Porn agains 


The hustle to make Larry Flynt a First Amendment hero A nation gets the pornography it deserves, which is why so many people are incensed by it. For pornophobes, porn is a vast mire of misogyny, victims, violence, and alienated sex. Often preoccupied with the stuff, anti-porn crusaders are too squeamish to grasp the complexity and the contradictions inherent in it. Apart from pro-porn sex radicals and a few academic apologists, only the ACLU crowd is left to reluctantly defend pornography: it's the price of free speech. Pained liberalism is the predominant sentiment in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," Milos Forman's glossy biopic about Hustler's obstreperous redneck publisher. Porn may be a necessary evil, but Forman personally dislikes it and wants the country to know he's never bought a copy of Hustler. The upshot is a movie that sanitizes Flynt's career into one long, noble crusade for the First Amendment, while erasing from the picture the very thing that made Hustler so reviled and persecuted -- its scurrilous antiestablishment politics. Masterfully made, this movie nevertheless reeks of class condescension, taming Flynt's cantankerous, contrarian life into the most conventional story arc possible. That life is certainly awash in movie moments. Raised dirt-poor in the hills of Appalachia, an eighth-grade dropout, Flynt became a megamillionaire by publishing a raunchy magazine devoted to offending the nation. He fought endless obscenity charges, was repeatedly slapped in jail, and spent over $50 million defending himself against the numerous civil suits brought by his outraged targets. At the height of his success he underwent a bizarre conversion to Christianity at the hands of Jimmy Carter's evangelical sister, then renounced Christ after an assassination attempt (by a self-proclaimed white supremacist) left him paralyzed from the waist down. Flynt spent the next decade in blinding pain and a drugged stupor, during which time his true love and co-publisher, wife Althea, died of AIDS. As if that weren't enough, there was the famous 1988 Supreme Court victory over sanctimonious Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell, resulting in an historic and unanimous decision in Flynt's favor that expanded the perimeters of political speech for the entire nation. I met Flynt for the first time in October, long after having first written about Hustler in a 1992 essay and a subsequent book, "Bound and Gagged" (Grove), which, despite its many potshots at Flynt, he described as "feisty." I asked him if it felt weird to suddenly be receiving all this media adulation: did he think he was being cleaned up to make him more palatable? He agreed about the whitewash, but added, "What's weird isn't getting all the attention now; what felt strange was being so vilified for all those years." To understand Hustler's vilification, it helps if you know something more about its politics than you'll glean from Forman's movie. When Hustler became the first mass-circulation rag to show pubic hair, when it deployed rampant grossness and vulgarity at America's leaders and public figures, systematically sullying every national icon the country held sacred (as in the infamous nude photos of Jackie Onassis), these were taste violations with a purpose. For Hustler, the body is a battleground of opposing forces where sex, taste and class fight it out. Hustler's self-styled war on bullshit meant exposing the way our national hypocrisy -- sexual and political -- is propped up by syrupy sentimentality, by the fiction of upward mobility, and by all the sacred icons that bind us together into ersatz homogeneous nationhood. The magazine's content reflects the view that bodily discretion of any sort collaborates with repression and social hypocrisy; Hustler has long dedicated itself to exposure of every kind, not just of bodies but of the body politic. Here, the politely veiled body is analogous to secret abuses of privilege and to the hidden sources of ruling-class wealth. Discretion benefits the rich and powerful, not the Hustler reader. Hustler's use of nudity is often explicitly political, a leveling technique deriving from a long-standing tradition of political satire. The nude photos of Jackie Onassis sunbathing on her private Greek island violated not just the Kennedys' iconic status, but the high-priced seclusion the rich and famous purchase to cocoon themselves from the hoi polloi. The dignity of powerful men is similarly deflated, often through the tactic of superimposing famous heads onto naked male bodies: check out the equipment on that studly Ollie North, or -- shudder -- George Bush. Hustler's America is a land of rampant hypocrisy, riven by the everyday violence of class stratification, made stupid by organized religion, run by an illicit and abusive government that operates at the behest of the rich: corporations, media moguls and foreign fat cats. Forman's film somehow manages to sidestep these class issues, even while lingering lovingly over the more garish aspects of white-trash culture. When this film does