There is a popular theory that the difference between art and garbage is simply a matter of location. For example: an unmade bed in Tracey Emin's house is simply another job for the cleaners; but take that same bed to one of Charles Saatchi's galleries and, bingo, it becomes a priceless installation. Similarly, all that distinguishes erotica from porn-ography is the passage of time, which magically transforms the dirty scrib-blings of antiquity into artefacts to be reverentially poured (rather than fur-tively wanked) over by "scholars". What would happen if one took a selection of graphic stag films designed to satisfy the "baser" desires of thrill-seeking punters of yore, and transported them from the stagnant surroundings of the "gentlemen's smoking clubs" of Paris to the pristine art-house cinemas of London? Would they still be obscene porno loops? Or would they have transmogrified into genteel works of art?
This question is raised (if not answered) by The Good Old Naughty Days, a compendium of silent, black-and-white stag films from the early 20th century that is coming to London despite the anxieties of Westminster Council, which previously proved its moral worth by banning David Cronenberg's brilliant Crash. Comprising 11 live-action European romps and one bizarre American animation featuring a man with a detachable penis (really!), this quaint porn portmanteau offers a strange mix of the nostalgic and the nasty, as an array of men in bad wigs and unlikely moustaches romp with gaily gartered and often bonneted girls, all of whom seem to be getting along famously.
Schoolteachers, musketeers and (most notably) a positively Chaucerian selection of nuns and priests are observed sticking their various appendages into each other's soft parts and liberally spilling their seed, proving that Philip Larkin was at least half a century out when he declared that sexual intercourse began in 1963. Indeed, on this evidence, our forefathers were rather less prudish than their descendants, merrily engaging in the kind of man-on-man couplings that have become largely taboo in today's solidly sapphic-centred "straight" porn market.
What is most striking about these films, which are accompanied throughout by jolly piano rolls, is the healthy fleshliness of the performers, whose hefty curves and untrammelled body hair remind us of a time before body fascism became the new order of nudity. In an age in which sex appeal is personified by victims of the Atkins Diet, and everyone from princesses to pop stars considers vomiting and colonic irrigation to be "healthy", it is perhaps refreshing to remember that routinely rotund bums and tummies (both male and female) have a longer-standing claim to the palace of sensual delights.
Only in the fleeting introduction of a fluffy dog did the film-makers, distributors, censors and I part company on the acceptability (or otherwise) of the material on display. By a strange quirk of British law, it seems that "bestiality" is defined only in terms of penetration, thus allowing the spectacle of an animal licking men and women's genitals to fall through the net of illegality. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm against any involvement of animals in pornography, for the sake of both the animals and the performers. What happens, I wonder, the next time some modern misogynistic porn producer wants to distribute an altogether less "quaintly comic" tape of women "working" with animals and cites precedent in pursuit of a legal UK certificate? The censors are confident this isn't going to happen - I wish I shared their optimism.
And therein lies the rub. There is an unavoidable tension between the "highbrow" nature of Michel Reilhac's porn compilation and the lowbrow nature of its legal status. Having been classified under the "Restricted 18" certificate, which now sensibly allows the availability of consensual hard-core through licensed sex shops, Naughty Days nevertheless trades on its "antiquated art-house" class in a manner that supposedly overrides the original masturbatory purpose of the films. Yet in order to exhibit Polissons et Galipettes (the French title, which translates as "Naughty Boys and Acrobats"), art-house cinemas need a special or private licence that in effect aligns them with sex clubs. The result is a peculiar blurring of the line between popular entertainment and private pornography, a line similarly transgressed by that other French art-house offering The Pornographer, which was recently issued on DVD with an R18 certificate after being cut for mainstream release. Quite what the sex-shop punters made of that dreary blend of Gallic angst and po-faced ejaculation is anybody's guess.
As for The Good Old Naughty Days, it may be "quaint", but at least some of the highbrow cognoscenti may still choke on their popcorn.