I saw a porn actor recently post, on Instagram, Andy Warhol’s illustration for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle. It sparked in me some questions: Why don’t we talk about film and mainstream porn in the same spaces—or, at least, why don’t they exist in similar, or more adjacent, aesthetic and cultural spaces? How has art and culture shaped those that are a part of what is designated as a niche space, in spite of its popularity?
So, to maybe answer some of those questions, or at least explore them, I’d like to introduce a new column: Adult Film Watchers.
Here’s how it works: I’ll take a porn star to the movies and afterwards we’ll talk about the movie, inevitably talking about broader ideas regarding where art and porn intersect and how they’ve shaped us.
This week, I spoke to Ty Mitchell, whose work can be found at GuysInSweatpants, Lucas Entertainment and ShowerBait, as well as Mic.com, and we went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Golden Globes darling, The Shape of Water.
And to be perfectly clear, the following discussion is saturated with spoilers:
Kyle Turner (Paste Magazine): So one of the things that struck me was the use of language in the film. Eliza (Sally Hawkins) is mute and so is the Creature (Doug Jones), by nature of him being non-human. They have to communicate by sign language. What was interesting about that was this idea of those that are Othered have to create their own language in order to communicate with one another.
Ty Mitchell: That was less of a salient thing to me. A lot of people have brought up the otherness of the Creature, and I did appreciate the way—I think Eric Eidelstein remarked about how she loves him because of his difference, not in spite of it: The way that they’re mutually wounded or othered people. And then [the Creature] takes away her otherness, and I’m kind of wondering, when you find out he has this kind of power, if she’s going to be able to speak at some point in the movie, if she’s going to be repaired or healed, because if that happened, it would take away her otherness, it would take away the way in which she’s marginal. And it was kind of a huge relief that when he does [use his power on her], he stays a freak under water.
Paste: Why do you frame healing her, or her scars turning into gills, as an act of the Creature taking away Eliza’s otherness?
Mitchell: He didn’t actually take it away, but converted [her otherness] into something else. I think had he taken away her weakness, had she been able to speak earlier in the film, he would have taken away how they are mutually marginal. Their whole romance is predicated on how they’re both alone.
Paste: I thought of it as that otherness being recontextualized, put into a context in which otherness is normative.
Mitchell: Yeah, yeah, like: “I’m going to take you to my mermaid kingdom, and you’re gonna be my princess. Where we belong together.” What I found interesting about the film was how it operated on all these different axes of “difference,” in this fertile, historical moment for difference. Race kind of comes up repeatedly throughout the movie, but also, ability is this axis of difference, gender is this axis of difference, class is an axis of difference in terms of [Eliza and Zelda (Octavia Spencer)] being “the help.” There are all these forms of marginality that are working throughout this film.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether the Creature represents this additional form of difference, like human vs. non-human, or whether this [difference] was this thing we can’t place [in] society. This monster is this thing that transcends all the ways in which people are different. He exists totally outside the existing social structure.
Paste: Something that was brought up to me the first time I saw it was that the original Creature from the Black Lagoon always maintained a somewhat androgynous presentation. I think it’s similar here, although Eliza genders the Creature as “he,” describing his anatomical sex organs as—
Mitchell: It’s a little yonic.
Paste: Yeah, it has both a yonic and phallic nature. I thought that was interesting, as if the Creature straddles gender binary.
Mitchell: Hmmm. I don’t know.
Paste: Is that stretching it?
Mitchell: I think that might be stretching it, because, there’s no receptivity to his sexuality. It was a phallus. It was just like an animal-like phallus. There are other creatures in nature that have retractable penises. I felt like that moment where [Eliza and Zelda] talk about his dick kind of confirmed that this was an unequivocally male, masculine, virile masculine, muscular… Never in the film did they discuss the Creature being ugly in any way. It was like part of the Creature’s power in intimidating other characters, or enchanting them, was that he’s this kind of freakish Adonis.
Paste: Would you fuck him?
Mitchell: Without a doubt! [laughs] Do you know how much time they spent on that ass?
