Showing the Business: How Hollywood Sees Porn

Left to right: Pleasure (2021), Boogie Nights (1997), X (2022). 
Left to right: Pleasure (2021), Boogie Nights (1997), X (2022). 

On the first anniversary of adult films on Letterboxd, Charles Bramesco looks at the variable results when Hollywood turns its lens on the other LA film industry. 

I’m trying to figure out how to make a movie people want to watch that’s also honest about a business with good things and bad things. It’s hard to do, and that’s why you see so many films that are somewhat successful, but still leave you with something to pick apart.

—⁠Casey Calvert, adult actress and director

The defining shot in Ninja Thyberg’s film Pleasure is also, not coincidentally, one of the most banal in a glossy bonanza of parted lips and turgid dicks. Bella Cherry—Swedish emigré and hopeful It Girl new to the Los Angeles porno scene—sits on a ratty outdoor couch with a couple friends during magic hour, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers and picking at takeout containers of Chinese food.

She’s had a long day of shooting kinbaku clips (a Japanese bondage tradition involving thin, tightly tied ropes) and wants to unwind, like so many day players scattered across the industrial, low-rent LA outskirts that are nowhere near as telegenic as the people driving through them.

It’s a beat of repose that allows a few women largely identified by their work to just exist in a non-occupational capacity. And in doing so, the shot finds a point of connection with every other sector of the entertainment business. They’re lounging on the same outdoor furniture as EDM wannabe Zac Efron in We Are Your Friends, or the rap revolutionaries of NWA in Straight Outta Compton, only with a separate set of aspirations.

Bella Cherry learns to stay afloat in the LA adult film industry in Pleasure (2021). 
Bella Cherry learns to stay afloat in the LA adult film industry in Pleasure (2021). 

Pleasure mounts its critiques about the tribulations of work in general by honing its focus to the specific things all freelancers share: some colleagues they like, some they don’t, clients they detest, a spirit of gig-economy competition that sometimes gets the better of them. Thyberg’s debut feature has made a splash in part for the unsoftened candor with which she shows bodies and the things they do, but also in part for her attempt to bring a closer perspective to a subject that mainstream cinema has so often looked in on from a distance.

Whether invoked with alarm, fear, distrust, confusion or scorn, depictions of the porn industry by its fraternal twin Hollywood have been dominated by small-minded thinking. Others mean well and go awry into condescension, laying pity on professionals who don’t need it. The exceptions, more commonplace with each passing year, mix respect with sobriety—a job’s a job, no more and no less.

“One of my go-to soundbites is about how if you work at a bank, sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you have a really bad day,” porn actor and director Casey Calvert, who features briefly in Pleasure, tells Letterboxd. “It’s no different in porn, it’s all good days and bad days. It doesn’t mean that every bad day is a terrible thing for us. It can just be a mediocre day on the job.”

It’s just a job: Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) directs Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights (1997). 
It’s just a job: Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) directs Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights (1997). 

Part of the difficulty in assessing a canon of non-pornographic films about porn lies in the mercurial nature of an industry landscape that “goes through a major overhaul just about every three to five years,” according to Calvert. Golden Age period pieces—the likes of Boogie Nights, The Nice Guys, X—dissect an entirely different creature than comparable films set in the here and now, the miniature studio system of the ’70s having been bulldozed and replaced by the siloed sprawl of the Internet.

“I think people are more comfortable dealing with porn when it’s not part of the here and now,” says Thyberg in a previous interview with Letterboxd. “You don’t have to deal with your own porn use, or your place in the business. I haven’t found much inspiration in other films about pornography, anything I’d want to be similar to. They mostly showed me what I don’t want to do.”

Mikey takes Strawberry for a ride (or is it the other way around?) in Red Rocket (2021).
Mikey takes Strawberry for a ride (or is it the other way around?) in Red Rocket (2021).

