Academic journal article Framework

Wet Dreams: Erotic Film Festivals of the Early 1970s and the Utopian Sexual Public Sphere

Academic journal article Framework

Wet Dreams: Erotic Film Festivals of the Early 1970s and the Utopian Sexual Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Film festivals, from their inception and popularization across the world, have been a locus for the formation of communities and cinephile publics, as well as alternative modes of filmic exchange and circulation. Despite the very nature of their transitory existence and ephemerality, film festivals as cultural events are receiving growing scholarly attention. As of yet, the studies of film festivals currently available have taken on specific national and urban locations, geographies, moments in time, and cultural identities.1 What makes the documentation of film festivals a difficult task is the complexity and multiplicity of the phenomena as well as the rapid proliferation of festivals across the globe in recent years. As a scan of any city's film festival calendar today attests, these events often engage with niche or specialty subjects and cater to specialized audiences. They are often focalized around cinematic works from a particular nation, belonging to specific genres, moving image media, or modes of production, expressive of sexual orientations or identity categories, or devoted to issues of local or political interest.2 Looking back at a moment in which the festival format was a relatively fresh and novel means for celebrating film work, and in which the notion of the niche-market festival was still developing, could thus provide directives both for research into the history of festival culture as well as in film history of the early 1970s more broadly.

As such, I will offer a micro-history of a set of events that led to the rise of erotic film festivals in New York, San Francisco, and Amsterdam in the early 1970s. In this essay, I will locate this hybrid reception sphere within the history of the sexual revolution and the development of publicly screened hardcore pornography, as well as within the contexts of broader public debates around the liberalization of screen permissiveness. I will also map out the emergence of the erotic film festival as a site for taste formation and erotic consumption across different modes of film production such as the sexploitation film, the experimental film, the independent film, and the hardcore pornographic feature. Exemplary of a moment in which the furor over sexuality and sexual explicitness in film had reached a fever pitch, this case study looks at the ways that these festivals mobilized a discourse of sexual liberation alongside a rhetoric of aesthetic innovation, positioning themselves outside of the market of the more mundane porn shops and storefront theaters selling a seedier version of sex to an older generation of "skin flick" consumers. The promotion and execution of the International Erotic Film Festival in San Francisco (which premiered in December 1970) and the New York Erotic Film Festival (which began in December 1971), and their European progenitor, the Wet Dream Film Festival in Amsterdam (November 1970), offers a historical site for the exploration of the terms and conventions of erotic taste cultures as they were imbricated with the refinement and construction of cinephile practices in urban locales.3

But first it is important to ask, why put on an erotic film festival, and why at this particular time and in these particular places? From a contemporary vantage point, we have grown accustomed to the plethora of film festivals which have expanded and spanned the globalized world in recent years, and the notion of an erotic film festival, in and of itself, is not a controversial or new one.4 Yet considering the historical moment of the early 1970s, the materialization of erotic film festivals represented a shift in the conceptualization of sexuality in film, in the larger film culture, and in the public sphere more broadly. While the concept of the film festival was a relatively new one to American culture, with the earliest festivals emerging in Columbus and San Francisco in the 1950s, it was further institutionalized in the 1960s by me New York Film Festival, which embraced the appreciation of the cinema as an art form and built upon a vibrant cinephile culture already in play in New York at me time. …

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