Inside Room B-210, however, all eyes are glued to a video. ...
The instructor pushes "Play" and giggles, "I can't wait to screen this!"
A young, bikini-clad woman lounges in a canoe, floating down a quiet, tree-lined river. Four hillbilly guys suddenly roar up in a powerboat and begin harassing her. They yank her onto dry land and start smacking her around, then three hold her down while one has sex with her, grunting like a pig. Brutally humiliated and injured, she crawls off, naked, into the tall grass, accompanied by laughter. The sequence is unbelievably sick and cruel. The tape is shut off, and lights come up to reveal 12 blinking students.
Susie Bright casually leans on a table, looks over the top of her glasses, and smiles. "What was that like for you?"
A powerful conundrum immediately materializes. What is America's foremost feminist sex writer -- media darling of Newsweek, Esquire, the Village Voice, etc., whose new collection of essays, Sexwise, was just written up in the Sunday New York Times Book Review -- doing in the heart of liberal academia, showing brutal rape films?
Like many small towns with universities, Santa Cruz is an unlikely blend of Eisenhower America and ultra-PC Marxist jingoism, neither philosophy having much tolerance for information of this nature. Bright will certainly be either hung by the neck or at least pamphleteered to death by people averse to regular bathing.
The summer-session class is called "The Politics of Sexual Representation." Bright's students have already watched hours of pornography, read essays and articles, and heard guest speakers. Today is movie day, according to the syllabus -- "Sex and Violence in Genre: Hollywood, exploitation, pornography."
In other words, the polar opposite of Santa Cruz, Calif.
The film in question is a 1977 vulgarity directed by Meir Zarchi, known as either I Spit on Your Grave or Day of the Woman. Bright first saw this clip in the late '70s while attending this same university, when a feminist roadshow documenting the dangers of porn to women arrived in town. Back then, the spin was applied by groups like Women Against Pornography and Women Against Violence and Pornography in the Media.
As Bright says, "I don't know a feminist from the '70s and early '80s who didn't see [the presentation]."
These screenings deliberately limited images to only the first half of I Spit on Your Grave: The second or third reel would have undermined the feminists' agenda of victimization because the remainder of the movie is chick-positive. The abused woman methodically stalks each of her attackers, and kills or mutilates them in horribly violent ways.
Bright shows another clip. The I Spit on Your Grave girl entices one of the guys back to her apartment, and they both hop in the bathtub. She picks up a huge butcher knife and hacks off his penis. She then locks him in the bathroom, slips on a white robe, and listens to an opera, accompanied by his bloodcurdling screams of pain. The lights come up.
"That was great!" exclaims one girl with a nose ring.
"That just makes me cringe, watching it every time," admits a guy.
A queasy guy in the front blurts, "I would never want to watch that again -- ever!"
"I want to go out and rent it!" pipes up another girl.
To prepare the class for such carnage, Bright has assigned them to write on the most violent thing they've seen or experienced. She copies the topics to the chalkboard: "war images, babysitter from hell, dad fight wife w/knife, mean mommie hitting me, mugged, son/father fight, abortion, shot by burglars, shuttle explosion, suicide attempt -- slit wrists, Scarface, Henry: Portrait of s. killer, dog bites small child."
Perfect to ponder over lunch.
Before the afternoon session begins, we take a drive to run a necessary errand.
"It's so apropos that I begin bleeding on the day we talk about violence," Bright says, pulling her van into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
Such frankness is the norm for the founding editor of On Our Backs magazine, and the author/editor of several books on erotica and sexual politics. Her newest project, Nothing But the Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image, co-edited by San Francisco photographer Jill Posener, is at the final layout stage.
A graduate from Santa Cruz in community studies in 1981, Bright accepted an offer to teach a course this summer at her alma mater, and obviously seized the opportunity to expose hypocrisies within so-called citizens for decency groups, as well as the traditional feminist hierarchy. Such a mission takes guts, but there's an unabashed glee evident behind it all.
We zip by her sublet house on the way back to campus. Stacks of porn videos decorate her office, including Butt Slammers 7, All-Girl Action Tapes 1-9 and 11-17 (what happened to No. 10?), and the all-male Knight Gallery 2. Obviously a different office than that of her father, William Bright, a renowned linguist who spent years preserving indigenous languages in California with a wire recorder. (On second thought, one could argue the Butt Slammers series is also an indigenous language of California.)
Out on the patio, nude Barbie dolls stand sentry on a metal picnic table, carefully positioned by Bright's 5-year-old daughter, Aretha.
"They're probably drying," explains Bright. "They probably went to the beach, or went surfing."
Back in the classroom, Bright cues up a gunfight scene from Sam Peckinpah's 1969 opus The Wild Bunch. The sequence lasts several minutes and is vintage Peckinpah -- blood squibs everywhere, people falling from heights, each gun capable of firing 17,000 bullets without reloading. The editing makes the violence oddly serene and romantic, as does the use of slow motion. The guns finally stop, leaving the scene littered with fresh corpses.
"What's it like watching this after weeks of watching fucking?" asks the instructor.
"Disappointing," says one guy. "You can see this on the news."
"I didn't identify with this in a personal way at all," adds a girl.
OK, let's try the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde -- an extremely controversial final ambush scene, where Beatty and Dunaway are blown to pieces by the authorities. Death is portrayed as erotic, romantic, poignant, and a bunch of other adjectives often used in such classrooms. The students are not very impressed.
After I Spit on Your Grave, the class is running late, so Bright asks the students if they want to stay for the last film.
"Snuff!" they answer.
Snuff was made in 1976 by Michael and Roberta Findlay, also released as The Slaughter. The original poster type read, "From South America ... where life is cheap!" This film launched the urban myth that genuine snuff films actually existed: Distributor Allan Shackleton gave the myth legs when he tacked a faux real-life murder scene onto the end of Snuff and purposely rated the film X to capitalize on a nationwide panic by concerned citizens' groups, still recovering from the popularity of Deep Throat. The president of one Christian group even demanded an FBI investigation into the film. Mainstream media then blew the snuff idea completely out of proportion, and terrified parents across the country.
Kind of like the Internet.
The film is supposedly based on the Manson murders, and features some truly awful dialogue dubbing. As the lights are dimmed, we see a pack of wild hippie girls tie a guy to a tree and whip him, after which one gleefully castrates him. A man and pregnant woman are then stabbed to death in bed by the evil hippie girls.
The scene awkwardly cuts to the set of a movie, and as if by magic, the voices are no longer dubbed English. A woman and man start making out on a bed. The guy begins torturing her. He snips off a few fingers with little shears. The students laugh at the ridiculous special effects. The guy then starts up an electric saw and cuts off the woman's hand. He slices open her stomach -- obviously a fake body, with the rest of the actress hidden underneath the bed -- pulls out a mess of intestines, lifts it to the heavens, and screams.
The lights come up to a roomful of jaded students. One sniffs, "Were there people who thought that was real? That's what scares me."
It's been a full afternoon of sadistic rape, protracted gun battles, blood-soaked evisceration, and multiple castration. Myths have been shattered. Everyone has been proven to manipulate the truth, from film directors and distributors to Christian decency groups and, yes, feminists.
But more important, the kids dug it.
As the smiling class files out, Susie Bright announces, "Next Monday ... racism!"
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; fax: (415) 777-1839; e-mail: Slapshawtsaol.com
By Jack Boulware