By the Power of Softcore

Photo from The Memory Store

One Man's Daring Look Back at He-Man and the Masters of the Universe… and Porky's

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - Season One, Vol. 1

Distributor: Bci / Eclipse
Cast: Michael Bell
First date: 1983
US Release Date: 2005-10-18

When Porky's was released in 1982, I knew nothing of the film's notoriety, nor its considerable cultural impact on the repressive Reagan era. I just knew that Dad wouldn't let me watch it, and that apparently some guy stuck his penis into a hole in the wall at some point. Or hell, maybe that was Dad; I was only five, and my memories from that time period are a bit hazy and jumbled.

In fact, all I remember for certain is that my meager consolation for being denied access to this cultural landmark was that my bedroom, where I sat imprisoned listening to the drunken, braying laughter of my parents and their Porky's-watching idiot friends in the living room, was filled to bursting with the assorted misfits and weirdos from the celebrated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. These action figures were, of course, based on the cartoon of the same name; indeed, Filmation was forced to produce PSAs to air after each episode, instructing the viewer not to bully or cheat or stick his tongue in the light socket or his penis in a hole in the wall. This way, it could not be said that the cartoons were merely half-hour commercials for toys.

No one was fooled by this ploy, least of all we young folk. Not only did I receive a frankly unhealthy number of these silly toys, but I was also allowed to watch the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, and when I gathered my figures to play after a given episode (or while my parents got drunk and watched softcore porn down the hall), I sure as hell wasn't having them re-enact He-Man's latest moral lesson; I spent playtime forcing my toys to beat the ever-loving crap out of each other. (And, later, making them hump.)

Point being: to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Porky's and He-Man's 24th birthday, I took advantage of the DVD industry's willingness to reproduce absolutely any flotsam and jetsam from decades past. Yes, dear readers, I spent a week watching Porky's: The Ultimate Collection and The Very Best of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. And the conclusion I have come to is this: my parents would have been better off letting me watch Porky's, 'cause damn, that He-Man was sexual-educational!

Just look at some of the character names: Ram-Man? Fisto? Snout Spout? Extendar? Clamp Champ? Faker? Screech? Stinkor? Mantenna? Tung Lashor? Sssqueeze? Plus, practically every frame of the cartoon was loaded with comically blatant phallic imagery and not-so-subtle homoeroticism; dig the way those impossibly buff bodies were squeezed into those tiny loincloths. (And incidentally, if they all had the same body, why was He-Man the most powerful man in the universe?)

Consider: To power-up, Prince Adam would raise his "power sword" firm, long and proud into the air, shouting "I have the power!" while an orgasmic pyrotechnic display lit up Castle Greyskull. Resident hottie Teela ran around Eternia in a skimpy white bathing suit, and none of the men seemed to give her a second glance. (Incidentally, if you turn off your search filter and google "Teela", you'll be taking your Power Sword in hand and shouting "I have the power!" in no time.) One can only wonder -- did any of Castle Greyskull's nooks and crannies serve as Porky's-esque glory holes? And who was the Porky of Eternia? Orko, perhaps? Dare I wish for a crossover called Porko's?

Porky's, meanwhile, wastes no time in introducing its aesthetic and its philosophy: the film begins with morning wood. (I am disturbed, before this scene, to see that even the footage of the opening 20th Century Fox logo looks old.) But for all its supposedly good-time "Humor" and "Give me pussy or give me death" energy, Porky's today is a sad, ugly, tiresome movie, its humor telegraphed and dull, its nudity strangely uninteresting.

In fact, watching Porky's taught me that we don't actually like the human body. It takes the comically outdated fashions of an old movie (especially an old movie set in an even older time) to help one recognize the extent to which we use fashion to exaggerate, obscure, augment and deform our natural shapes. And I'm not just saying that 'cause of the 40 pounds I've put on this year. Most of the ostensibly titillating nudity in Porky's is simply unsettling because it appears to someone who has undergone the most current cultural programming that the "wrong" angles of the body are accentuated. It's like watching some other culture's idea of sexy, and 26 years later, that's exactly what Porky's is.

Dated porn makes the viewer uncomfortably aware of just how mundane, functional, and absurd our bodies really are. The last time I was this unsettled by the naked body was in my hometown of Oroville back in 1993, when this guy named Tripper popped a battered old porno video into the VCR while I was entering the peak of a particularly nasty and overwhelming acid trip; the sad, saggy men and women in this cinematic masterpiece appeared to have brown and gray sacks of watery flesh hanging limp and heavy from their torsos and thighs. It was a terrible scene, which had an immense impact on my fragile, 15-year-old psyche; I bet I didn't masturbate for a whole three days.

At least my folks had the good sense to be drunk when they did it; what's my excuse for watching this crap?


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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