The issue of narrative in pornography is central to its exclusion from other forms of visual culture. According to Richard Dyer in his essay “Male gay Porn: Coming to Terms,” “It is often said that porn movies as a genre are characterized by their absence of narrative. The typical porn movie, hard-core anyway, is held to be an endless series of people fucking.” Yet at the same time, porn is critiqued for having unsophisticated or badly integrated plotlines. This is the major issue taken up in Antonio da Silva’s Mates, a pornographic film that aggressively equates narrative and sexuality; a very particular kind of sexuality that complicates our relationships to images we desire and images of ourselves in the digital age.
“Mates,” is a film about a series of sexual interactions that take place through the use of the iPhone application “Grindr” and internet sex chat-rooms. The film opens up with a dialogue between two partners:
“yea, me too”
What proceeds is a series of chaotically flickering images of athletic white men’s bodies in increasing states of undress. Digitized clicking plays in the background as words like “what u into?” “beards” “uniforms” “u accom” (meaning can you host) flicker in a similar manner. With this Da Silva eschews the predictable and laughable scenarios that begin most hardcore films: no naïve pizza boy looking for a tip, no employee trying to avoid being fired, just upfront demands and explicit declaration of interests. The last image is of a growing erection shot in stop motion.
Next we are show moving video of the various partners meeting each other in various home locations. No words are exchanged, and the camera is placed in somewhat awkward positions, giving this the feel of a non-studio production. The temperature of the images changes from scenario to scenario (sometimes drastically from warm to cold) and the rooms are not set in any way that would encourage perfect pornographic studio shots. A montage of all the men’s penises occurs and then a series of sex acts takes place, each couple in a different space and none of the partners show faces. The only faces we do see are of people on television screens who are being interviewed by newscasters as what looks to be the royal wedding—each with their eyes black-barred out. The duration of the shots gets increasingly shorter as the rhythm of the sex increases and the moans and heavy breaths increase in volume. The rhythm of the shots mimic the rhythm of the encounters and only begins to slow down at the requisite cum shots. Shot after shot of ejaculations end with one long shot of a dripping penis, followed by shots of each of the men’s bodies lying there as if one master director is watching with satisfaction as though thinking “I’ve had that.” The men then all redress and the camera locks upon each of their pant-legs in a stylized manner. The last scene shows one man closing the final door. This combined with the sight of only one partner leaving each of the spaces ambiguously encourages the idea that these were all the sexual encounters of one (very lucky) man who has filmed his own encounters. This is central to the work of Mates: this film obliterates personality and particularity in service of a structural representation of contemporary gay male sexuality and its relation to normalized (and masculinized) narrative structures in the west.
Throughout the history of the west, the structure of “beginning, middle, end” has become the normal way of telling a story. Aristotle in his Poetics declared this. And in his 1863 book Die Technik des Dramas, Gustav Freytag introduced his pyramid (fig.1). Freytag’s Pyramid is a way to analyze a plot that consists of five elements that ascend and descend around the highest point of damatic tension, the climax. Introduction and rising action precede and falling action and denouement are the which follow the climax. Richard Dyer in “Male Gay Porn: Coming to terms,” explores the ways in which gay male sexuality as represented in pornography works with the same methods of narrativity as aristotles’ and Freytag’s theories of drama,
“Even if all that is involved is a fuck between two men, there are the following narrative elements: the arrival on the scene of the fuck, establishing contact (through greeting and recognition, or through a quickly established eye-contact agreement to fuck), undressing, exploring various parts of the body, coming, parting.”
