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The 5 Ways Hollywood Gets Porn Wrong

The 5 Ways Hollywood Gets Porn Wrong

Hollywood has a dirty secret… Alright, Hollywood has thousands and thousands of dirty secrets, but it has one that’s extra-dirty, and extra-secret. It’s this: it’s not the only movie business in America, or California, or even L.A. Just up the road, there’s a whole other system of studios and stars and sound-stages, and Hollywood really, really doesn’t like to talk about it.

It’s not like the world in general doesn’t talk about porn—it’s practically impossible to read a serious newspaper or a media-savvy website right now without encountering someone pontificating about porn: porn’s role in our society, porn and men, porn and women, porn and children, porn and culture. But the same is not true of the movie industry—an industry that likes talking about itself, but really doesn’t like talking about its pervy little brother up in San Fernando. (A little brother, by the way, that has absolutely no problem at all with talking about its older sibling: no major Hollywood film comes out now without a meticulously produced porn parody in which the actual sex often seems secondary to straight-up fan service, as fascinatingly chronicled by Buzzfeed a little while ago.)

“Adult movies” have been accessible without going down to Times Square in a big raincoat for decades now, and since the millennium, you haven’t even had to leave your room (hence all the moral panic), but in all that time, Hollywood has treated them mostly as a punchline, sometimes as a cautionary tale, occasionally as a bit of razzle-dazzle, and very, very rarely as something complicated and interesting and worthy of intelligent commentary. Mostly, it hasn’t treated them as anything at all.

But maybe that’s changing? This cinematic year has been, by Hollywood’s low standards, peculiarly interested in porn. Earlier this year, James Franco produced a documentary “Kink,” about the BDSM site kink.com, and prolific British director Michael Winterbottom (director of 2004’s “9 Songs,” a “mainstream” film featuring unsimulated sex and little else) released “The Look of Love,” a biopic of porn baron Paul Raymond. This week, “Lovelace”, the Amanda Seyfried-starring biopic of the “Deep Throat” star, arrives in theaters, joining the  much-discussed “The Canyons,” which is not a porn movie per se (though it features graphic sex), but stars adult film celeb James Deen. And to top it all off, Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s September directorial debutDon Jon” is also about porn and porn addiction.

So now seems as good a time as any to ask how exactly Hollywood does deal with the other movie industry, when it deigns to do so. Briefly, the answer is “not very well.” And while the quality may range between the movies discussed below, the key factor for many is that their approach gets them off on the wrong foot to start. How? Let us count the ways:

1. By Making Porn Comic
This is Hollywood’s go-to response to porn, and to sex in general, really: naked people (especially naked fat people, or naked old people, or naked people of the same gender) are funny. So people whose job it is to be naked must be, like, really funny, or at least, laughing at them must be really fun.

It isn’t. Two years ago, Tom Brady and a cabal of deeply evil people headed up by Adam Sandler released “Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star,” which turned out to be not just the worst film about porn in quite some time, but also probably the worst cultural product that humankind has ever produced. The arrival of ‘Bucky Larson,’ a story of painful idiocy about a Midwestern hick determined to make it in porn despite having a tiny penis (hilarious!), was redeemed only (and even then only partially) by the opportunity that it gave critics to exercise their bile glands.

But though ‘Bucky Larson’ is the worst such film, others in the same vein have also failed to raise a smile: 2005’s “The Amateurs” (starring Jeff Bridges) was largely just embarrassing for its way-too-good cast, while 2010’s “Elektra Luxx” proved that moving away from brash, fratty sex comedy to arty, ensemble sex comedy doesn’t help at all. A dishonourable mention here must also go to Luke Greenfield‘s teen rom-com “The Girl Next Door,” which is very confused and confusing in its approach to the porn industry (as embodied by Elisha Cuthbert) depicting it by turns as glamorous, hilarious and tragic, frequently in the same scene, depending on what’s convenient for the story.

It may be encouraging that this year’s crop of films about porn doesn’t, for once, include anything in the gross-out comedy vein. On the other hand, quite a lot of it swings to the other end of the spectrum, which can prove just as bad.

2. By Making Porn Tragic
The flipside of the “porn is hilarious” approach comes almost as instinctively to filmmakers who want to make serious, adult movies about “adult movies”: porn is heart-breakingly sad. For whom? For everyone, of course!

On the one hand, producing porn is a tragic business, a cruel starlet-crushing machine ideally suited to lazy Lifetime biopics about shy young girls from nice small towns who get seduced into a seemingly glamorous world of sex, drugs and easy money, until they etc. etc. etc.: fill in the blanks.

This is clearly the route that “Lovelace” has chosen to go down (see our review) and while its true that Linda Lovelace did have a rough and complicated life, it’s also true that there’s a huge amount of interesting discussion to be had about the cultural atmosphere that created her career, and the subsequent cultural impact that that career had. For everyone who wails about how porn is so much more present in the mainstream today than it was in the past, you would do well to remember that for many months in 1972 you could just go into your friendly neighbourhood cinema and watch “Deep Throat” as though it were a mainstream release. “Lovelace,” unsurprisingly, doesn’t really bother getting into any of that, though the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat” does and is more worth your time.

On the other hand, however, consuming porn is also apparently a tragic business which transforms you into a gnarled, emotionally stunted beast (if you’re a man; if you’re a woman, you obviously don’t consume porn). This was the attitude on display in, for instance, Steve McQueen‘s much-praised “Shame” (although in fairness, that film is really about how sex obsession transforms you into a gnarled, emotionally stunted etc., and porn is just a subset of that). It’s also a problem that “Don Jon” deals in (our Sundance review is here), with a lighter touch, but still. Is it too much to hope for a film about someone watching porn and living a normal life?

