By Rod Bastanmehr
City on a Hill Press Editor
There is a world beyond the golden-gated community that composes the suburban drawl of Southern California that has become known as a different sort of capital for the United States. It produces one of the country’s largest and most economically lucrative commodities, giving way to a different world altogether — where even the most intimate moments are captured on century-defining celluloid for all to see. This is a world privy only to those willing to inhabit it, creating a product that fascinates all, but is openly talked about by few. Welcome to the San Fernando Valley: the pornocopia of America, birthplace of some of the country’s most tantalizing and conspicuously sinful entertainment. Yet for all of its apparent public bravado, the porn industry remains, at its core, a shamed staple of American popular culture.
Porn has, in the past, seen the potential to thrive in the mainstream. In the ’70s the industry truly saw a Golden Age of acceptance. But today, in a modern society that claims to accept more thanks to accessibility to more, the adult film industry is at a standstill, preventing it from breaking through traditional taboos.
“It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time that [pornography] was acceptable, but I doubt we will be seeing it again anytime soon,” said Lindsey Jennings, a Santa Cruz native who is currently co-writing “The Skinflicks: America’s Hidden Gem,” a book that chronicles the porn industry’s attempt to break into mainstream culture.
Jennings, who earned a degree in feminist studies from UC Santa Cruz with a minor in film, cites the stalled potential of the porn industry as possibly one of the most important social omissions, speaking volumes about what really scares the public.
“It’s something that exists, and has existed for years now,” she said. “But we turn a blind eye, regardless of the fact that it fascinates us … we refuse to acknowledge it, but we care about it or it wouldn’t still be around.”
While today’s mass public may not be able to handle the porn industry invading everyday consciousness, history clarifies that adult entertainment does, in fact, have the potential to make the mainstream surrender.
<img style="float:right; margin: 5px; border: 1px solid #000000;" src="img/porn1.jpg" /><b>The ’70s: Porn Chic</b>
“Porn began to reach a theatrical audience [in the 1970s] through grindhouse theaters in urban centers, like Times Square in New York City,” said Caetlin Benson-Allott, a UCSC film and digital media professor. “American-produced porn was able to make this jump in part because of the rising popularity of European softcore and sex education films.”
As Europe began to find new ways of exploring what sexual freedom meant, America mirrored that rise in sexual expression via the film medium. And audiences took notice.
“They weren’t instant successes, but they gave way to a streamline of new art for the rising counterculture,” Jennings said of the effects of early adult films on the American public. “The free love movement began to find itself pushed to the forefront.”
With sex slowly finding its way into discussions among 1970s youth, a new breed of viewer was born, one craving to see shifting cultural values reflected within art. As a result, film began to test the boundaries of obscenity, pushing the limits to find out just how much this new generation could handle.
In 1972, mainstream attention to the adult entertainment world reached an all-time high when “Deep Throat” became one of the first and only adult films to capture a mainstream audience with its then-revolutionary use of plot and character development.
Jennings cites this as the moment when the porn industry broke through the barriers of the post-war comfort zone.
“[‘Deep Throat’] was the movie that changed everything,” she said. “It took mainstream appeal to a whole new level that not everyone was ready for … it gave birth to a whole new medium.”
Jennings is just one of many porn experts who cite the entrance of “Deep Throat” into the film world as the simultaneous entrance of legitimacy into the industry as a whole. “Porn chic,” the term coined by historians to describe this break into mainstream, became the monopolizing art ideal, conquering the film world and greater social consciousness.
“The rise of the so-called porno chic movies had some of the style and complexity and narrative of regular movies, only with unsimulated sex,” said Linda Williams, a UC Berkeley film professor whose classes often focus on popular film genres, including pornography. “In the early ’70s, [there was] hope that there could be porn films that did not just exploit sex … some imagined that this would lead to a merger of porn and regular narrative movies.”
Starting in the early ’70s, discussion of adult films suddenly became a fashionable thing to do, Jennings explained.
“[Early porn was] influential, daring, interesting, provocative … everything people craved,” she said. “It was an absolute novelty.”
The slow but steady success continued for three years, as other influential films — among them “Boys in the Sand,” “Behind the Green Door,” “The Devil in Miss Jones,” and “Score” — began to invade average American movie theaters.
And the numbers just kept rising, with the adult film industry entering what was soon to be known as “the Golden Age of Porn.” Porn managed to redefine censorship laws, with X-rated films gaining screen time at public theaters. The newfound power of the adult film industry also presented to the American public one of the first major exercises of First Amendment rights in the cinematic realm.
