The Rise of Smut: In Praise of Cinematic Vulgarity

More so than any other time I can think of since starting this blog, the past couple months have been a period of intense reflection and reassessment. Swampflix just reached five full years of daily posts, which has me looking back to all our various projects over the years. Of course, this includes our annual Best of the Year lists, which was the very first thing we collaborated on as a crew in January 2014. As List-Making Season is an annual ritual across all online film discourse, this five-year milestone has naturally arrived just as we’re looking back at our favorite films of 2019. This year is especially daunting, though, as these discussions have also been rolled into Best of the Decade list-making, just past the end of the 2010s. Thanks to the Swampflix project, I already have access to a record of my favorite works from over half of that decade, which has allowed me to look back at how my definition of a personal favorite film has evolved over the years, and what films have stood the test of time. The #1 change I’ve noticed in all this Best of the Year/Best of the Decade/Best of Swampflix self-reflection is that over time my standout choices have become much more aggressively vulgar, if not outright pornographic. The films I’ve been promoting & recommending to friends have doubled down on explicit sex as much as they have on political awareness or cinematic surrealism. The larger story of how cinema has changed over the last decade has been one of online distribution, political radicalization, and diversified representation (on both sides of the camera). When looking at my own personal favorites, though, it looks like the story of the 2010s was The Rise of Smut.

In my personal Top Films of 2014 list from our early days of blogging, I singled out Christopher Nolan’s space travel epic Interstellar as my favorite film of that year. It’s still a film I’m still fond of for its combination of precise filmmaking craft and over-the-top sci-fi pulp, but I doubt it would top my list if we were to rehash the Best of 2014 again. In fact, I know it wouldn’t, since I’m currently working on our Top Films of the 2010s lists (to post this February) and there are currently a few 2014 titles listed, while Interstellar is nowhere to be found. I still highly value the combination of high-art cinematic craft and low-brow genre schlock that blockbuster achieves, but it’s since been outshined in my estimation by the value of nastier, more sexually explicit works from that year like Wetlands and Stranger by the Lake. Part of this is due to the fact that we’re now living in a time when the clash of high-brow cinematic craft and low-brow genre content is a lot easier to come by, considering how the market’s been flooded by “Elevated Horror” projects in the past decade (thanks largely to the impressive marketing machine of A24). The larger issue is that this rise of well-crafted schlock has coincided with the near-total disappearance of overt sexuality from mainstream filmmaking, mostly at the hands of our corporate overlords at Walt Disney Pictures. Major studio filmmaking was remarkably less horny in the 2010s than in any previous decade (Hayes Code era included), as the takeover of sexless superhero media (with the one major exception of our collective ogling of Captain America’s ass) and easy-to-scrub blockbusters produced & sanitized for censorship-riddled foreign markets have replaced more “adult” content like the erotic thrillers of decades past. A man who earned most of his notoriety making not-so-subtly-Conservative Batman movies is simply on the wrong side of that war, no matter how much of a kick I got out of his goofy space movie.

Occasionally an overtly horny mainstream movie will break through—like the Fifty Shades of Grey or Magic Mike franchises—and they’re typically met with an appreciative, enthusiastic uproar from general audiences (especially women). These breakaways are a soul-deep relief from the Disney amusement parks that multiplexes have gradually transformed into (Magic Mike XXL especially), but they aren’t exactly the transgressive cinematic provocations I’ve been personally craving lately either. It’s hard to fathom now that there was once a time when outright pornography was threatening to cross over into the mainstream in titles like Deep Throat, Caligula, and Midnight Cowboy. Local drag queen CeCe V. DeMenthe lamented the loss of that wide audience hunger for pure, transgressive smut when she appeared on our podcast to discuss Caligula in particular. She complained that movies weren’t as weird or as vulgar as they used to be in her own heyday of trolling arthouse theaters for smut in the 70s & 80s, which is an assessment I can’t exactly agree with. I ended up making CeCe a list of recommendations for transgressive 2010s films I labeled “The New Extremity” to prove that modern filmmakers hadn’t lost their edge, and I found that most of the titles on that list were the exact works I had been championing the hardest when looking for movies to recommend to friends in general. The only real difference between this list and the films CeCe remembered from her smut-filled youth was the scope of their distribution and cultural impact. As much as I might personally love a deliriously horny cinematic bazaar like The Wild Boys or We Are the Flesh, their impact on the wider pop culture landscape has been essentially nil – to the point where a lover of explicit, bizarre cinema who’s hungry for that kind of content isn’t even aware they exist.

I don’t believe the dominance of safe, wholesome content in recent years—like Disney’s superhero sagas, made-for-Netflix Christmas romcoms, and The Great British Bake-off—is a matter of happenstance or even a corporate mandate (at least not entirely). Audiences genuinely crave this comforting, life-affirming content on a grand scale, seemingly as a reaction to what a miserable shitshow the world has become outside the cinema. Even I’m susceptible to craving wholesome pop culture figures to guide me through these dark times, especially role models of what it means to be a good, decent man in the modern world: Steven Universe, Mister Rogers, Paddington Bear, etc. It’s a necessary counterbalance to the ugly reactionary Evil that the more toxic end of masculine representation has slipped into in recent years (up to and including actual, true-blue Nazism). I even feel a little guilty when I find myself recommending depraved, explicit smut out in the open this flagrantly, as it often doesn’t feel like what the world needs right now in this exact moment. For instance, we recently threw a low-key New Year’s “party” where guests were invited to drop by for snacks & drinks as we rewatched our favorite films of 2019. As most of my favorites have been falling into the outrageous, uncomfortable smut category as of late, this led to a lot of our friends walking into selections unprepared that made them . . . squeamish – namely In Fabric, Knife+Heart, Climax and, the biggest offender of all, Violence Voyager. I stand by those choices as Best of the Year heavy-hitters and worthwhile grotesque provocations, but I still couldn’t shake a feeling of guilt for subjecting unsuspecting friends to these horny nightmares I’ve become accustomed to watching alone on the couch (not least of all because many of these titles went from festival to VOD distribution without much theatrical play). It was an epiphanic moment of clarity in which I realized just how far my tastes have been skewing away from wholesome escapism towards unrepentant smut. It felt shameful.

I’ve yet to consult with my therapist about how much of that shame is genuine concern and how much of it is just regular old social anxiety (it’s no coincidence that my version of a “party” involves everyone directing their attention towards a TV screen). I do know this, though: the novelty of seeing explicitly sexual, artistically transgressive smut through proper cinematic distribution means is a dying pastime. Yet, I believe more of it is being made now than ever before; it’s just falling outside the bounds of official distribution channels and critically legitimized media. As more of the pop culture landscape shifts towards boardroom-vetted, “morally” sanitized, Family-friendly media and corporate IPs, I find myself slinking further down these dank tunnels of cinematic depravity, finding just as much comfort in gleefully taboo titles like Double Lover & The Untamed as I do in genuinely wholesome life-affirmers like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? & Paddington 2. Maybe it’s just comforting to know they’re still out there, even though their goal is often to alienate & discomfort – like a slimy security blanket.

-Brandon Ledet

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