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BOOK REVIEW: A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film, by Luke Ford

100 Years of Sex in Film
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

Toward the end of his desultory survey of blue movies past and present, author Luke Ford informs us, “Porn has never produced either good writing or good journalism.” Ford—as we will soon see—is no exception to the rule, but as the Bob Woodward of the triple-X scene, spreading all the news that isn’t necessarily fit to print (see his website:, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. His (admitted) tendency to mix rumor with fact has made him a controversial figure in a community not known for its puritan ethics, but what distinguishes his commentaries is his undisguised loathing for the porn scene: Ford, a convert to Judaism, looks upon the pleasures of the flesh with a moralistic disdain uncommon among insiders.

This is obvious on virtually every page of “A History of X,” which takes us all the way back from the first stag film (in 1896, believe it or not) to the shot-on-tape gonzo productions of the present. Unfortunately, what’s also obvious is the simple fact that Luke Ford can’t write.

252 pages of stumbling prose and superficial analysis, “The History of X” is shockingly amateurish, to the extent that you have to wonder whether they trouble with nuisances like editing and proofreading over at Prometheus Books. To begin with the basics: Ford regularly unloads grammatical horrors like grizzly when he means grisly, comprised of (always wrong) when he means composed of, who’s when he means whose, continuously when he means continually. He is apparently unaware of the redundancy in sentences like “Anthony [Spinelli] jumped in at the start of the burgeoning porn business” (hint: either start or burgeoning has to go).

These are inexcusable lapses in a professionally published book, but they would be easy to overlook if the prose weren’t so doggedly mechanical. The book reads like a college term paper banged out at 3AM. Ford is nowhere a graceful writer, and when he tries to be witty the result is usually painful, e.g. “In 1969, Naked Came the Stranger exploded like an orgasm to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.”

Cookie-cutter prose aside, “A History of X” is atrociously structured; for all his evident distaste for his subject, Ford doesn’t advance an argument so much as pile digressions on top of digressions. A typical rhetorical tactic is to shoehorn a personality profile in the middle of a discussion of something else. Suddenly the name Linda Lovelace crops up in the text; a few paragraphs later, we get, “Born Linda Boreman in 1950, Lovelace was the daughter of a New York policeman”—and we’re subjected to a blandly written bio for the next few pages. Or we’re reading about ‘50s stripper/stag actress Candi Barr when the author, veering momentarily off the subject, devotes exactly two sentences to refuting some old urban legends: “Barr’s notoriety raises the perennial question of whether such Hollywood stars as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, or Marilyn Monroe appeared in stag films. Probably not.” Well (says Ford, dusting off his hands), that settles that. This kind of “oh, by the way” analysis is all too common.

Ford not infrequently gets the facts wrong (Spalding Gray becomes “Spaulding Gray”), and he’s especially hopeless with dates, e.g. the Jessica Lange King Kong remake (from 1976) was assuredly not an ‘80s film; director Radley Metzger's first hardcore production was not 1974's The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (that would be Score, 1972); the various rumors surrounding “snuff” films almost certainly date prior to 1973 (some commentators have traced this lurid myth back to Charlie Manson, whose followers stole TV camera equipment not long before the Tate-LaBianca murders and are alleged to have recorded the killings).

It’s only fair to point out that Ford does a few things reasonably well; for one, he’s properly indignant toward the wild claims advanced by anti-porn activists. The highlight of the book is a well-researched and convincingly argued chapter on the mob’s involvement with the early years of porn—even despite Ford’s tone-deaf prose, this section is mildly compelling. But this only underscores the stolid mediocrity of the book as a whole. “The History of X” is not without value—enterprising porn scholars will be pulling it off the library shelf for years to come—but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that “X” still awaits a suitable history.

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originally posted: 11/12/01 11:30:20
last updated: 02/04/04 08:51:49
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