Whatever you desire

Whatever you desire – pornography in movies

Howard Hampton

I. Nouvelle Vague Hookers: The girl — first name Carmen, age 20-going-on-12 — beckons to us, a thumb-sucking premonition of an X-rated universe in the offing: Lolita as Rollergirl. “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up,” shamus Philip Marlowe informs her unsurprised father. This Marlowe’s less a private eye than a professional voyeur, a wisecracking tour guide and audience surrogate, navigating a cheerfully sordid terrain where maniacal nymphets pose for blackmailing pornographers calling themselves “rare book” dealers. He will appear in every scene; we will watch the story unfold, or rather disintegrate, through his well-traveled peepers as he traverses this fantasy Los Angeles where sexual availability is inescapable. From librarian types who let their hair down at the slightest provocation to randy, semi-butch taxi drivers, the succession of easy lays rivals a Little Oral Annie loop collection.

“I assume they have all the usual vices,” says General Sternwood of Carmen and big sister Vivian, “besides those they’ve invented for themselves.” The Big Sleep immerses us in a Los Angeles of exquisite dirty laundry — is there another movie so serenely bemused by the nocturnal business-as-usual of confidential L.A., so cavalier about indecency and “sinuendo”? Bogart’s Marlowe slips easily into this well-lubricated virtual reality while acting out every moviegoer’s fantasy of the observer who can join in the action at will.

Marlowe’s surveillance of “insolent and provocative” behavior has nothing to do with the solution to any particular crime. Instead, his work becomes an investigation of deviance-by-proxy, conducted at the expense of coherent narrative. Hence the picture’s wholesale replacement of tedious exposition with a string of double-entendres, dissolving the storyline into a series of hard-boiled non sequiturs as promiscuous as its characters. Viewing the unreleased 1944 cut beside the familiar 1946 version, we discern a form of reverse censorship. What wound up being suppressed was conventional plotting and morality, replaced with a wonderfully illicit catalogue of smut-peddling shutterbugs, sexually aggressive women playing pussycat-and-mouse with violent men, and petulant sex-toys who bite the hand that doesn’t feel them up.

And it’s Martha Vickers’ debauched Carmen, whose hobby is posing for then-unspeakable pictures, who offers us a glimpse into the Hollywood of salacious legend. Her glassy eyes are crystal balls revealing a city where life imitates stag films and art fantasizes about the machinations of pornography, where L.A. Confidential’s high-class porno-and-call-girl operation — Fleur-de-Lis, with its motto, “Whatever You Desire” — blends into the landscape of Boogie Nights. This is the intersection of Hollywood and Vice, where prostitutes are surgically altered to resemble movie stars and movie stars are mistaken for whores, a place where a Shirley Temple lookalike might grow up to become the real-life teenage stripper Candy Barr, immortalized in the 1951 bachelor-party classic Smart Aleck humping a middle-aged sleazeball in a motel room on the road to Hollywood.

Poised midway between Veronica Lake and Miss Bart, a femme as infantile as she is fatale, Carmen’s anesthetized gurgle anticipates a little too well the proto-porn stardom of Marilyn Monroe: the dazed ingenue also prefigures darker little figurines like Kiss Me Deadly’s Lily, Breathless’ Patricia. Put those fragments together and you get Kim Novak as her own body double in Hitchcock’s most touching ode to fetish and scopophilia. In dutiful course, Jimmy Stewart would go on to play Carmen’s father in an unwatchable 1978 Big Sleep remake, but Vertigo had already brought the pair together by way of an incestuous folie a deux (or is it trois?). Shameful desire and acquiescent role-playing groped its way back to the future of fetish as cinema and cinema as fetish: Carmen had developed into a full-blown archetype, passed from movie to movie just as Vickers’ character bounced from man to man.

Carmen assumes her most distilled and ambivalent form as the buried animus inside Godard’s parade of inflatable prostitute-dialecticians. Over and over, the archetype again finds herself on the business end of a phallic lens, made up as the perpetual mystery woman-child at the behest of a director who behaves like a cross between post-Marxist private dick and invalid father. She’s interrogated by the camera with a sadistic lyricism — an entranced dismay. Where Eddie Constantine’s weather-beaten P.I. in Alphaville combines Marlowe and General Sternwood, on another level Uncle Jean’s own exquisite surrogate eye belongs to Raoul Coutard, the cameraman assuming Stewart’s role and gaze, tracking successive yet eerily similar objects of romantic surveillance. As The Big Sleep was a preview of the nouvelle vague, the erotic anomie of Weekend’s pornographic opening monologue heralds the “end of cinema” as pronounced by the brazen hardcore of New Wave Hookers in 1985. In that trance of eager debasement where pimps turn nice girls into docile prosties by plying them with lame new-wave pop music, the final dissolution of narrative is inscribed with the language of MTV, presided over by the impish countenance of 16-year-old Traci Lords. Those unseen photos of Carmen had finally turned into moving pictures transporting Brigitte Bardot’s pout and Anna Karina’s opacity into the commodified future Godard prophesied, a seven-day weekend of money shots and orgiastic pileups. In the 21st century’s sex-arcade utopia, fucking is spectator sport, a form of window-shopping — capital made video flesh.

