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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

March 24, 2020: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Eileen, Pornography, and Film History

[Last fall I had the chance to watch the third and final season of The Deuce, George Pelecanos and David Simon’s phenomenal HBO series about, well, all the things I’ll AmericanStudy in this series and more! I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Deuce, or other TV you’d recommend, in comments!]
[FYI: SPOILERS for The Deuce in most of this week’s posts, so if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee hence and then come on back!]
On an inspiring character who can help us remember and recover forgotten filmmakers.
If as I wrote yesterday Lori Madison’s arc across the show’s three seasons was one of the most tragic, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen Merrell’s was one of the most inspiring (although as you might expect within the world of a Pelecanos/Simon show and as that latter hyperlinked video certainly indicates, “the most inspiring” also means “complicated and bittersweet” to be sure). Like Lori, Eileen begins the show as a prostitute (known as Candy) who becomes a porn actress, but in that latter world the arcs diverge significantly—Eileen moves from acting to directing, becoming over the show’s second and third seasons an award-winning, feminist porn filmmaker and producer. She spends much of the third season trying to make a film that is truly her own, one that examines the questions of gender, sex, work, and society that have been at the heart of her own experiences (as well as the show itself, of course). Although it seems as of the show’s conclusion that she has failed to finish that film, in the most poignant and beautiful reveal in the series finale’s 2019-set coda we learn (through an obituary for Eileen who has passed away from cancer) not only that she completed it, but that the film (despite not receiving much attention upon its release, in large part because she “took the fucking out”), A Pawn in Their Game, became over time an “arthouse classic” that has even been remastered and rereleased by the Criterion Collection.
As I watched and read more about the show after that series finale, and through additional conversations with my friend and fellow Deuce fan and TV and film buff Matt Raymond, I learned that both A Pawn in Their Game and Eileen’s character arc were based on actual historical figures and films. Pawn was inspired in large part by former pin-up model Barbara Loden and her one, profoundly personal and independent film Wanda (1970, rereleased by the Criterion Collection as that latter hyperlink illustrates), which she wrote, directed, and starred in. And Eileen’s evolution and perspective as a feminist pornographer was inspired in large part by Candida Royalle, a porn actress turned filmmaker of whom her 2015 New York Times obituary noted, “She defined her work as female-oriented, sensuously explicit cinema as opposed to formulaic hard-core pornographic films that she said degraded women for the pleasure of men.” Although they were combined to produce different aspects of the character of Eileen, it’s important to be clear that these two women and their respective films were quite distinct: Royalle made only pornographic films, if again groundbreaking and feminist ones; Loden made only one film, which while it focuses in gritty and realistic ways on themes of gender and sex would never be described as pornographic.
Yet despite those important differences, I would argue that Loden and Royalle are also significantly linked, and not just by their combination into this fictional character. To put it bluntly, these are two prominent filmmakers and cultural voices about whom I—a lifelong film buff and an AmericanStudier who prides himself on his pop culture knowledge—knew absolutely nothing, and of whom I might have never learned were it not for The Deuce and Gyllenhaal (not just as a performer but as an executive producer who rightly takes great pride in helping advance such threads and themes). That might be an indictment of me, of course, but I think it’s more likely an indictment of our collective memories and cultural conversations, and how much these unique, impressive artists have been left out of them. And while there would be various ways to analyze that absence, including in Royalle’s case our general unwillingness to think of porn as an artistic genre at all, I don’t think there’s any question that gender is a central part of the elision of artists like Loden and Royalle. Which makes it that much more important to honor Gyllenhaal’s character and work and, through those things, to do justice to these forgotten, pioneering female filmmakers.
Next DeuceStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent TV you’d recommend?

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