She was the kind of girl
who liked to spring things on you. We had stopped in a small, dusty
town somewhere in the outback of Brazil to switch buses. While I
nipped into a bar for a quick brew and a slash, she poked around
the market square. Back on the bus, she showed me her purchases
-- a two beaded bracelets and a porn magazine. The bracelets were
pretty. The mag was anything but. This was 1988, two years after
the generals had decided they had enough of running the country
into the turf. Brazil was caught in that no-man’s land between
the Cold War powers, no much of interest to either one of them and
thus left to do business with fellow orphans.
Romania. The minute she turned the first page of the magazine and
I saw a young woman in ratty fur coat being ogled in a snowy park
by two mustachioed dudes all gotten up in equally worn outfits of
mod contrivance, I knew. After all Nicolae Ceaucescu, Romania’s
terminally crackpot dictator, was said to possess a huge collection
of pornography. Why would he begrudge his citizens the opportunity
to indulge themselves, especially he could export the fruit of their
Two pages later,
the trio had retired to an apartment that made the interiors of
Goodbye Lenin look like the Waldorf Astoria. Everyone quickly disrobed,
revealing pale lean flesh and undergarments in even worse condition
than their clothes. We looked at one another, not in lust but in
sheepishness. There was something a bit too anthropological to the
pictures. It was one thing to see Eastern Europeans on the news
bravely striking against corrupt apparatchnicks in a rusting shipyard;
it was quite another to watch them get in on in a crumbling cement
box perched on the outskirts of a icy, crepuscular city terrorized
by a madman with a silver pompadour. As the bus rambled into yet
another small town of misery, we tossed the magazine into the trash,
our libidos cooled and chastised.
Brazilian director/writer Arnaldo Jabor (Eu Te Amo) once
suggested that if you wanted to know Brazil, you only had to watch
its pornography. “Brazilian porn,” he writes, "speaks
of hunger in the
sad faces and bodies; American porn presents supermarkets and health
clubs. American porn actors work out of perverse pleasure, Brazilians
for a plate of food. Brazilian porn is political. American porn
this little trip down memory lane the other day while strolling
through the aisles of an adult video boutique across the river in
Windsor. I used to live just around the corner from it. They had
a 2-for-1 Sunday night special(?!) that brought cretins and pillars
of the community alike scurrying to load up on video filth. More
often than not by the time I arrived, the shelves had been picked
clean and I was faced with the unhappy prospect of vetting the section
showcasing the talents of naughty midgets. Fortuitously, there was
also a section marked "Foreign". No Fellini here. But
once I started taking a closer look at the video cassette boxes,
I noticed that something was very interesting was going on.
a few more Sunday investigations, I surmised that after the Fall
of the Wall, Eastern Europe was no longer an eyesore in or out of
its clothes. Directors like legendary Italian sleazemeister Joe
D'Amato (Marco Polo) and Frenchman Marc Dorcel (Le
Parfum de Matilde) were taking advantage of the shockingly
low rental on old aristocrats' estates and mansions in Hungary and
Romania to stage high gloss 35mm pornography. Slavic hussies who
only a few short years before knew nothing of Ferrari or Cristal
were bent over the former while sipping the latter as young bucks
with MTV frosting in their hair had at them. During the 90's, American
porno grew more raunchy in its embrace of the reality-TV aesthetic
during the 90's; the Europeans went up-market. Superstud Rocco Siffredi
even made a crossover appearance in French feminist Catherine Breillat's
yet, as a recent CNN report noted in horrific detail, the economic
disparity between Western and Eastern Europe emboldens sexual predators
on the make for young boys and girls. The internet may foster democracy
in some parts of the world but in others, it also facilitates a
chimeric commerce. Brokers have created large stables of kids that
are sold and traded amongst pedophiles with some handy dosh and
a EU passport. Porn means money if only for deep discounts on the
downtrodden flesh of those left behind in The End of History.
happens here stays here. That’s the new slogan of Las Vegas.
During the early 90’s, the city undertook a middling experiment
in family values. As Robert deNiro’s character in Casino
in voice-over, the city was turned over to junk bond merchants financing
vacations with amusement park attractions to keep the kids busy
while their parents fed their college tuition into slot machine.
