The prehistory of modern pornography is the classical American stag film, a body of clandestine short pornographic films produced during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. While the exact corpus of the distinctive stag film remains unknown, scholars at the Kinsey Institute believe there are approximately 2000 films produced between 1915-1968. Stag cinema is a form of hardcore film and is characterized as silent, usually filling a single reel or less, and was illegally made and exhibited because of censorship laws in America. Women were excluded from these private screenings that were shown in American "smoker" houses such as fraternities or other exclusive institutions. In Europe, films of the same kind were screened within brothels. The mode of reception of the all-male audience of stag films was raucous, collective sexual banter and sexual arousal. Film historians describe stag films as a primitive form of cinema because they were produced by anonymous and amateur male artists who failed in achieving narrative coherence and continuity within their diegesis. Today, many of these films have been archived by the Kinsey Institute, however most are in a state of decay and have no copyright, real credits, or acknowledged authorship. The stag film era inevitably ended due to the beginnings of the sexual revolution in the fifties in combination with the new technologies of the post war era, such as 16mm, 8mm, and the Super 8. American stag cinema in general has received scholarly attention first in the mid-seventies by heterosexual males such as in Di Lauro and Gerald Rabkin's Dirty Movies (1976) and more recently by feminist and queer cultural historians such as in Linda Williams[disambiguation needed]' Hard Core: Power Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (1999) and Thomas Waugh's Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-screen (2001).
Before the age of internet pornography and a general acceptance of the production of pornography, porn was an underground phenomenon. Stag film, also known as blue movies, were made by men for men. The projections of such films were itinerant and were secret exhibitions in brothels or smoker houses. Unlike 1970s hard core pornography, the stag film market was not part of public discourse. Unlike today, satisfaction displayed on-screen, such as male or female orgasm, was not a convention of stag cinema. Instead, there was what Linda Williams called the "meat shot", which was a closeup, hardcore depiction of genital intercourse. There are no direct quotes or oral histories by participants of this underground cinema, film scholars understand what they know of this phenomenon through written accounts. Stag films persisted for such an expansive amount of time, as Williams argues, simply because they were cut off from more public discourses of sexuality.
The German film Am Abend ("In The Evening"), Argentinian film El Satario, and American film A Free Ride or A Grass Sandwich, are three of the earliest hardcore pornographic films, produced between the years 1907 and 1915 that have been collected at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.
- A Free Ride, USA, 1917-19
- Am Abend, Germany, 1910
- El Satario, Argentina, 1907-15
- Casting Couch, USA, 1924
- La Maîtresse du Capitaine des Meydeux (The Exclusive Sailor), France, 1924
- Le Ménage moderne du Madame Butterfly, France, 1925
- Buried Treasure, USA, c. 1930
- The Hypnotist, USA, c. 1930s
- Surprise of a Knight, USA, c. 1930
- Fun and Frolic in the Photographer's Studio, USA, c. 1940s
- While the Cat's Away, USA, c. 1950s
- A Late Visitor, AMG, USA, c. 1959
Study and analysis
The general corpus of the American stag film demonstrates the obsession of patriarchal culture in a desperate search for what film scholar Linda Williams calls "the unknowable 'truth' of sex". In her chapter on the stag film, Williams focuses on highlighting the anonymous male filmmakers' obsession with the unknown wonder of female sexuality. Williams also agues that female subjectivity is rarely shown within the stag film genre resulting in the female body becoming an object. However, in her analysis she does take into account the flickers of female sexuality and points out that sexuality is not problematized, unlike 1970s hardcore pornography. Early critics of the genre, Di Lauro and Rabkin, argued that the male performers in stag films are also objectified and that they are even less humanized than the women who are the focus of attention because "as performers [men] are not visible in their full humanity." Williams describes this defense of pornography as sounding familiar saying "like most such defenses, it ignores the larger power structure in which the presumably equalized dehumanization and objectification occur."  Drawing from art critic John Berger's studies on traditions in European art of oil paintings of nudes, she argues that the real subject of stag films is in the eye of the beholder. The point of view always comes from the phallus in stag film, making the predominant address to men only, and Williams argues that is where the power lies. There are detectable misogynist discourses and codes and conventions established early in this genre which inflect the more idealizing and fetishizing representations of female genitalia. The act of collectively getting together to get aroused at the spectacles of these hard core representations of sexual acts, is what film theorist Thomas Waugh describes as "re-enacting some of the basic structural dynamics of the patriarchy, namely, the male exchange in women, in this case the exchange in fantasies and images of women".
Voyeurism is an obvious theme and main fixture in the codes and conventions of stag cinema. Williams argues that many stag films, including Am Abend and A Free Ride, "incorporate voyeurism into their narratives as strategies both for arousing their characters and for matching the character's "look" with that of the spectator in their beginning sequences." She describes this as a way for the spectator to identify with the male who looks at the female's body within the unfolding narrative. William's theory on the discourse of the stag film is that "it oscillates between the impossible direct relation between a spectator and the exhibitionist object he watches in close-up and the ideal voyeurism of a spectator who observes a sexual event in which a surrogate male acts for him."
Dr. Thomas Waugh wrote about homosociality in the Classical American stag film. He argues that this phenomenon ultimately succeeds in illuminating masculinity through the "symbolic phallus" In his essay, Waugh demonstrates how "the stag films, both on-screen and off-screen, are tenaciously engaged with the homosocial core of masculinity as constructed within American society." Waugh points to the fact that in most cases, these anonymous male artists during the heyday of the stag avoid showing male organs on-screen, yet off-screen is an all-male audiences with only male organs. In their history of the stag film, Di Lauro and Rabkin (1976) nostalgically speak of the stag film as a platform for social bonding and camaraderie between males. Both Williams and Waugh agree that there is a pressing need for the viewer to identify with the other men in the audience, to prove his masculinity through bonding with other male viewers, in order to escape the homosexual undertone of enjoying watching other men's penis'. Waugh would argue that this mentality and this corpus of underground erotic film "exposes the spectrum of male sociality, the experience of having a penis, and being white during the first two-thirds of the 20th century." According to Dr. Waugh, stag culture was an arena in which homosocial behaviour reinforced masculinity in men's sexual desires in American pop culture. Although, Waugh also contends that there are a few subversions in this dynamic and describes one film, the cartoon Buried Treasure (1925), as an "overt interogation of masculinity." Lastly, Waugh explains that this behaviour is shaped by censorship, but also shame and disavowal.
- "Film Archive". The Kinsey Institute. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
- Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (PDF). p. 58. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
- Williams, Linda. pp. 73, 1999.
- Williams, Linda. pp. 84, 1999.
- Janet Staiger, Bad women: regulating sexuality in early American cinema, U of Minnesota Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-8166-2625-0, p.15
- Williams, Linda. pp. 60, 1999.
- Di Lauro, Al; Rabkin, Gerald (1976). Dirty Movies.
- Williams, Linda. pp. 59, 1999.
- Waugh, Thomas (2001). Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-Screen.
- Williams, Linda. pp. 68, 1999.
- Williams, Linda. pp. 80, 1999.
- Waugh, Thomas. pp. 276, 2001.
- Waugh, Thomas. pp. 277, 2001.
- Waugh, Thomas. pp. 278, 2001.
- Waugh, Thomas. pp. 277, 2001.
- Waugh, Thomas. pp. 276, 2001.