Murat Ayedemir, in his book Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning thoroughly elaborates upon this coincidence by exploring the almost too perfect language of narrative in Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative,
“In Brooks’s account, the friction of narrative pushes forward toward a moment of climax and resolution that he, with an apt choice of words, characterizes as the“significant discharge.” Hence, the saturation of the bodily discharge ofejaculation with relevance and meaning through narrative in pornography finds its fitting theoretical counterpart in Brooks’s narratology” (Ayedemir, 94)
and Susan Winnett in her Article “Coming Undone: Women, Men, Narrative, and Prinicples of Pleasure,” uses exclusively phrases taken from Brooks’ book to describe this coincidence of sex and storytelling:
“We all know what male orgasm looks like. It is preceded by a visible“awakening, an arousal, the birth of an appetency, ambition, desireor intention.” The male organ registers the intensity of this stimulation,rising to the occasion of its provocation, becoming at oncethe means of pleasure and culture’s sign of power. This energy,“aroused into expectancy,” takes its course toward “significant discharge”and shrinks into a state of quiescence (or satisfaction) that,minutes before, would have been a sign of impotence.” (Winnett)
It is clear that Antonio Da Silva’s work is making an identical theoretical gesture in it’s representation of gay male sexuality. A series of conversations and image exchanges serving as the introduction, the shots of people entering each living space serving as the rising action, the shots of sex taking place and their concomitant cum shots serving as the climax, the clean-up/shower scenes as the falling action, and the departures and the final door closing serving as the denouement. Even in it’s form Mates is organizied around the cum shot/climax, with shots increasing in rhythm until the ejaculation scenes where the speed boils down. Da Silva’s Mates demonstrates Dyer’s point “that male sexuality, homo or hetero, is socially constructed, at the level of representation anyway, in terms of narrative; that is, as it were, male sexuality is itself understood narratively.” But the turning narrative into a sex act is only one of the major moves that Mates does; through its structuralizing of sex in combination with its use of humor and censorship, Mates intervenes in to contemporary systems of privacy, desire, and identity.
Any perusal of Grindr, Rentboy.com, or Criagslist personal ads will consist of images of fragmented bodies: neck down to calf shots, shots of biceps, “meat” shots (pictures of penises), and shots from behind. What is almost categorically absent are photos of a whole body and particularly photos of people’s faces. This may in part have to do with how the images are consumed: most of these representations and interactions take place over mobile devices or on computer screens, where taking a nice photo of your whole body isn’t easily done without a professional photographer friend (most of the images are taken with camera phones in mirrors, “myspace style” as its called). But I think that this has less to do with the technologies of consumption and more to do with navigating notions of masculinity and privacy in this age of hyper visibility.
The opening scene in mates is a panoply of images of men’s dismembered, chests, asses, and members. The bodies are also distinctly white and athletic (a topic which I will return to later). The same anxiety about the privacy of the face and identity and the public value of bodies “in shape” is present here and throughout the film. The shots themselves, very often defy “the principal of maximum visibility” present in most porn. This functions not only to work against the conventions of mainstream studio pornography, but also to mask the identities of the bodies involved in these acts. Even when the camera is in hand during these encounters, the shots focus on the chests or backs of the partners. While, the obliteration of character specificity protects the identity of the “respectable” men who may not want to be seen as “porn stars,” it creates certain confusion as to how the characters in this story are organized.
One of the confusions of the film is that all of the men look more or less identical. This makes it difficult to understand whose choosing to be filmed, who’s filming, and how all these encounters were arrived at on camera. It is unclear as to whether or not one person is fucking many different people or if characters recur at all. The sense that “I recognize that ass…” or “I’ve seen that chest hair pattern before…” “…so it must mean…” is characteristic of the “textual energy” that Brooks says (in colorful language) “should always be on the verge of premature discharge [sic], of short-circuit” (109). This diegetic frenzy subsides only after the cumshots have taken place, at which point we watch only one character in each of the sexual scenes. These would support the reading that we are watching the same person have multiple encounters or at least experiencing the encounter from one partner in each of the encounters. It is not until the final scene that we receive something that resembles the “significant discharge” of narrative closure. Before this occurs a series of stylized shots of men putting their pants on and walking out of apartment doors. Only until the last shot, do we get to see a person’s whole body (albeit from behind): one singular man closes his door and turns around (presumably to retrieve the camera), and the shot cuts out as we hear the sound of footsteps getting louder.
This positing of the question of identity and its unconvincing resolution is essential not only to presenting a storytelling structure that is particularly sexualized, but it also transforms the characters from common representations of chracter—people with interior psychologies, personalities, and emotions with which viewers should identify—into the structure of character. These people are but subjects in a discourse on desire, with no faces, no names, just sex. That the framing of Mates does this to the characters in the film serves not only in the conversion of narrative into sex, but also demonstrates the ways in which sexual courtship writ large does this to us, particularly for gay male bodies.
