Why does porn have to be so dumb?

Porn and mainstream media abandon plot for "gonzo" reality.

Published February 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"Keepin' it real" isn't just for killer rap stars anymore; it's the new guiding principle of American art and entertainment. Memoirs and celebrity biographies are shoving fiction into academic Siberia, out next to poetry and visual art. Television overflows with quickie biographies, arcane awards shows and helicopters endlessly circling watery plane crash sites.

The Fox network in particular has become snuff TV, an uninterpreted newsreel of citizens getting mauled by animals, busted by "Cops," crashing their cars, and most recently, marrying a multimillionaire.

Art isn't imitating life now so much as entertainment is imitating pornography. Porn was already ahead of the reality curve: It knew the narrative wasn't the point, and it understood long before the Internet made it clear how much sexual voyeurism drives our infotainment consumption.

Movie stars and crossover celebrities like Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. are or were famous because of their sexual desirability. So the endless details in non-porn magazines and chat shows about their homes, clothes, workout regimens and political views are pure sublimation. Hmmm, would people rather read about Pamela and Tommy Lee's new boat in People magazine or watch them have sex on it?

Although porn led the retreat from narrative, the real world brought porn the rest of the way home. Until recently, most XXX movies still hung the loops of pounding and squirting on a flimsy story. But the explosion of "reality TV," the availability of small, versatile cameras, and the success of home movies like Pamela and Tommy Lee's spawned hours of meaningless hardcore imagery. "Gonzo" filmmaking is now the hottest trend in porn, according to Adult Video News (AVN), the Variety of the porn industry.

AVN defines gonzo films as "Porno Viriti, in which the actors acknowledge the presence of the camera." Auteurs like Buttman, Seymore Butts, and Ed Powers of the "Dirty Debutantes" series just point a camera at pros, amateurs or both, creating an odd hybrid of "Star Search," and a "Wild Kingdom," episode on human rutting.

Powers puts porn "virgins," girls who've never been filmed, in a chair and asks them, "How old were you when you first had sex?" After they reply "16" or "14," he follows up with, "Don't you think that was awfully young? How many men have you been with since?" Then he puts a camera on a tripod and humps them in his black socks and wire-rimmed glasses.

Powers lecturing, then despoiling the young beauties makes "Dirty Debutantes" a repulsive sort of morality tale. Buttman, on the other hand, is absolutely narrative-free.

In my back-of-the-video-store spree for this column, I selected "Buttman and Rocco's Brazilian Butt Fest," for the scenery potential. Alarmingly, distended anuses outnumbered palm trees. The titular obsession borders on the proctological. "Spread your cheeks wider," and "Oh my God, what an ass," are pretty much all Buttman says while the porn stars fuck and suck in his hotel room in Rio.

When people refer to something sexual as "just not that interesting," I generally suspect they're distancing themselves from their discomfort. I hadn't seen much porn before, though, and I couldn't believe watching people have sex could actually be boring until I hit what felt like hour 17 of Buttman. Before I gave up and started reading a newspaper, I drifted in and out of horniness, lulled by the testicles slapping ceaselessly against the bottoms and the seagull cries of girls perpetually on the edge of orgasm.

Buttman's movie lacks even the narrative of real sex. With eight or 10 people pounding away all the time, the camera catches so many ejaculations that they can't be considered climaxes in the story sense. As with the "Dirty Debutantes," the young, beautiful and willing girls in Brazil were opaque as characters. I kept looking, naively perhaps, for a motivation besides money. But without roles written for them, the girls answer questions monosyllabically, preferring to silently show off their athleticism and penetrability.

Buttman's co-director and star in this tropical epic was Rocco Siffredi, who I'd actually seen before, in a real movie. He's the Italian porn star who director Catherine Breillat cast in last year's "Romance," -- the one who had the controversial actual sex with actress Catherine Ducey. Siffredi's no Olivier, but his scene in "Romance" was astonishing -- funny, depressing and true to both characters. It also turned me on so much I stopped breathing, and I heard the same hush throughout the theater.

Siffredi naked in action is arousing, period. And my down-there response to him in the witless Buttman and the brilliant "Romance" wasn't all that different. During the latter film, my brain didn't shut down just because my body opened up, and my lust wasn't banished just because art was in the house. I was turned on in that movie way by both the actors and their characters having sex. The audience's desire was just one of many reactions, artistic effects or tools Breillat used to explore her characters and the subject of sex.

Why aren't there more layered, involving, intelligent and hot films like "Romance?" Does the lack of context in porn sex spring from the same mistrust of art that steers viewers to "Cops" and "America's Funniest Home Videos"? Or do art's contradictions and challenges interfere too much with jerking off?

Perhaps it's character development that's distracting: Do men need the female to be a blank screen to project onto? Though this theory has its proponents, I'm not convinced that every porn masturbator wants depersonalization. Porn fans develop crushes on XXX actresses, Playboy includes bios of the Playmates, and men flock to watch and cyberchat with women in the Voyeur Dorm and similar Web sites. Men who should know better insist that the stripper they hired for the bachelor party "really liked me."

I suspect the dumbness of porn springs from conscious compartmentalization born out of shame more than misogyny, though obviously the two are related. Just as the lurid tapes get their own room at the video store, so does sex get shoved into life's basement. It's "just sex" and doesn't deserve anything better than crummy production values and lame narrative scenes you're going to fast-forward through anyway.

"Romance" proves the existence of sexual narratives beyond the objectification or "rape" of the actress by the director, but it also casts a very cold eye on the old in-out, as did "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Last Tango in Paris." Sex can only turn up in respectable movies, it seems, to be condemned as inferior to love and desperately sad. Sexual satisfaction or happiness has no place in a serious narrative.

This leaves a huge empty middle ground between porn's simplistic release and the torment and frustration in the art-house sex movies. "Behind the Green Door" and "Eyes Wide Shut" for example, are the same story spun in different emotional directions. If sexual pleasure weren't stuck in the porn ghetto, Stanley Kubrick could have learned something from the Mitchell Brothers about sex on a stage that ripples out into the audience. Had he hinted at the liberating possibilities -- not just the creepiness -- of a masked orgy, that much-mocked scene would have been more nuanced and powerful.

It's not surprising it took a French woman to make the best movie about sex in years. Despite our supposed obsession with the subject, we Americans don't get that sex is too rich and complex and embedded to keep it in the artistic junior high school of Buttman. We know gonzo porn is shallow and adolescent, but, hey, it's "true." So we just keep staring at the bouncing balls.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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