doi:10.1558/prbt.v13i1.98

Review

Johnson, Bruce, ed. 2010. Earogenous Zones: Sound, Sexuality and Cinema. London: Equinox. ISBN 1-8455-3318-6 (pbk). 256 pp.

Reviewed by: Caryl Flinn, University of Michigan

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Keywords: cinema; erotica; film; pornography; soundtrack; Linda Williams

Two striking puns adorn the cover of this anthology. The first is the title Earogenous Zones, and the second is the sole image peering from its dark background: two male and female legs, shown from the knees down, face each other. Between them, improbably, float tufts of feathers. Seen at the slightest distance, however, the legs morph into nothing less than female genitalia. It is a fitting, cheeky welcome for a first-of-its-kind collection on sound and music in films with explicit sexual content. The essays are by an international group of musicologists, film scholars and cultural critics, many of whom are from the Pacific region. Topics, meanwhile, run the gamut from art house hits like Last Tango in Paris (1972) to Times Square hardcore of the mid- to late-1970s, sci-fi erotica and porn of the 1960s to zombie porn of the 2000s. Admirably, editor Bruce Johnson doesn’t try to elevate these objects of study, refusing to imbue them with artistic value, commercial success, or exceptionalism. Indeed, the worn patterns of rough and ready hardcore, with its canned and clichéd music, its off-screen groans and sighs, prove as analytically interesting as the more innovative scores such as John Cameron Mitchell’s compositions for Shortbus (2006).

As with any anthology, the quality fluctuates between the chapters. Among the best analyses are undertaken by Mark Evans and Matt Burgess (on filmmaker Russ Meyer), James Wierzbicki (on Ai no korida/Realm of the Senses [1976]), and Laura Wiebe Taylor (on New Wave Hookers [1985]). Evans and Burgess begin by noting Meyer’s unusual ability to combine ‘porn’ with comedy, arguing that his deliberately heavy-handed use of sound works to mimic his exaggerated, cartoonish imagery, bodies, and tawdry narrative situations. For example, hissing rattlesnakes accompany leading ladies, trumpets announce orgasms, breasts get sonic ‘boings’. The authors are laudably restrained in discussing the limits of Meyer’s actual send-up of sex and gender conventions in this well-written piece.

The research demonstrated in Wierzbicki’s equally well-written chapter, titled ‘The Peculiar “Love” Music in Oshima’s Ai no korida’, shines. Examining the scoring of the controversial film, Wierzbicki focuses on instruments and musical styles of pre-Meiji (1868–1912) Japan alongside the gender and sex norms of that period in which amenities for men included ‘noncommittal sex with both wives and mistresses’ (95). For the male protagonist of this (true) 1936 story, however, the nostalgic fantasy of that music not only fails to deliver, but participates in his undoing. Indeed, his sexually voracious female partner—who has quite different musical coding—proves unstable and lethally possessive. Wierzbicki’s keen attention to musical detail and his knowledge of Japanese music history make this chapter easy to appreciate.

Taylor’s contribution is an enjoyable discussion of New Wave Hookers, an irreverent hardcore proto-musical of the 1980s. Not only does its score (like its title) foreground connections between pornographic and musical spectacle-making but, as Taylor adds, it ‘repurposes punk to highlight the film’s own satirical aims’ (141). These aims, Taylor contends, are curiously superficial (dealing largely with the standard-issue sexual fantasies of frustrated male characters) but the reflexive aspects of Hookers and its score do much to humorously expose those limits. To her credit, Taylor contextualizes the film’s songs alongside pop and punk music of the time, and considers new wave music’s links to sexuality across other forms of social and cultural difference. For instance, she notes that

while the straight rhythms of much punk rock tended to ‘submerge’ rock’s rhythm and blues origin—specifically its reliance on the African American element of syncopation … —punk’s evolution towards new wave entailed a rebuilding of connections to ‘black music’ through the incorporation of influences from reggae, R&B, and even elements of disco (151).

Taylor does a fine job raising questions of racialized music cultures alongside the issues of gender, sexuality and music.

Overall, however, the anthology’s critical scaffolding reveals how far the field of erotica screen studies still has to go. Its unambiguous tutor text is Linda Williams’s classic Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (University of California Press, 1989). The arguments, assumptions and critical categories in some of the essays in Earogenous Zones, however, could have used a little updating. For example, given the abundant colonialist imagery of much sex cinema, surprisingly little is made of race, nationality, power and ethnicity. In addition, sex and gender are occasionally reduced to simple male and female binary features, characters or attributes. But even if there’s still plenty of ground to cover in the study of the still-denigrated ‘sex film’—in fact, perhaps because of it—Earogenous Zones: Sound, Sexuality and Cinema offers a fine place to begin listening.