try to talk class, it disintegrates into something resembling a live-action cartoon. Witness the film's prologue, a product of its USC-educated screenwriters' imaginations and too many "Beverly Hillbillies" reruns: FADE UP: A chunky, prepubescent Flynt, scampering around the hills of Appalachia. At age 10 he's already a full-fledged hillbilly entrepreneur with a thriving business distilling moonshine and purveying it to the locals at inflated prices. Casting note: locals should be (to quote the script) "literally hillbillies: no teeth, foul-looking, disturbingly inbred." CUE MUSIC: An obligatory banjo-twanging homage to "Deliverance." When Larry comes across his Pa, sprawled out in the barn imbibing the product, our young hero coolly smashes him over the head with an empty jug. "Matter of principle," he explains to a stunned younger brother. "He was drinkin' my profits." CUT TO: Larry, some 20 years later, clad in a combustible plaid polyester leisure suit, surrounded by semi-naked girls at Hustler Club No. 8, a low-rent strip joint catering to pretty much the same clientele of his bygone youth, now transplanted from the Kentucky hills to Columbus, Ohio. It is true that after leaving the army (he enlisted at age 15 with a forged birth certificate and was dismissed shortly after for lack of education), and after working a series of miserable jobs (dishwasher, mattress factory, and a GM assembly line from which he was laid off), 16-year-old Larry briefly joined his father running a bootleg operation: purchasing liquor in a neighboring "wet" area and selling it illegally in a dry one. Not moonshine, unlike the movie's Flynt, who seems to have hatched fully formed from the hills like some backwoods Jungian archetype: a white-trash entrepreneur with an authority complex. (This theme will ring tinnily throughout the movie.) But there's another story here the movie isn't interested in telling -- the one about the relation between Flynt's biography and the realities of class, work and opportunity structures in postwar America. It's not those Kentucky backwoods that supply the context for Hustler, but that unseen urban migration of Flynt and customers, out of grinding rural poverty and into the joys of tedious minimum-wage slavery, from which the equally bored strippers (themselves in quest of economic opportunities) provide some temporary relief. Flynt emphasizes, "Hustler's lowbrow humor wasn't something new or original. It's something discussed in the workshops and factories and offices by blue-collar and white-collar Americans." His readers like the magazine, he says, because he's one of them; he put in his time in these places. But let's be clear: vulgarity isn't an organic element of the minimum-wage classes, it's a mode of undermining authority, given the way those on the bottom of the class ladder are expected to perform ritualized acts of deference to their "superiors." What earns Hustler its readers' loyalty isn't just those beaver shots; it's the pleasures of rebellion, and the camaraderie it creates among those on the bottom. Vulgarity becomes a form of class solidarity. Not for Hustler are the airbrushed fantasies that fuel the Playboy and Penthouse imaginations. Instead, Hustler's early pictorials featured pregnant women, middle-aged women, hugely fat women, hermaphrodites, amputees, and -- in a moment of true frisson for your typical heterosexual male -- a photo spread of a preoperative transsexual, doubly well endowed. Hustler's grossness follows in the tradition of Rabelaisian political pornography. The Hustler body is a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body that is continually defying the strictures of social mores, threatening to erupt at any moment. Hustler's favorite joke is someone accidentally defecating in church. Policing the disruptive potential of unruly bodies has been essential to creating an orderly workforce and a docile, law-abiding populace ever since the bourgeois revolution, when manners, disgust and delicacy about sex and bodily functions -- previously the province of the aristocracy -- began filtering downward. Manners and decorum became essential to maintaining class distinctions, and bodily proprieties necessary prerequisites to upward mobility. Hustler dedicates itself to the systematic transgression of these prohibitions, which aren't only externally imposed; they're also held in place by deeply internalized forms of shame and embarrassment. These prohibitions form the very structure of the modern psyche. No wonder violating them feels like such an outrage to bourgeois sensibilities. Flynt often has put his own body on the line for his magazine's principles, promoting indecorousness by "acting out" in the nation's courtrooms: sassing judges, spitting, throwing fruit, and wearing an American flag as a diaper. Forman's movie despises all these bad-boy theatrics, though: it respects Flynt only when he's kowtowing to the state. Proper citizenship in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" means adopting all the obeisance and sucking up to power that Hustler and Flynt himself