Sean Baker set Red Rocket, his recent portrait of a porn burnout turned suitcase pimp, in 2016 due to the rapid rise of OnlyFans terraforming sex work faster than his Covid-era shooting schedule could adapt to. Diamond-in-the-rough ingénue Strawberry (Suzanna Son)—a character who might as well be a prequel to Bella Cherry, Calvert notes—was raised in a fleeting era of online porn, in time for r/gonewild, yet too soon for the present.

The Red Rocket example also poses the question of what qualifies for which particular conversation; films about porn can’t necessarily be conflated with portraits of camming (as in the keenly observed Cam), or non-live ‘content creation’ for subscriber sites (screenwriters have yet to catch up), or person-to-person sex work (where to start on sex workers and their image in cinema?). “We’re operating with a vernacular that can sometimes seem inside-baseball,” Calvert says. “But these are different jobs.” 

Nicolas Maury as film director and sometime-star Archibald Langevin in Knife+Heart (2018).
Nicolas Maury as film director and sometime-star Archibald Langevin in Knife+Heart (2018).

Within the narrowed purview of non-porno films about adult filmmaking, there are chasms of variance in tone and perspective that make it impossible to condone or condemn wholesale. The more thorough lists assembled by Letterboxd members—Girlsgutsgiallo’s “Movies About Porn” and Mike Sean’s “X Marks the Plot: Movies About the World of Porn” seem to be the closest to comprehensive—run a gamut spanning the sophomoric sniggering of Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star to the pitch-black sleaze of Inserts to the lurid queer shenanigans of Knife + Heart.

When these films are surveyed as a whole, trends take shape in two opposed directions—the emphasis either on the industry’s uglier shortcomings, or on the workaday normalcy meant to act as a counterpoint to the pointed fingers. This corpus is at odds with itself, perpetually improving upon its past mistakes while continuing to make them—and innovating new ones.

Adult performer Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) in X (2022).
Adult performer Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) in X (2022).

Common to the good and the bad in the “movies about porn” canon is an outsider mentality stacked in tiers, as everyone hustles to advance to the next career level without an office environment’s clear path to promotion. Shoestring operations that are run out of an amateur’s garage, like the homegrown humping of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, play-act a no-budget parody of the real thing. Ti West’s recent X is situated up a rung, featuring a guerrilla crew of semi-professionals shooting without permissions wherever they can get away with it, a ragtag outfit harboring dreams of recognition from the big time.

Even those at the top of the heap want for more; the studs and babes of Boogie Nights land awards gold, and yet everyone has their sights set elsewhere, whether on business ownership, above-board movie stardom in wide-release pictures, or sleight-of-hand magic. This insatiable work ethic is a fact of life when freelancing. You can’t afford not to be forever eyeing your next way in, booking and payday.

The social stigma still attached to porn work colors this outsider positioning in nearly all films comprising this canon, self-consciously and not. A century of Angeleno crime thrillers have cemented a notion of porn as the scum-caked catcher for unfortunate souls heading down the drain of showbiz, a last resort for those unable to hack it in Tinseltown.

Setting the camera up for a spanking in Of Freaks and Men (1998). 
Setting the camera up for a spanking in Of Freaks and Men (1998). 

The 1998 Russian film Of Freaks and Men uses a turn-of-the-century pornographer as a thematic avatar for corruption and evil, destroying the virtue of ordinary folk with his twisted smut. The less said about A Serbian Film, the better. To stray from the feature format, the Law and Order: SVU episode in which a pre-fame Elizabeth Banks plays a porn star who must bang 300 guys in ten hours or else her son will starve is almost too ridiculous to be offensive. Almost! (To television’s credit, The Deuce remains one of the most studied, empathetic and jaded recreations of porn’s ’70s salad days.)

“Porn tends to be an easy scapegoat that people can shove their shame and fear of their bodies’ pleasure onto,” says Madison Young, porn veteran and founder of Empress in Lavender, a production company boosting queer, transgender and sex-worker voices.