II. Debbie Does Stella Dallas

“Meanwhile, back in the states”: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights succeeds in providing a complete inversion — and repudiation — of The Big Sleep’s breezy anti-narrative stratagems. Instead of chaotic perversity lurking beneath society’s respectable facades, Anderson gives us a sex industry where outward sleaze masks a secret lust for normality and convention. Boogie Nights shares with its characters a yearning for the incestual-family trappings of post-Victorian hypocrisy. Despite many mildly outre bits and an enjoyable amount of aimless whiz-bang technique, Anderson surrounds his plucky Gump of a hero with a narrow range of similarly one-note wonders. His nostalgia for the Seventies — as a golden age spanning Nashville’s hip condescension and The Jade Pussycat’s skinflick kitsch — isn’t enough to make his stock characters more than a set of Heartbreak Hotel pin-ups.

Timid anti-puritan pretensions aside, Boogie Nights’ satire turns out to be more old-fashioned than Hawks. Piling on the white powder and blue eye-shadow, P.T.A. arranges all that disguised wages-of-sin crap into “expensive hunks of well-regulated area” (to use Manny Farber’s “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art” phrase): instead of the shit hitting the fan, it’s been molded into shiny baubles, eye-catching knickknacks, and souvenir-concession setpieces. Next to the treatment of not-unrelated themes in R.W. Fassbinder’s sardonic Beware of a Holy Whore (where corruption and movie-making are synonymous), Anderson’s rose-colored semi-disillusionment might as well be a San Fernando Valley Best Years of Our Lives. Here we have this wonderfully mordant setting, the porno world as logical extension of that fantasy factory/brothel L.A., and yet Anderson elects to populate it almost exclusively with naifs, saps, and dupes.

To picture the Hanna Schygulla of Fassbinder’s heyday as Amber Waves — all hip-hugger indolence, Cheshire Cat smiles, and iron will under the broken-blossom makeup — is to see something of what Anderson has pointedly expunged: the X-rated industry’s revolving-door parade of the young and the damaged suggests nothing if not a never-ending Fassbinder casting call, one driven by as much cunning and guile as the neurotic Hollywood star system it emulates and parodies. But the caricatures of Boogie Nights don’t have an iota of street smarts. The director’s gilt-edged ambitions toward masterpiece-making subsume everything else, cleverly dispersed into a milieu where they can be presented with a modicum of faux irony, allowing the pseudo-hip and the square to reach the rapprochement with Hollywood’s golden-age verities that porno thankfully never achieved. Boogie Nights laments the symbiosis that was not to be, even casting the dignified Veronica Hart — the late-Seventies skin-flick answer to Irene Dunne — as its stern judge. (What Anderson is really mourning here are all those lost opportunities to lift up the genre, those classics that might have been, like Streep Throat and Gashville.)

But even if you accept Anderson’s presumptive formula for High Porn — the seamless integration of story, character, and sex — the actual efforts along those lines were quite different from the ones presented in Boogie Nights. The real-life equivalent to Burt Reynolds’ Jack Homer would have to be the relatively ambitious Anthony Spinelli, who made a slew of potboilers like 1980’s Talk Dirty to Me. Spinelli’s penchant was for gutter psychology and a worm’s-eye-view of sexual conquest. Talk Dirty’s shoestring melange of soap opera and buddy picture lifted its central relationship of John Leslie’s fast-talking stud Jack to slow-witted sidekick Lenny (Richard Pacheco) from Of Mice and Men. Embracing trash cliches with gusto, the picture’s attitudes are retro-lurid: the serial seducer who promises to release the animal trapped within outwardly respectable dames (prim doctor, man-starved real-estate saleswoman, neglected hausfrau). Jack bets Lenny he can seduce the restive beauty they spy on a beach in three days. So much for plot. Predictably enough, the sex scenes are more persuasive than the line readings, but despite the picture’s antediluvian sexual politics and technical shortcomings, it manages a few B-movie charms: Jessie St. James’ pleasantly melancholy air as the object of pursuit and the adroit ratpack-bastard persona of Leslie, breaking down her defenses with his knowledge of old (read: romantic) movies. Doing an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart in Carbine Williams, he uncovers a shared passion for … Hope and Crosby.

