Revelations: The Right to See

As the board member and co-founder of Feminists for Free Expressions, iconic erotic film director Candida Royalle of Femme Productions has been committed to fighting political and cultural censorship throughout her career. In Revelations, perhaps her biggest investment (and in fact shot on 35 mm), she portrays an authoritarian regime’s censorship of all art and eroticism, and how deadly such repression can be.

Candida made the film in the early 90s, outraged by the government’s anti-porn measures instigated by the disputed “Meese Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. Appointed by President Reagan and dominated by conservatives, the Meese Commission concluded that “pornography is degrading to women, and asserted a causal, though in fact unproven, link between porn and violence, essentially reiterating anti-porn activist Robin Morgan’s slogan: “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice. As porn scholar Linda Williams points out, the Meese Commission failed, however, to define pornography beyond one Associate Justice’s statement that “I know it when I see it. This left all sexually explicit films vulnerable to the government’s prosecution.

In December 2005, Candida re-released Revelation on DVD with expanded extra material as a reminder that the battle against censorship is not over. That same year, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, acting as the Chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, had led a series of hearings on pornography. Arguing that porn is “morally repugnant and offensive and “harmful to its users and their families, Senator Brownback even asked legal experts if the courts might be moved to whittle away at First Amendment rights in the face of a public health crisis.

Revelations explores what life would be like in a society where its citizens have been deprived the freedom to express themselves sensually, creatively, and emotionally; where sex is only allowed for procreation; where everyone wears shapeless gray overalls, inhabiting sterile apartments; where one risks being arrested for keeping art.

As the opening credits scroll over the screen, fearlessly announcing the names of the actors and crew involved in the production of the film up front, softly lit images of a couple making love float over the screen before the film abruptly cuts to an extreme close-up of a woman’s face, framing only her eyes. In contrast to the soft red light used in the shots of the lovers, the lighting here is harsh, revealing the skin’s lines and blemishes. Pointing to the film’s theme about what is allowed to be seen or not, the shot insists on her inherent right to see while also indicating her vision’s imprisonment, both through the restricted framing and also from her questions to the viewer: “Did I tell you how I ended up here? “How orderly things are outside?

The camera then cuts to the outside as she, Ariel, begins to tell her story. We see military people in uniforms beating citizens in overalls, barbed wire-fences and factories in the background, the sun barely visible behind the smog. Everything from the uniforms to boxes and containers are marked with the regime’s emblem; an “N for the “new order that has the crescent shaped blade of a scythe attached to each end. Symbols in general\’from bedrails to symbolize the forbidden nature of sex for pleasure, to the American flag blowing in the wind with birds soaring into the sky to represent freedom\’play a central role in Revelations, which makes good sense; in a time of censorship, language must be camouflaged.

Then we see Ariel one morning as she leaves a drab looking apartment building to pick up the day’s provisions. A voice calls out from a megaphone, announcing that house-to-house searches will be conducted in order to root out all “decadence and subversion. When Ariel returns to her apartment building, her neighbor\’wearing only his baggy underwear\’is taken away by the security police. For a moment he fixes his eyes on her, imprinting an insistent stare, which overwhelms her with curiosity that ultimately brings her to enter his apartment.

In sharp contrast to the film’s other shots of exterior and interior spaces, the walls in her neighbor’s apartment are covered with playful and colorful Miro’esque drawings. Searching for something that might be of use to her in his pantry, knowing that most people who are taken away never return, Ariel finds the door to a narrow secret backroom, barely bigger than a closet, with erotic pictures on the walls, and in the back a TV with a VCR and a stack of erotic videos, revealing to her a sexuality of a sensual passionate kind of which her life is void.

Inspired by what she sees, Ariel begins to experiment with colors in her kitchen, splashing tomato sauce on the colorless curtains and walls. And she attempts to introduce sensuality and pleasure to the cot she shares with her cold husband only to be rejected. In the end she gets arrested while masturbating in the backroom of her neighbor’s apartment while watching an erotic video. Imprisoned in the film’s concluding scene she tenaciously claims ownership of what she has seen; pictures and stories that remain with her.

Revelationsis a powerful film that arouses political activism, as well as sexual stimulation inspired by the erotic porn films, which were shot on High 8, giving them the authentic grainy look of video. Cinematically, the film stands out too, baring testimony to the laborious attention Candida devoted to every detail in this film’s making. Candida recruited the woman who plays Ariel from mainstream motion pictures; she had no previous experience in porn.

(This post is an excerpt from my book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters, forthcoming fall 2012.)

Quizzical Mama

Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, PhD, is a former academic turned public educator, author, speaker, freelance writer, and mama- and sex blogger. Her book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters (Zer0 Books, October 2012) has been called “a goldmine for all sex-positive women and men,” and a “candid, well-informed personal story of how a good girl became involved in porn." She writes mores about progressive porn and sex-positivity in her New porn by women blog and at her resource site Love, Sex, and Family, and she muses about life and parenting in her Quizzical mama blog. She lives in Northfield, Minnesota, a small college town just south of the Twin Cities, with her spouse and their preschooler daughter. You can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @quizzicalmama.

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