Such a film would be especially welcome in an era in which people who make porn are visibly living a normal life, as documented on social media, where stars with some level of mainstream profile, like Stoya and James Deen, document lives just as quasi-normal as those of any celebrity. In fact, is there any difference left?

3. By Flirting With Porn Stars, But Not Going All The Way
Once in a while (more so recently, but still not much), a cinematic director actually hires a porn performer and inevitably, a ripple of discussion is set off about whether it’s possible for someone to make the professional leap from porn to mainstream movies. The answer so far seems to be “no,” but not through any fault on the actor’s part. Because when pornstars get offered a mainstream role, they usually end up getting screwed.

Sasha Grey, then the industry’s biggest star, had a good try in 2009 with Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Girlfriend Experience,” and though mainstream stardom didn’t follow, neither did disaster. Previous attempts at this kind of breakout (notably Nina Hartley‘s) had tended to involve B-movies, not indie flicks by major, respected and interesting directors. But still, Grey was hired to play an escort in a movie directed by a man who got famous for a film called “sex lies and videotape.” Reviews were sniffy and she hasn’t made much headway in the mainstream since. (Her most notable role afterward was an arc playing herself on “Entourage“).

Perhaps the biggest name in the industry since Grey is James Deen, who is now attempting to pull off the same trick in “The Canyons.” Although Deen has a higher profile than most in the XXX industry, it is looking like his participation in Paul Schrader’s movie will be a one-off lark. His day job is still whipping it out on camera, and it doesn’t seem like the doors are being blown open by offers for Deen to join any other notable mainstream productions anytime soon.

Still, Grey and Deen did better than some. Also, here’s a weird fact about Nicholas Winding Refn‘s beloved “Drive”: two porn stars had parts in the film that were cut before it ever hit cinemas. Apparently, stamping on a man’s head 17 times was something audiences were expected to love, but sympathetic characters played by porn actresses weren’t, and on that assumption, they never made it into the final film. Which is symptomatic of maybe the biggest problem of all…

4. By Being Scared to Talk About Sex
The idea that Hollywood is prudish is hardly a new one, nor is the specific claim that Hollywood is far less comfortable with graphic sexual content than it is with graphic violence: see Kirby Dick‘s brilliant documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” for the perniciousness of these double standards. But at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a little hard to make a movie about porn if you don’t want to show—or even talk about—sex.

Back in 2008, Kevin Smith ran up against this when he made the sex comedy “Zack and Miri Make A Porno” and discovered that many places wouldn’t display the title of the film or use this poster. This is Kevin Smith we’re talking about, of course. As a man who loves a good tantrum, this news was music to his ears, and he courted it, but it was still illustrative of just how jumpy people get around the p-word. When Smith released “Red State” two years later, an exuberantly violent film about homophobia, no-one batted an eye.

5. By Pretending Porn Has Nothing To Say About Hollywood
So, to recap: no-one wants to talk about porn, most of the films mentioned above just aren’t very good… Oh, and most of them also lost money, sometimes spectacularly. ‘Bucky Larson,’ in a rare bit of satisfying box-office justice, was a catastrophic, career-wrecking bomb. 2009’s “Middle Men,” a true-story flick about internet porn financiers that starred Luke Wilson and Giovanni Ribisi and was briefly touted as a counterpart to “The Social Network” in the “internet start-up tycoons” genre, actually turned out to be not just a massive bomb but a scam: the real-life basis for Wilson’s character financed the film using the money from the very same company that the film was about, and when it bombed, it triggered a string of lawsuits and accusations. Maybe producers are gun-shy not just because the subject is considered both immoral and embarrassing, but because, historically, these movies lose money?

But for a very brief period there they weren’t gun-shy. For reasons passing understanding, between late 1996 and late 1997, a clutch of brilliant films about pornography were released to choruses of controversy and admiration. Milos Forman made “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” a biopic of the eccentric mogul behind Hustler magazine, masterfully embodied by Woody Harrelson; David Cronenberg released the disturbing and complex “Crash”, which deals with fetish porn; and Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Boogie Nights,” a portrait of the ’70s porn industry, reached our screens (honorable mentions also go to Spike Lee‘s “Girl 6” and Betty Thomas‘ “Private Parts”).

“Boogie Nights”—which was nominated for three Oscars—expertly displays the excesses, triumphs and disasters of Hollywood using the industry just up the valley. In doing so, it reveals the real reason the movie industry doesn’t like to think about the other movie industry: because the similarities unsettle “legitimate” film-makers. “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Crash,” meanwhile, used porn to dissect and examine all manner of things—freedom and American ideals in ‘Flynt,’ violence and obsession in “Crash.” They’re complex, eloquent, genuinely adult movies, and their insights haven’t been equalled by anything in the list of more recent flicks above. Which is a real shame, because in the present era of radical technological, sexual and social transformation, it’s hard to imagine a better starting point, a better prism through which to examine the ways the world is changing. 

If there was a single, highly visible, sometimes glamorous, sometimes edgy, headline-grabbing business intimately involved with technology, money and human relationships that didn’t involve people taking their clothes off and didn’t seem uncomfortably close to home, you can bet Hollywood would be all over it, and doing much better it than they are with this one. 2013 may be a year with more than few options at the multiplex and arthouse about porn, but the quality hasn’t changed much.

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