Such byplay is engaging for the way it goes against the grain of expectation — our assumptions of what a porn film is supposed to be like and how its one-track-minded characters are meant to behave. By the same token, the good-natured appeal of Chris Cassidy overcomes the lady-doctor-cliche she hardly bothers to play, her sybaritic grin rebuking Boogie Nights’ reductive coke/airhead typologies. And Juliet Anderson’s “older woman” routine is so cannily polished it belongs in the Smithsonian — or, like Cassidy, on the wise-gal fringes of just about any Hawks picture. Hapless as Talk Dirty’s stabs at seriousness are, the sex scenes hint at something that sober, artful movies seldom own up to. Leslie’s romantic predator demonstrates how, in the hands of an accomplished prick, lust will beat intellect, discriminating taste, and meaningful emotion almost every time. It’s fitting Jack uses movie nostalgia as a seduction device. He takes sexual advantage of the thwarted desires and bland illusions Hollywood has always catered to. Made as video was starting to take off and films like itself were on their cost-ineffective way out, Talk Dirty to Me embodies porno nostalgia for good old-fashioned movieland virtues in a manner oddly akin to Boogie Nights’ nostalgia for Seventies American cinema. A eulogy in the argot of obscene phone-calls, Spinell’s will toward redeeming artistic value is equally misguided, but perhaps more instructive than P.T. Anderson’s: what’s memorable about Talk Dirty are the stray images and unguarded bits of absurd intimacy, the convergence of the nakedly real and the patently burlesque, along with whatever wayward, playful spontaneity slips through the cracks of its hastily assembled pastiche: the voracious track of Juliet Anderson’s tongue across Leslie’s chest; Cassidy’s breast lactating in mid-fuck, making secreted history — the elusive female cumshot at long last.

“Were these actors, hoping for careers, or derelicts resolved to treat the idea of a movie with contempt?” asked David Thomson about the male and female leads in Detour, a movie whose budget and sleaze-en-scene anticipates feature-length porn by a quarter-century. Say all you want about the felicities of Edgar G. Ulmer’s style, the impact of that film owes more to the desperately prurient grubbiness of its performers. It’s easy to imagine Detour incorporating the grainy footage of Smart Aleck, the anything-for-a-buck stag film entering the tawdry nightmare without missing a beat. Pornography is the domain of such hitchhikers, from Carmen Sternwood to Traci Lords: submissives on the make, rough-trade on the lam, a hard-bitten sisterhood of (Ann) Savages.

III. Blase-moi

Since the advent of feature-length hardcore films with Behind the Green Door (71) and Deep Throat (72) — which, coupled with the 1973 release of Last Tango in Paris, gave rise to a short-lived moment of “porno chic” — critical tendencies have been to read porn in terms of its failure to live up to Hollywood formulas, production values, and overall sanctimony. But from the mid-Reagan era onward, in the privacy of uncounted VCRs, porn has evolved into a closed-circuit subculture even as it has entered the mainstream through a host of unseemly forms. Somewhere in the crawl space between Brian De Palma’s drill ‘er thriller Body Double (84) and its instant shot-on-video echo Holly Does Hollywood (85), a cheaper, tapeworm form of sexual athleticism began to obliterate the residual niceties of character and plot. Torchbearing Miss Libertines with names like Ginger/Amber/Porsche Lynn and Christy Canyon (the perfect comic-strip nom du porn) led the acrobatic procession away from narrative-as-such and blazed a trail into the nether-netherland dreamed by David Cronenberg’s prophetically warped Videodrome (82).

