Joe Gallant wants desperately to be the Andy Warhol of adult cinema.
"I love the crowd he attracted. I want my crowd to be like that: free-spirited, spontaneous and able to contribute," explains Gallant, sole proprietor of a porn company called Black Mirror Productions, during a break from shooting scenes in his sweaty, sex-stenched Hell's Kitchen apartment. "Warhol moved from painting to film, and I have my reasons for going from music to hardcore New York pornography."
We've been filming in Gallant's cramped version of the Factory for the last hour, packed in tight among tons of music and video equipment, barbells, books, movies, posters and the scattered papers and files of a very busy businessman. In the far corner of the bedroom, a bank of VCRs runs constantly, dubbing copies of such Black Mirror titles as "Times Square Trash," "Extreme Filth" and "M'ass'terpiece Theater."
When Gallant hands me a hand-held digital video camera and starts whacking away at some anal sex, my first instinct is to refuse the assignment due to a lack of any practical experience. I don't even take vacation photos. But unlike mainstream porn (or mainstream movies, for that matter), at Black Mirror technical specifications take a back seat to the overall vision of the project.
"Warhol had no clue as to what he was doing. He just started doing it. He barely knew how to turn on the camera," Gallant reassures me. "But his naiveté, coupled with a keen observation of social shifts, allowed him to capture a time and an era pretty effectively."
I observe all the action through the camera's small, square viewfinder, struggling to keep the undulating subject matter in the frame and in focus. The director never checks on my progress. He's too busy exploring every available orifice of a 23-year-old blonde named Erika Kole.
"You have delicious balls," she tells him.
"Thanks, it's an old family recipe."
Black Mirror has only been making XXX films for the past two years, but it's a fascination that's been whispering in Gallant's ear far longer. In 1979, a 22-year-old Gallant answered an ad in Screw magazine seeking potential male porn actors. He filled out an application, but never heard back.
"Also, when I was 6 years old, I found a big cache of porn mags in the vagina-shaped hollow of a tree," he tells me, as if recounting a fairy tale or an origin myth. "All the other kids on their bicycles went, 'Eww, yuck,' but for me it was like the heavens parted."
It's a sensation he likens to playing his first bass guitar.
Gallant gigged with a lot of bands after dropping out of New York University in the late '70s. He was heavy into the CBGB-Talking Heads-Brian Eno art-rock scene, but bad habits held him back, like heroin overdoses in the shooting galleries of New York's Lower East Side and a tendency to sell his instruments for drug money. Then he got clean in the '80s and formed an avant-garde outfit called Illuminati -- a group that went largely unnoticed for more than a decade, until 1995's "Blues for Allah" project was initiated at the request of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.
The assignment was to reinterpret the Dead's music as big-band jazz, reworking the classic "Blues for Allah" album to mark its 20th anniversary. As with porn, Gallant's musical ambitions were predicted through an early, mystical revelation. In this case, inspiration arrived via an acid-soaked sleepless teenage night spent listening to the Dead's psychedelic masterpiece "Dark Star" over and over again until sunrise. From then on, he was hooked.
"Their music is in my cells. It's been a significant part of every life change I've had -- births, deaths, everything," he says. "They were a legitimately heavy band. Capital-H heavy."
Just days before the live premiere of the "Blues for Allah" project, Jerry Garcia died in a California drug rehab facility. He couldn't kick heroin. The concert was initially postponed, and later performed to an enthusiastic packed house at New York's Knitting Factory. Illuminati followed up that success by recording another album of Dead tunes and touring on the post-Jerry jam-band circuit for a while. But with 18 musicians in the lineup, it was hard to get ahead or, for that matter, break even.
It hasn't been any easier getting Black Mirror into the financial black. Gallant's day job as a sound designer on the soap opera "Guiding Light" (for which he won a daytime Emmy in 1996) provides a nice income, but it's not nearly enough to counter all the start-up debt. He admits that Con Edison could be turning off the lights in his porn factory at any moment.
"I started by putting up 400 hot-pink fliers in the East Village," he says. "I got three responses, and began shooting sex scenes immediately. Basically, I've paid for it all myself, maxed out everything to the tune of $68,000. It's been brutal, but this is the first month where I'm also able to see tremendous possibility."
There are a few reasons to be optimistic. First off, "Times Square Trash 2" was labeled a "spotlight pick" by Adult Video News (the trade-mag bible of the porn biz), and received a pre-nomination for AVN's Best Amateur Tape of the Year award. On July 4, Manhattan public-access cable broadcast the premiere of "Black Mirror Vol. 1 -- Arise and Tell the World," an experimental sci-fi/porn hybrid set in the year 2010, just after the official corporate buyout of the American government. In this nightmarish future, porn and free expression are outlawed, diseases and state-sponsored suicide bombers terrorize the population, oil and nuclear interests control the world, media manipulation maintains the status quo and the Earth's only hope exists in a set of secret coded instructions transmitted to the sexual underground via an unknown, extraterrestrial force.
