February 1, 2001

Porn in the USA

One-sheet of <em>The Girl Next Door<e/m>. Courtesy of Christine Fugate

Over the past few years, our community has seen a veritable tsunami of documentaries that examine the sex industry and its various strands—adult entertainment, prostitution, stripping, et al. Leading the charge are docs on porn. Shooting Porn (1997, Ron Larsen and Caryn Horowitz) took on the gay porn industry, while Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999, Gough Lewis), The Girl Next Door (1999, Christine Fugate) and Wadd (1999, Cass Paley) each profiled porn stars. The National Film Board of Canada aired Give Me Your Soul (2000, Paul Cowan) last October, Showtime plans to air The Other Hollywood (2000, Anders Dalgaard) sometime this year, and Rated X: A Journey through Porn (2000, Dag Yngvesson) and Porn Stars: Life and Times in the Adult Industry (Robyn Migel and Doug Jacobson) have toured the festival circuit.

What spurred this spontaneous combustion of inspiration among the documentary community to take on this industry? Are we living in a porn-chic renaissance? Is this the denouement of the ongoing cultural wars of the post-Cold War era? Or are we—viewers and makers alike—just horny? Sex has always sold, for sure, but the nonfiction filmmaking community hasn’t seen such an abundance of docs on one subject in such a concentrated period of time.

Christine Fugate, whose The Girl Next Door profiles the now-retired porn diva Stacey Valentine, first became interested in the subject of sex workers and how their lives are impacted by their work while living in Bangkok in the early 1990s. While working on her thesis on the representation of women in Thai films, she got to know local prostitutes and translated letters that they would get from clients. Her interest in how woman are portrayed in the media would figure in subsequent work such as The Southern Sex, about the mythological Southern belle, and would later dovetail with her curiosity about the lives of sex workers when she started on The Girl Next Door.

The adult entertainment industry is chock full of lurid tales of abuse and addiction among its players, and from early on Fugate sought out the truth behind the tales. “My perception of the industry was that there was a story we didn’t know,” she maintains. “There’s so many kinds of myths around female porn stars, like they’ve been molested or they had drug problems, and I just knew there was another story, a human story that wasn’t being told.” It took her two years to find the right subject in Stacy Valentine. “I realized that the only way I really was going to understand this industry and its effect on the lives of female porn stars was to follow somebody over a long period of time—and follow somebody who was just starting out in the business.”

Paul Cowan also followed an ingénue—literally from when she got off the Greyhound in LA—but unlike Fugate, he didn’t have the same interest in the industry before he launched into Give Me Your Soul. The film looks at the world of adult entertainment through a number of central characters—Katie June Moon, the aforementioned ingénue; Bill Margold, a svengali to aspiring porn stars; and Luke Ford, a self-styled journalist who maintains a website on the porn industry. “In fact, I wasn’t interested in pornography at all,” Cowan says. “When I began I was really much more interested in the censorship issue—why over this century we had censored certain things and not other things. The more I read about censorship issues, the more it came down to sex and why it was so difficult for people, and that segued into the most difficult kind of sex for people, which is pornographic sex.”

For Dag Yngvesson, the maker of Rated X: A Journey Through Porn, the inspiration was conceived in adolescence, when most male teens go through the rite of passage of their first porn film, and born in college. “When I was in college, I took some women studies courses where we read theory on pornography,” he recalls. “I always thought that it was very interesting, but it was always very focused on the product and its effect on people. There was nothing that addressed the people doing this work. I thought it would be great to have a film that did that, and if I had the opportunity, I could make one.”

Yngvesson decided to make Rated X: A Journey Through Porn his own personal journey: He narrates, appears on camera and even, after much ethical soul-searching, agrees to be a cameraman on a porn shoot. “The decision to include myself in my film was precipitated by my feeling that the subject matter sort of calls for it,” Yngvesson says. “The porn industry is such a controversial and often criticized entity, while at the same time being so intriguing to many people, that it almost begs the questions, who is behind the camera, wandering around the sex industry, and why are they there? I think it was also necessary to guide the viewer through it.”

It was also a way to gain access and trust, a challenge faced by Robert Hull and Anders Dalgaard, producer and director, respectively, of The Other Hollywood. “If you call the porn industry and ask them to do something, they’re so trigger happy and they’ve been bashed so much, they don’t let anybody in,” Hull says. “They assume you’re going to go with preconceptions to bash the industry. It wasn’t until we started being on the sets for a month and a half that people started recognizing that we were serious. We gained their trust by being there every day, by being open and letting people say what they want to say. People want to talk about their industry, because they’re shunned by society.”

The filmmakers interviewed for this piece spent anywhere from 18 momnths to six years on their respective projects. Their understanding of the adult entertainment industry, of sexuality and of society’s ideas about both areas changed from conception to distribution in dramatically different ways.

“When I first started filming, I approached the business more from a theoretical kind of way—sexual empowerment, power to choose,” Fugate reflects. “I was looking at debunking some of the myths surrounding the women who work in the business, that we sometimes use to make ourselves feel more comfortable. Having gone through this journey with Stacy and having been very involved in the adult business, I look at it in a much more human way. I realize it’s a very difficult job for people, especially for a woman. So The Girl Next Door isn’t just about the adult film business; it’s about a woman trying to find her way in the world.”

“Maybe I have a more realistic perspective on it,” Yngvesson admits. “Going into it I was trying to fit it into a model of feminist and post-feminist theory more than I do now. Right now I see it as an industry. It’s something we need to look at—how it works as an industry, what kind of product it’s putting out, how the people in it are treated and how their lives are. My goal was to educate people about the industry in a bit more of a diplomatic, as well as intellectually accessible, way, but still get at some of the core issues surrounding porn.”

For Hull, his ideas about the industry took several turns from production through post-production and the festival circuit. “My perception going into this was that it was no different from prostitution,” he maintains. “What was interesting on the journey as a filmmaker was that I went into it like that, but got very sucked into the environment. You start to think like they think. When we came out on the other side of it, when we were editing and listening to these people talk on tape, I was right back to where I was. My preconceptions weren’t necessarily validated, but they were expanded. You look at 100 hours of footage, and these people say something, and one minute later they contradict themselves, because it’s all about convincing themselves that what they do is OK. They spend a lot of time defending themselves.”

Cowan is a bit more optimistic following his go-round with the industry. “Before, I didn’t know a lot about the industry,” he reflects. “Like most people I thought pornographic was just a bad adjective. Now, having been in it for a period of time, certainly nothing shocks me anymore, and I wouldn’t make it illegal. I think there’s something to be gained from a fairly explicit examination of sexuality, and pornography is one aspect of that.”

“Having made this film, I think the industry is worth discussing,” Cowan continues. “Even if the dialogue is within yourself, it’s worth thinking about why we’re attracted to this kind of sexuality, or repulsed by it or whatever. It’s such a mystery, and it just keeps changing all the time. It’s always worth plumbing into that part of the brain and soul.”

 

Thomas White, Acting Editor of International Documentary, does watch adult entertainment, on extremely rare occasions, and under the strict supervision of his wife. For raw, prurient pleasure, he actually prefers nature documentaries about the mating habits of the Serengeti lion.