Porn Again

Probably we’ll be revisiting a few Milos Forman films, in the wake of his passing, but the one I dropped in the player was THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT, mainly because we hadn’t seen it since it came out. It’s still very amusing and affecting — Courtney Love provides the untrained quality Forman admired as Althea Flynt, and Woody Harrelson brings the more actorly professionalism, creating the perfect blendship. It comes across as a genuinely sweet relationship between two filthy people in love. And Harrelson’s brother Brett is really good, he should do more.

Since then, screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski have brought us The People Versus O.J. Simpson on TV plus several more biopics of Great American Weirdos. including Forman’s follow-up MAN IN THE MOON. I think this is one of their most successful attempts at character portraiture in their specialised sub-genre, the one in which character is in constant flux and motivation is often inexplicable, two challenges which would derail most writers.

Away from the human element — the movie does pretty well with its mercurial madman hero — it’s a defence of free speech, and the movie is effective enough here, but sort of slanted.

Firstly, feminist criticism of porn doesn’t exist in this film, so Flynt’s legal opponents are bluenoses and creeps like Jerry Falwell. This is fair enough in narrative terms, since those guys threatened the real-life Flynt more than attacks by Andrea Dworkin. But it leaves out a whole aspect of the subject, which could potentially enrich the movie. Ed Norton — playing a composite of all Flynt’s actual lawyers through the tears — yet appearing in the end-of-film summary as if he were a real person — talks about finding Hustler magazine distasteful, and Harrelson’s Flynt himself says, “The most I’m guilty of is BAD TASTE!” — a good line — but might there have been room for a more nuanced consideration? The weird effect is that the movie seems to take place in an alternative version of the 60s, 70s and 80s in which feminism never happened.

You can make up your own pearl necklace joke, if you absolutely have to.

Secondly, that analysis of what’s actually in Hustler is limited by censorship — the movie can’t actually show a real centrefold from the magazine, because vaginas are bad. So it can get a lot of good comedy value out of showing prudes at a fundraiser gaping in horror at unseen images, but it can’t let the other audience, us, view those images and make up our own minds. In other circumstances, this could make us imagine that the skinzine contains images of UNIMAGINABLE HORROR, I suppose, but instead it’s more like a suggestion of “nothing to see here.”

I’m not completely sold on my own suggestion that an analysis of the feminist objections to Hustler would improve the movie. Storywise, it’s not certain that feminism ever posed a threat to, or otherwise impinged on the life of Mr. Flynt whatsoever. The movie also omits three of his marriages and five children, including the one who claims he sexually abused her. And in today’s climate, it’s easier to say he may well have done. Apart from the fact that most such accusations tend to be truthful, Flynt was, in his youth, obviously highly sexed and sexual, morally flexible, mentally somewhat unbalanced (not that any of that automatically makes you a rapist). He makes a good suspect. How does that suspicion make the film play? More uncomfortably, which may be a good thing. The movie is a little too sure of itself.

We have to factor in Forman’s Goyaesque side, too, even though he hadn’t made GOYA’S GHOSTS yet. In fairness, Flynt’s staffers are a carnivalesque bunch of freakazoids, with Forman fave Vincent Schiavelli vying with sleepy-eyed Crispin Glover for physiognomy first prize, but it’s the prosecutors attacking Flynt who get the really repulsive reaction shots. All this is complicated a bit more by Flynt’s own cameo as a biassed judge, his flat delivery and bulbous features making for a caricature that works against both himself and his opponents. The satirical laser bounces between two funhouse mirrors and ends up just making the room seem hot.

The tendency to slant things towards Flynt is maybe most apparent in the scene where Love’s character drowns in the bath — while Flynt is on the phone trying to get her more medical help for her AIDS and drug addiction. It’s a pat, inelegant construction in an otherwise very smart screenplay, because it seems to be trying to force sympathy out of us that we should be quite willing to give freely. I don’t know, maybe that’s exactly how it happened in real life, but real life can sometimes need a rewrite.

But! I’d missed the news that the guy who shot Flynt, paralysing him, had actually been caught and executed. And Flynt campaigned to save his life because he’s opposed to the death penalty. That is some serious Christian forgiveness from a proud atheist. (Maybe atheists are more Christian than the Christians? I can’t imagine Falwell doing that.)

 

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8 Responses to “Porn Again”

  1. Rather than the usual suspects, Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus (and not Hair), I found myself wanting to revisit Ragtime and Valmont.

  2. Both good choices. And it’s been an age since I watched A Blonde in Love, whereas I’ve frequently shown Fireman’s Ball to students.

    Taking Off may be due for a rewatch, and I keep recommending Goya’s Ghosts, a criminally underrated oddity. Nobody seemed to want to get behind it at the time, but its composed entirely of great scenes and adds up to something extraordinarily bleak and powerful.

  3. Danny Carr Says:

    I once had to phone Larry Flynt and Andrea Dworkin in quick succession from a bus stop in Dalkeith.

  4. You are my hero.

  5. My husband Mark worked on the Larry Flynt movie. And, thus, is in it. His stories about Carrey’s behaviour on and off set are depressingly awful. Ms Love, however, Mark adored and values highly.

    Good luck finding Taking Off, which has been unavailable for years. I first saw it in Cambridge at the old Kinema on Mill Road, and again at the Electric, Notting Hill (both of those picture houses giving The Smallest Show on Earth a run for its money.)

  6. If Jim Carrey was involved, it must have been Man in the Moon,, the Andy Kaufman movie. A recent documentary showcases Carrey’s methods on that movie. Or else Harrelson was the misbehaver?

    I have a fuzzy copy of Taking Off (maybe with foreign subtitles). Apparently music rights have been holding back its release.

  7. Re Courteny and Larry – indeed you are right. Oh, silly me. In my own defence, I am emerging from a long illness, as the U.K. press likes to describe such afflictions, of the sort that I think your beloved Fiona would certainly understand.

  8. Healing thoughts are directed your way!

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