Gambling without glamour has a name: bingo. And you can do that
right down the street. So why bother flying out to the godforsaken
Vegas was reborn as Sin City, give or take a glitzy shopping arcade
featuring a new overwrought, overhyped and darest I say it, overpriced
restaurant helmed by a celebrity chef. We watch, with a certain
amount of envy, greasy thugs turned hoteliers “comp”
everybody who’s somebody. The New Vegas learned that everybody
wants to be somebody and they’re willing pay for it.
such as Swingers and Ocean’s Eleven offer
a buffed and re-tooled version of the Rat Pack Vegas that is now
the central trope of the enterprise. But this is hardly the picture
offered in some profiles of the city. The New York Times
spent a week exploring the city and the verdict
was less than glowing. Tens of thousands of people from all over
America, many of whom have fallen on hard times through bad decisions
or bad luck, arrive looking for a second act to their lives. Indeed,
Vegas is the place that adamantly refuses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
maxim that there are no second acts in American life. The problem
is that many of these poor souls want to raise children but how
do you that in purgatory. Every day a new horde of swingers, swindlers
and sad-sacks arrives to satisfy appetites for everything except
In the past,
cutting of loose often required doing it out of sight from the people
you know. That’s why every year, thousands of Brazilians travel
hundreds of miles from their home towns to le their freak flag fly
during Carnival. Anonymity helps the drink go down and the libido
go up. But Vegas is the surveillance capital of America. Every inch
of every casino is under watch. Then factor in the number of visitors
who bring their own cameras to record their (mis)adventures. One
wonders how many of them actually watch the tape when they return
home. Or is it that we have become so accustomed to the idea of
being watched and recorded that we have taken on a Cartesian zest
for the camera -- I am seen, therefore I am.
embraces these second nature dialectics between voyeurism and exhibitionism,
the public and the private. In the Times profile, a scholar noted
that Vegas is at the forefront of the “pornografication”
of America. It’s not just the city is crammed with strip clubs
and billboards advertising them in no uncertain terms of modesty.
Vegas promises the glamour of excess, the instant celebrity of transgression.
It’s no accident that the producers of Girls Gone Wild
and now, Boys Gone Wild, send their agents to Vegas (after
trolling Panama City Beach and New Orleans of course). People are
ready to reveal all to anyone willing to watch. The purloined x-rated
videos of Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson Lee attest to the fact
that celebrities are not immune to this strange vanity. To the contrary:
they show us the way.
porn industry of America has gone one better. They have taken the
Vegas fantasy of glamour and wealth and married it to hard-core
sex. A five-star shag with a volcanic tramp is the glorious apogee
of conspicuous consumption.
I nipped downtown to do a bit of research in the library of a large
research university. On the first floor, they have a number of public
computer terminals for people who could never afford or never have
access to the internet. As I was passing by, I noticed a gent slumped
down in a chair in front of one of the terminals. One of Snoop Dogg's
more snarling ditties bled out of the earphones clammed to his head.
On the computer screen was a streaming video of a pallid blond choking
herself on a massive black schlong with rote ferocity. The gent
was immobile. When I arrived at the help desk to update my library
account, I asked the guy behind the counter if what I just saw was
par for the course. "Oh yes," he said, his brow cresting
to the edge of his turban."We can do nothing. This is America.
Free speech you know."
Half an hour
later, the man was still there, still lost in the onslaught of raw
sight and sound. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon... unless
of course you have ulterior motives. Perhaps this was a piece of
radical performance art to discomfort the bookish and the staid.
Then again, perhaps our man was merely realizing the true potential
of the popular culture. Reality TV, shock jocks, WWF, videogames,
hiphop, MTV have all fused into a cult of youth characterized by
peevish callowness and shameless obsession with the body as commodity.
Porn has tapped into this vibe, crystallized it and then let it
seep back into the popular culture.
The web is the
perfect medium for porn. It's always on; it's like water. It is
an integral part of the "supersizing" of popular culture.
I've always thought that porn was something, to paraphrase James
Brown, "you hit it and quit." Not anymore. Anytime you're
ready, it's ready. Serial Killer Ted Bundy, on the eve of his execution,
gave an interview to a priest in which he admitted an addiction
to porn. Indeed, what happens when you can't stop watching, when
you can't say, "I'm full."
to talk about the web as a powerful tool for the archiving of important
historical data. Pornographers know all it about. Now you can visit
Excalibur Films (www.excaliburfilms.com) and watch over 10,000 trailers
from classic porn films of the 80's and 90's. Some of these trailers
no doubt were shown before the main feature at the fading grindhouses
of America, barely hanging on with the advent of the videocassette.
It's amazing to look at these things now. The actors were lean but
not buff. Very few tattoos or piercings. Bombshells were all natural
and the ladies with less up top made up for it with enthusiasm.
