Porn Rising

More and more filmmakers are putting pornography under the spotlight. Here is my article on the subject from The Scotsman.

Sex and pornography have been running themes at this year’s film festivals. Sundance and Berlin included biopics of Soho smut king/property tycoon Paul Raymond and Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, plus Don Jon, a comedy about a porn addict’s search for love, and Interior. Leather Bar. James Franco’s and Travis Mathews’ re-imagining of sexually explicit footage cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising. 

All this has meant that talk between journalists and filmmakers has frequently turned to matters carnal. Suddenly a sex act that it would normally be unseemly and downright inappropriate to discuss with a rising Hollywood starlet like Amanda Seyfried – who is the main reason to watch Lovelace – was a legitimate part of the discourse.

Next week sees the release of Michael Winterbottom’s entertaining The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond. Five years after the death of its subject, the film arrives amid growing concern about the mainstreaming of pornography – in which porn barons like Raymond, and filmmakers such as Deep Throat’s writer-director Gerard Damiano, played a significant part.

Whereas the 52-year-old Winterbottom says he grew up in the era of magazines such as Raymond’s Men Only and the “top shelf”, now any child capable of using a computer or smartphone better than their parents can access extreme hardcore material at the click of a few buttons.

Kids director Larry Clark told me seven years ago that he was shocked by the effects of pornification in America. While filming his contribution to the portmanteau art-porn project Destricted, Clark had interviewed young males who dreamed of copulating with a porn actress. When they disrobed for the camera, he discovered they’d all removed their body hair, just like porn stars.

“I had no idea that was going on,” he recalled. “When you’re a kid, pubic hair is the greatest thing in the world. You can’t wait to get it. And these very young kids were shaving it off. It’s like, what?” The way they had sex was equally surprising to him. “There’s no mystery. You f***, you pull out, and you come on the girl – that’s the way to have sex… If kids see that, they think that’s the way to do it.”

This point was disturbingly illustrated recently in the “On All Fours” episode of Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking TV show Girls, in which Hannah’s on-off lover, Adam, left a new partner feeling violated and degraded with moves that looked like they’d come straight out of the modern porn actor’s handbook. 

In Noah Baumbach’s wonderful new film Frances Ha, meanwhile, the eponymous New Yorker, played by co-writer Greta Gerwig (a friend of Dunham, incidentally), resignedly implies that porn now defines the way that many men her age want to have sex, with “facials” now part of what women are often expected to endure.

The role Raymond played in getting us here is not Winterbottom’s primary concern in The Look of Love. At first, the director says, it “felt like maybe it would be more the life and times of Paul Raymond, the ups and downs, the adventures, being more about the club, the magazines, the properties, but I think eventually we felt the story should be organised around his relationship to his wife, his relationship to [his lover] Fiona Richmond, and his relationship to his daughter [Debbie] … The cultural world became background, really, and the women became foreground.”

Not all the women, though. The models and dancers are wallpaper, for the most part. We learn nothing about their lives or how they feel about their work. The film doesn’t explicitly critique the way Raymond made his money, nor make any grand statements about the rights and wrongs of pornography. In a way, it doesn’t need to; the critique, or at least the basis for one, is inherent, to an extent, in the film’s vivid mis-en-scène.

When he opened the Raymond Revuebar in Soho, in 1958, Raymond offered private members a glittering contrast to the post-war gloom that coloured British life. “There was a dance show, choreography and costumes, and then people gradually took those costumes off,” says Winterbottom. “It was an evening where people would go out as couples. Film stars would arrive occasionally. So it was a glamorous kind of thing and it was the idea that he was importing sophisticated continental culture to London.” By the time the film ends in 1992, however, the club had become “just a seedy, tacky kind of place, with tourists going there”.

Despite Raymond’s contention that what he was offering in his shows and magazines wasn’t pornographic, Winterbottom has no doubt that over time that is precisely what they ended up being: “It became more explicit, more degrading, more depressing and less attractive. And we show that. So when he says, ‘Is it degrading to women? No,’ we then try to put in the most degrading things we could.” 

