Printer Friendly

Born again vs. porn, again.

The Last Marxist and I had a good time at Milos Forman's new movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Great performances by Woody Harrelson as Hustler publisher and First Amendment fan Flynt and by Courtney Love as Althea Leasure, his funny, lewd, exotic-dancer-turned-copublisher-turned-AIDS-afflicted-junkie wife. Fine work from Edward Norton as Alan Isaacman, Flynt's droll, long-suffering lawyer, and from a bevy of real-life notables--Burt Neuborne, James Carville, Donna Hanover (Mrs. Rudy Giuliani), Flynt himself as a basset-faced Southern judge. Even the L.M., who is something of a civil-liberties skeptic on the grounds that when the ruling class is truly threatened they do what they want whatever the Constitution says, teared up when Flynt, by now a paralyzed widower, gets the news that the Supreme Court has unanimously recognized his right to make scabrous fun of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. You've got to admire a filmmaker who lets his hero say he doesn't believe in God and doesn't make him die rescuing a hijacked busload of parochial school kids.

But honestly. What is the point of making a film about the founder of Hustler that airbrushes both him and his magazine? The People vs. Larry Flynt is constructed around a group of stock characters: the cuddly male rebel, the sailor-mouthed but goldenhearted stripper girlfriend, the noble crusading lawyer, the hypocritical Christian crusader (Falwell, Charles Keating, Ruth Carter Stapleton). Its themes are familiar as well: the redemptive power of marriage (albeit not monogamous marriage), the open field for upward mobility capitalism offers the shrewd and energetic however lowly their origins (the prologue shows Larry and his brother as prepubescent moonshiners in the Kentucky backwoods). Most of all, and like all courtroom dramas, the movie celebrates the salvific nature of our legal institutions, especially the Supreme Court, which in the movies always corrects, and never upholds, unjust and bigoted lower-court decisions--which is why The Bowers v. Hardwick Story won't be coming to a theater near you anytime soon. There's even the customary I-Love-the-Law conversion speech ("If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me," says Flynt, previously seen throwing oranges at the judge and wearing an American flag diaper, "then it will protect all of you"). In other words, the system works, its ability to tolerate gadflies like Flynt is the proof and America is the best country. Not for nothing did Frank Rich call Forman's movie "the most patriotic movie of the year."

In real life, as Gloria Steinem among others has pointed out, Larry Flynt is a more problematic figure than the endearing con artist and loving husband Harrelson portrays (for one thing, he was married three times before Althea and has a daughter who now claims he abused her). And Hustler is a weirder, darker, more freefloatingly hostile magazine than comes through in the film, which presents it as a cheerful populist alternative to snooty Playboy. We learn about Flynt's insistence on showing models' pubic hair, an industry first; about the nude photos of Jackie O; the cartoon of Santa Claus with a big erection; and the feature showing Dorothy having group sex with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. Pretty tame by 1996 standards, and that allows viewers to feel broad-minded and mature, superior both to Flynt and to Falwell ("Dorothy?" breathes one scandalized Christian). It's hard to see what the fuss was about.

But then, what can you expect given that Forman has said that he's never read Hustler? This to me is truly strange, a kind of willful refusal to engage his subject. Wasn't he curious? Ever the intrepid reporter, I sent the L.M. out into the night in search of a copy (not easy to find even here on the Upper West Side of Sodom). The March 1997 issue features no women who violate conventional standards of beauty or hygiene, a Hustler specialty--but for the close-ups of their (shaven) genitals, the women would look at home in Playboy, well, Penthouse. But it does have several racist cartoons, a diatribe against Alanis Morissette ("a sick, twisted, man-hating cow who blames ex-boyfriends for all her problems") and a photo feature titled "How to Know if Your Girlfriend Is a Dog," which shows a naked woman drinking out of a toilet surrounded by puppies. Liberatory? Childish? Misogynous? Nuts?

You don't have to agree with Gloria Steinem, who connects Hustler with actual violence against women, or with Laura Kipnis (Bound and Gagged), who in The Village Voice sees it as "contesting state power," to think of Hustler, and pornography generally, as possessing content, meaning and subject matter. I'm all for waving the flag of the First Amendment--but can't we also talk about the material the amendment protects?

As it happens, I don't think either Steinem or Kipnis has it right. On the one hand, any serious discussion of texts that cause real-life harm to women would have to begin with the Bible and the Koran: It isn't porn that drives zealots to firebomb American abortion clinics or slit the throats of Algerian schoolgirls. On the other hand, only a postmodern academic could seriously propose that a skin magazine offers a serious challenge to "state power." How many divisions has Larry Flynt?

What I see in Hustler is a convoluted and sometimes contradictory appeal to white male psychosexual anxieties: The suits are jerks, women (especially welfare mothers) have all the power and blacks have all the breaks--and bigger penises too. Sure, it's woman-hating (also woman-enjoying), but the bravado and swagger barely conceal the envy and low self-esteem. Ask yourself what message about white men is being conveyed by a photo of two gorgeous white women sucking an enormous black dildo.

Forman's movie would have been more thought-provoking--and an even more powerful defense of the First Amendment--if it had forced viewers to confront what Flynt actually produces. But to do so would have risked the dread NC-17 rating and discomfited the middle-class liberals whose political complacencies and horror of vulgarity the film caters to. The result is a movie that celebrates the First Amendment while embodying its limits. It champions the uncensored while blurring its own crotch shots.
COPYRIGHT 1997 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Subject to Debate; the new motion picture by Milos Forman, 'The People vs. Larry Flynt'
Author:Pollitt, Katha
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 3, 1997
Words:1021
Previous Article:Hail to the chiefs.
Next Article:Authenticity crisis, baby.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |