Film and TV

Why Real Sex in Real Movies Never Quite Works

The new, semi-gritty indie About Cherry is all about a semi-reluctant slide into the porn industry, and it's also the first mainstream feature co-written by a busy porn actress, Lorelei Lee, otherwise famous for double penetrations and clothespin bondage. This shouldn't strike us very strange. Every screenwriter needs a day job, and it's not as though Lee would necessarily be well-equipped to pen a biopic of Teddy Roosevelt or something. Beyond that, everyone has heard that you should write what you know. Beyond that, though, the question remains: Why would anyone want to make a film about porn, anyway? Doesn't porn do that already?

Just because porn's Internet ubiquity has pushed it closer to the public mainstream than ever in the history of humanity doesn't mean it's so fascinating that we need to know more than porn itself tells us. Or provides for us, to be concise. But the relationship between the two schools of expression, between the Hollywood you'd bring to the prom and the other Hollywood, has always been fraught, like the one between sisters when one's Ann Romney and the other is, oh, Lorelei Lee. The plain old "normal" film business, here and elsewhere, has traditionally shunned hardcore porn both as a subject and a methodology, and for good reason — porn by definition does not play well with others. For the most part, the bio-neuronal function it serves actively excludes and/or obliterates the other reasons we might watch movies. Porn is a walled ghetto built by our dicks and pussies, and you don't drive through unless you're looking for one thing and one thing alone.

Of course, "straight" filmmakers have dared to go there, to use the extremity of hardcore media for their own purposes. It's usually folly, explicit sex being something like Kryptonite to movie narratives — the sudden introduction of real sex and sometimes even just sexually charged nudity will immediately distract us from the movie it's in. (Susan Sarandon once said it's difficult not to be upstaged by your own tits, and she would know.) The key to art, as Nagisa Oshima knew when he forged ahead with In the Realm of the Senses (1976), is to make the fucking as grim and unpleasurable as possible. The result for Oshima was either an unpleasant masterpiece or an experimental semi-movie, depending on how much you could avoid speculating about the actors' subsequent careers; predictably, the remarkable actress Eiko Matsuda all but vanished, while swinging-dick Tatsuya Fuji hasn't been out of work since.

The hybridization has always been fitful. In 1981, porn magnate Anthony Spinelli though his porn-drama Nothing to Hide had enough story and character to be regarded as a suitably "mainstream" release, with the cum shots edited out; Siskel and Ebert torched it on PBS, and that was that. The late '90s saw a French run on insertions, from Bruno Dumont's first films to Leos Carax's Pola X (1999) — which muskily confronted us with the merging genitalia of Guillaume Depardieu and Yekaterina Golubeva — and Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999), which revealed porn god Rocco Siffredi as being preternaturally capable of handling relaxed dialogue while stroking himself to erection. Still, sex that's not meant to be arousing is always boring, because we are not having it. Rape Me (Baise-Moi) (2000), co-directed, co-written, and starring working porn actresses, used a Thelma & Louise template wherein the motivating rape trauma wasn't backstory but all in your grill, while Michael Winterbottom's dull 9 Songs (2004) demonstrated the dangers of thinking that authentic sex, just because you think it's generally awesome, can sustain a feature-length screenplay.

We're not yet ready to nonchalantly incorporate full-on sex into our workaday movies, but that day might be coming. How could you stop it? For now, movies like About Cherry — of course, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) is the tiny subgenre's Oliver Twist — address the adult-film industry as a business and a lifestyle. Otherwise, it's a rare movie that doesn't merely use the porn industry for a joke and leaves it at that. Which might be the smartest avenue. The Showtime TV movie Rated X (2000), about the infamous Mitchell brothers' descent into ruin and murder, was frank about things, but even About Cherry, exuding a saucy optimism and self-interestedly painting the industry polite and professional on the ground, is aware of the ambivalences. Even here, it's clear we're talking about modern media's ghost subculture, a far-from-healthy ecosystem of no-impulse-control meta-children, old-fashioned exploitation scum, sublimated predators, and young dim-bulb beauties of both sexes for whom nothing is not for sale.

But look at some porn — the problem is right there, in the rented-mansion living rooms, the cyborgian implants, the industrial repetition, the intensifying emphasis on spit-ready humiliation, the lack of real humor or sympathy or motive. Any viewer's thoughts not focused on arousal instantly detour toward the uneasy weirdness of the film/video's production — every piece of porn has the drama and ethical dilemmas of its own making built right in. Who are these people, anyway? There's little mystery as to why the adult industry is still fringe — it's a gigantic id-driven daydream built upon a single, embarrassing, and usually private physical function. Once that's satisfied, there's not only no there there, but also there's an anti-there, a vacuum of purpose. Any effort to make it look like a savvy and cozy career choice strains against the reality of the glance of frustrated boredom that appears at least once in every adult film. That's the real drama. You can always see the trail of ruinous decisions, the shadow of old rationalizations, and time passing badly. That is, at least when you're not getting off.

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Michael Atkinson is a regular film contributor at the Village Voice. His work also appears in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.
Contact: Michael Atkinson