Where have all
the great ones gone? Ebony Ayes? Keisha? Peter North? The latter
two, to my surprise, are still at it. On the web. Keisha is now
fairly long in the tooth by porn standards. Her website is simple
but sleek, much like her in her heyday. The streaming video tour
reveals just how much times have changed -- we move quickly from
rather tasteful oral sex into fisting! Peter North has a more involved
website but the content is anything but. North started out in gay
porn as Matt Ramsey and his look -- hairless and buff body -- is ironically
now all the rage in America amongst the straights. Mark Wahlberg
was perfect for the film, Boogie Nights, because he personified
the mainstreaming of the North aesthetic into straight male world.
I can't understand how "Marky Mark" could have been shocked
that his ads for Calvin Klein underwear were a hit in the gay community.
North's claim to fame was his massive and powerful ejaculations.
His website features hundreds of facials; young girls with plucked
brows and smiling sneers look up at the camera, waiting for the
special delivery. The old adage that porn actors are really life
support systems for a penis is never more true on the North site.
If porn dehumanizes women, it also doesn't do men any favors.
better judgment, I gave Howard Stern's television show another try.
He had on one of his favorite kinds of guest, a uber-blond Playboy
playmate in a skimpy t-shirt. Invariably the conversation focused
on her breasts. Stern is both cruel and ingenuous. First he teases
the woman mercilessly until she admits that she's had implants.
Then he infantalizes the whole thing by asking if they're soft.
When she replies they are, Stern purrs, "Yeah, they're soft.
They're fun." What's it going to be, Howard? You want to see
big tits but you mock the women who get them for you?
People vs. Larry Flynt isn’t the best of films. Woody
Harrelson eats a lot of scenery. Courtney Love tries to insinuate
through her character that she may be a hellcat kook but she has
a heart of gold. What I like about the film is the story and the
way Milos Foreman presents it. Flynt appears not as a sleazy lecher
lucky but an honest Horatio Alger. Indeed, for a kid who started
out peddling moonshine in the hollows of Eastern Kentucky, Flynt’s
done pretty well for himself. When he opened a chain of peep shows
and strip clubs in Cincinnati, he wisely decided to create a small
magazine to promote them, evolving (or devolving depending on your
perspective) into the now famous rag, Hustler.
is a success because he never lost touch with his roots. Unlike
Hugh Hefner (Playboy) or Bob Guccione (Penthouse),
Flynt had no pretenses about the business he was in. He was peddling
smut to the guy in the dilapidated ranch house with a pick-up truck
on blocks who wanted to see naked women and lots of them. At a key
moment in the film, we see Flynt (Harrelson) instructing a model
to spread her legs and the photographer to move in for a close-up.
Fuck Hef’s airbrush and soft-focus trickery! The feminist
scholar Laura Kipnis celebrated Flynt for exactly this reason. Hefner
and Guccione tried to mask the fact that they were pornographers
by camouflaging their rags as how-to-manuals for the up-coming executive
gent who could always say he read the things “for the articles”.
Flynt would have none of this. He was out in the trenches of Middle
America, in Cincinnati for Christ’s sake, championing porn
for the common man. And in doing so, he laid bare the class prejudices
of a society that liked its sex as clean as its money. Time and
again, the conservative scolds of the city, including that disgraced
colossus of the savings and loan scandal, Charles Keating, tried
to shut him down. Time and again, Flynt emerged triumphant. Even
after a religious zealot tried to assassinate Flynt during one of
his trials, the man soldiered on.
People vs. Larry Flynt concludes on a high note with Flynt
victorious over Jerry Falwell. Flynt had printed a mock advertisement
for whiskey, insinuating that Falwell and his mother had been intimate
in an outhouse. Falwell sued and the case reached the Supreme Court.
Again, we revel in Flynt’s triumph because he is so out front
about his mission -- sticking to the straights who don’t just
want to ban porn but unpopular speech, particularly speech that
comes from people who hitherto had no power to make their voices
has accomplished something else. He was prescient in his move to
hard-core imagery. He pushed Hefner and Guccione into an “arms”
race of explicitness which has reached its zenith on the web. Playboy
and Penthouse have only been able to retain their aesthetic
gloss because the American public has come along for the ride into
the blue. Men’s magazines such as Details and FHM
are in many ways what Playboy and Penthouse
started out as -- vehicles for selling men stuff, including the fantasy
of the perfect chick who likes sex with the right man, namely you.
it should come as no surprise that every time I see the leathery
and reedy Mr. Hefner in his signature pajamas surrounded by pneumatic
blonds of the Pamela Anderson ilk, I want to put my foot through
the telly. But when I see Larry muttering in that signature raspy
drawl from his wheelchair in his gaudy mansion, I watch rapt. During
the Clinton Impeachment, Flynt put a bounty on the inquisitors --
a million dollars for concrete proof that any one of them had strayed
from the path of righteous that they were so proudly defending.
