented somewhere between the Kinsey Report and the first Mitchell Brothers film. And the historical record provided by films like this shows that despite what the puritans want us to believe, it’s us perverts who are the normal ones.