Musty Smut

The Cinematheque pays homage to grainy sex films.

Ooh l l: The films that gave Grandpa a woody come - to the Cinematheque this weekend.
Ooh l l: The films that gave Grandpa a woody come to the Cinematheque this weekend.

Some things never change. Just like the new-millennium porn found in video stores and on pay-per-view, the dirty movies that make up Porn Yesterday: Stag Movies 1915-1950 -- a compilation of black-and-white silent shorts from a time when X was just another letter between W and Y -- feature techniques (the stationary camera that takes you right into the action) and payoffs (the money shot) still employed today.

Besides offering blowjobs, bare butts, and positions we had no idea Grandma and Grandpa were even aware of, these movies present something rarely found in today's video-shot cheapies: humor. "They're very amusing," says Karl Cohen, the San Francisco-based historian who compiled the films that make up the 90-minute program. "I hope people realize that all the fuss we've made over this kind of film is ridiculous. They're not the great dangers the politicians and the church insisted they were in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. They're funny."

And it's hard not to chuckle at the poor sap at the center of "On the Beach," which features a goat, a hole in a fence, and a side-splitting turn into implied bestiality. Or at the outrageous wigs and heavy makeup worn by the performers. Or even at the pun-happy pseudonyms ("Free Ride" was directed by A. Wise Guy and photographed by Will B. Hard). But there are "an awful lot of these that are just boring," Cohen says of the flicks in his collection that didn't make the cut. "All they're interested in filming is two people making love. That could be exciting -- but the way these people photographed, [in] extreme long shots, it's just dull."

As raunchy as it can be (no one under 18 will be admitted), Porn Yesterday is rarely erotic. "I don't think anybody takes it seriously for the purpose for which it was originally intended," Cohen says. "For prurient interests, it's much too crude. But it is interesting to see what was considered risqué."

As historical documents, the films are indeed invaluable. Little is known about the performers or filmmakers. Most of the movies (titles like "The Casting Couch," "Career Girl: The Art of Landing a Job," and "Pete the Tramp" pretty much sum up their respective plots) were shot quickly. None of them were ever unspooled in public. Rather, vintage porn was typically shown at bachelor parties for the amusement of drunken, horny men. "This is found art," Cohen says. "They were homemade films by amateurs. This was an underground form of entertainment.

"They were strictly forbidden. People were thrown in jail for showing them. We were a very puritanical society, and to some extent, we still are." Sociological significance notwithstanding, Porn Yesterday is a celluloid curio of crude acting, flimsy plots, and a procession of eager-to-get-naked women. Some things never change.