There Debbie Harry’s therapist/talk-show-host is a closet supermasochist who craves discipline and punishment. She wonders aloud “how you get to be a contestant” on that televised torture-fest the way stymied housewives fantasize about being on “Wheel of Fortune.” The emergence of a multi-billion-dollar video porn industry is indicative of that blissfully blank, repetition compulsion logic: Videodrome imagined as paradise. Porn performers behave like sexual contestants reaching for the brass ring of quasi-fame and fortune while the audience gains entree into a subterranean theme park whose motif is forbidden fruit, a suntanned, surgically enhanced tour of unsafe sex, exotic practices, and formerly unnatural acts. It’s promiscuity by proxy, a brand of couch-potato deviance where women are both objects and male surrogates, plunging into polymorphous, freak-show realms into which straight masculinity remains too fearful to venture without a kneeling nursemaid to reassure it. Yet the neatest irony of video porn is how readily “transgression,” stripped of all self-important buzzword splendor, turns right back into show-business-as-usual. It’s as if Warhol’s abandoned Factory had been taken over by trailer-park runaways and middle-class squatters, with all these industrious piece-workers on Pornoland’s assembly-line churning out whistle-while-we-suck product with the alacrity of Disney sex-serfs. A tricked-out Snow White may be paraded as a streetwalker, but through it all she maintains the ingenuous, smiling composure of ex-Mouseketeer Britney Spears, who in turn radiates the same wholesome sexual professionalism as porn’s Shayla La Veaux.

The all-American glee with which video starlet Alisha Klass (who cameos as a stripper in Wayne Wang’s DV film The Center of the World and is the featured attraction of the movie’s website) throws herself into her shuddering, dervish-like conniptions can be a wonder to behold. Her Good Bad Girl attitude seems more second nature than acting — maybe it has to do with growing up a world where XXX-product is just another facet of the entertainment industry, and where the difference between casually performing outlandish acts and “being yourself” is moot. Klass emerged from the newest, biggest sector in the adult-vid economy, the bare-bones, low-rent “Gonzo” tapes that anticipated both the Reality-TV and Dogme movements. In lieu of Dogme’s ascetic “vow of chastity,” gonzo porn has taken a vow of poverty — or Poverty Row at any rate. Meaning motel location shoots, live sound, handheld cameras, no music or special effects. Not to mention the approximation of sex in real time: with video’s claustrophobic scale, so intensely particularized, alienation and pleasure can assume the intimacy of doppelgangers. Like the anything-for-my-15-minutes participants on Survivor, gonzo’s wild girls are the soi-disant cousins of Warhol’s speedfreak-narcissists. But this underground feels closer in spirit to gamy Sixties garage rock than the Velvets. The random bursts of sexual energy and aggression in this underground tunnel their way up from the depths of a proudly desperate, slovenly amateurism, with a trashy ambition that’s not only blind but tone-deaf-and-dumb as well.

At its most unfettered, joyously infantile fare like Ben Dover’s British Housewife Fantasies (a sexual mockumentary highlighted by a supercalisthenic Julie Andrews type who takes the better part of an hour to decimate three suitably grateful blokes) or Seymour Butts Meets the Tushy Girls (which introduced “squirting” specialist Klass through a similarly casual, day-in-the-lifestyle format) assure us all the world’s a sexual slumber/Tupperware party. Irreverence coupled with the absence of retakes imposes a degree of spontaneity on fantasy machinations (when the men ejaculate, nowadays female recipients are as likely to break out in giggles as oooh and ahhh). Whereas the mechanical giddiness of There’s Something About Mary — with its cum-adorned heroine and displacement galore — translates the onanistic/gross-out preoccupations of porn into slap-sticky, screwhead romantic comedy, the deadpan post-narratives of these tapes have abandoned all recourse to such throwback orthodoxies. Instead they have arrived at their own equivalent to Total Cinema: call it Total Porn, a practice that blithely eliminates all distinction between “reality” and pornography. Now the man with the video camera even participates in the orgy action. Roll over, Dziga Vertov, and tell Peeping Tom the news: your Kino-Eye has been eclipsed by their Video-Dicks.

IV. Artcore Jollies

Whereas porn is less and less beholden to any conventions but its own, commerce and art have inexorably moved in the direction of quasi-hardcore: from gross-out teen comedies to “artcore” films like Baise-moi (featuring female porn talent both behind and in front of the camera), Catherine Breillat’s hopelessly ponderous Romance, and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (his Zentropa Productions has even opened a hardcore subsidiary, promising to make high-end adult products). In Romance especially, the exploration of flesh and its mortification is constrained by a lingering artistic decorum, a dour illustrated-biology/psychology lesson that seems every inch as preprogrammed as any robot-sexpot ecstasy. Breillat recruited the prodigiously endowed Rocco Siffredi for stud service in Romance, but cast him against type as a sensitive hunk instead of a ruthless erotomaniac. Yet as a performer, director, and self-described “madman,” the romantic sadist Siffredi has taken heterosexual video into the underbelly opened up by the bathhouse-era gay porn of people like Fred Halsted. It’s a place inaccessible to art, theory, or virtue — half dungeon and half bed-and-breakfast retreat, where pure unreason is converted into recreational activity.

