Here’s your throat back, thanks for the loan. —“Ballad of a Thin Man”
Delving into The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, you’ll find reams of titillating, funny, appalling, and often pointless information on the $10 billion-a-year business that arose in the cum-mustache wake of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. The book dishes the dirt and zeitgeist in roughly equal portions, with hilarious and devastating observations on the passing scene from expert witnesses such as performer-turned-industry health activist Sharon Mitchell (who in the ’70s snuck into a theater and gave a mind-blown patron a heart attack when he realized the actress on-screen was actually sucking him off in person: How could The Purple Rose of Cairo hope to compete with that?). But as with most oral histories, the bigger picture tends to get lost in a cut-and-pasty mosaic of who-fisted-whom gossip and flaky subcultural minutiae. As Bob Dylan could have said to Georgina Spelvin: You know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Miss Jones?
Authors Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne skew their fitful narrative in favor of true-crime tales and rehashed tabloid headlines: symbolic blonde suicides (wholesome cokehead-next-door Shauna Grant, silicone ice maiden Savannah), interminable recollections of mob deals gone bad, and counter-intelligent FBI porn stings. They excavate the ’70s “porno chic” scene with some thoroughness, yet skip over The Opening of Misty Beethoven entirely (the era’s creative high-water mark) while devoting several chapters to reconstructing John Holmes’s later involvement in the infamous—and inconsequential—Wonderland Avenue murder case. The Other Hollywood touches on the porn world’s interactions with celebrity aficionados like Warren Beatty and Sammy Davis Jr. and more recent HIV scares, but barely hints at how an industry whose basic mode was the 8mm loop topped off with facial ejaculation managed to quietly colonize American life despite the efforts (or at least rhetoric) of the Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush administrations.
Putting aside Tourette’s-tourist nostalgia for the bell-bottom blues of Holmes (whose horse-hung ridiculousness has come to epitomize straight-male camp: a stick figure at once pathetic and vaguely sinister) and hard-luck sword swallower Linda Lovelace, the remarkable thing about the “adult industry” is how it has managed to thrive in spite of 30-odd years of anti-porn crusades and intermittently intense moral backlash. The cellar dwellers have carved out their own antisocial media ecosystem—a raucous meat market just beyond the outskirts of reality TV voyeurism and get-your-freak-on music clips. While you can call porn the backstage pass version of the pimped-out mainstream, the mainstream has become more of a cleaned-up, fabric-softened version of pure porno mentality: Britney Spears’s Mouseketeer-cocktease act turning hardcore iconography (schoolgirl/ badgirl/callgirl/stripper) into bubblicious dance pop shots, Paris Hilton’s “amateur” video providing the hardcore inserts (sold separately) for The Simple Life, or the would-be swinging sister on Arrested Development blurting with heavily sedated glee, “Stick a wrench in me, I’m done.”
Anal omnivore Taylor Rain couldn’t have put it better: This is an entertainment business model at once values-neutral and values-defiling. In his forthcoming protect-the-innocent tract Smut, oxymoronic “concerned father” and Penthouse columnist Gil Reavill decries this “media creep” provocation oozing up from the sexual ghettos onto billboards and into the family hours. At the same time he wants to shield the impressionable and unwary from Jenna Jameson and the vulgarians of MTV, Reavill still wants to be able to enjoy the artistically redeemed crudities of Deadwood and The Sopranos. He just wants adult content to be more strictly segregated and filtered and kept out of plain sight—to play nice, be reasonable, show a little decency and prior restraint. It never occurs to this devoutly middle-class sap that barely mitigated excess is as firmly embraced by exurban soccer dads and Jesus-wants-you-to-be-rich theocrats as it is by pop and porn cultures. Imposing moral order on chaotic-hedonistic materialism gets awfully tricky when self-professed decent folk are furiously coveting their neighbor’s Hummer, reveling in glistening blood sports on big-screen high-def plasma television sets, scarfing Cialis for erectile dysfunction, getting asexually aroused by the hate raps of talk radio or the celebrity coprophilia of the supermarket tabs, and all the while embracing a gee-whiz political economy of exploitation/domination.