While Raymond was mainstreaming sex and porn in Britain, across the Atlantic hardcore pornography’s big breakthrough came in 1972 with the release of Deep Throat. Before it, filmed porn was most commonly consumed as short, often silent, stag films shot in 16mm. Deep Throat, on the other hand, used 35mm, it had a script, some artsy editing, and a lot of humour.

Harry Reems, who died last month, was cast in the role of a doctor who discovers that the reason Linda Lovelace (real name Linda Boreman), is having trouble climaxing is because her clitoris is, bizarrely, at the back of her throat. Reems told me that he often played doctors because, under American law, sexually explicit material was only permitted if it had socially redeeming value.

“So I would say, ‘If you’re having trouble with oral sex, here’s how you do it,’ and it would cut to a 30-minute oral sex scene. I was the socially redeeming value. Deep Throat then came along and became a complete spoof on those movies. It was the first film not to have the pretence of socially redeeming value. It went strictly for comedic entertainment and that’s why it became the icon that it’s become.”

There was another reason, of course: Linda Lovelace. She was young, fresh and seemingly insatiable. Deep Throat turned her into an international star. But as Howl directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman acknowledge in their biopic Lovelace, everything wasn’t as it seemed. At least not according to Linda, who in her 1980 autobiography Ordeal claimed that she had been forced into pornography by her manager-husband, Chuck Traynor. More a film about an abusive relationship than an exploration of the skin trade, Lovelace shows the two conflicting versions of her story, and thereby, the filmmakers believe, the contradictions of the sexual revolution.

“We were very interested in that historical moment where porn is just becoming mainstream, where sexual mores were really changing, and people are becoming more honest in the depictions of what was going on,” says Epstein. “And then there was also a dark side to that force – women who felt they weren’t fully in control of their own situation within that. So there was the dark and the light, and we tried to characterise that particular moment.”

Deep Throat was embraced by celebrities and the chattering classes. People who had never dreamed of going to see a blue film before turned up in their droves, making it a box office and cultural sensation. Writer and director Gerard Damiano foresaw a convergence of sexually explicit content and mainstream Hollywood, and for a brief moment it looked like it might happen. However, the political reaction against Deep Throat was so strong that pornographers eventually had to look for new ways to get around the obscenity laws.

Video proved to be the answer. But whereas Deep Throat had turned watching porn into a communal experience, it now became, according to one commentator, “the occasion for solitary masturbation”. Pornographers knew they had a huge and hungry audience waiting for new material, and video allowed them to get it out quickly and cheaply.

Now that we are in the age of digital, the internet is making porn more available than ever before. A popular and profitable kind is gonzo porn – short, amateur-looking clips filled with close-ups that have the effect of dehumanising men and women by reducing them to their body parts. The violence in Lovelace’s off-screen narrative has now made its way on-screen, arguably, and there are countless accounts from consumers, teachers and psychologists, about the impact that porn is having on the way young people relate to themselves and to each other sexually.

In his writing-directing debut, Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young man who cannot relate to women in the real world because of his obsession with internet porn. His character’s inability to find true satisfaction with a flesh and blood female, and admission that he can only lose himself online, are typical symptoms of porn addiction.

However, Gordon-Levitt recently dropped the word “addiction” from the film’s title (it was originally called “Don Jon’s Addiction”), saying that his real subject was the effects of living in a society saturated with media. A large chunk of the film’s budget came from using cleverly edited clips (meaning you see less than you think you do) from actual porn films as product placement. But, insists Levitt, the film is not about porn.

“If there is a message, it is about media and how media impacts our perspectives,” he said in Berlin. “But, in general, it’s also about things that have been true throughout humanity, whether two people can see eye to eye and connect and engage, or put each other in boxes and relate at a distance.”

