Can we like porn for its mind? 


Some things about porn don't change. Renting a triple-X movie still tends to make people a little funny-acting and self-conscious (shoe-gazing, stammering, rehearsed nonchalance). That's part of the point: the little fluttering tide of anticipation. Watching porn might not be an especially big deal anymore in some circles, but let's hope it stays more charged than brushing your teeth.

Talk about porn, though, is changing. It's warming up and becoming more and more the stuff of university classrooms, mainstream magazines and other places of correct grammar. Two porn documentaries, coming on the heels of last year's feature film "Boogie Nights," will be shown at the Florida Film Festival. "Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes" is a biography of the infamous, holy-moly endowed porn actor, told through interviews with people who knew him during his star trip and eventual life wreckage in the '70s and '80s. "The Girl Next Door" focuses on DD-cupped current porn star Stacy Valentine, who allowed the camera to follow her everywhere from movie sets to mundane errands.

The two documentaries underline a trend: People other than feminists are looking at how porn affects us and those in the adult industry. And our attitudes toward porn can tell interesting tales -- as long as you don't mind bantering around the words "cum shot" and "double penetration." According to Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who wrote a study of the industry titled "Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Pornography in America": "What you see in the porn universe are fantasies of freedom, transgression, even plenitude in the sense that everyone has all the sex they want all the time. All desires are fulfillable, and men's and women's desires are in complete concordance -- that is, no 'sex wars.'"

Director Cass Paley picked John Holmes for his subject precisely because, as he explains, "I had seen 'Boogie Nights' and I knew what was there was fantasy." That big-name movie was loosely based on Holmes' life, but Paley says, "I just wanted to know more of the truth."

The truth is a sordid tragedy: cocaine, pimping, murders, AIDS, death at age 42. "There's nothing in John Holmes' story that strays from the cliché," notes "Boogie Nights" director P.T. Anderson near the documentary's end, but the fact that the story is a familiar rags-to-riches-to-disgrace myth didn't dissuade Paley: "I love the cliché," he enthuses, calling it an "all-American story. You just follow the thread of his great downfall." Was Paley worried that people might leave his movie thinking that porn makes people moral degenerates? "It didn't scare me," he says. "I wanted to let the audience decide." Paley has his own conclusion: "John was his own problem. John was his own downfall. It wasn't the industry."

Nonetheless, it's hard not to draw a dotted line between the work and the life, in the sense that Holmes seems caught up in the fantasy that porn creates. "In porn," explains Kipnis, the film professor, "people get to have sex without the constraints of romance and intimacy, which means without having to deal with other people's personalities and neuroses, without questions about 'what this means.'" As a result, says Kipnis, "Maybe porn suggests that people want vacations from intimacy, which has evolved into our culture's secular religion." Most people know, though, that vacations end and are brief.

Another perspective on what happens when that fantasy world becomes your 9-to-5 job comes in director Christine Fugate's "The Girl Next Door," which has the advantage of a willing, self-reflective subject. Says Fugate: "The reason that I didn't make a survey piece about porn -- go interview a bunch of people over several weeks and then put out a documentary on the porn industry -- was because there's a party line, and I wanted to get beyond that. I wanted to keep being there asking her, 'What is it like? How do you feel?'"

We initially hear the party line from Stacy Valentine: yes, she's making good money, but "you should only get in this business if you love sex," and she's empowered by her work. As the film progresses this chipper line fades, at times in the expected ways, at other times in unexpected and touching ways.

Why the party line in the first place? Fugate found that people in the industry tend to be protective of each other. "There is a weird sense of security, because you're bonded by a feeling of taboo, and so everyone's like, 'What's going on is taboo. No one understands us.'" Does this tight-knit community ever reflect on their profession? Yes -- in a certain way. A big distinction is now made, says Fugate, between "companies that use condoms and companies that don't. ... And there's people like this director Rob Black, who's pushing a line. He has a woman in a wheelchair get practically raped by men. ... `E`verybody looks down on him -- you know, he's doing the really sensationalist, outrageous porn."

For her part, Valentine blithely reveals herself to us, so to speak; for example, a remarkable scene shows a plastic surgeon mapping her body with a marker while explaining the dangers of the liposuction and breast-implant surgery she's about to undergo. But Valentine struggles with understanding and expressing her emotional terrain. The precise relationship between her work and her fear of intimacy becomes the magnetic center to this film.

Neither documentary is "pro-porn" in the sense of arguing that porn is healthy or good. Porn is just porn here: dialogue then sex, dialogue then sex, where the sex is definitely real but the broader scenario is, well, frankly absurd. In the real world mail deliveries don't automatically end in blow jobs and office parties don't evolve into orgies. John Holmes might have believed the free-floating fantasy. "The Girl Next Door" paints a more nuanced picture. Porn gives us a place to talk about our culture's -- and our own -- shifting, unmoored attitudes toward pleasure and intimacy.


More by Theresa Everline

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