"Boogie Nights" bummer

How the movie got the porn business all wrong.

Published October 25, 1997 1:51PM (EDT)

Now I know how all those people feel who hate Oliver Stone. They're ready to skewer him for revising their precious idea of history in the name of art, and I've always wished they would lighten up. I never could get that sweaty over whether the Warren Commission was right or wrong -- and if Nixon was this much of an asshole or that much of an asshole, well, so what? I couldn't get passionate about Stone's docudramas because the subjects weren't close to my heart.

But now I do feel the sting, and it's worse than the burn of a porn star's crack pipe. I've gone to see "Boogie Nights," Paul Thomas Anderson's new film about the X-rated movie industry in its golden age, and it was hard for me not to stand up in my suburban theater every 10 minutes and cry: "Stop rolling! That's not how it happened!" I really should have gone right ahead and yelled, since most of the audience for this movie is so ignorant about the porn biz they would have thought I was just part of the show, another deluded shill for the sex industry.

I'm sure I could be more sanguine about Anderson's intentions, just like I am about Oliver Stone's, but unlike with Kennedy or Nixon, who have so many eager defenders, I'm afraid no one is lining up to defend or illuminate the truth about the people who make sex movies.

Someone has to say it: Paul Thomas Anderson (despite the fact that his first and middle name are exactly the same as one of the most famous porn directors in the business) has made an awful big pile of baloney. It's stylish and energetic and melodramatic, but he either doesn't know what he's talking about or he doesn't care. And while I am delighted that his movie has given me a timely opportunity to discuss the truth about pornography, I look forward to the day when his critically acclaimed feature is sent to the dustbin of revisionism.

I have been part of the "sex business" ever since I got together with some girlfriends in the early '80s and decided that women should make their own sexually inspired entertainment. Mainly, I've been a writer and critic, but I've made my own movies too, and like every pornographer, I ended up learning how to do everything, from preparing a come shot to making sandwiches for the late-night editing sessions. It's a roll-up-your-sleeves and do-it-yourself kind of profession.

Many people who've seen "Boogie Nights" have commented on how the film describes a devoted dysfunctional family who, as ridiculous and self-destructive as they get, still love each other in a way that handily shows up the families their members were born to.

I don't have any problem with that, but there's a bigger reason that porno is a "family affair" -- and it's not primarily because porn stars have all been let down by their blood relatives. The biggest influence on the porn tribe is how they've been treated by the rest of society. In the eyes of the law they're seen as the worst sort of criminals. In short, as SCUM. And all because they have a sexuality that defies the American Way, the Cotton Mather School of Puritan Sexual Relations. We Americans may thrive on guilty titillation, but we'll persecute real sex every time it shows its face in public.

From watching this movie, you would have no idea that the biggest problem the porn biz faces isn't drugs, adultery or vanity, but rather the fact that its members have consistently lived under the threat of having everything taken away from them in the name of public decency. "Boogie Nights" doesn't once show the zealots and law enforcers who have made it their business to turn sucking and fucking for the camera into the high crime of the century. Our attorney general's office has spent an awful lot of taxpayers' money ruining peoples lives in the name of this "moral" code.

In "Boogie Nights," a Big Porn Producer is shown suffering in jail because he's a pathetic opportunistic pedophile. But in the real porn business, a producer -- and his wife, and his secretary, and his shipping clerk -- are more likely to be sitting in a penitentiary because they sold a mail-order tape to an undercover cop in Tennessee. The tape probably featured nothing more criminal than an interracial buttfucking scene between enthusiastic adults. (Interracial sex -- not to mention anal sex -- is a big moral problem for these crusaders.)

