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August 1999 | Updated Randomly


Everybody knows the porn industry is failing; slowly detumescing like an inadequately fluffed male performer. The once familiar sticky-floored theaters have all but disappeared from America; video rentals -- the temporary savior of the industry -- have fallen off under the no-holes-barred sexual assault of the internet; and DVD seems too expensive and too late.

With the slow decline in porno sales evident to all but the most cocaine-addled San Fernando valley producers, the so-called "adult film" industry is desperately casting about in an effort to attract new, younger audiences and their supposedly burgeoning wallets. Most of these efforts have been new spins on old ideas: x-rated CDROMs, younger and hipper-looking starlets, cross-branding with professional wrestling, and and better soundtracks recorded by struggling "alternative" bands.

Vivid Productions, however, has taken a different approach. Although perhaps not truly breaking any new ground, they are making an honest effort to re-evaluate the "adult film" with the first Independent Adult Movie Festival, to be held in Burbank this fall.

I received their promotional packet (my first real perk from being a SurReview writer!) and was thrilled to find that in addition to a a stack of press releases and a slickly printed booklet, it included a 45-minute tape of clips from three of the films to be shown at the festival. Between these all-too-brief excerpts was commentary by various porn-industry luminaries.

Frankly, I have no idea what any of the interviewees were saying, since I fast-forwarded through anything without naked people in it. Can you blame me? Who really wants to hear Racquel Darrian talk about the method acting approach to taking a fist up the dumper?

The first clip, however, definitely caught my attention. It was clearly shot on video, but with high production values. The shot opened on a shadowy, candle-lit room with a tight focus on the face of an incredibly pretty goth-like waif. The camera lingered on her pale face as she went though some shocking facial contortions; clearly something was being done to her -- and done quite well -- off camera. The shot pulled back to reveal a man, clothed from head to foot in tight black latex, meting out more punishment to the girl's breasts and tender parts that I could have wished on my worst enemy. You want details? Think nipple clamps, red-hot ball bearings, and a wet rattan cane.

As soon as the action had started, it seemed, it was over and we were back in talking head land. As my VCR whizzed forward, I leafed though the information that came with the tape. I read that this film -- "Dark Desires" -- was the first of Vivid's new "Fringes" series, specializing in S&M, mild watersports and other "alternative" sexual practices. Interesting, but certainly not paradigm-shattering.

The second film seemed more promising. Described as an attempt to tap into the "Star Trak [sic] science fiction crowd," this movie was supposedly a fully-realized science fiction comedy, based on the premise of some (remarkably human-like) aliens picking up our TV transmissions and coming for a visit. The catch is that the only transmissions they've received are hardcore porn channels from Sweden. Oh, the wackiness!

The clip for this film -- unorignally titled "Close Encounters of the Best Kind" -- opens with the President (or at least some Grey-Haired and Important Official) and his aides, waiting for the arrival of an alien craft in the Nevada desert. As the spaceship -- clunkily bluescreened onto the clear desert sky -- comes in for a landing, we gradually start to hear the strains of anonymous 70's disco.

The hatch swings open, the music grows louder, and we get our first glimpse of the alien emissaries. However, they're not big-eyed Greys a la "Close Encounters," but rather bald, tanned men and women, going at it like a house full of monkeys. Couples writhed on the floor of the saucer, flanked by a female on all fours who is entertaining a thrusting male "alien" at either end. Meanwhile, in the back, some poor skank appeared to be taking a rough time from a pit pony. Sorry -- "alien" pit pony.

The leader -- a tall blonde clad only in a metallic belt and tiara -- emerges and introduces herself as "Helga." In the funniest moment (actually, the ONLY funny moment) of the clip, Helga -- instead of shaking the President's hand -- forces him to his knees while commanding him in a strong Swedish accent to "Lick me, bitch."

This film, although clearly supposed to be an ironic take on porn formulas, appeared to be much more of a straight-ahead sex-flick the others. Although not shown, I imagine that the President and his aides eventually enter the ship (which probably resembles nothing so much as the interior of a garage in Sherman Oaks tarted up with silver spraypaint) for the standard sexual permutations, culminating in an intergalactic four-way, diasy-chained fuckfest. "Barbarella" with money shots, it ain't.

Fast-forwarding again, I came to the last -- and most striking -- film showcased on my tape. Entitled _Le Petit Mort_, the clip opens with an entirely black screen. Slowly, over a period of minutes, glowing green figures emerge from the darkness: skeletons, surrounded by a faint glowing nimbus. The clip suddenly cuts to what appeared to be these same hazy green stick figures engaged in some kind of dance; rhythmically moving back and forth and occasionally bumping into each other.

It took me a moment to realize what was going on: they were having sex! Somebody -- in violation of who knows how many federal regulations -- had filmed an entire porn movie using not cameras, but some kind of xray machine. The details of filming, obviously, were not given but I can only assume that the actors had been given atomic-mutant-sized doses of radioactive tracers and told to do their stuff in front of a flouroscope. Looking through this film's vague promotional information, I found that the score was done by an Eastern European chamber orchestra. However, from what I heard the music must have been slowed down and distorted heavily after recording, unless quaaludes are extremely cheap in Bratislava.

This 45-minute look at the world of big-studio "alternative porn" was refreshing but somehow not convincing. The experimentation in the films was indeed diverse for such a small sampling, but also obviously amateur. "Close Encounters" featured actors and actresses that were considerably less attractive that one would hope for, and even "Dark Desires" -- the best of the lot -- had several distracting tripod shakes when the girl's thrashings shook the floor too much.

There's nothing wrong with amateur porn -- indeed, it may be exactly what's killing the market for "pro" movies -- but the presentation and the quality of the films leads me to believe that Vivid is merely buying low-cost (and thus low risk) amateur-made properties and distributing them as their own "fringe" product. From an economic standpoint this makes perfect sense, but it also leaves one the impression that Vivid is less committed to reviving the adult film industry than it is to merely differentiating itself from the other studios.

Frankly, I don't think this last thrust of innovation is enough to single-handedly solve the problem of declining sales. Rather, Vivid and other studios must take a firm grip on the problems that stand out before them. By working vigorously, perhaps they can avoid the worst possible thing happening: their proud, towering studios collapsing, never to rise again. One hopes that by swift and firm action, something good will be produced at the end and shower the eager faces of the public with rewards.

-- Ken Waters


Copyright 1998
James D Thomas