The fear expressed by many is that the mainstreaming of porn – and its influence through music, advertising, and other forms of media – could well be making this more difficult.
This is not to say that explicit sex doesn’t have a place in cinema. After all, says Winterbottom, whose drama 9 Songs showed how unsimulated sex doesn’t have to be pornographic, like love it is an important part of a relationship.

“What is weird, in a way, is that cinema doesn’t deal with that very often. In fact very few films deal with at all. If you think about how important it is to everyone, the question is why aren’t there more films that deal with that?”

 © Stephen Applebaum, 2013

Scary Movie 5: So unfunny, it's frightening

My one-star review of Scary Movie 5 from The National

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The Scary Movie franchise has risen from the grave after a seven-year interment and it is as mouldy, mindless and rank-smelling as a zombie. Those shuffling revenants want to eat your brains and so, too, it feels like, does Scary Movie 5. But only after inveigling some hard-earned cash from your pocket, of course.

Although it doesn’t depart very far from the formula established by its predecessors, some things have changed. Most notably, the series regular Anna Faris decided not to return this time, which could be one of the smartest career decisions she ever makes. In her place is the High School Musical alumna Ashley Tisdale, who gamely does what she can as a wife reluctantly saddled with three children, who are rescued from the wild after being kidnapped, and bedevilled by the ghost that haunts them, in a tedious, extended riff on the recent Jessica Chastain horror flick, Mama.

Sadly for Tisdale and fans of the franchise, Scary Movie 5 is a vivid illustration of the law of diminishing returns. The jokes are flat, the star cameos perfunctory and unimaginative and the plotting barely functional. Nods to Inception, Black Swan and Rise of the Planet of the Apes are behind the curve. On the other hand, a mildly amusing send-up of the gory excesses of the recent remake of The Evil Dead couldn’t be more current.

The film’s humour rarely rises above the juvenile. But it isn’t just the witlessness that makes Scary Movie 5 so hard to laugh along with, but the feeling that you, the audience, are being laughed at.

A pre-title sequence featuring Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan spoofing their tabloid images while they make a sex tape, could have had some comic mileage; but their speeded-up Benny Hill-style bedroom antics and self-skewering jokes about car crashes (appropriate in the context of this train-wreck of a movie), sobriety monitors and tracking ankle bracelets just come across as an ugly combination of silliness and smugness.

And it is all downhill from there. Or rather uphill – as in struggle – because even though it comes in under 90 minutes, the film is still a test of endurance.

Even so, don’t be surprised if this isn’t the last we have seen of the franchise. But you have been warned: Scary Movie 5 isn’t so much entertainment as a mugging. Avoid


Vintage Jack Black Interview

With Jack Black's new film, Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater, about to open, Culture Web looks back at Stephen Applebaum's encounter with the great man during his UK press duties for his first Linklater collaboration, School of Rock (2003). On the day, Black was in candid form, willing to discuss everything from films and music, to drugs, relationships, and his parents' divorce. We salute you, sir!

 The critical success of Shool of Rock must feel good after Shallow Hal. That was your first lead role and the film wasn't terribly well received.

“Well, you know, it wasn’t as funny as I hoped it would be. But it was still a good experience.”

Do you mean playing the romantic lead?

“Yeah, it was something I had never done. It was something I joked about doing. It was a joke with my agent. I said, ‘Yeah, tell all the studios I’m ready for my romantic lead opposite Gwyneth Paltrow,’ and we were laughing about it. Then the offer came in and I said, ‘What?’ But it was good to try to carry it. I had always been the comic relief or the small supporting character role, so that was cool. It was cool just to look at the Call Sheet and my name’s up at the top. The top banana. The responsibility, it felt like an accomplishment when I finished it. It did alright. Financially, it made all its money back and stuff, and then some. But it wasn’t really me. The character wasn’t right for me. But that’s alright.”

Did you worry that if School of Rock didn’t work, it could reflect badly on Tenacious D?