Revisions to this line have been incremental, the narrative having ever-so-slightly traded up to loving the sinner and hating the sin in, for one, 2013’s Lovelace. However tragic or triumphant, the biopic of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace (who’d go on to a second act in anti-porn activism) frames her in terms of her exploitation at the hands of her lover, pimp and rapist, Chuck Traynor. His abuse is made to be synonymous with the immorality of the industry he elbowed his way into, a smudging of concepts objected to by Lovelace’s biographer Eric Danville.

Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) with ex-husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) in Lovelace (2013). 
Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) with ex-husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) in Lovelace (2013). 

Gay-porn legend Brian Corrigan, subject of the similarly true-crime-leaning King Cobra, also spoke out against what he claimed was director Justin Kelly’s distortion of his story and image—though the film’s happy ending does leave the on-screen Corrigan thriving in porn, taking the director’s chair, bestowed with the agency he never had. (It’s the same ending as 2012’s About Cherry, which, like the former film, also features a supporting turn from James Franco.) Bob Fosse’s Star 80, yet another behind-the-murder picture, was permitted to use the actual name of slain starlet Dorothy Stratten, but changed others to wriggle out of litigation.

The issue of sensationalization isn’t far from any film in this vein; “movies are attracted to what’s glamorous, what’s intriguing, what’s sexy,” says Calvert. Sex sells, as the adage goes, and many have proven unable to resist the temptation to make a huckster’s pitch. The ripped-from-the-headlines Mope (a term referring to an on-set beta male tasked with all the worst duties) blatantly states its own desire to do right by the sad account of homicide it retells, but ultimately loses its way while conveying the extreme interior state that drove a porn also-ran to kill.

Visually representing rough sex without tacitly misrepresenting the aggression trips up Pleasure, as Thyberg’s menacing, first-person cinematography chances eroding the division between consensual and coercive physicality. “You show as much consent as you can show, you show as much enjoyment as you can show,” Calvert suggests, “and you still show a woman tied up, getting slapped in the face, anything relatively rough, and audiences will automatically go, ‘oh no, a bad thing is happening.’ It comes with so many assumptions.”

“Oh my god, that’s my daughter” was the poster tagline for Hardcore (1979), starring Season Huxley and George C. Scott. 
“Oh my god, that’s my daughter” was the poster tagline for Hardcore (1979), starring Season Huxley and George C. Scott. 

With Hardcore, an astute pathologizing of reactionary thought that nevertheless avoids engaging in it, Paul Schrader managed to get out in front of these assumptions. George C. Scott plays Jake VanDorn, a devout Calvinist who is horrified to find that his daughter has fled home and wound up in stag flicks, moving him to don a fake ’stache and infiltrate a demimonde that disgusts him. Schrader presents a conservative point-of-view, while showing there’s not all that much to pearl-clutch over besides people trying to make a little money with their god-given gifts.

The anticlimax that sneaks in once Jake tracks his little girl down and discovers that she’s made this pivot of her own volition underscores just how oblivious he’s been all along. The oldest trope in the book, that of the wayward girl with no other options, deflates like a punctured balloon. The only disapproval Schrader follows through on pertains to race, by way of a Black actor rightly denouncing discriminatory hiring practices during an audition he doesn’t realize is a sham. It’s the one blemish on the industry seemingly everyone can agree on.

The quotidian filmmaking details included within Hardcore help clarify its vantage as distinct from its protagonist’s; during one shoot, a hotshot rookie director gives some brisk instruction, and a nearby producer remarks on the kid’s skills, to which another flatly replies: “USC.” Likewise, perhaps the funniest scene in Boogie Nights finds cinematographer Kurt Longjohn and assistant director Little Bill having a granular quibble over the lighting of their upcoming project while the latter’s wife gets railed in the background. Touching on the nitty-gritty of process builds credibility and evinces an appreciation for the demands of tight-turnaround, low-budget film craft.

Sharon “Mitch” Mitchell is the experienced star of Kamikaze Hearts (1986).
Sharon “Mitch” Mitchell is the experienced star of Kamikaze Hearts (1986).