Paste: I think I heard you say, at some point during the film, “That ass!” [laughs]
Mitchell: I did, once we got a really good look at it! I had to applaud.
Paste: You mentioned the idea of being alone. That comes up throughout the film, especially concerning Giles (Richard Jenkins). He asks the Creature, “Have you always been alone?” And Strickland (Michael Shannon) being a “man of the future,” who has this family, has attained the nuclear familial structure, has attained the American Dream—he says, “This is America” in one scene—how could you contrast the Utopian quality of Strickland’s idealized life and the Utopian quality of the Creature?
Mitchell: There is a queer Utopian quality to the Creature. Col. Strickland’s entire narrative is one of imperiled white masculinity. He gets castrated right at the beginning of the film! Early in the film, he’s taking a piss in the bathroom with the girls watching, and there’s a gesture to his dick, and then he says, “It’s a look but don’t touch,” referring to his electric baton. Immediately we have his dick displaced into this baton. Moments later, we see him stumble out, his fingers amputated by the Creature. There’s this castration that happens to this character right away.
Paste: Similar to in The Thing.
Mitchell: Yeah. So we see this character’s full storyline, even with the Cadillac, trying to create prosthetics for his castrated cock that was castrated by this queer, racial Other, alien thing. It explains why he’s so incredibly hateful towards it. Even towards the end, when he has this discussion with General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) about decency, he feels like he has lived sexual decency at its finest, racial decency—
Paste: Masculine decency.
Mitchell: Right, and he fucks up this one time. And the General is like, “All these things about decency are bullshit, actually.” Especially in the scene where [Strickland] buys the [Cadillac], we have this rare view into this character that is seperate from the rest of the narrative: him having having weird sex with his wife, or him buying a car to compensate for his castration by this monster.
Paste: And the story that he tells about Samson and Delilah, the towers, also phallic imagery.
Mitchell: One thing I really love about Guillermo del Toro, first of all: There’s a total lack of pretension [to his films], which is really refreshing in my opinion. There’s a certain amount of relaxed sophistication to the way that del Toro tells a story, where he’s making these kind of references that would appear very heavy-handed for someone else, but they appear as sweet and lovely in del Toro’s hands. And one of the things I really love is his appreciation for mythology. It’s funny that Samson comes up so often, because right at the beginning of the film, you see that the movie theater is called the Orpheum Theater, and so you’re immediately, like, “We’re going to take another trip into the Underworld.” But this time it’s going to be an Orpheum one, as opposed to a Persephoneon one, like in Pan’s Labyrinth. Right upon seeing that theater, I knew, “OK, there’s going to be a moment where someone is going to have to look back, and it’s going to be fatal.”
It’s kind of like a full-proof red flag that you’re going to have a trial of faith at some point, or moment of hesitation that’s going to cost a life.
Paste: With regards to Orpheus, del Toro uses music is able to transport these characters into another world.
Mitchell: The lyre taming the Cerberus. It’s just funny that it’s the female protagonist who’s the Orpheum character. Eliza is the Orpheus of the story. She looks back, and it seems to be fatality. Where I said that in someone else’s hands, it could be annoying, here: It’s sweet the way that [del Toro] rectifies the tragedy by having [both Eliza and the Creature] go into the water.
Paste: This was my second time seeing it, and I felt a little more like it was an essay film—which is not a bad thing—but I’ve described it as if Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven and was having fun. The reason I bring that up is that there’s this deconstrionalist approach to the era. You have a very specific time period that’s represented by images and iconography and then kind of rebuked by what those images are selling—that America’s national identity is decency—and then you have the dissonance between that and the compassion that exists between the individuals in the movie. But this doesn’t come off as deeply esoteric.
