I watched porn in class, and it wasn’t against the rules. In fact, I didn’t even have a choice.

I’m not really sure how I ended up in a class called “Topics in American Cinema: Cult & Exploitation,” because I know jack shit about movies. But once I got into the first class, it seemed like fun, so I figured: “why not?”

It was two weeks into our in-person classes when we started a unit called “Softcore/Hardcore.” I knew what was coming, no pun intended: I had done the assigned readings about the modern birth of porn and soft-core; the “porno chic” aesthetic of the 1970s; and the underlying cultural distinctions of “lowbrow”, “highbrow,” and “middlebrow.” I had also sat through the Tuesday lecture, which was far and away the strangest academic experience of my life, at the time.

I entered Lenfest for my second ever in-person academic experience at my $60,000-a-year University to watch Radley Metzger’s 1970 erotic drama “The Lickerish Quartet.” As I learned, Metzger’s films are excellent examples of the softcore aesthetic, with their six-figure budgets, art-house production values, and sleek visual appearance. Sitting in a theater with mandatory social distancing, with three seats roped off between each open one, and every other row closed, gave me the chance to feel what it would have been like to watch a movie in an old-school adult film theater, where every other seat was removed to let audience members have their private space.

Peering over my two masks as the lights went down, I saw a shot of a brilliant Italian castle, before the camera cut inside to show a middle-aged couple, fully clothed, watching a black-and-white porno on a home projector along with what seemed to be their adult son, who I can best describe as looking like the lovechild of Zac Efron and Mark Hamill. 

After what felt like several weeks of watching his probably-father try to get his foursome video to play start-to-finish while complaining and teasing like an even-more-Freudian Prince Hamlet, Efron/Hamill guy stormed out to go to the carnival, with his probably-parents in tow. Who do they see driving a motorcycle around the “ring of death”? None other than the star of their film from earlier, they think. They can’t be sure of her identity, but they bring her home to their giant castle anyways, where they harass her with their film from before until Efron/Hamill interrupts with magic tricks. Nothing beats porn logic. It may seem ridiculous, and it was—but the film was clearly setting up complex characters with the potential for conflict and exploration, the only problem was that I didn’t understand any of this. Maybe it was because the movie didn’t make any sense, or maybe I just don’t know anything about movies. Plus, it was at least half an hour in, and the only sexual content I’d seen was in the movie-with-a-movie. I will admit that I was disappointed. There was no horniness, just tension and confusion.

If the film’s first act fulfilled the “drama” description, the second act aimed for “erotic.” I say “aimed for” because not only was the sex not particularly appealing, it went so far as to be actively unarousing at times. In softcore films like this one, actual penetrative sexual intercourse isn’t shown up close, so the actors only have to mime it (everything else is real, though). But while the ridiculous nude rolling was of little interest to my genitals, the rest of the first sex scene was at least appealing to my brain. It was set in a library with a floor modeled off of a dictionary, except all of the words were sexual. One of the most clever aspects of the film made use of this unusual set design by interspersing the sex with close up of entries like “penetrate,” “orgasm,” and “fuck.”

By the film’s final third, Efron/Hamill is getting his dad’s sloppy seconds, leaving his parents to fight about their marital issues exacerbated by daddy’s fling. Then, things start to get really wild. Scenes from the movie they had been watching begin to blur with flashbacks, and alleged flashbacks, of the couple, much younger, as a prostitute and a U.S. soldier in some undisclosed war. Characters begin to switch places, before the family’s guest disappears altogether, and I was left wondering if she had ever really been there at all. In the final scene, the fictional porno’s characters are in the castle’s living room, watching the main characters in a porno, and not the other way around. I still haven’t figured out quite what this is supposed to mean yet, but I’m pretty sure it means something.

Then the lights came on, and I put my computer back in my backpack, got on my coat, and walked out, in complete silence, along with 18 other students. 

If that sounds like your idea of a good time, and you can’t wait until next semester to take “Topics in American Cinema: Cult & Exploitation,” “The Lickerish Quartet” is available to rent on Amazon Prime for $4.

movie theater via Bwog Archive