Across different periods and cultures, the terms upon which a body become sexually viable have existed as just that: terms of transaction. Depending on who makes the rules and who tells the myths, these terms change. Cinderella is a classic example of sexuality based in power. Sure the prince may be handsome (a historically debatable term itself), but if Cinderella can marry him, she can escape the slavery of her step-family. In the contemporary gay scene, these terms are different, but the rhetoric of use/prostitution is still present. John DiCarlo, in his essay “The Gym Body and Heroic Myth” elaborates,
“These bodies outwardly represent a kind of wealth, a fullness in which a person has the means, discipline, the work ethic-and the leisure time-to perfect his body. It is a clean-cut, middle class body, symbolizing the final embourgeoisement of the gay community and its related aspirations. The values of the marketplace rule the central circles of gay life, perhaps to a disturbing degree, where the body is advertising and “knowing the price of everything” is a main principle of doing business.”
The identicality of the bodies present in Mates may function to obscure character specificity in an attempt to produce Brooks’ textual energy, but it also functions to expose the ways in which power inscribes certain bodies with a desirability and invents “types.” It is undeniable, that perusing the gay section of xvideos.com or xtube.com or any contemporary pornographic website with a matrix of videos, that you will see one body type being presented as sexually viable above all else: the white athletic male. It is a strange coincidence that in Mates these bodies are the only ones present. This may just be the “type” of man that the main character who appears at the end (if he is such) prefers, but as the film so heavily encourages a structural engagement with narrative, it would encourage a similar reading of sexuality.
Even on Grindr—a smartphone application that allows you to find sexually available men nearby—you are encouraged to give a set of statistics about yourself. These as DiCarlo puts it are “the principle[s] of doing business.” Your age, height, weight, and race are all but required. Penis size, interestingly enough is absent and all other information is either garnered through conversation, looking at the photo of the person, or in the comments box where they place their interests/requirements. I was originally going to write off my knee –jerk reaction to seeing only white male bodies in this film, but looking at pornography and Grindr and thinking of the economy of desire this film seemed to demonstrate exactly what goes on in “the marketplace of desire” for gay men of this generation.
Richard Dyer in “Male Gay Porn: Coming to Terms” establishes that visuality is central to the way in which male desire has been constructed:
“But partly too it [the visibility of ejaculation] has to do with the importance of the visual in the way male sexuality is constructed/ conceptualized. It is striking how much pornographic literature, not a visual medium, stresses the visible elements of sex….Men’s descriptions of their own erections seldom have to do with how their penises feel, but with how they look. The emphasis on seeing orgasm is then part of the way porn (re)produces the construction of male sexuality.”
In concert with Dyer, Steven Shaviro in his Essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Querelle entitled “Masculinity, Spectacle and the Body of Querelle,”
“masculinity is not a fixed state or a self-conscious activity, just as it is not an anatomical given. It is rather an image that must be taken from outside, imprinted upon or burned into the flesh. The self that Querelle discovers is not an authentic, singular identity, but an extrinsically defined and regulated stereotype. What seem to be his “own” will and destiny are in fact generated in the course of a long series of events: simulations, seductions, metamorphoses of the image. Querelle is a product of the projection of sexual fantasies and of idealized images of the body, a projection that Fassbinder equates with Hollywood techniques. Fassbinder traces the engenderment of masculinity, and its being endowed with power and prestige, in the course of the unconscious bodily assumption of an Image.” (Shaviro, 19, emphasis mine)
The men using Grindr routinely mimic this incorporation of an image of masculinity into their bodies and projecting it (along with race and age) as one of the major organizers of gay male desire. The old gym adage “no pecs, no sex” is all but gone. One 26 year-old white man (named “666”) says “I stay within my age bracket. Overweight, ghetto, scientologists, and fems need not apply.” Ghetto here basically means black. Another 22 year old white man (again with an all-American look) says “No Pic. No reply. I block Asians like the great Wall of China.” And one east-asian man says “whites only” and requires 8-inch penises or greater. It is clear that race is one of the larger motivating factors in the gay market of desire, and that whiteness, youth, and masculinity are the most valuable currency.