Holding up a carnival side-show mirror to polite society, spitting in the face of moral authority right and left, porn’s persistence/ resilience is a testament to the Other Capitalism: harsh, flagrant, unretouched by euphemism, seen in all its exuberant nihilism and reverse-cowgirl triple-penetration ass-to-mouth creampie vivacity. Contemporary hardcore finds its niche in the reciprocal dream and nightmare turns of “liberty on the march”—patriotic gape in lieu of gore. Pushing the envelope of sexual experience without breaking through into anything resembling liberation, taking senseless risks for their own stoically self-destructive sake, gratuitous fare à la 10 Man Cum Slam is the negative image of both American Idol and Fear Factor. Beyond its sheer Stern- esque stupidity and desperate-housewife insipidity (what “ordinary fucking people” will do for money and pseudo-fame) lies a concerted offensiveness that aims to conquer new realms of disgust and revulsion. And by the same process neutralizing them: Shock value tries to cover for how routine and businesslike even the most extreme tendencies have become.
Welcome to the pornographic working week: a job like any other, except that the more explicitly brutalizing and humiliating conditions are offset by the chance to escape mundane anonymity and partake of some kind of low-rent, transgressive sex-drugs-money-glamour action. The real social tension it generates may come from the growing sense that The Whore Next Door has moved in and made her good-natured, squirm-inducing self right at home. That video, directed by and starring Kylie Ireland, is a well-oiled catalog of rough sex practices (slapping, spitting, double anal, etc.) performed with the career woman professionalism of a publicist (which she used to moonlight as) or spunky Avon lady. In cultural-warfare terms, it also suggests a weird hybrid victory over both puritans and sexual revolutionaries (if there are any of the latter left). As such sexual deviance integrates itself into the status quo, society doesn’t miss a beat.
It’s the perfect circle jerk: raw meat for the decency legions to feed the permanent scowling outrage of their bluenosed constituents, who keep the old taboos on enough life support so porno-graphers like Ireland can make a pretty decent living violating them. Everybody gets off but nobody’s satisfied: Sex videos go on testing the outer limits of obscenity, openly daring the authorities to clamp down, while the smut haters cling to inane fantasies of rolling back the clock to wholesome times. Conservatives go about consolidating power even as their Sunday schoolmarm utopia keeps losing ground to the capitalist sex monster they half-wittingly unleashed. The New Victorians throw conniption fits over Janet Jackson’s subliminally glimpsed nipple, putting up roadblocks to prevent the broadcast networks from turning Paris into a dominatrix for Hanoi Hilton (the first P.O.W.-BDSM game show), but the inexorable logic of capital gnaws away at all boundaries.
The Hollywood/Other Hollywood distinction is still in force, in the sense that Sideways, Wife Swap, Tales From the Crack, and the umpteen Law & Order/CSI franchises each gum different sectors of the stunted public imagination. But they’re part of the same congealed, impoverished pageant, same as the moral watchdogs yapping at their dust: Deep down in its slobbery throat, Hollywood really wants approval no matter how low it stoops, while porn works the good old Frank Booth hate-fuck mojo under-pinning our showbiz and politics alike. For their self-divided parts, the anxious masses seem to want the thrills and Percocets of capitalism while maintaining an acceptable level of deniability—like the man who wants a porn star girlfriend, but a reformed one. So if demimonde-on-film pioneers like arch-pervert Jamie Gillis, Marilyn Chambers, and Sharon Mitchell performed their many small, gratuitous acts to secure a beachhead for unreconstructed filth, the industry itself remains a treadmill devoted to increasingly calisthenic exercises in futility. This futility is all too pervasively familiar across the spectrum of the present age, though porn at least gives it a hoarse voice with which to tell the gatekeepers of affluent taste and traditional values: Choke on us.
Howard Hampton’s Born in Flames will be published by Harvard University Press in 2006.