As such, the series of videos he’s made with the proper but willingly debauched accomplice-submissive Kelly Stafford reveals more about the allure of sexual danger and self-abnegation than Breillat’s trite philosophizing or all of Quills’ politely diagrammatic cure-is-worse-than-the-disease ironies. The death-wish-as-sex-game piece de resistance of their latest encounter, the improbably titled Rocco Way to Love (01), is genuinely unnerving because the line between sadomasochistic play-acting and virulent acting-out is all but erased: there’s no safety net of rationality or artistic mediation between this Sade and his ardent victim. Sex isn’t a metaphor or a representation here — it can’t explain or justify itself, but makes itself felt entirely “in the flesh” that Siffredi goes to such lengths to rub in the viewer’s nose.

By flaunting the queasy stuff the movies airbrush away — not merely engorged organs and bodily fluids but the problematic relationship of desire and capital, the grind of work and the grind of pleasure — every hardcore production asserts that prostitution isn’t the world’s oldest profession, but as per Godard the world’s only one. Thus in The Private Diary of Tori Welles (97), the abortive comeback bid of a porn legend who had retired nearly a decade before, there are protracted random images — faces and orifices merged — as potent, irrational, and even touching as anything Cassavetes could hope for. But it’s merely by chance, not as a form of art but a found artifact documenting the neurotic camaraderie of social outcasts. Despite some token posturing, it gets a lot closer to the facts of life (and sex) in extremis than Leaving Las Vegas: a grainy, home-movie hodgepodge of the genuinely raw and the obviously contrived affords a glimpse into the real underside of Las Vegas and the San Fernando Valley. Traversing scary sadomasochism and funny, drunken erotic revelry, an awful lot of Welles’ Diary comes through between the improvised lines: manic-depressive ambivalence, pragmatism tangled up in thinly veiled despair, the fine line between put-on and breakdown. An even halfway adept filmmaker would interpret and shape such footage, formalize and comment upon it. The video is fascinating precisely because of the lack of any aesthetic buffer between the viewer and the forlorn bravado of Welles’ behavior.

Of course such videos are few and far between the literally hundreds of titles released per month; customarily striving for a Spam-flavored insipidity that would gladden the heart of any Hollywood studio exec. Besides the dismal ripoffs of mainstream hits so beloved for their smirky titles (Pulp Friction, The Sperminator), there’s also the dubious porn equivalent of the art film — typically a blatant midnight-movie amalgam of underground comix, indigestible Fellini leftovers, and too-hot-for-MTV self-parody. Probably the best-known example is Rinse Dream’s glibly post-apocalyptic Cafe Flesh (82), though the director’s earlier Nightdreams (81) is the superior Pop-expressionist burlesque. Greg Dark, as the directing half of the infamous Dark Bros., further refined (or debased) the mocking style he pioneered with New Wave Hookers, and proved himself the Ken Russell of porn with The Devil in Miss Jones III & IV.

In recent years, young muckslinger Rob Black has updated the formula with bitter, brutalist smut like Miscreants (97), adding shock-corridor flourishes inspired by Tarantino, Oliver Stone, the Beastie Boys, and Howard Stern — a melange of clockwork outrages, crack-pipe nightmares, and the cartoonish hubris you would expect of a mogul whose idea of synergy is to branch out and start his own pro-wrestling league. He pushes the envelope of sexual nausea while still producing occasional forays into ineptly artsy twaddle such as Thomas Zupko’s In the Days of Whore (O0), a Catholic-schoolboy barf-fest replete with grunting Vikings, horny lepers, and a maiden being raped every 15 minutes.

With the boys-will-be-pigs culture of pornophiles like Eminem and Kid Rock in ascendancy, art’s decidedly beside the point nowadays. The American porn industry as yet has no impetus or inclination to produce a crossover equivalent to Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi’s Baise-moi (00), whose offhand trashing of road, action, and porno movie fealties inverts the mainstream’s typical violence-to-sex ratio (the fucking is real but the bloodshed’s transparently faked). But there is one work of authentic pop-art in porn’s past, and, like Baise-moi, it was also directed by a woman: Veronika Rocket (according to cyber sexpert Susie Bright, a pseudonym for “two people named Michael Constant and Rubin Masters”). Made in 1983, Smoker was meta-porn in precisely the way Godard’s Made in USA is meta-cinema. A kandy-kolored S&M noir complete with sexual terrorists, hilariously hard-boiled philosophical musings, and a coolly objective spatialization of voyeuristic impulses, Smoker offered up John Leslie’s dissociated Mister Sunglasses persona as the ultimate reduction of the Marlowe-Bond-Lemmy Caution hero to a mask of male cluelessness. (“I’ve been called a misogynist,” the secret agent’s sang froid voiceover informs us, “but only by women.”) Smoker pulled the camera back from porn’s customary “monster shot” by placing an impotent, narcissistic masturbator in the foreground and putting the sex action in the background: a strategy guaranteed to make guys squirm as much as graphic penetration close-ups unsettle many women. Although the version currently available on video has been trimmed of 15 to 20 minutes of Strangelovian discipline-and-punish material, rendering its already inscrutable gestures nearly incoherent, it stands as a premeditated violation of its alleged genre, an insurgent joke on moribund film typologies.

