One thing about pornography — it’s fucking hard to write about (pardon my French). I mean, how does one approach the subject? By striking a kind of swaggering, self-congratulatory, pro-pornography posture? (“Yeah, I really do like to ejaculate to Jenna Jameson!”) By taking the moral high ground? Or, God forbid, by making yet another lame joke about how bad the dialogue is in porn movies?
The truth of the matter is that most images of sex, moving or otherwise, are incredibly boring. Ditto discussions of sex, to say nothing of dissections of same. Though I revere Camille Paglia’s earlier, groundbreaking essays on pornography, my mind begins to drift when I read Charles Taylor waxing — honestly, but a bit too poetically for my taste — about “the golden age of porn,” or when Sally Tisdale starts talking dirty to me. When ingesting essays and books like these, I actually find myself longing for the insane rants of anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin, who’s at least entertaining in her psychotic fervor.
So much for the literati. What say pornographers themselves? Many insiders — responding eagerly to the opportunities presented by the nostalgia-tinged neo–“porn chic” so many writers and critics and professional sex enthusiasts have glommed onto of late — have indeed begun to find their voice. This revival of interest in the “good” old days, spurred on by porn star tell-alls (Jenna Jameson in particular) and, most recently, by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s entertaining if nothing-new documentary Inside Deep Throat (precipitating a re-release of the film that brought porn into the mainstream), offers a kind of “look but don’t touch” approach to the industry. Sure, the Deep Throat doc touches on the nasty side of things, but we also get the standard, self-serving tales of sexual liberation, First Amendment battles, cute ’70s clothes, and funky cars à la Dirk Diggler. But as Legs McNeil, co-author and indefatigable promoter of the exhaustive and immensely informative The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, remarked to me recently over lunch at Musso’s, “Deep Throat is a much bigger story than that. If your movie downplays the role of the Peraino family, then you don’t have the true story.”
That’s right, the Peraino family, its patriarch a made member of the Colombo crime family. Forget Deep Throat filmmaker-cum-hairdresser Gerard Damiano, and Gore Vidal, and Helen Gurley Brown — all those preening pundits on Susskind and Cavett and Tom Snyder. It was the mob released Linda Lovelace’s sword-swallowing “little giggle” (as Norman Mailer put it), one of the most profitable independent films ever made.
This is just one of the many vital tidbits to be gleaned from The Other Hollywood, a smorgasbord of war stories — some funny, some wistful, many sleazy, many tragic, but all intriguing in the epic and ongoing chapter of the “other counterculture.” As those who’ve trudged in the frontlines discuss “the industry,” pornography becomes, finally, absorbing. McNeil, who also wrote that seminal bit of oral punk rock history Please Kill Me, eschews the familiar theoretical approaches to porn, citing Fordham University professor Walter Kendrick, who wrote in his book The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture: “Pornography turns writers and readers alike into amateur psychologists, who never ask what an object is; only what is meant by it . . . Pornography names an argument, not a thing.” Says McNeil: “What we [co-authors Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia] were trying to do was show you what it is. Then you can argue about it.”
Beginning with the relative innocence of what McNeil et al. term “nudie cuties” — e.g., Bettie Page, Bunny Yeager and underground genius Russ Meyer — The Other Hollywood traces porn from its original sleazy, mobbed-up business dealings as an illegal industry to its present status as a corporate entity reaping billions of dollars in profits. And they really get the people — Lovelace, Georgina Spelvin, Harry Reems, Marilyn Chambers, John Holmes, Annie Sprinkle, Traci Lords, Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn, Savannah, Al Goldstein, Ron Jeremy and Larry Flynt, to name just a few. There are also the fascinating stories of the non-players at the periphery, the undercover FBI agents (including the one who took the pink-Cadillac, gold-medallion lifestyle so far he was eventually fired for shoplifting) and the girlfriends, like Dawn Schiller, John Holmes’ put-upon teen lover, who talks about how the nicest thing her dad ever did for her was hold her hair while she puked.
Though some of these participants and bystanders get out of the business alive, many don’t fare as well. There was Linda Lovelace’s claim that her manager and ex-husband Chuck Traynor held her captive while making Deep Throat (and her dog-sex loop as well), a story no one interviewed in the book believes. (The authors don’t believe her either.) There’s the murder of porn auteur Jim Mitchell by his porn-auteur brother Artie. There’s the infamous John Holmes’ Wonderland murders and, of course, his drug addiction and eventual death from AIDS. There’s Savannah’s suicide, Traci Lords’ jailbait. And everything in between, from sex clubs in New York (like Plato’s Retreat) to the Los Angeles blond-video-vixen scene, to Pauly Shore, Vince Neil, and Pam and Tommy.
Though The Other Hollywood may awaken your grudging respect for the attempts at artistry by some of the porn pioneers (the Mitchell brothers’ Behind the Green Door being the extreme case), you won’t develop much in the way of nostalgic, fuzzy feelings for the business. What you more often learn is what your grandma told you: Porn is a sleazy business, run by icky men and populated with flaky or downright fractured people. According to McNeil, though, this is no more the case in the porn world than it is in the world of “straight” Hollywood. “Hollywood,” he told me, “is dumber than porn. Personally I found E.T. more offensive than any porn film I ever saw.”
Within a culture of Paris Hilton tapes, College Girls Gone
Wild TV spots, and Britney Spears videos directed by Greg Dark, a sort
of pornification has spread throughout the culture and shows no signs of abating.
For the koom-by-yah sex workers, porn isn’t just a living; it’s a cause. We (as
in the collective voice of some hypothetical, un-uptight “we”) all love supporting
pornography. Ever since the porno revival of the mid-’90s — when sex work became
less white heels and acid-wash jeans and more (frankly tiresome) Bettie Page–banged
burlesque performers — sex workers have cast themselves as warriors in the fight
for sexual freedom. Do strippers demean themselves? No way! That’s outmoded feminist
jive — it’s the men under their spell who cut the truly pathetic figures. You
say the porn world is hard on women? Consider the fact that, in the aggregate,
female performers make five times as much as their male counterparts. And if you
watch Margie Schnibbe’s “home” video Pornstar Pets, while you may
be disappointed to learn that it’s not about pets who work in smutty movies, you
will learn about how porn stars love little critters just like Grandma does. Women
as victims? Just listen to Annabel Chong after her famous gangbang: “I am the
stud!” And check out the tattoos and journal entries of the Suicide Girls, self-styled
“wild” chicks who don’t conform to the Playboy aesthetic (just the Hot
Topic one). So sex work is, like, okay. Right?
Well, I don’t know. Should it be okay? I don’t mean in terms of legality or morality, but rather, should porn become so accepted by mainstream society that it’s no longer taboo, that it loses its outsider status — its mystery, if you will? (Paglia, in her pro-sexuality, pro-beauty, pro-porn stance, always underscored her dislike of the “demystification of sex.”) In other words, porn should be dirty.
McNeil agrees. “I want porn to be dirty,” he told me. “I want it to be illicit. I don’t want every homemaker on television looking like a porn star. I’m not for healthy sex. I don’t want porn spammed over the Internet. I’d like to keep it in the closet, where it belongs.”
Sorry, Legs, too late. Unless, of course, there’s something else, something truly exciting, lurking somewhere in the dark corners of our closets.
THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry | By LEGS McNEIL, JENNIFER OSBORNE and PETER PAVIA | Regan Books | 640 pages | $27.95 hardcover
Pornstar Pets is available for purchase at www.brinkfilms.com.
Deep Throat is available for a revisit at the Sunset 5. Inside Deep
Throat is playing at selected theaters.
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