OK, moment of honesty here: I am fascinated by porn.
I don’t actually like it, though. Most of it sucks. It’s familiar almost to the point of repetitiveness and is so distractingly unrealistic.
But I want to. And I think I’m not alone in that frustration.
I dig the fantasy in the same way that I dig the fantasy of Star Wars or an MCU film. In one I want to see rockets and superheroes. In the other I want to see two (or more) people enjoying the hell out of each other with a little bit of set-up and characterization in a room I can believe in.
Instead I get a twenty minute scene of two people fucking their way through four positions in two rooms of a house. Rooms that are surprisingly lacking in personal details for ostensibly being their dining room and her bedroom. There’s three minutes of awkwardly delivered dialogue to let us know the she’s his step-sister or he’s the plumber and then non-stop hard core banging in awkward positions clearly designed so the camera doesn’t miss anything.
Oh yeah and don’t forget the close-ups. Jesus, has nobody told these directors and producers that there’s a reason one of the slang terms for sex is “bumping uglies”?
It’s really telling that this has been a joke for decades. Not just what I’ve riffed on with countless friends. In the ’90s, Bill Hicks used to joke about how he thought two guys were responsible for ninety percent of the porn out there: “One guy films his own ass, the other guy has a wah-wah pedal and comes up with titles.” Robin Williams joked about wishing for Shakespearean trained porn actors and actresses in the ’80s.
So why is this still the dominant paradigm? Why is it so bad? Why are we still supposed to be excited by yet even more nudity again but different again. This time.
There was a brief moment, the so-called Golden Age of Porn (Wikipedia link, don’t worry), where smut was cracking the mainstream. The films were known for good production values on 35mm film with fairly talented actors and actual plots. It was so mainstream that comics like Johnny Carson joked about it in his monologues.
It couldn’t last, of course. Not in this free-wheeling culture. So this expansion was immediately followed by a period of damage control that was hindered by a non-existent talent pool and the clunky film technology of the time. You know, Boogie Nights. When it takes most of a day to pull together a ten minute scene, you go for the quickest and dirtiest buck you can. Nothing fancy, but it worked and the industry survived.
Fast forward thirty odd years and the mainstream feels familiar. The technology may allow for better close ups and faster turnaround, but the vibe hasn’t changed much since I saw my first furtively rented porn film in high school. There are exceptions, some insanely big productions here and there, but the sets don’t hide the limited subject matter or familiar scenes. Parodies became popular, but I think that’s mostly because it gives viewers some characters they could actually give a damn without having to spend screen time on the matter. I mean, you’ve wondered… haven’t you? Velma and Daphne? Riker and Troi? Well here you go!
But regardless of scale, budget and location, it all feels the same. Whether it’s the biggest studio or someone vending on Clips4Sale, you’ve seen these exact same shots. It’s as if every action film aped Die Hard and ended with the villain falling from the top of the skyscraper. But this time Bruce Willis is played by a blonde, Alan Rickman is played by James Deen (you asshole) and the building is a giant erection.
Are my standards too high?
Because I’m pretty forgiving as a member of the audience. If I can believe a billionaire playboy can engineer a super suit out of spare parts in the mountains of Afghanistan, surely I should be able to believe that $PORNSTAR is absolutely turned on by her step-brother, right?
(Ok, Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist was a bridge to far but…)
What I want is something sexy and hot as anything I’ve seen in a mainstream film but a bit more explicit. I put it to you that the opening montage in Deadpool was hotter than most porn I’ve ever seen. Anyone who thinks that William H. Macy and Maria Bello in The Cooler wasn’t hot as hell is probably dead inside. A History of Violence, Out of Sight… even 8 Mile! And as good as Eminem was in that film, he’s not a great actor. But there’s that scene in the factory, him and Brittany Murphy’s character find a quiet spot and fuck like rabbits because there’s a movie’s worth of tension to work out. We didn’t see a damn thing and yet…
I’ve got a friend who says I’m asking for the impossible. That this lowest common denominator sexuality is all people want these days: easily looped scenes of bland personalities that can be turned into animated GIFs for their Tumblrs. But is it what we really want? Or is it what we’ve been told we want because it’s all they’re willing to make?
I don’t think so. I think that porn is so marginalized that nobody has bothered to ask what the audience actually wants. At the same time, most people have written off porn entirely as being boring and/or shameful so they have no incentive to seek out the productions that they may like.
Porn needs its pasta sauce moment!
Yeah. Pasta sauce.
OK, Malcolm Gladwell gave a TED Talk about this about a decade ago and you can watch it over here. My brief summation goes something like this: back in the 80s, Prego pasta sauce was trying to get more market share from Ragu. The logic at the time was that they needed to make the “perfect” sauce. So they hired someone to analyze this and ask people questions, presumably about whether wanted things spicy or spicier, nothing revelatory. Instead, that guy concocted 45 different versions of spaghetti sauce based on a bunch of variables and went out to ask people what they wanted while also presenting options beyond what was already available in the stores. One of those versions of pasta sauce was extra chunky, something that hadn’t been offered before, but what they discovered was that a third of the market wanted this without really knowing that’s what they wanted. The companies were so focused on this platonic ideal of perfect that would make “everyone” happy” that they neglected a huge part of the market.
This is why, in my lifetime, the pasta aisle has gone from maybe three brands of pasta sauce with the same four or five flavors to, well, everything that you can find now including extra chunky, vodka sauce, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes…
So why not porn?
You can’t make everyone happy with the same goddamned images over and over again. There should be options beyond the usual “These Women Are Actually Of Legal Drinking Age But They Look Cute So They’re Almost 18, No Really, I Swear Volume 51”.
But it’s easier to play safe and blame piracy and the PornTube channels for their decline than explore other options in production.
[I’m not saying piracy isn’t an issue. It totally is. But it’s fucked up on its own terms. Fun fact: PornHub is owned by a company called MindGeek which also owns Brazzers, Digital Playground, Reality Kings, Mofos, Twistys, and parts of Playboy and Wicked Pictures. MindGeek also owns YouPorn, Tube8, XTube, and ExtremeTube. That means MindGeek has its fingers in so many pies that piracy actually helps it out while screwing the industry as a whole over. So it’s not especially invested in prevented piracy beyond a particular level.]
Is there a wider audience? I’d say so. I mean, it’s probably never going to be as large as the audience for the Star Wars films, but there are signs if you look for them. Just take a look at the HUMP! Film Festival, an independent festival that started as a one night only showing in 2005 that’s turned into a roadshow of five minute long, independent porn films put together by amateurs. It routinely sells out. There’s an audience.
There are smaller production companies that put out really fun films. Unfortunately they tend to get lost in the dross of the Tubes and require a bit more effort to discover at times, which is asking a lot from a hesitant audience that’s probably already mostly written off porn for being the bland and generic monolith it tends to be.
Then there’s the hassle of buying this stuff, but that’s a rant for another day. This is already long enough.
So if the industry is in crisis (as there seems to be a constant trickle of articles decrying this fact) why not actually change things up? Why not make something interesting or fun or human? It’s still a multi-billion dollar industry for all of the “peril”. Throw some money at an oblique, pasta sauce solution and see what happens if you make it readily available.
If the definition of insanity really is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results…