Mitchell: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like a deconstruction even if it’s available to us. Like I said, the imperiled white masculinity really stuck out of me. Which leads me to wondering: Does the Creature exist outside of all these social differences or is it an additional kind? I think it’s really easy to kind of see the Creature as a racial figure, as a person of color. But he’s not. He’s not this metaphor for a black man, or even this metaphor for an Asian man, or a metaphor for an Indigenous man. He is non-human. Because [“being human”] comes up. Because when [Eliza]’s talking to Glies, she’s like, “If we don’t do something, then we’re nothing.” It’s just this really interesting setting: On the one hand, America having to reckon with the humanness of queer people and people of color and women, and on the other hand, America is developing this Cold War technology, and prosthesis and robotics, a whole technology of non-humanness. Super-humanness.
Paste: What about this film appeals in terms of other art or cultural artifacts you’re interested in?
Mitchell: To go back to what you said about non-specificity—the non-specificity of the Creature—I like that [the movie] made him available to me as a queer figure, but also as a racial figure. To have both of those available to me was nice, without it being in the context of monstrous blackness or monstrous Asianness. To go back to this idea that this Creature represents this potential future, an entirely new concept of sexuality, of difference, and humanity, and then gets thrown away and submerged and goes back to stasis, up here in the real world. He’s this figure of Salvation. A harbinger of a more diverse future.
Paste: Do you find anything analogous between how two worlds are bifurcated in the film, and then in your life doing porn, how a lot of people compartmentalize those worlds?
Mitchell: What a lot of the film seemed to have to do with was superfluous forms of sexuality: so there’s this routine masturbation that Eliza does in the bathroom every morning, there’s the prosthetic cock of Strickland’s, Eliza offers up her eggs to the Creature all the time (which felt like this cute kind of parody of reproductive sexuality). And meanwhile, “decent,” productive sexuality is Strickland and his wife, which is very grotesque and very morbid. So a lot of the movie seemed to me like this celebration of non-productive, superfluous sexuality. There’s homosexuality (in Giles), there’s masturbation, and then there’s inter-species sex. [laughs] Those all play a role in periling the decent white masculinity—[which] reaches a point of total hysteria in the end. I was happy to see this celebration of different way of experiencing pleasure, of desire, that really violate standards of decency.
Paste: And the sex in the film adheres to certain genre aesthetics and frameworks. It’s telling a fairytale. And a lot of porn within certain frameworks and aesthetics.
Mitchell: Right, yeah, porn exists in what is called a “porn utopia.” All porn exists in this same universe of sexual availability, of many kinds of banal circumstances able to be turned into something orgiastic. Steven Marcus, who wrote The Other Victorians, he coined the term “porn utopia” to talk about Victorian pornogrpahy and pornographic literature, and it’s been used by porn studies scholars a lot to describe the kind of bizzaro world of porn where everybody’s just down to have sex all the time, and nobody ever bleeds or poops, unless you’re into that. The film seems to celebrate a world of excessive sexuality, where sexuality has no consequence, really. No one dies because they had sex, or gets pregnant, or gets AIDS in The Shape of Water, which is refreshing especially because it takes place in the 1960s. Woman don’t have sex and immediately die, you know?
Are you kind of concerned with mainstream sexual representation? Like, how do movies present sex now?
Paste: I think it’s important have a complexity of thought and also be able to situate things within their moment and context, which is why liked your article on Call Me By Your Name so much. I like the Robert Aldrich film The Killing of Sister George, which would probably be qualified as “problematic” now, as it’s about an alcoholic lesbian whose relationship falls apart, but I think what’s interesting about it is how queer self-loathing formed and presented itself and what were the social and political circumstances that shaped it.
Mitchell: One of the things I liked about the kind-of openly gay character in the film: [Giles] is this character who’s kind of queeny, without being in any sense a caricature or all that tragic. He’s a really good example of how to write a gay secondary character. He could have been a little fruitier, but his diva worship is very interesting. It was crazy how he couldn’t tolerate watching the race riots on TV.
Paste: I think that’s very indicative of a kind of—
Mitchell: Either/or kinds of marginality? LIke he can only participate in the story as a gay person, and we have to reserve the race stuff for other characters.
Paste: Not only that. The film’s fatal flaw is how it treats Octavia Spencer. She is given so little to do.
Mitchell: Comic relief, yeah.