“Yeah, sure. That’s what made the movie more frightening than other movies, in that I felt a responsibility to the rock; that the rock had to be good and legit. I know a lot of musicians and if it wasn’t a good representation of the rock, then I would be held accountable. Then, obviously, it could damage the ‘D’. But we’ve had a really good ride. The ‘D’ has already exceeded our expectations. We were just fucking around, writing funny songs, performing and having a really good time. We always thought, you know, making the album was the pinnacle for Tenacious D. But now we’re going to make a fucking movie! So was I worried that it would destroy the ‘D’? Yeah, that was a consideration. I thought about that a little bit. But, ultimately, it came down to a good friend of mine [Mike White] had written a very funny script, and it had to do with rock. But you know what? It isn’t just the ‘D’ that is rock; I like rock. It’s similar because, you know, they’re both based on me. So there’s room for both.”

One of the things I like about the film is the fact that after people blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine, or, say, blaming Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Suicide Solution’ for inspiring teenage suicides, the film showed rock having a positive impact on these kids. Was that an attractive message for you?

“I didn’t even think about that. I think it’s just cool showing a teacher who is a little bit insane. But it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching, if you love what you’re teaching you’re going to be a good teacher. The passion and the intensity were things I thought would be fun to play.”

That intensity and passion also comes across in the montage of rockers expressing themselves in their own way. Like them, you have succeeded by being yourself. Has that been difficult? Have people ever tried to mould you into something else?

“I wouldn’t have any career if I was trying to do what I thought was the hip thing. Because even if I was, you know, in tip-top physical condition, with all the latest hair products and shit, I still wouldn’t look as handsome, or fucking whatever, as the studs they got marching around in Hollywood. So I don’t even think about that. I’m just trying to do my own thing.”

What do you think of that kind of actor?

“I think it’s mostly squinters. It’s the acting school of squinting. And the reason you squint is because you’re thinking about something deep and heavy. You’ve got a very complex inner soul and life, but you’re also a really macho and powerful man. You’re willing to kill, and make the proper sacrifice. It’s just a bunch of fucking macho bullshit.”

What were your school days like?

“I was not a good student when it came to anything besides the arts. I excelled when it came to singing and acting and drawing and painting, but math and Spanish and English, and all the rest, I didn’t have the discipline. I would fall asleep. I couldn’t stay awake.”

I read that you were like that at U.C.L.A. So you were also like that at school?

“Yeah, I had trouble. Obviously I buckled down and forced it to work. To get into U.C.L.A. I had to make a maximum effort. But it never felt right. It felt like hell. People would say, ‘Enjoy these years, man. Because these are the best years of your life. Trust me, I know. Because I’m out here in the real world where it’s hell.’ And you know what? If that was true, I would have killed myself. It couldn’t have been worse. I hated school.”

What was so bad about it for you? Was it the lessons, the environment, other kids?

“I guess it was just sort of being forced to study things that I had no interest in and just wasn’t good at. I kept falling behind, and I had to work like three times as hard to keep up. All I wanted to do was play, and I just felt like it was getting in the way of my play. That was where my passion was. And, ultimately, that is what acting is. You find a way. That’s a way to play for a living.”

So are you still a kid at heart?

“Yeah, I found my way to stay a kid. Acting, it’s the best job in the world. I’m so spoiled.”

At what age did you stop growing up?

“Um, 19. You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain. Do you know that song? It’s Neil Young. You can’t be 20 . . . [Sings in an almost falsetto tone].”

Your first acting job was an Atari commercial. How old were you?

“Like, 13.”

You did one for Smurfberry Crunch cereal and then gave up acting. Why?

“Yeah, it destroyed my career. With Smurfberry Crunch I lost all my indie cred with the kids on the playground. It just wasn’t fun. I was going to all those auditions and I couldn’t take the rejection. It was bumming me out. And going on all those auditions was getting in the way of my play. So, yeah, I quit that and just focused on the school plays. It wasn’t until after I got out of college that I started going on auditions again.”

