#60. The Public Enemy

My phone’s history is peppered with porn, unfortunately, but I swear it started as an accident, last month, when I downloaded the reddit app to talk more regularly on the movie forums. Here and there I’d just stumble upon something and I guess idleness got the best of me and I wound up on gonewild. It happens. But so now whenever I’m at Starbucks (as I am right now) and need to connect to their wi-fi (as I just did) it’s always with sighing, shamefaced, beleaguered resignation that I agree to their Terms & Conditions – which I of course haven’t read, but I suspect it grants them carte blanche to parse my ugly delights and blackmail me when I become a senator.

public enemy gif 2The reason I was just now connecting to the wi-fi, before getting to work on the essay, was to do some research about Prohibition so I could maybe write something a little more substantive about The Public Enemy, which is about a criminal named Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his friend Matt Doyle (Eddie Woods) who climb the ladder of organized crime by supplying booze to various speakeasies in the 1920s. I should have done the research before watching the movie but apparently I couldn’t be bothered to stop masturbating. What I did learn about Prohibition (though it didn’t really influence how I looked at the movie) is that a surprisingly huge part of the country supported it at first. World War I was a contributing factor, the idea that all the barley used in beer could instead be put toward making food soldiers. But also, more simply, lotsa folks were swayed by the idea that booze makes people unproductive and violent.

Since I was cringing about the porn thing before researching Prohibition, I started thinking about how things might change if we were to implement a prohibition on that. On porn. Because there’s definitely enough research (maybe it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny) suggesting that porn has some awful side-effects. It glorifies degrading or abusive behavior, and body types that can’t be achieved, but also there’s the really abstract and pernicious side effect of feeling, when you finally get around to having sex, like you need to be a porn star. Like you’re performing for a spectator rather than interacting with another human.

public enemy gif.gif

Porn stars – the industry itself – are usually pretty open about all the prep that goes into a shoot: the showering, waxing, tweezing, the gouts of makeup, the enemas, the hair treatment and stretching and so on. Situating the camera at such angles as will flatter its actors. It’s a performance, 100%. But we schmohawks, particularly the young, have greater access to porn than to real sex (no need to accommodate a partner’s schedule or comfort or requests when there’s release to be had on your laptop) and eventually, for some of us, this virtual reality supplants the real one. Our expectations become crazy.

I’m not sure how much has been written about this but I’ve definitely come across reports, most recently by Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times Book Review, of young girls in particular feeling (thanks to porn) an enormous pressure to look sexy while engaging in their first sexual encounters, to perform rather than just exist in the moment, to be emotionally present, enjoy themselves.

I would totally understand if a movement were started up, in earnest, to ban pornography in the U.S. – and if it gained lots of traction and sparked a sort of crisis on the internet. Like a sequel to Prohibition. I’d be against it, obviously, but anybody who takes up the cause will have some solid ground for their argument. But I guess the movement’s big obstacle might be defining porn. It’d have to be really vague in order to encompass the whole scope of – what do we call em? – genres(?). Like let’s say that the law was opposed to depictions of penetrative sex. Well what about depictions of masturbation?

“That too!”

Paul Auster wrote a memoir called Winter Journal wherein he talks about how, when he was a student at Cornell, the dormitories were tryna get with the times and not be so strict about sex (this was the 1960s). So whereas girls might have once been forbidden from entering a boy’s room, they could now be there whenever they pleased – so long as the door stayed open.

Somebody complicated things: “How far open?”

“Wide open,” was presumably the answer. But with time and haggling the students got that space narrowed, and narrowed again, until the rule became that the door had to remain open by a book’s width – in response to which one student employed a matchbook for the purpose and, shortly thereafter, the college just gave up on the rule like, Fuck it, get pregnant, I’m done.

Restrictive language is slippery.

public enemy feat

The Public Enemy is really good. I know it isn’t fair to judge these movies on the basis of comparison, to be extra critical of it because you once saw another movie on the same topic that did a better job, but I kept thinking throughout this movie of how much I preferred Little Caesar (1931). Not that Rico, Edward G. Robinson’s character in Caesar, is more likable or anything like that. Just that Rico seems a little more human. We see him humbled before luxury, and his own rising status, and there’re complicated relationships to explore between him and his best friend, Joe, and his right-hand Otero  – whereas with Powers, in Public Enemy, we’ve got a character fueled through crime by an absentminded pursuit of All of It. Surely there are criminals like this, and such a depiction was probably endorsed/forced by the Production Code of 1930, but finally it falls kinda flat for me.


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