So where does Mates fall in this marketplace? What are all these white men doing on screen? And are there any mates of color? Are there any “femme” mates? That this film does not portray these bodies as erotically viable may suggest that there were just none available at the time of production (a circumstance of which I am highly skeptical). It may also simply work to expose the ways in which gay male desire is organized around race, age, and body type. Or it may simply reinscribe the power that gay white masculine bodies already exert in the marketplace of desire. I will speak more on race in the gay marketplace of desire in another chapter of this research, but as for Mates, outside of it’s demonstration of the ways in which gay male bodies seem to mimic those of the pornography industry, its politics of race, masculinity, and fat are decidedly ambiguous.
There is one final way that I wish to engage with Mates, and it’s politics around character and identity, and that is in the realm of humor. Comedy films, just like horror, melodrama, and pornography are considered “body genres” notably for the effects they have on the body (laughing, screaming, crying, or coming, respectively). Jennifer Doyle, in her book Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire, says that “The complaint against the sentimental or the melodramatic spectacle is that it produces an excess of emotion in response to vicarious experience, to a representation instead of a real event” she continues to explain how all of the disgraced genres may have this in common, “bringing the text too close to the readers body.” In this case Mates is definitely a body film, but it’s comedic elements and their placement within the narrative definitely disrupt the integrity of the porn genre in a very powerful way, and this is where I believe Mates becomes its most critical.
Richard Dyer in “Gay Male Porn” defines pornography as “any film that has as its aim sexual arousal in the spectator.” This is a working definition for his essay which I believe definitely allows Mates into its scope. But pornography also involves a heavy amount of humor, from its title’s (Moby Dick has had more than its share of titular fun) it’s stars (Javier Phuckzalot) and its scenarios (delivery boys almost always seem to need tips). Nina Martin in her essay “Never Laugh at a Man with his Pants Down: the Affective Dynamics of Comedy and Porn” suggests that all this comedy simply surrounds the sex acts featured within pornography and should not be confused with the acts of sex at all, “Pornographic representations are deeply incested in seriousness, and much of porn’s lack of humor relates to cultural understandings of patriarchal power, a power that is rigorously maintained by equating the sight/site of the penis with awe.”
Mates fundamentally acts against these conventions of porn through the framing of its shots and its insertion of humor directly into the sex acts. The placement of the camera in most of the shots seems a bit haphazard; as if the attempt to make a porno was forgotten once the sex began. But while the sex acts take place, there are shots of people on the television reporting on, celebrating, or participating in the Royal Wedding, Britain’s most performative engagement of public heterosexuality. During these shots, we still hear the moaning and heavy bassline of the film we are watching, but we see people celebrating this performance. Everyone who appears on screen has their eyes and mouths blocked out and even some of the headlines for other news stories are blocked out with that iconic black bar of censorship. This insertion creates a radical disruption in the erotic affect produced by the earlier moans and groans. As Marcel Gutwirth says, “laughter is rigorously incompatible with awe. Awesomeness and absurdity are two distinct perspectives: we cannot encompass them simultaneously.” Da Silva’s film throws these two in tandem and produces an awkwardness in the body that begs “should I laugh now?” “When will this end?” “Can I stay aroused after this?”
This loss of affective discrimination is where I Mates moves out of Dyers zone of porn and into the subversive zone of B. Ruby Rich’s “Medusan Film…a type of film about sexuality and humor.” It is suggested that this sort of film can be cultivated for its “revolutionary potential as a deflator of the patriarchal order and an extraordinary leveler and reinventor of dramatic structure.” I think Mates uses this laughter to break up the normal pornographic awe that we are all encouraged to consume and makes way for a new way of conceiving sexuality and narrativity. But taken as a whole, this film is not as subversive as it is simply transgressive: it’s primary gesture is showing how masculine sexuality and narrativity are mutually constitutive and secondarily shows us the limits of the way mainstream contemporary gay male sexuality functions in terms of race, body type, age. It suggests that there may be more options, but does not represent those…but it is not that sort of film.
Critique/analysis by Theory Friction Practice