Thrice-married ex-congressman Bob Barr got caught and recently felt
insult added to injury when a judge threw out his libel claim against
photo on the front page of The New York Times: Tom Ridge,
the head of Homeland Security demonstrates for the media the agency’s
new command control center. Looking on is Dick Cheney with his signature
grimness. On the screens behind is a large color coded map of North
America and the feeds of countless surveillance cameras from freeways
9/11. Was it
a wake-up call for America to engage the world? Or was it an opportunity
for America to turn its back on the world and start watching itself?
Every time I hear John Ashcroft or one of his people go on about
“the heartland” or “terror in the heartland,”
I wonder. For them, America should be just like a Norman Rockwell
painting -- parochial, god-fearing and forever simple. Rockwell himself
hated his work being turned into fodder for the toxic yet convenient
snake oil of politicians.
Rich of The New York Times will have none of this. For
months now he's savaged the Bush administration for trying to distract
Americans with moralizing platitudes and abject fear-mongering from
the disaster of the war. Going after Janet Jackson and Howard Stern,
however, must seem like child's play for Bush compared to trying
to "re-frame" the prison abuses in Iraq. “Perhaps,"
wrote Rich, "he hopes we will believe that what happened at
Abu Ghraib is the work of just a handful of porn-addled freaks and
that by razing the prison we can shut the whole incident down the
way Rudy Giuliani banished the sex emporiums.”
edification on this point, Rich includes a reproduction of a postcard
to commemorate the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion,
Indiana. In 1930. Rich refers to this image and ones like it as
“historical antecedents” to those of Abu Ghraib. Indeed,
just as people could buy the postcards and send them to relatives
(The fruit is strange; Wish you were here), so too could interested
parties send pictures of the jailers taunting and fondling their
columns about the connection between the prison scandals and the
“pornification” of America illuminates a problem of
defining porn as just naked people engaged in sex. Porn is about
the often quixotic quest for power and control. The lynching postcards
and the images of Abu Ghraib speak to two moments in American history
when the power of a dominant group was in crisis. Whites in the
South knew segregation was only a matter of time; blacks were a
mysterious, dangerous force on the cusp of liberation. The soldiers
of Abu Ghraib, whether following orders or not, felt diminished
enough by their Iraq experience that they had to resort to lurid
humiliation of those who were humiliating them in the street.
Hitchens, the boozy and smoky columnist for Vanity Fair, wasted
no time in condemning Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the
Christ as a festival of death fetishism and sado-mascochism,
all delivered with a shameless anti-Semiticism. He’s right
of course -- the film luxuriates in the suffering Christ almost
as much as it does in the duplicity of the Jews to send one of their
own to the cross. At its heart though, The Passion is a
reclamation project. For too long,
in many conservatives’ eyes, Jesus Christ has been emasculated
into little more than a tea-head in a nightie offering riddles and
beatitudes to perplexed disciples. Shock therapy was in order and
Gibson delivers it. Now we have a Christ who really looks alive
before he is really put to death. Again, the question is about power
and control. The film demonstrates how the manufactured, explicit
spectacle of the crucifixion can be used to trick large segments
of the population into understanding sin and its purification as
a blood sacrifice that thrills as it cleanses.
emerging from the theatre after screenings of The Passion were
often seen in tears. In his ethnographic study of Spanish bullfighting,
Timothy Mitchell cites the literary critic Leslie Fiedler on the
morbid essence of porn. “Since the true emotion of bullfighting
is the emotion of art, the spectator who gets emotional for another
reason destroys it by replacing it with a kind of mortal pornography
that converts him into a suicidal masochist and a sadistic assassin
all at once.”
I am reminded of the climax of Almodovar’s Matador
in which the lame matador and his lover consummate their burning
passion during an eclipse. The explicit arts of love and bullfighting
fuse in a bloody moment privileged by nature itself. The film opens
with gory slasher-film imagery; the bullfighter, no longer in the
ring, must satisfy his blood lust with this dreck. The images represent
violence without love, an open invitation to the pornographic.
This is the
true loneliness of porn. And it's ours.
Buy the films mentioned in this article
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University
of Detroit Mercy. He is also the founder of Atomic