So after U.C.L.A.?


Where did your passion for the arts come from? Your parents were satellite engineers, weren’t they?

“Yeah, they both worked for TRW. There’s no entertainment people in my family. But it came from a Passover dinner. I’m a Jew, my mother’s name was Cohen, my father’s name’s Black, and we went to at a friend’s house, and after the dinner she said, ‘Let’s play the Freeze game’. I was like 11 or something and I said, ‘What’s that?’ It’s an improvisational game where two people will be doing a scene, like, ‘Man, it sure is weird being on this log,’ and then anyone in the audience can say ‘freeze,’ and then you go up and tap one of the people on the shoulder, you take their body position that they were in, and then you go ‘Woof! Woof! I’m a dog,’ or whatever. I was immediately addicted because I loved the attention, and the play. It was fun to play.”

You had five half-brothers and sisters, didn’t you?

“No, I had three and then I had four. Now I have three again. One of them died.”

So was that why you wanted the attention, because of your siblings?

“No, no. My parents already gave me attention but it wasn’t enough. I don’t know why, I just wanted extra love. I wanted to be loved, luvvie-loved.”

Did they encourage your artistic interests?

“Yes, they always came to my plays. They were very supportive.”

When did you discover that you had the ability to make people laugh?

“Well, I thought I was good at it from the beginning. From the Freeze game. It was one of those things where from a kid I thought I was the best and the fastest and the strongest at everything. I thought I might have been the fastest runner in the world until I went to my first track meet and came in dead last. I thought I might be, you know, all of those things. But one by one my illusions were shattered. But the arts, I kept the dream alive that I could be really good at it.”

How do you categorise yourself? Actor? Comedian? Musician?

“Just entertainer in the old-fashioned sense of the word. In the old days, you know, if you were in showbusiness, you didn’t just know how to act; you knew how to dance and sing, and do pratfalls, and play instruments. That was the only way you could survive, because it’s too competitive to hang your hat on just acting. So I cast a wide net. Plus I had interest in all those things. I had fun doing them. And If I had fun I was going to pursue it.”

Does comedy or dramatic acting come more naturally to you?

“Comedy. I like some drama, too. But not straight-up Plough in the Stars-type angst ridden drama. My drama has to have some comedy in there. There has to be something funny. But I also like drawing and painting. It‘s just that I get bored. Even with the thing I love, acting, if it was just acting I would start to hate it. So it‘s good to change gears, switch over to do some music, do some album artwork, do some other stuff.”

Chris Farley was a big hero of yours. What did he mean to you?

“He just made me laugh and he seemed like a force of nature with his attack at those comedy scenes. I remember my favourite actor in college was John Malkovich, because I saw a production on videotape of True West, this Sam Shepard play, and he was so kick-ass funny and great in it, and funny and scary, and intense and real, and I wanted to be like him. Then I saw him on Saturday Night Live, many years later, and he was doing his character from Of Mice and Men. He was touching the rabbits and being semi brain damaged, and Chris Farley was in the scene with him, too, and he was doing the same character that he was with the rabbit, so there was two Lennys. Then it was revealed that Disney had decided that he was such a popular character in Of Mice and Men, that they’d decided to make two of them, because that would be more popular. Market research showed it would be a bigger hit if there’s two Lennys. I remember how fucking funny Chris Farley was next to him, and I thought, 'Okay, Chris Farley’s not really a straight-up actor, he’s more of a comedian than an actor, but seeing him next to John Malkovich and just going toe-to-toe, you wanted to watch him more than Malkovich in the scene.' I thought there was a real fucking talent to that. It’s a subtle difference when you’re focusing just on what’s going to make people laugh. It’s not the same as acting where the main thing is being real and believable, and I respected it and I wanted to do it. I wanted to have that, too.”

