reviewed by Greta Christina
You kind of have to admire a movie that starts right out with a story about enemas. It's not exactly a topic that comes up in standard polite conversation much, and with the exception of a small fetishistic subset of porn films (and perhaps a few medical documentaries), it doesn't make much of an appearance in modern American cinema. Even the raciest, most scandalous, most supposedly cutting-edge Hollywood sexploitation films wouldn't touch the subject with a ten-foot nozzle, much less make it the introduction to the film.
But that's exactly what Shooting Porn does. Right in Act One, Scene One, without any warning or warm-up and even before the opening credits start to roll, you get the charming and articulate British gay porn actor Blue Blake casually and cheerily relating a raunchy, smutty, rather gross and extremely funny tale about the taping of an enema scene that went terribly, terribly wrong. And the audience is launched headfirst into a breezy, funny, upfront, and extremely good-natured documentary, not about enemas, but about the gay male porn industry.
The structure of the film isn't anything vastly new. (I suppose one of these days someone will come up with a way to make a documentary that isn't largely a series of talking-heads interviews, but in the meantime, we'll just have to make do.) But the movie is definitely fresh and lively and lighthearted, with a casual matter-of-factness about the industry that is -- yes, I realize it's a film-critic cliche, but sometimes a cliche is the best way to describe something and there's just no good way around it -- delightfully refreshing. The casual, businesslike way that the actors and directors and cameramen deal with penises and hard-ons and buttholes and pubic hair, the easy, comfortable, no-big-deal attitude they have about sex and bodies, the friendly camaraderie that exists among them, are a pleasure to watch. Between the interviews and the footage of the porn shoots themselves (very explicit footage, by the way, and some of which is pretty damned sexy), you get a good, clear, unabashed look at what the business looks like and how the participants feel about it. And much of the movie is drop-dead hilarious, which always gives a movie extra points in the little scorekeeping book in my head. (The story about trying to find a copy of Hustler Magazine after midnight in the Castro so the gay-for-pay guy could get a hard-on still gives me a chuckle.)
It manages to be lighthearted without being trivial, too, which is a pleasure in itself. The film includes a number of extremely interesting, thoughtful, articulate conversations, not just about the porn business, but about sexuality in general. A good example of this is the exploration of the "gay for pay" phenomenon (male porn actors who identify as straight in their personal lives but who fuck other men on camera for money). The subject leads to some seriously intelligent and perceptive conversations about identity, including questions of whether desire or behavior determines identity and whether identity is self-generated or determined by cultural standards --conversations which, not incidentally, blow the myth of the shallow, dizzy, fluff-for-brains porn actor into smithereens. Nobody in the movie comes up with any definitive answers (although many of them have strong personal opinions on the subject), but then nobody I know has come up with any answers to these questions either. I think they're basically impossible questions, and I, for one, was happy just to see them being wrestled with.
But... well, this is going to sound a bit odd coming from me, Miss Rah-Rah "I Want More Sex-Positive Images In Movies" Cheerleader, but Shooting Porn is almost too cheerful, almost too positive about the industry. It feels a bit like a whitewash; serious problematic issues within the industry are either brushed off, glossed over, given a party line, or ignored altogether. Oh, the movie makes an attempt to address drug abuse, for instance, and HIV, and the restrictive guidelines that the vague and fucked-up porn laws place on porn content; but the attempts are a bit on the shallow side. And while I'm not a girl who tosses around the phrase "conspicuous omission" very promiscuously, it does apply to this movie. The questions that didn't get addressed at all stood out for me like a sore thumb.
For instance: How does the work affect their personal sex lives? I know that during my tenure as a stripper oh so many moons ago, I started finding it difficult to relax and be spontaneous with my lovers; after spending fifteen to twenty hours a week with my sexuality in "performer/entertainer" mode, that mode became something of an automatic reflex, and wasn't always that easy to shut off. I know I'm not the only former or current sex worker who's had this problem, either; more than one current-or-former sex-worker friend has told me of similar experiences. It isn't universal, but it certainly isn't uncommon. And hell, I was just stripping, and I didn't do it for all that long; aside from one lovely afternoon spent with another dancer in the Talk To A Live Nude Girl booth, I wasn't actually fucking anyone for money, and I did it for less than a year, and it was only one of a couple-three part-time jobs. I would have been very interested to hear from full-time, long-term veterans of the trade about whether and how the work affected their sexuality and sex lives outside the set.
And for instance: How does having "porn actor" as the chief entry on your resume affect your job prospects when you leave the business? Even the most devoted souls can't be porn stars forever -- someday you're going to get older, and your popularity is going to start to drop. And not everybody in front of the camera can switch to working behind it; porn explosion or no porn explosion, there just isn't room for that many porn directors in the world. Someday you have to get another job, and society's attitude towards the business being what it is...well, I'd have been curious to hear from some former actors about how easy or difficult the transition was, as well as from some current actors about whether they worried about the future and how they planned to deal with it.
And for instance: How does the intense focus on beautiful, perfect, fashionable bodies (a focus that's just as intense in gay porn as it is in straight porn, if not even more so) affect your body image and self-image in general? What affect does it have, both on the performers and on the audience? How does it affect the way you see and feel about and live in your body; and how does it affect the way you see and value yourself when, either because of changing fashions or age, your body is no longer hot property?
All that being said, though, I do have to acknowledge that it isn't any one movie's job the be The Definitive Movie On The Subject. And this is as true of movies about porn as it is about any others. I will admit that the dearth of good filmmaking on the subject of sex work in general and pornography in particular has left me somewhat frustrated and hungry; I tend to get irritated at the narrowness and scarcity of visions about sex businesses that are available at the multiplexes and arthouses, and I tend to pounce eagerly on every movie that comes close and then get all disappointed that doesn't fill the void. But I realize that this isn't fair. It isn't fair for me to expect any one movie to be every possible movie or to make up for years of neglect and evasion and dismissal. As I've said many a time in these very pages, I'm not looking for movies that have the right attitude about sex. I'm looking for movies that have thoughtful or perceptive or, at the very least, different attitudes about sex. And Shooting Porn certainly has that in spades. It may not be The Great American Porn Documentary Of All Time, but it's smart and insightful and funny and sexy as hell, and it's a blast to watch.
Copyright 1997 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.