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Porn appreciation, an introduction

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By most accounts, Julie Buck has established a successful career.

After years of schooling, she's now working at Harvard University's Film Archives preserving materials on the verge of utter extinction.

But it's what she's most widely known for --- her work preserving and presenting vintage porn --- that has made her career a taboo subject among her family.

"I grew up a Mormon," she says. "My mother's still a practicing Mormon, and this aspect of my work is... well... it's not talked about much."

Preserving porn might seem like an odd calling for someone who not only was raised in the Mormon Church, but who never even saw a pornographic film until she was well into her 20s.

"I ended up at a party where people were watching porn," she says. "And it freaked me out. It made me really uncomfortable."

Just a few years later, after studying film preservation at the George Eastman House, Buck wound up at Harvard. And she was drowning in porn.

"I knew all this material was out there, but the institutions had no idea how to handle it. Many were reluctant to admit they even had it in their records. So I kind of went fishing," she says. "There were a whole bunch of things in our database that had no information. So I started watching the films. I'm sitting in our little screening room watching hardcore porn from the 20s. I'm in this little office, the door is open. And all of a sudden I look around and find, like, eight heads popped around the corner, watching what I'm looking at."

Hence the allure of porn --- or "blue cinema" --- from a preservationist's perspective: Long overlooked and often mislabeled, vintage porn has the draw of unmarked and delicate territory. Not to mention its inevitable car-wreck appeal.

Pornography has only recently gained credibility in the field of preservation. And Buck, through her archival work and her frequent "Blue Shorts" presentations at Harvard and elsewhere (like the Dryden Theatre this Friday, April 15), has found herself in the midst of this "revival."

Scholarly study of porn --- vintage and contemporary --- began to multiply after Hard Core author Linda Williams first tackled the subject in 1989. Much of that discourse was written from a feminist perspective and it was deeply academic, full of sex-theory lingo like the male gaze, etc.

And while Buck thinks the fact that she's a woman may make her presentations more interesting "and in some ways even more acceptable," she's not interested in discussing pornography from a feminist context.

"This is a different way of looking at the material," she says. "The first time I did the show at Harvard, this woman --- a self-described lesbian poet --- was telling me, 'I can't believe you just did this amazing feminist retelling of pornography.' I thanked her, but I didn't know what the hell she was talking about."

For Buck, the subject's simply worth discussion. And it doesn't require framing. After all, Americans spend more money on porn than they do on professional sporting events. Yet, as Buck exclaims, "nobody talks about it at all!"

"There are more porn sites, in terms of genre sites, than any other sites on the Internet," she says. "They're thriving."

"The Museum of Sex in New York City is doing a show right now; it's basically a whole series on smokers and stag films," she says. "Of course, when you read their information it's like, 'Introduced by Dr. So-and-so, sex theorist.' Because you can't just show porn. You have to give it some sort of scholarly justification."

There's plenty of fodder in simply talking about how the, ahem, form has evolved technically over its history --- which is just as long as the history of film.

"They started primarily at 10 minutes, roughly the length of a reel," she says of early porn. "They were stag films, usually played in brothels or men's organizations. Those were called smokers, because men would sit around with cigars basically watching these pornographic films."

If not high society, the scene was certainly private society. A far cry from contemporary porn, which most folks have a hard enough time keeping out of their inboxes.

The ubiquity of porn in the modern era has turned it into a niche industry, certainly not the field for any right-minded aspiring actor hoping to latch on with the WB. But porn wasn't always relegated solely to the amateur. Limited means of production and presentation once kept the films in the hands of the studios, which only pulled them out for private parties.

"A lot of this early stuff was clearly shot by professional photographers sometimes with professional actors," Buck says. "The last piece in the show is kind of unofficially called Getting his Goat. Yes, a goat is involved. But the actor in it is a notable silent film actor. It has a definite story arc. It's not just people having sex. It's very professionally done.

"There wasn't the fear that we have now," she says. "Now, an actor if they appear in porn can like totally ruin their career. But back then the audiences for these films were so small."

Now the audiences for vintage stag films are growing, thanks in part to Buck's historical, and varied, touring presentations. Her "Blue Shorts" program includes trailers, animation, and shorts from way back in 1922 (the aforementioned Goat) up to 1985. But it's that grainy and silent early work Buck has to thank for prepping her sensibilities.

"The first material I was looking at was all silent-era footage, and somehow there's a disconnect," she says. "There is something about silent-era pornography where, as you're watching it, you're like: Wow. People actually had sex back then. There is something a little more distanced about it. It's far less shocking than when I did finally get around to seeing '70s porn, which is much more disturbing actually."

Blue Shorts with conservator Julie Buck, Friday, April 15, Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, 8 p.m. 271-4090. $6. No one under 18 admitted.

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