New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce once wrote of choreographer Jerome Robbins that he became so worried about being great that he forgot to be good. On top of everything else that can cripple the talents of worthy artists –- egomania, greed, an over-commercialized media culture that isn’t interested in anything but pre-packaged sludge, etc. -– this might be the hardest obstacle to conquer. Who’s got time to write stories about human beings when you’re expected to churn out masterpieces that grapple with the unsolvable mysteries of the universe?
I’m exaggerating (somewhat) but the pre-release hype for Alan Moore’s Lost Girls made no attempt to shy away from such grandiose claims. In the making for almost 16 years, the book is Moore’s self-described attempt to elevate pornography to the realm of legitimate art with the same intelligence, great writing, and avant-garde narrative techniques that have served him well in the past. The countless interviews with Moore which followed in the wake of its release reiterated over and over that Lost Girls was an Important Work of Art, one that dared to openly discuss human sexuality, graphically display just about every fetish one can imagine, and basically stick it to those whiny, hypocritical moralists in our culture who are offended by the very notion of what people do with their clothes off.
I don’t doubt that Moore is speaking the truth: at a time when our current government insists on abstinence-only educational programs and the mere flash of a nipple during a Super Bowl half-time show is enough to send the religious right screaming that children’s minds are being perverted, it would seem that the American populace’s attitude towards sexuality is from far from being open or healthy. On that level Lost Girls might act as a catalyst for a debate about the lack of mature sexuality in much of our art and entertainment as well as serve as a crucial First Amendment challenge (the book’s publishers were initially worried that it might be declared obscene thanks to the heavy volume of illustrated sex it contains, including scenes of incest and pedophilia).
But let’s face it: nobody wants to read a book because of its topicality or because buying it sends a political message for social change. We want to read, first and foremost, for pleasure, and that’s even more obvious when the genre is erotica. And I’m afraid that Lost Girls is not only a failure as good porn, but a disappointment as any kind of a human story as well.
Unlike your standard porno plot of the pizza delivery guy walking into a slumber party of nubile co-eds, Lost Girls begins with an inspired high concept premise: three women of different social backgrounds meet while staying at a lush resort hotel on the Austrian border in 1913, just months before the outbreak of the first World War. As they dabble in lesbianism, smoking opium and telling stories about their sordid childhoods, we slowly realize that all three are actually characters from children’s fantasy books -– Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Through the Looking Glass, and Wendy from Peter Pan -– and their respective stories are highly symbolic allegories for their sexual awakenings. Alice’s White Rabbit was a family friend who molested her as young girl, beginning her downward spiral into debauched behavior for the amusement of her upper-class friends. Dorothy’s tornado is the feeling she experiences when she has her first orgasm from masturbation. The Lost Boys are a bunch of rambunctious boys that Wendy has group sex with at a nearby playground that she pretends is Neverland. All three girls are still traumatized by their early sexual experiences and their confessions to each other eventually provide a sense of healing.
It’s a great setup, but Moore stumbles on the execution. Not one of the three girls is ever allowed to become an individual. They’re all mouthpieces for Moore’s philosophizing, his anger over the prevalent censorship towards sex, and his overriding belief that a culture that embraces openness towards sexuality is a healthier one with far less sexual crimes being committed.
The conventional wisdom holds that Alan Moore’s greatest achievement in his superhero epic Watchmen was his creation of psychologically complex superheroes who were driven not by heroism but self-hatred, sadistic tendencies or just sexual fetishes that required them to dress up in leather and beat people up for kicks. But I think Moore’s real triumph in Watchmen was his ability to fully develop all of his characters, and in doing so, make the innocent bystanders as compelling as the masked crime-fighters. It was this compassion for the lives of ordinary people that made the holocaust in the final chapter so chilling; to this day, it still gives me chills to read those pages. He managed to make us care just as much about a middle-aged psychologist growing apart from his wife as he did the crazed vigilantes.
But Alan Moore has either forgotten how to convincingly write about ordinary people or he simply doesn’t feel it’s important. Aside from Dorothy’s unconvincing faux-midwest American dialect, all three women sound exactly the same, and their speech is loaded down with overly ornate language, occasionally clever puns, and philosophical musings on sexuality. Very little of what they say over the course of three volumes of Lost Girls sounds like it could be overheard from a conversation of real women. It’s always forced, exactly the sort of thing that if it was spoken aloud in a film, it would make you say, “that sounds like the writer speaking.”
Not only does this make it harder to believe in Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy as human beings rather than archetypical figures, it also robs the book of its subtext -– Moore doesn’t trust the audience enough to leave anything unsaid. After a particularly debauched childhood story one of the women remarks that her experiences made her feel disgusted and degraded, and yet this sense of dirtiness also provided a thrill in of itself. But realizing that stigmatizing certain sexual acts as forbidden or wrong can also make them more enticing is hardly a very deep insight. It’s probably one of the most basic things about sexuality that a person could learn. Yet Moore feels it’s necessary to spell it out for his reader in dialogue that’s far more focused on telling rather than showing.
Melinda Gebbie’s artwork also suffers the same fate of Moore’s writing: it’s well-crafted and possible to admire, but it’s not erotic and much of it is too heavily stylized to elicit any flickers of human warmth. The scenes set in the hotel are done in the style of Art Nouveau, and while its striking curves and iconic look help invoke a lost past, it’s a bad choice for porn: it isn’t realistic enough to convincingly portray the human anatomy, but at the same time it doesn’t give us the sort of fantasy-like exaggeration of say, Japanese manga, with its wide-eyed, unnaturally voluptuous characters. The scenes in the past are skillful facsimiles of the artwork from children’s books, but the simplistic nature of Gebbie’s drawings tends to reduce the sexuality to an abstract concept, making it easier for Moore to critique but harder for the reader to be drawn in. The visual texture is gorgeous and well-structured throughout, but it’s too much thought and not enough humanity: rendering Wendy’s backstory in the form of stained glass windows is a neat way of illustrating the frozen, sexless nature of her current life and marriage, but how erotic exactly can stained glass windows be?
Maybe I’m being too hard on Lost Girls. I suppose the overwhelming negativity here is largely a reaction to the endless fawning reviews that seem aware of its flaws and yet are able to ignore them to order to hail the book as a masterpiece. When Moore first announced his intention to reinvent porn as a work of art, I was expecting a human story about real people that just happened not to shy away from what they did behind closed doors. Instead he’s given us a one-dimensional polemic that aims too high to care about what these women are feeling on all but the most superficial level. Of all the ingredients necessary for good erotica, Moore forgot about the most crucial one: passion.