Paste: I think it’s representative of the either/or rhetoric that a lot of white queer men use. The way that the discourse shapes itself, they also participate in that kind of rhetoric: I am a queer Asian man, but I am not going to participate in a discourse regarding the oppression of women.
Mitchell: That’s what makes the Creature so easy to connect with though, because he is this kind of impossible intersection of all these other kinds of marginality that are happening in the film. He’s a racial other, he’s a sexual other, he’s even kind of in conflict with the Russians.
Paste: He’s a political other.
Mitchell: He’s a disabled other, because he can’t speak. So there’s a quality of that character that kind of resolves the separateness of all the forms of marginality happening in the movie. At least for me. I kind of loathe the kind of film criticism that’s checking boxes, on which identities are represented, it’s lazy.
Paste: Regarding your Call Me By Your Name piece, situating it in its political moment, where the main vision in which otherness is not an issue?
Mitchell: Strickland seems to be representative of the person who is in power who is going mad, because his power is fragile, it is hollow and it is endangered by difference he cannot possibly understand. The promise of the Creature is that there is something illegible or unintelligible or ambiguous to the people in power that is resilient and will, if not overpower it, then survive it. That was inspiring to me.
Paste: In terms of that ambiguity and situating The Shape of Water as a film that’s more explicitly political than Call Me By Your Name, whose thing is its apoliticality being political, where does the former fit in that uncertain future?
Mitchell: Unintentionally, Call Me By Your Name is something of a response to a post marital gay movement, whereas I don’t think The Shape of Water was made for gay people or to appeal to gay people in the same way. You walk into Call Me By Your Name, and—
Paste: The theater turns into a gay bar.
Mitchell: Yeah, exactly. And The Shape of Water isn’t like that. It speaks a kind of coalition politics, a firm optimism that different kinds of otherness and marginality can converge in service [to] something very healing. I would have a hard time connecting The Shape of Water to the gay movement, especially because now, the gay movement doesn’t really know what it wants, in particular, sort of just existing in this coalition. To be clear, when I say that, I don’t mean that there aren’t things on the table; there are people working very hard on behalf of people in Chechnya, for example, there are people working very hard on behalf of keeping trans people at the center of the LGBTQ movement…
Paste: But it doesn’t have a laser focus or objective, like marriage.
Mitchell: Marriage became the stand-in for gay rights in general. Like if a straight person wants to indicate that they care about gay people, they say they support marriage equality. So we’ve reached this kind of place in minoritarian politics: There’s not kind of unified major objective. What do we do with queer politics when there’s a plurality of things confronting it? You join a coalition, join collective efforts? The funny thing is that I don’t have a lot of faith that a lot of queer people who are politically engaged know how to do that. Like, Oh, we really have to fight on behalf of other people’s needs. After a movement kind of like compromised those people’s needs for two decades.
Paste: You spoke earlier about the idea of reappraising porn as a kind of queer film.
Mitchell: I think that part of the reason porn suffers is that it is kept underground not only politically and legally, but it is not something that you view with other people. It’s not something that people review very seriously. It’s not something that is taken seriously as productive or influential. There is a quality to gay porn that teaches gay men a lot about gay sexuality, especially for people who grew up with the internet, but even those who were privy to magazines and DVDs, and VHSs. So it’s really important to me that there is space for people to talk about porn more openly, and to consider viewing practices of porn that may be able to take it out of the bedroom where gayness is relegated to in the first place.
Paste: There’s this hierarchy between porn and art: If it looks pretty, and it looks artful, it is therefore worth something.
Mitchell: And there’s also this old fashioned conviction that you can convince people to pay for something just by being good. There’s this belief in capitalist innovation and the merits that come from it that permeate the porn industry in this bizarre way, that people like PornHub have completely stepped on top of. People at PornHub and xHamster, they understand data. They understand algorithms. They understand getting people to consume something is not a matter of producing quality content.
It’s important to me to take sexual representation more seriously, to talk about it more openly, to talk about porn. Not take it more seriously in the sense of being pretentious about it, but like taking it seriously as something we all watch and consume. It’s weird that we don’t talk about it, when we talked about The Shape of Water so openly.