When I interviewed Rob Schneider, he said that Farley hated himself when he looked in the mirror each each morning, yet he was one of the funniest men you could meet. A lot of comedians seem to be troubled. Do you think a lot of humour comes out of a troubled life?

“I don’t know. But yeah, if you’re in comedy, or you’re in acting, really there’s got to be a black hole in there that needs to be filled, because you want the love and you’re doing it to get it, for the most part. I think most actors are. Why, I don’t know.”

Do you recognise that in yourself?

“Sure. Yeah, mine might have started when my parents divorced. They divorced when I was 10. I think everybody’s parents get divorced nowadays, so it’s nothing unusual. But there’s something about the divorce where even if both the parents still love you, the fact that they hate each other and can’t live with each other, makes you feel there’s something wrong with you. That’s two sides of you that don’t like each other, so you don’t like yourself in a weird way because of that, I think. I was thinking about it recently, and that might have something to do with it. Yeah.”

What happened to you when you were a teenager, because suddenly went off the rails and, I believe, dabbled with cocaine?

“Yeah, I was doing some cocaine. I was hanging out with some weird people, I was kind of looking for a father figure. Even though my dad was always around, I just didn’t want him as my dad anymore. I wanted somebody else to be my dad. I don’t know why. I wanted to be tough. I wanted to be cool and tough, and on the streets with fucking gang kids. Yeah, I got in some trouble. I stole money from my mom to get cocaine, got caught, and had fucking horrible feelings of guilt. My parents pulled me out of the school I was in and put me in this little school for, like, troubled youth. It’s like a reform school situation, where there’s, like, a bodybuilding therapist on campus. It’s only like 20 kids in the school and this real strong therapist. So if you were going to try fight him, he could wrestle you down, force you to have therapy and stuff. But I remember I was there and I had some therapy with him. I wanted to. You didn’t have to have therapy but I saw him talking to kids in there and I was, like, ‘I want to talk in there.’ I didn’t even know what I was going to talk about but I was like, ‘Yeah, I want therapy.’ I went in there and talked to him, and like within two minutes I had told him about stealing from my  mom, and I just started crying. I had this huge dam breaking release of emotion, and it felt really good. It was like confession. Because, you know, I never had that. It felt good to release the grease.”

How long were you there for?

“I was there for two years, for ninth and tenth grade. I then went to another school, a private school for arts and sciences called Crossroads. It was kind of a prep school. I kind of buckled down and tried to force some productivity for school.”

Did you see the divorce coming?

“Yeah, they were fucking fighting all the time. Really horrible, screaming, physical fights. It was scary and weird so it was good they divorced. But it’s never pretty, it’s never good. It’s always fucked up.”

Did it affect your attitude to marriage?

“Yes, it definitely tweaked my sense of permanent companionship. I just don’t want to do it [he has since married] unless I’m positive that it’s forever. Otherwise there might be a divorce, and I don’t want to deal with that fucking shit.”

What kind of impact would you say that School of Rock has had on your celebrity? Has there been a noticeable change?

“Yeah, it’s had an effect. It’s just nice when people say, ‘Hey, you’re the rock guy,’ as opposed to, ‘Hey, Shallow Hal.’ A lot of people say, ‘Hey, Hallow Shall,’ I don’t know why. A lot of people mix that up.”

Is it all positive, the impact?

“No, the drag is you lose some privacy and you can’t really go to the supermarket without stopping. It should just take 10 minutes but it takes an hour because people want to talk to you about Gwyneth Paltrow, or talk about ‘Oh my God, you know what would be so great? If you could give an autograph to blah blah blah.’ You end up trying to be invisible, and you keep stopping, and you start getting angry.”

So next up is the Tenacious D movie.


Have you cast it?

“No, we wrote the first draft and now we’re working on the second draft and the songs.”

Is  that one of the positive effects of having a hit, that you can now do this project?

“That’s the good thing, man. You do one, it makes money, then you can do one that doesn’t.”

Copyright © Stephen Applebaum, 2003, 2013

Bernie opens April 26