"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Nothing particularly novel about this porno scene — it’s a standard-issue boy-girl vignette. First some knob-noshing, much to the fella’s delight. Next, the gal’s flat on her back, bare feet over his shoulders as he shags away. They shift positions, then it’s back to the ol’ missionary, where Goober finally fires the money shot.
“Ho-hum,” ye of the porn-connoisseur persuasion might say. And you’d be on target, save for the fact that the young girl on the receiving end of this beef-jockey’s mindless rutting looks all too young. With her short dirty-blond locks, small breasts and slight, almost boyish frame, she could easily pass for 16. Actually, according to her character Susan’s voice-over in this episode from Hustler’s new Barely Legal video series, she could pass for even younger.
“I was 18, but I didn’t look a day over 13,” explains Susan pre-coitus, taking off her schoolgirl uniform in the back seat of a limo.
Susan’s “first time” will be with her stepbrother Todd, a goofy brown-haired guy who’s supposed to be younger than Susan, but actually looks to be in his early 20s. Thus, for a $3 rental, you get almost-incest and almost-underage sex — this in just one of several segments involving Barely Legal’s adolescent-looking nymphs.
Though the Barely Legal video, a spinoff from the highly successful porn mag of the same name, is a popular rental, ranking No. 20 in Adult Video News’ Top 40 Rentals as of Nov. 22, it’s hardly alone in the field. Scan the racks of your local porn parlor and the series titles read like a bobby-sox chaser’s wet dream: Virgin Stories, Cherries, Rookie Cookies, Cherry Poppers, Young and Anal, Cheerleader Confessions and the memorable Young, Dumb and Full of Cum. AVN even dedicated its September 1999 issue to the genre with a “Back to School” cover showing two “carnal cuties” in saddle shoes and plaid skirts.
Back in 1993, Barely Legal was the first specialty magazine to gleefully exploit the male appetite for very young girls, showing just-turned-18 lasses tearing off their skirts and bobby socks to press the flesh of adoring bi-classmates. A plethora of copycats with names like Hawk, Tight and Barely 18 now compete with Barely Legal for readers. Nevertheless, Larry Flynt’s X-rated version of Teen Beat remains the ne plus ultra for jailbait aficionados.
“Barely Legal came about as an idea that an employee of the company had,” explains Flynt from his neo-Victorian office high atop the black, oval building in Beverly Hills that bears his name. “I attribute its success to the fact that dirty old men are always attracted to pretty young girls. The primary reason we decided to do the video series is because the magazine was so successful and we knew we would have that success with the video.”
Did Flynt and his lawyers have qualms about putting out a product that features spread-eagled women impersonating spread-eagled teeny-boppers? Does Barely Legal encourage pedophilia? Might it be subject to legal action under the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, the law aimed at extending the definition of child pornography to the simple depiction of minors engaged in lewd acts?
“No,” he replies. “Because we don’t photograph anyone under the age of 18. The median age is 18-22 … There’s a lot of difference between a Barely Legal girl and a child. I associate pedophilia with children. And these models are not children.”
Yet the fantasy being sold through magazines and videos like the Barely Legal line is sex with teenagers. Flynt says that “awkwardness in young models who appear to be of an adolescent age, although they are over 18, has a certain amount of appeal to our readers.”
According to Clive McLean, the intelligent English director/photographer responsible for most of the footage shot in the Barely Legal video series, the freshness and quality of the talent and the production are what sells. McLean’s been shooting porn layouts for Flynt for almost a quarter of a century. This is his first stab at video.
“I don’t think I could have done this when I was younger,” says McLean, puffing on a stogie while taking a break from editing the third Barely Legal video. “You don’t really appreciate young girls until you get a little older. Then it’s a bit more appealing — the little panties, the skirts, the bicycles and the bicycle seats, all that kind of thing. Even though we joke about it, I make a serious effort to do it in a voyeuristic manner.”
McLean admits that there are serious precautions they must take when filming. All the performers are documented as being 18 or above and tested for HIV. But for Barely Legal, youth is the coin of the realm, and inexperience is a plus. He estimates that 95 percent of the girls he uses have not had sex in front of a camera before.
“I like them to look natural,” he says. “The obvious thing would be to put them in pony tails, bobby socks and school uniforms. I try to keep away from that, except for the segment in the limousine, called ‘Coming Home.’ That was the only school uniform I think I’ll ever use.”
McLean’s referring to the scene with “Susan” and “Todd” (their actual names are only hinted at in the credits) balling in the bushes. According to McLean, they were a boyfriend-girlfriend duo from Northern California. The girl was 18, and the guy was about 20 at the time of shooting. McLean made them stepbrother and sister in the segment’s story line.
McLean’s proud of his work, and he bristles at the suggestion that he might be taking advantage of the youthfulness and naiveti of the talent. He points out that performers are well paid — upwards of $2,000 a day. And he gets almost 20 calls a week from aspiring porn starlets who want to work with him.