have long ridiculed. Freedom for Forman means the freedom to conform. This movie may be Czech emigre Forman's love letter to American democracy, but it's also deeply undemocratic. Forman has said that Flynt's story is about "becoming an American, a politically cognizant citizen." If it doesn't occur to him that Flynt could have been politically cognizant from the start, it's because here, "ideas" are the province of the educated classes. Flynt must learn citizenship at the feet of his betters -- namely, attorney Alan Isaacman (a composite of Flynt's many lawyers). This is the character with the most education, and thus, the film's moral center. Forman does show just how ready the state is to bring on its storm troopers to back up its rules of etiquette: Flynt is variously gagged with electrical tape, carted off to jail for disrupting the courtroom proceedings, and sent to a psychiatric prison for smart-mouthing a judge. But when Isaacman sees Flynt's behavior as crazy, so do we. After all, why would any sane person defy the power of Law? When wild man Flynt behaves himself and shuts up for the first time at the Falwell trial, that's the triumph of democracy. But for the film, it's also a measure of the protagonist's "growth" -- that staple of Hollywood narrative. When Isaacman beams his approval at Flynt, it brings tears to your eyes -- given that in an earlier Supreme Court pilgrimage Flynt got himself arrested for contempt when he shouted at the justices, "You're nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!" This film loves the Law far more than it loves Flynt's dissidence. In fact, Forman has said that for him, the true hero of the film is the Supreme Court. "The People vs. Larry Flynt" reconstitutes the pornographer's extraordinarily raunchy career as a gala tribute to our great nation. The audience leaves the theater wrapped in a big, warm, self-congratulatory glow: look how tolerant we are. Lost amid all this is Hustler's long-standing dedication to challenging exactly this sort of nauseating national self-idealization. The magazine dedicated itself to contesting state power, not kissing its butt. Yet, like the film, Larry Flynt's just-published autobiography, "An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast" (Dove), repackages his life story in a manner calculated to milk the audience's approval. It is sprinkled with incidents of bestiality, sybaritic sex, drugs and vulgarity. But just as often it's the new, "improved" Larry Flynt that saunters through the pages, waxing patriotic, burping platitudes such as "America is the greatest country in the world because it's the freest," and analyzing himself in the upper-middlebrow idiom of pop psychology. After all these years of using the national stage as a public toilet, Larry now wants our love? So what will become of Flynt and his much unbeloved magazine now that he's been transfigured from loathsome pariah to chubby-cheeked media darling and jetted to Czechoslovakia to screen the movie for "fellow dissident" Vaclav Havel? When I met Flynt, the only thing that surprised me was how charming he was. All those years in a wheelchair (yes, it is gold plated) have given him an extreme case of middle-aged spread, and his face has a melted quality, with only a hint of the self-conscious cockiness from old pictures. So how would Larry Flynt like to have the spotlight turned on his body? How about a Larry Flynt centerfold? He answers immediately, "Hey, the reason more men don't want to take their clothes off is because they're so uptight about their little dicks. In all the X-rated videos and magazines they're twice the size of a normal penis and it's given every man in America a complex. Even though women all tell me that as long as a guy knows what he's doing, size isn't that important. ... Women have the same problem about their breasts as men have about their penises. If someone could somehow get men and women on the same wavelength about this breast-penis thing, I think it would do more to enhance everyone's life than anything else." Well there's a utopian vision. Who says Flynt isn't a man of ideas? The problem is, he's so damn conciliatory these days. It may be unfair to hold a guy to his youthful principles, at least until you've ridden a mile in his wheelchair. But when Flynt starts saluting the flag instead of using it as a diaper and parrots lines such as "If the First Amendment can protect even a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you, because I'm the worst" (a line I've heard from both the "real" Larry and the movie Larry), you begin to suspect that the nation, in its quest for vengeance, wasn't content simply to paralyze Flynt. It had to finish the job by reconfiguring him as a patriot and heaping its admiration on him. And who, after all, can hold out forever against the dark forces of conventionality? Even scumbag pornographers are suckers for love and a place in the history books, it seems, when the world is blowing kisses their way. This article originally appeared in the Village Voice.

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