The reason the porn world is such a tight-knit family is that only people on the inside understand how their biggest handicap isn't that they're committing vice, but that they've been ghettoized into a third-rate division of the entertainment business. Everyone thinks they're third-rate people, and sometimes that sinks in. The strangling stigma of that ghetto, the self-loathing, the hopes and wishes, the defensiveness -- it all reminds me of the gay community 25 years ago. Porn people are the "queers" of today, the minority we speak of in terms of violence, broken homes, absent fathers and drug addiction. In that sense, "Boogie Nights" may be an ironic step in a progressive direction, because as porn star Nina Hartley (who plays a small part in the movie) says, "At least we don't die in the end -- no one ends up with a rope around their neck or in a mental institution." That's the same thing the gay community was saying about their image in Hollywood only a few years ago -- "We may be depicted as caricatures and stereotypes, but at last these days we get to live!"

Yes, "Boogie Nights," the Larry Flynt biopic and Susan Faludi's essay on porn studs in the New Yorker last year -- all of these '90s representations of the porno world have made us feel sorry for people in the adult movie industry or have given us a laugh at their expense. And, absurdly enough, that's more empowering than utter invisibility.

It's not even the most sordid stereotypes that offend me the most. My biggest disappointment with the characters in "Boogie Nights" isn't that they're coke fiends and gun crazy -- I assume the movie-going public knows by now that you can't make a successful movie unless your primary talent is on drugs and waving a pistol in the air. No, what really made me wince was how, with as much affection as Anderson shows for his little porn stars, they sure are a bunch of dopes. They are so stupid -- it's like one big, unending Polish joke. If you have a big dick, you must be an idiot. If you like guys with big dicks, you must have the IQ of a hamster. And if you run a business motivated by big dicks and hungry clits, you must really be The King of Fools.

When Dirk Diggler (the Mark Wahlberg character modeled on porn legend John Holmes) chats on about how thousands of people have written him in gratitude for helping them with their sex lives, the audience is supposed to laugh at this giant whopper, this enormous delusion. After all, we've seen absolutely nothing in this movie that could help anyone's sex life, let alone inspire a fan club.

But in reality, porn movies have indeed affected American sex lives. They've offered the simple (but liberating) experience of watching relatively normal-looking people have sex without burning in hell afterwards, and they've opened up viewers' imaginations and feelings about what does and doesn't arouse them, what their prejudices and fears are. It's been part education, part experiment and, of course, a turn-on -- the one thing in America that no public leader can seem to defend. Porn stars like Holmes, Hartley, Veronica Hart (who plays a judge in this film) and Ron Jeremy (a "Boogie Nights" technical advisor) have heard more individuals say, "Thank you -- you've touched my life," than you could count.

This despite the fact that, as everybody knows, X-rated movies have been plagued by sexist formulas and grab-bag production values. Yes -- inexplicably and perhaps even as a direct result of being trashed by every fundamentalist snot and high-brow critic around -- from a social point of view, porn is still the most experimental, diverse and outrageous expression in mainstream entertainment today.

I've learned a lot more from Hartley's pornographic career than I'll ever get out of TV princesses like Jenny McCarthy or Ally McBeal. Wahlberg may be quite empathetic in this movie, but I'm telling you, if you truly want to see what you can learn from a man with an enormous penis and a genuine gift for making love, you should run right down to the adult video store and demand to see the best movie the real John Holmes ever made. It's called "Eruption" (1978, directed by Bob Chinn).

For that matter, you can even rent funny satires about porn that pornographers have made themselves, complete with the sex scenes that show what all the fuss is about in the first place. Check out a video like Joyce Snyder's "Raw Talent 3" (1988), or "Great Sexpectations" (1984) directed by Ron Sullivan (aka Henri Pachard). Snyder has got the humor of an X-rated Delta Burke with an analysis that's part Mel Brooks, part Sigmund Freud. Sullivan (who in many ways is imitated by Burt Reynolds in "Boogie Nights") knew how to get a laugh out of this business and some excellent orgasmic inspiration as well.

The porn films I'm suggesting don't have the acting chops and fab soundtrack of "Boogie Nights." Blood is not spilled, not even as a splendid metaphor. You might watch them and think, "This is kind of silly." But I'll tell you one thing -- you won't be thinking that people in the porn world don't have a single damn intelligent thing to say for themselves.

By Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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