Porn re-inserts itself into the arthouse with this week's The Canyons, co-starring adult industry stud James Deen, and next week's Lovelace, a biopic of the Deep Throat star — two highly publicized releases that reconfirm the hopelessness of going hardcore in mainstream movies. Whether it's works that inject un-simulated sex into their fictionalized tales, those that cast actual porn stars in a misbegotten bid for extreme-sex credibility (The Canyons), or those that are specifically about adult entertainment (Lovelace), porn pretenses are the surest means of making a feature film un-sexy, if not downright desperate and more than a little laughable.
This isn't a slam on porn itself, or a call for the type of schoolmarmish pseudo-censorship being shoved down the throats of the English — who, thanks to Prime Minister David Cameron, will soon have to notify their ISPs if they want to see things being shoved down others' throats. No matter one's opinion of X-rated movies — be they narrative-driven, hardcore, gonzo — actual pornography generally delivers exactly what it advertises: namely, graphic sexual acts filmed for the self-gratification of its audience. It is, fundamentally, a functional art form, providing sights and sounds intended to help viewers — typically men — get off.
One may find that simplistic, morally objectionable, juvenile, or idiotic. But it's rarely insincere. And even when it exhibits loftier artistic ambitions — like Vivid Video's 2005 big-budget epic Pirates — porn knows that, in the end, what matters most is up-close-and-personal depictions of people getting to it. Nobody expects porn to move or inspire beyond that, just as nobody expects a dildo to help comb one's hair; its purpose is singular in nature.
Mainstream movies, on the other hand, operate in a different pop-cultural space. Even for projects that actively aim for passionate, tawdry, or daring eroticism — including those that engage in the gratuitous nudity found in R- and unrated affairs, or HBO's Game of Thrones — dramatic demands take precedence over any claims to vérité realism. Being sexy is always far more crucial than showing sex that's "real."
Of course, that hasn't stopped many films from attempting to integrate porny elements into their proceedings. Melvin Van Peebles famously caught an STD while screwing onscreen for 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Divine performed fellatio in John Waters' 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos (on the guy playing her son in the movie, no less). Bob Guccione shot loads of explicit footage for Caligula, most of which eventually made it into the director's cut. William Friedkin did likewise for Cruising (though most of it never saw the light of day and has now been lost). And they're not the only ones — highly respected directors like Catherine Breillat (Romance and Anatomy of Hell), Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs), and Leos Carax (Pola X), as well as turn-of-the-century art house provocations like Baise-moi, Ken Park, and The Brown Bunny, have all attracted notoriety by compelling leads to actually get it on for the cameras.
In virtually every instance, that stunt proves to be, at best, a distracting gimmick. Onscreen sensuality is the byproduct of many things — chemistry between performers, expert direction, a story that properly contextualizes and builds to its carnal climaxes — and explicitness isn't one of them. To call attention to the "reality" of a film's coupling is to divert attention away from, and take viewers out of, the fiction at hand. Nicolas Roeg's Venetian thriller Don't Look Now is a classic for many reasons, but ultimately none of them have to do with the did-they-or-didn't-they questions about Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie's infamous sex scene. That controversy is irrelevant (the scene is intense, regardless of logistics), and has done little more than sidetrack conversations away from the masterful dread and terror Roeg stirred up — qualities absent from Roeg's later efforts, like that hand-in-pants cable movie Full Body Massage.
Just like horror, onscreen sex is almost always more evocative when suggested rather than bluntly shown. There's far more sexual pop in the chaste It Happened One Night, the boundary-pushing Last Tango in Paris, and 9 1/2 Weeks than in any of the purported real-sex art films, even in those cases when such graphicness makes sense within the context of a given project (say, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus). Authenticity be damned, all Rocco Siffredi's Anatomy of Hell bumping and grinding can't compete with Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, just as Chloë Sevigny's The Brown Bunny fellatio isn't in the same league as any single moment of Rebecca Romijn in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale.
That goes double for films about porn, which — like those that cast working porn stars in non-porn roles — strive to generate sexual excitement from their proximity to the adult-entertainment world. While Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno recognizes the silliness of its conceit, efforts like the John Holmes crime saga Wonderland and the Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez industry drama Rated X immerse themselves in sleaze but remain woefully short on legitimate erotic electricity. Caught between being serious and being shocking, they wind up delivering only faux titillation. In this respect, they're most akin to softcore cable endeavors, especially '90s Skinemax classics (starring the likes of Shannon Tweed) that were obsessed with stylish noir posturing. Their straight-faced storytelling is undermined by their brazen sensationalism, which in turn is made goofy by the surrounding material's façade of gravity.
There's one glaring exception — Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, whose thematic scope and earnest interest in character sets it apart from its porn-themed brethren. Furthermore, there are a few porn stars who have successfully transitioned to mainstream projects, such as Traci Lords and The Girlfriend Experience's Sasha Grey, but those rare actresses eschewed nudity-heavy roles that would pigeonhole them as lascivious one-trick ponies. As re-established by both The Canyons and Lovelace, brushing up against porn personalities and scenarios is mainly just a flaccid means of trying to energize stories that otherwise can't fully sustain audience interest.
If this sounds like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't argument, that's because it is — dramatic films with real sex are marred by look-at-me gimmicks, and those that feign porn outrageousness (through their casting, or their stories' subject matter and milieus) come across as neutered poseurs. The long, hard truth: Porn is best left in porn.