In the mockumentary Kamikaze Hearts, Juliet Bashore’s neorealist-adjacent glimpse into lesbian and trans porn, no-bullshit documentation of heroin use goes hand in hand with unremarkable on-set tedium, such as the filmmaking team having to wait for a nearby construction crew to finish their work before the camera can roll.

“My favorite of all is Starlet, by Sean Baker,” Calvert says. “I find that to be the best portrayal of how mundane the business often is, which is one of the things I feel gets left out a lot in conversations about the industry—how it’s really just a job like any other most of the time. There’s a lot of holding, waiting for someone to fix something.” Some porn and sex-work advocates have found Baker’s dedication lacking, however, with regard to his off-screen commitment more than the content of his films.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) and Melissa (Stella Maeve) kill time in Starlet (2012). 
Jane (Dree Hemingway) and Melissa (Stella Maeve) kill time in Starlet (2012). 

A crucial truism for the majority of films mentioned in this piece is that they were not written or directed by people with a foundation in porn, and though the savvy filmmakers know to bring in consultants to shore up authenticity, the final product ultimately determines whether that makes a difference beyond lip service.

Variety, Bette Gordon’s odyssey of sexual discovery, excels, in no small part, due to the coarse dialogue from Kathy Acker, an erstwhile Times Square sex-show performer. “Every single time, you’re dealing with the question: are you trying to include or appease the adult industry?” asks Young.

Now showing: Christine (Sandy McLeod) clips tickets at the Variety porn cinema (1983). 
Now showing: Christine (Sandy McLeod) clips tickets at the Variety porn cinema (1983). 

Thyberg has met with a partial backlash from some cast members who felt that her work displayed porn in an unfavorable light, while others have voiced their support. Her response, in our interview: “If you are a man, and you see this film, it will not be what you expected, because you have never seen through this perspective. Tough shit. It will probably be uncomfortable.”

Flatly rejecting the discussion just goes to show how thorny it is. If watching dozens of films about porn demonstrates anything, it’s that there’s no single right way to go about mapping the industry. And when handling some morbid, real-life material, no right way at all. In no minor sense, accepting porn means coming to terms with contradictions until they’re so intuitively understood that they fade into the background. Porn has its own physics, logic and ethics. Violence can commingle with affection, degradation with worship, lecherousness with good-natured fun.

Non-porn filmmaking about the business of porn doesn’t have the luxury of suspended disbelief in this way—instead, it is subject to an entirely unique battery of scrutinies.

Actress and film director Casey Calvert.
Actress and film director Casey Calvert.

“As someone who considers herself an aspiring filmmaker—my impostor syndrome won’t let me just say ‘as a filmmaker’—I’m trying to figure out how to make a movie people want to watch that’s also honest about a business with good things and bad things,” says Calvert. “It’s hard to do, and that’s why you see so many films that are somewhat successful, but still leave you with something to pick apart.”

This unavoidable dissonance marks the surest sign that porn is indeed art, with an exacting tradition of suffering on the way to personal fulfillment, and the drive to pursue one’s passion, both inextricably tied to the indifferent markets that make it happen. Fictitious behind-the-scenes satires like Robert Downey Sr.’s Rented Lips, the French farce Attention les yeux! (released in the US as Let’s Make a Dirty Movie) and 2008’s indie, The Auteur, approach porn as a colorful extension of moviemaking anywhere else, the usual egos and neuroses enlivened by unconventional obstacles and a greater number of naked people.

Those films telegraphing a scandalized reaction to the hedonism and imperfection of porn would do well to look inward, and note that porn isn’t only as professional as Hollywood, but that Hollywood is also as susceptible to misdoings as porn. Look back and forth from one to the other enough times, and the distinguishing marks blur until they vanish completely. Porn is nothing more than a genre, albeit with more societally imposed strings attached than, say, horror. At the end of the day, whether we see it go in or no, it’s all just cinema.

Further Reading

Tags

Share This Article