"Why does this information come to three humble, rebel pornographers?" Gallant asks rhetorically. "We don't know yet -- but all will be revealed."
Black Mirror has just secured its first national distribution deal, shipping out 1,400 pre-sold copies of "Wild in the Streets," a new release that includes outdoor sex scenes performed during the protests at last May's World Economic Forum meetings in New York. The distribution deal represents more than just money coming into the business. It signifies shelf space in adult-video stores and a chance to turn people in Kansas on to "real New York porn."
"To me, 'New York porn' implies a certain grit, and a sense of humor about what you're doing," Gallant says. "With the old '70s stuff, you could almost see the dust on the lens. The girls didn't shave much. The guys certainly didn't shave much. It was a time of intensity and hard edge in the city, and that comes across in the films. But once you get to the '90s and the L.A. porn scene, it becomes very formulaic. Those guys were making a fortune, and they didn't want to mess with the formula.
"In my films, I want you to see that same dirt on the lens. That's why we leave the butt-spooge in. I just like it -- it's real. I like for chicks to spontaneously pee, fart, whatever. To me that makes it not sterile."
Black Mirror's videos push boundaries most people don't even recognize: Butt-painting, ass-to-mouth play and a signature move known as the Gatorade enema. But there's more involved than just going hardcore. Each film captures a real moment in time, warts and all; the girls are real, the sex is real and the editing is rough enough around the edges to put the flesh-pounding into perspective, to make it human.
As one of the few porn producers working in New York these days, Gallant also feels a responsibility to lead the vanguard of the city's sexual aesthetic. He films on rooftops, on side streets and in bathroom stalls. He's even gone "on location" to the neighborhood crack hotel. So when things get a bit too warm in the apartment/studio, the three of us head outside on a quest for some old-fashioned Times Square adventure.
It's a beautiful evening, with a light breeze that feels great on bare skin, but the notorious Times Square of William S. Burroughs and "Taxi Driver" has vanished, the hookers and "Live Nude Girls" pushed out by aggressive urban renewal, corporate development and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's prudish zoning laws.
We browse the few remaining peep palaces on Eighth Avenue, and Joe points out his videos. They're displayed next to titles like "Ho' Town Girls" and "Amateur Plumpers." At each stop we chat for a few minutes with the Middle Eastern owners, all of whom ask for more product.
"That's my butt," Erika tells one of the young clerks, pointing to her likeness on the back cover of "Times Square Trash 2." "You should watch this video."
Next we do some location scouting among the bright neon lights of Broadway -- testing the locks at two different construction sites before trying to bribe the security guard at a third. He won't let us in, especially after Erika explains exactly what kind of a movie we're making. So we move on to the infamous Show World Theater, where Joe makes us stand in the lobby while he tries to talk our way upstairs. The plan is to film in one of the old burlesque rooms.
Erika and I get to chatting while we wait. We discuss the poetry she publishes online, and her old job painting houses. She giggles nearly constantly, especially when claiming to be the freakiest girl to ever come out of Troy, Mo.
I ask, "Is there anything you won't do?"
"I have a strict policy of no more than one dick per hole. Also I won't wear panties, unless that's what the shoot specifically calls for." Erika giggles again, but I can tell she's not kidding on either count. "I really enjoy everything that there is to enjoy about the body, and to other people a lot of that is dirty. It's licking butts and licking balls and pulling hair and slapping asses."
Erika first met Joe while they were filming a "smothering" scene (i.e., a girl sitting on a guy's face) for a different company. Now she's a Black Mirror regular, and has a starring role in the ongoing sci-fi cable-access epic. I inquire how she prepared for her first dramatic performance.
"I asked Joe to send me the script a day or two beforehand, but I didn't get it till that night. So I took five or 10 minutes before each scene to memorize my lines. Also, he told me it was futuristic, so I went out and bought a little futuristic outfit with black vinyl, because I figured in the future we'd all be wearing black. That was the basic preparation."
After much searching, we end up filming our outdoor encounter on 27th Street, just past 10th Avenue, between two giant garbage dumpsters. The sickly sweet scent of real New York refuse hangs thick in the air. Erika puts one foot up on some construction scaffolding and Joe goes to work on her from behind.
This time I'm holding both the digital camera and a small floodlight. Joe and Erika are both completely naked except for his thick, bright yellow sweatsocks. I truly feel like one of the underground sexual revolutionaries in Gallant's cable-access opus.
I've seen an advanced screening of the first volume. It's an interesting experimental work populated with dark truths, soft porn and amateur acting, but not something that's going to fit in with the other Black Mirror titles or make any money. So why devote valuable time and resources to it?
"I see the bleak vision depicted on-screen as right around the corner," Gallant says. "The so-called USA PATRIOT Act shows that America will bend over and gladly get fucked up the ass at the first sense that our little scene might be disrupted. If I can help in any way to make people start questioning that, I'll do it. That's what my cable show is all about. And if I can entertain people and let them know it's all right to have real hot sex with butt gunk and piss and kissing and joy and release -- that's my mission for the porn side of it."