V. Blue Movie, Black Heart

Today the moribund is more dead-alive than ever. Porn may no longer feel compelled to imitate anachronistic Hollywood models (even if companies like Vivid still court mainstream acceptability with token plots, characters, and “production values”), but the movie industry finds itself in the position of competing with the senseless, circular gratifications of hardcore. One response has been the move toward Total Spectacle: hundred-million-dollar action films now offer up the same dependable reliance on money shots, an equal or greater number of buff action figures, and porn’s former ratio of fig-leaf plot to wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Another has been to perfect a terrifying equivalent that exchanges rough sexual pleasures for comely representations of death and dismemberment. Instead of copulation, a host of psycho-thrillers offer peekaboo mutilation and sexual retribution — high-toned snuff films.

When Paul Schrader’s Hardcore came out in 1979, it was a turning point, an anti-Taxi Driver that all but inaugurated a Cinema of Self-Censorship, retreating behind the limits of the R rating, and leaving sex to the industry Schrader couldn’t face head-on. It was the first and most blatant of numerous Schrader films to invoke and then repress the pornographic unconscious: think only of the deeply closeted American Gigolo, the mumbo jumbo of Cat People, and the great nullified opportunity of Patty Hearst, where in real life a band of young fanatics had collapsed Godard’s La Chinoise into Behind the Green Door, with Patty as their Marilyn Chambers. Hardcore canceled out the possibilities of a terrific, volatile theme, the confrontation between Calvinism’s patriarchal superego and the mortifying id of Sodom-wood. It needed to be as unflinching about the mysteries of the profane as Bresson was about the sacred; it needed Travis Bickle’s archetypical X-rated moviegoer drowning in his own secreted rage and longing.

Twenty years later, 8mm loosely and scurrilously retraced Hardcore’s steps, but now the rules of a new Production Code were firmly entrenched under the selectively censorious eye of Blockbuster Video. It continues to insist that sex be fleeting and perhaps “steamy,” but never as graphic, elaborate, or enjoyable as violence. 8mm comes from the same turd processor that gave us Seven, that solemn parade of coroner’s centerfolds and peepshow disembowelments, where one by one the enemies of decency (Prostitute, Pervert, etc.) got their just desserts. 8mm is even more transparently a set of lip-smacking loops: craven domesticity for the Bible Belt, enemas and payback for the Jerry Springer crowd, Well-paid actors humiliated before our eyes (Catherine Keener’s simpering zombie-wife is the stuff of purest Republican fantasy).

Silence of the Lambs is the genre’s template, and father-confessor/molester Hannibal Lecter is its best proselytizer, Sade in Freud’s clothing. Renegade authority figure Hannibal the Cannibal legitimizes cruelty and torture as gourmet entertainment. “People will say we’re in love,” Lecter coos to his little Starling, but he’s actually addressing the audience. The seducer promises to give them what they really want, bring them face to face with their nastiest impulses and most deliciously shameful fancies, but then absolves them of their complicity. In Silence and the rest of its far-flung progeny, the world is seen as a more interesting — and certainly entertaining — place because serial killers and sex fiends populate it. Slice and dice becomes another mode of slap and tickle — Jack the Ripper’s Way to Love.

Unacknowledged sexual phobias are the currency of modern “thrillers,” where AIDS and moral panic secretly prey on the mind. In Seven, Brad Pitt mutters, “Sadistic fucker,” encapsulating David Fincher’s aesthetic as much as the killer’s. The director sounded too much like a porno king for his own good when gushing about the film’s modus operandi: “It’s … `come down this alley with us, there’s something we want to show you.’ And then they lead the audience down and then they just go, `Take your pants down, we’re going to rape you.’ I like that.” Only Seven isn’t a Rob Black video but a putatively serious, upscale film rendering voyeuristic cruelty as almost abstract mise-en-scene. Fincher’s psychosexual Inferno — all suppurating flesh and antiseptic surfaces — is a charnel funhouse catering to the status-conscious viewer, its cheap thrills bound in imitation Book of Corinthians leather. In this manner, Kevin Spacey’s cherubic, scum-cleansing Everymaniac reconciles impulses from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. A self-righteous puritan who stages his sermonettes-in-blood as transgressive performance art, he is the love-hate child of Jesse Helms and Karen Finley. With a serrated dildo as his sword of vengeance, “John Doe” hits on a formula to satisfy the needs of body-piercing ritualists and the Moral Majority alike.