“I don’t feel like I’m exploiting anyone,” says McLean. “You should be on the other end of this phone when they call. If you had any idea …”
Despite the predictable objections of conservatives, feminists and parents worried they might see their daughters doing the nasty on a rental, Barely Legal, with all of its cock-teasing, barrette-wearing, teddy bear-hugging teen love, is only the most lurid form of a society-wide obsession with young girls. For example, the December 1999 issue of Bob Guccione Jr.’s non-porn men’s mag Gear features 17-year-old actress Kirsten Dunst in a photo-spread/cover story that offers this bit of crumpet up, variously, in panties, a bikini and a tiger-print slip. Similarly the current Rolling Stone has the barely legal, 19-year-old Christina Ricci on the cover in lingerie. Inside, Ricci is featured sitting on a bed, showing off her cavernous cleavage and looking particularly girlish with a large pair of mouse ears on her head.
There are also TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “Time of Your Life,” whose girl-protagonists could easily be potential porn starlets in a Barely Legal video. You can gauge their sex appeal by how many times the actresses who portray them appear in their underwear on the cover of Maxim or in “Got Milk?” ads.
Then there’s the recent film “American Beauty,” in which Kevin Spacey’s cynical suburban dad comes oh so very close to deflowering Mena Suvari’s decadent, pom-pom-waving teen minx. And as far as the Internet is concerned: Everyone knows, anything goes. You can even get streaming video of teens having sex coming from such places as Russia or Amsterdam, if you are so inclined.
Ecclesiastes states that there’s nothing new under the sun. Along these lines, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” comes to mind, as do the paintings of Balthus and the less edifying Brooke Shields vehicles “Blue Lagoon” and “Endless Love.” Furthermore, history and religion are filled with too many tales of child brides to even mention. Even the age of consent in the United States varies according to state, running anywhere from as low as 13 (in New Mexico, with certain restrictions) to as high as 18 elsewhere.
“I don’t find anything unusual about it at all,” says Barry Dank, professor of sociology at California State University-Long Beach and editor of the academic publication Sexuality and Culture, when asked about Barely Legal. “When you look at mainstream culture, particularly at fashion models, you see the same thing — an interest in very young, beautiful women.”
Dank says he hasn’t seen the Barely Legal series, but he is familiar with the porn genre from which it emerges. For him, such porn only underscores the eternal drawing power of youth and beauty.
“There have been studies in what sorts of women are attractive to men,” he explains. “Psychologist David Buss, in his book ‘The Evolution of Desire,’ holds as universal that men are predominately attracted to young, nubile women. It’s sort of a cross-cultural norm.”
“Is it wrong for men to be attracted to younger women? That’s just the way things are. If it offends some people, then for them it’s wrong. But just because something’s offensive, should it be banned? I can’t think of a reason why.”
Of course, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, might beg to differ. In 1996, primarily due to Hatch’s sponsorship, the Child Pornography Prevention Act passed Congress as a rider to a spending bill, greatly expanding the definition of kiddie porn. Though the statute has been challenged as unconstitutional, it has not been overturned.
“The CPPA criminalizes as child pornography any image which appears to be that of a minor engaging in actual or simulated sexual activity,” explains Jeffrey Douglas, a Santa Monica, Calif., criminal attorney and nationally known free-speech activist. “It also essentially states that if someone is engaged in marketing an image as if it contained simulated or actual child pornography, even if it doesn’t, then that’s child pornography too.”
Douglas cited several prominent movies that could be considered child pornography under the CPPA, including “The Last Picture Show,” “Midnight Cowboy” and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as more recent flicks like “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Adrian Lyne’s “Lolita” and “Ripe.”
“Its unconstitutionality seems to me to be incredibly obvious,” says Douglas, who points out that the law has been under examination for some 21 months by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, with no immediate ruling in sight.
“Originally when this law was enacted, Hollywood was very paranoid. That was one of the major factors in ‘Lolita’ not being released, because they had a body double on Jeremy Irons’ leg masturbating. But a body double doesn’t help you, so they re-edited the film. Then they realized, ‘Hey, let’s be realistic. Particularly under this administration, what U.S. attorney is going to decide to prosecute a major movie for being child pornography? Who’s the lunatic?’”
However, Douglas admits this situation might change should George W. Bush become president after the 2000 elections.
Could material such as Barely Legal or any of the other hundreds of similar videos and mags on the market abet the fantasies of pedophiles and encourage their activities? Douglas says no.
“Pedophiles will get off on ‘educational’ materials as much as they’ll get off on salacious materials,” he says. “Fortunately, true pedophiles are very rare birds indeed. Early on in these First Amendment cases, the Supreme Court said that we cannot reduce the general dialogue to that which is appropriate for children. Nor can we limit what adults see based upon the specter of what it will do to the most susceptible population.”
Cal State Long Beach rofessor Dank concurs.
“It’s otherworldly thinking to believe that someone’s going to become a child predator, that their sexuality is going to be reconstructed by these films,” he says. “Is it going to convert into child predators older men who haven’t been that way? Please! I don’t think Larry Flynt is going after the very-small pedophile market.”
“We know what the major outlet of pornography is,” says Dank. “Whether the actress looks like she’s 17 or 22. The end result is the same — masturbation. Masturbation is really what it’s all about. If you did away with masturbation, pornography would be dead.”
Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.More Stephen Lemons.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)