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Why DEEP THROAT Should Be Placed in the National Film Registry

Press Play By Violet LeVoit | Press Play November 5, 2013 at 10:25AM

It's almost that time again. Every December, the National Film Preservation Board, with the sheltering authority of the Library Of Congress hovering benevolently over its shoulder, announces the twenty-five "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" movies that will be enshrined in the National Film Registry.
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It's almost that time again. Every December, the National Film Preservation Board, with the sheltering authority of the Library Of Congress hovering benevolently over its shoulder, announces the twenty-five "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" movies that will join the honor roll of American cinema enshrined in the National Film Registry. To the Board's credit, the list is startlingly egalitarian and unfussy, honoring not only obvious contenders like Gone With The Wind (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941) but also representatives from every corner of American movie-making: independents like El Mariachi (1992) and Night Of The Living Dead (1968), masterpieces both sung (The Godfather (1974), and unsung (Daughters Of The Dust (1991), Killer Of Sheep (1977)), technological watermarks as far-ranging as The Jazz Singer (1928) to  A Computer Animated Hand (1972), and unique visions like Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and The Matrix (1999).

But, despite the Board’s inclusion of up to fifty nominations suggested by the American public into its deliberations each year, and a curatorial eclecticism that honors diversity as far-ranging as Dog Star Man Part IV (1964), Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s), and Let's All Go To The Lobby (1957) ( you know, with the dancing popcorn and hot dogs -- "to get ourselves a treat!"), one essential American movie keeps getting unfairly overlooked. It's a movie no less essential to the trajectory of American film than Dickson Experimental Sound Film (c. 1894). In fact, it's another early sound film, if one considers all meanings of the verb to sound: to test the depth of a hidden space. It's Deep Throat (1972).

Gerard Damiano's semi-surreal porno-comedic fantasy about an anatomically irregular woman (Linda Lovelace) and her search for unorthodox clitoral stimulation isn't more cinematically interesting than other features from the so-called "golden age" of porn. (Behind The Green Door [also 1972] is the most visually inventive of the bunch, with an aesthetic borrowed from video art of the era—Nam June Paik, with cum shots.) Deep Throat, by contrast, is poorly directed, scripted, shot, and "acted," and almost as dull as Warhol's experimental movie/endurance exercise Empire (1964), with about the same level of phallic obsession. (Empire is enshrined in the Registry. Perhaps tellingly, Warhol's Blow Job [1964] is not.)

But all aesthetic shortcomings aside, Deep Throat certainly qualifies as a culturally significant movie. Much has already been written about how its ensuing multiple legal battles carved out First Amendment rights for all cinema to splay whatever sort of grotesque delight it saw fit across the screen, to say nothing for the way its "four quadrant" success set in motion the current mainstreaming of pornography in American culture. In her memoir Post-Porn Modernist, porn star turned performance artist Annie Sprinkle remembers working as a popcorn girl at an Arizona theater during the height of "porno chic", amazed at the cross-section of American humanity lining up to see Linda Lovelace "untangle her tingle", as promised by the poster's tagline: "[The audience was] young and elderly, couples, singles, groups, college students and teachers, blue- and white- collar workers, all types of people. I sold tons of popcorn." (Let's all go to the lobby, to get ourselves a treat.)

Deep Throat's historical importance is also undeniable because of its connection to the Watergate scandal. Disgruntled FBI agent Mark Felt was willing to confirm details for journalist Bob Woodward about the Nixon-backed burglary of Democratic National Committee offices, but only in secret.  Woodward's mysterious source, who would only meet with the journalist in Beltway parking garages at 2 am, was given the nickname "Deep Throat" as a smirking play on the journalistic phrase "deep background," meaning a never-quoted source who will secretly confirm confidential information obtained elsewhere. The investigation brought Nixon down, but not before revealing all sorts of unsavory tidbits about the commander in chief to the American public. (For example, Nixon's preferred term for double-crossing was "ratfucking"—an activity Lovelace never got around to, despite the dog-on-woman action displayed in the stag loop Dog Fucker [1971] she made before Deep Throat.)

What hasn't been acknowledged is how, despite its failures of craftsmanship, Deep Throat is not an artistically devoid movie. Its success is in the realm of theory and criticism, in providing the mathematical proof to Godard's theorem that "film is truth 24 times a second". While it's laughable to think that Deep Throat invented pornography, or even the pornographic film, the fusion bomb it created by merging the tropes of Hollywood film (and all its attendant unspoken eroticism) with the animal reality of intercourse was a Manhattan Project moment. Imagine what that first vaginal penetration, twelve interminable minutes into a previously quite dull movie, must have looked like in 1972, as big on screen as the thrown animal bone that becomes the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the parting of the waves in The Ten Commandments (1956). And the sacred waters keep rising: semen, snot, vaginal secretions, spit, and, holiest of American elixirs, Coca-Cola, in the scene in which it is poured into a glass dildo inserted into Lovelace's vagina.

And there are tears, too. Later in life, Lovelace maintained that she was violently coerced into a pornographic career by her abusive husband Chuck Traynor. There are bruises visible on Lovelace's thighs, and, while her acting is uniformly quite cardboard, the frightened tears she summons instantly in the scene where her doctor informs her she has no clitoris are startlingly real. The National Film Registry has seen fit to include important documentation of many atrocities, including Hindenberg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937) and the Zapruder Kennedy film (1963). Lovelace's disavowal of her "performance" as a documented rape can't be ignored, but it shouldn't disqualify Deep Throat.

Then what's left? Is the Board's sheer unwillingness to address Deep Throat's ultra-sexed subject matter what keeps it from having its lovingly restored negative swaddled in a temperature-controlled vault in the Library of Congress for all perpetuity? Maybe. But to acknowledge Deep Throat as a benchmark of American cinema would mean acknowledging the bigger genie we can't put back into the bottle. Deep Throat and "Deep Throat" put an end to the idea that anything is private. Sex tapes, Wikileaks, an intern's navy blue dress spattered with presidential semen, yawn. It's hard to believe there was a point in time when Americans could be shocked to the point of national paralysis over a piddly dirty trick burglary and the slobbery reality of a blow job. Those crowds lining up in 1972 couldn't conceive of the day Deep Throat could be enshrined in the Library of Congress as a testament to our naivetë and innocence. We take in the whole truth now, up to the tonsils, without a thought.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

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