In Videodrome, David Cronenberg predicted that this blurring of identities would saturate the emerging video epoch, spawning a Sadeian “new flesh” of shock images, hallucinatory myths, and schizophrenic appetites: a mutant body politic. Seven and 8mm domesticate that process, turning Videodrome into simply another outpost of Blockbuster. While Crash might have been expected to illuminate this pathology, the problem with Cronenberg’s vision of shell-shocked sex/death cultism is that it’s been totally outstripped by current multimedia reality. The film winds up being tamely anachronistic, as though set in a pre-Videodrome world.

Crash also lacks any sense of male aggression (except the passive kind), an emetic dose of Videodrome’s Max Renn (James Woods) and his gutterball hunger for the cutting edge of violation. Or rather the pathological energies of his real-life porno alter-ego who has translated Videodrome’s torture-chamber aesthetic into one of porn’s most successful franchises. Best known as “Max Hardcore,” this enterprising capitalist also goes by the far more cinematically resonant pseudonym of “Max Steiner” — the composer of The Big Sleep’s score, reincarnated as a James Ellroy Version of that film’s dirty-picture-taker. Staging sexual encounters as traffic accidents, producer-director-star Max induces a parade of would-be Carmen Sternwoods to submit to a demolition derby of humiliation, abuse, and malignancy. “Absolutely brilliant,” Cronenberg’s Max would say of Steiner’s one-man cottage industry. “There’s almost no production costs.” Just the jaded satyr-auteur, his more or less willing victim du jour, and a two-man camera/sound crew to document the grueling commencement exercises of the Roman Polanski Finishing School.

Combining Hunter S. Thompson’s cadaverous looks with a fear-and-loathing quotient straight out of Larry Flynt’s meat grinder, Steiner’s performances obliterate the line between meticulous calculation and barely contained psychosis. Featuring three interchangeable 20 to 30-minute vignettes per tape, Steiner’s formula shrewdly encapsulates movieland’s politics of sex, power, and money. His videos are paeans to the lecher’s holiest of unholies, the casting couch, that backdoor altar on which a cattle call of aspiring starlets/models/dancers (“Are you sure Marilyn Monroe got started this way?” one typically asks) will be auditioned/ sacrificed. Bridging the gap between Videodrome and the Fleur-de-Lis, Steiner offers an unnerving glimpse into the precious relationship between defilement and celebrity. Shades of would-be “contestant” Nicki Brand in Videodrome, “Max TV” offers an address where potential recruits can apply to join the New Flesh. If Steiner has yet to find his perfect Martha Vickers/Lolita, in Max 15: Street Legal (97) a Jayne Mansfield lookalike (Dakota) undergoes near-surgical procedures that end on an image straight out of some ghastly synthesis of Dead Ringers and Crash: spread-eagled on Max’s couch, with a speculum in every orifice including her mouth, transformed into the perfect receptacle. I can’t help but recall Marilyn Chambers in Cronenberg’s Rabid, left for human refuse in a dumpster: the projection of male anxieties onto women has never been more graphically embodied than in Steiner’s overdetermined irrationality, yet his choke-on-my-big-shtick cruelty is closer to the charming sacred-monster turns by Spacey or Sir Anthony. Max even caps the Dakota episode with a truly sick hooray-for-Hollywood touch: picking up a handy guitar and serenading the gargling starlet with “Happy Trails.”

To sleep the Big Sleep, perchance to dream: “Until we meet again.” We find Robert Blake’s white-noise apparition materializing in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, a video dybbuk with the power to rewind the future or fast-forward the past. He’s a porno-geist haunting the movie’s world, and ours, a walking Betacam spying, recording, and replaying scenes from a recurring nightmare/wet-dream — the Peeping Tom as all-seeing, all-distorting Private Eye. A far cry from Bogart’s Marlowe, except for that one vicious moment when Marlowe executes the unarmed Eddie Mars, a preview of Robert Loggia’s Mr. Eddy being forced to view his own murder on (what else?) a Watchman TV. Mr. Eddy is also shown a black-and-white stag film, a bit of black-magic exotica that looks like one of Carmen Sternwood’s lost 8mm wonders. The twin sisters, or rather personae, Patricia Arquette so uncannily embodies merge there finally, dissolving the boundary between fantasy and trauma, pleasure principle and paranoia. Two forms of sexual distance smear together like the ending and beginning of a perpetual loop: the unknowable remoteness harbored within human intimacy and the kiss-me-deadly nirvana promised by that sex-bomb mask. At long last Carmen speaks, as if for the first time, whispering the secret of her infinite prowess and infinite contempt in the ear of her red-faced audience: “You’ll never have me.”

from Here to Perversity 30 Years of Porn Milestones

1971 Behind the Green Door. The Mitchell Brothers hire former Ivory Snow detergent box girl Marilyn Chambers to play an ingenue who is kidnapped and forced to perform in a psychedelic sex show: the orgies of Ronald Reagan’s worst nightmares brought to life, complete with interracial sex and Day-Glo cumshots.

1972 Deep Throat. Gerard Damiano’s bumbling, neo-burlesque comedy does for fellatio what The Love Bug did for Volkswagens, and made Linda Lovelace almost a household name. He follows it with The Devil in Miss Jones, a Bergman-basement downer with Georgina Spelvin as that damned spinster-nympho.

1976 The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Under the name Henry Paris, softcore legend Radley Metzger makes hardcore history with this, the pinnacle of New York porn: semi-droll, halfway romantic, almost sophisticated.

1979-81 Easy; Talk Dirty to Me; Vista Valley PTA. Anthony Spinelli’s quickie trilogy of pulp soaps, all starring Jessie St. James, one of hardcore’s most unaffected and believable performers.

1982 Cafe Flesh. Pseudo-hipster cult porn about a future where a population of impotent “sex negatives” pay to watch the few surviving “sex positives” get it on: an inadvertent prophecy of the age of AIDS and video, but not much else.

1983 Smoker. Veronika Rocket’s gorgeous little piece of sexual terrorism dies at the Pussycat Theaters: porn isn’t ready for its ball-breaking Godard.

1984 Lust in the Fast Lane: As the transition to shot-on-tape gets in gear, Traci Lords debuts by hyperventilating her way through the fast, cheap and out-of-control likes of this.

1985/86 New Wave Hookers; The Devil in Miss Jones Part HI & IV. In hindsight, these pimps-and-demons nightmares aren’t crass, lowlife cartoons of sexual hell; they’re the blueprints for Eminem’s universe.

1986 Traci, Je t’aime. Lords shoots this French video right after her 18th birthday, just before her real age is discovered — or leaked — to L.A. law enforcement and all of the previous 50 or so tapes she performed in as a minor are pulled from the shelves.

1986 Blame It on Ginger. Vivid Video began with the industry’s first contract girl, the sweetly indefatigable Ginger Lynn, and parlayed her popularity into a small empire: an ever-expanding stable of popular stars, a major pay-TV and Internet presence, and a reputation for the most inoffensive, vanilla sex in the business.

1989 Buttman. John Stagliano creates his popular and widely — nay, obsessively — imitated series, shooting the sex while kibitzing with the performers and sometimes joining in.

1991 The Anal Adventures of Max Hardcore. Max Steiner issues the first of his 13-edition series: welcome to the Terror-dome, though the golden shampoos and society-of-the-speculum will come later.

1994 Dog Walker. Actor-turned-director John Leslie’s answer to Tarantino and Point Blank (just incoherently stylish enough to make Oliver Stone’s U-Turn look like a rip-off of him). Leslie eventually finds his metier in multi-volume titles like The Voyeur and Fresh Meat. There Leslie achieves a sometimes striking blend of the transfixed and the detached, an eye for sensual vacancy that would do “The Story of Jackie O” proud.

1997 When Rocco Meats Kelly: fin-de-cinema porno-verite, a version of what Foucault called “limit-experience,” and the start of Rocco Siffredi and Kelly Stafford’s increasingly twisted collaboration — though nowhere as far beyond the pale as his meeting with the remarkable Careena Collins in the unspeakable Kink (96).

1999 The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. Feminist author Tristan Taormino co-directs (with John Stagliano) a version of her how-to sex book; she also fields questions, gives pointers, and firmly choreographs her own gang bang by the ten-person cast.

2001 Baise-moi: French guerrilla grrrl assault on road-killer and porno conventions alike, a reverse Behind the Green Door in every sense.

Howard Hampton is a regular contributor to FILM COMMENT.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group