“First Amendment protection of freedom of speech began to apply to film too,” Benson-Allott said. “The popularity of a film like ‘Deep Throat’ meant that a lot more people were talking about sex — and talking about it publicly.”
Additionally, with adult entertainment reaching never-before-seen arthouse highs, Hollywood directors began to borrow from the porn industry’s frank depiction of sexuality, implementing it in their mainstream films.
“[The ’70s] were an amazing time for the industry,” Benson-Allott said. “The [films] managed to become popular while still keeping that kind of underground allure. It was a great time — and then everything changed.”
<img style="float:right; margin: 5px; border: 1px solid #000000;" src="img/porn3.jpg" /><b>The ’80s: Conservative Backlash</b>
“Mass appeal of the porn industry essentially died on January 20, 1981, and it never really found any sort of major resurrection,” said Justin Hockyard, who is co-writing “Skinflicks” with Jennings.
The date that he so cryptically cements as the final day of the porn industry was the day of Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. With this, the 1980s were on the verge of redefining conservatism, causing the art world to take a beating and leading the adult industry towards a massive cut in both values and commercialism. As a result, the Golden Age came to an abrupt end.
“The industry was seeing a steady rise in the ’70s, but it was still an uphill battle,” Hockyard said. “[Reagan’s administration] put an end to that, attempting to clean up everything that the ‘flower children’ made messy.”
Regulations on film and violence reached an all-time high, and the porn industry found itself the first victim of a time when even art was an enemy.
Though the depraved underground allure that came with adult films worked during the bizarre, blazed “what-do-we-do-now” hangover of the post-Vietnam era, the 1980s gave way to radical rebuild.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Paul Pearlman said with a begrudgingly stilted laugh.
Pearlman, a former producer of underground porn, now resides in the San Fernando Valley, which he and many other porn auteurs started to call home during the industry’s 1970s peak of popularity. Since the early 1980s the Valley, as it is widely known, has been the primary distributor of over 90 percent of all pornographic films made in the United States.
“We struggled,” he said with brutal honesty, recalling the days of the early 1980s, which porn pundits dubbed “The Decline.” “It wasn’t necessarily difficult in the sense that we were suddenly broke, but it was this sudden shift in [American] values, and we were the first victims.”
Benson-Allott pointed out that 1980s conservativism wasn’t just harming those settled in the Golden State.
“In the case of New York City, [porn] really died when first Ed Koch, and then Rudy Giuliani, decided to make New York City more ‘fun’ for tourists,” Benson-Allott said, citing the efforts of the two former New York City mayors to clean up the city as a cause of the ultimate close of many of the city’s porn theaters.
This type of conservative backlash continued to strike, and the industry was forced to find new methods of distribution, particularly ones that could make up for the financial setbacks created by dwindling numbers of theaters.
One of the first distribution solutions to emerge involved the Video Home System, more commonly known as VHS, which allowed filmmakers to film more cost-effectively and led to the low-grade quality that the industry is now known for.
“It was an absolute decline in the industry,” Hockyard said. “The drugs that began to take over behind the scenes, the lack of filmmaking prowess, all of it was in such rapid decay.”
Benson-Allott explained that this new technology also translated into a greater population of viewers having easy access to its sexually provocative footage — and having access to it at home, in private.
Citing the all-time low quality of the products being produced industrywide and the newly sneaky, secretive nature of indulging in porn thanks to increased home viewing, Pearlman said the relationship between porn and VHS represented “the single best and worst move that the porn industry ever made.”
<img style="float: right; margin: 5px; border: 1px solid #000000;" src="img/porn5.jpg" /><b>The ’90s: Instant Access and the Internet</b>
As the ’80s came to a close, with money replacing sex as the ultimate aphrodisiac, crass insta-video filling the World Wide Web replaced the films of old as the dominant medium for porn.
“[The Internet] has made porn relevant in a completely new way. We’ve never seen it like this before, where it’s just so available at your fingertips,” Pearlman said. “It has the mass appeal of the ’70s, but lacks any of that creative push … it’s a different place now.”
“It doesn’t look like a Hollywood studio produced it,” Benson-Allott said, referencing the low filmic quality the industry has now become known for. “If you want a film to turn you on, is it going to be the lighting that does that? The ‘porn classics’ of the 1970s gave their viewer sexual narratives and — at least for some viewers — sexual spectacles they hadn’t had access to before. If you find that hot, it doesn’t matter if the film’s scratched.”
But Pearlman argues that the mentality that porn doesn’t have to be well-made has actually been responsible for much of the industry’s downfall.
Hockyard agrees, saying that while the Internet has made pornography something we can talk about again, it has also devalued what was once a legitimate genre.
“It’s a double-sided sword, I suppose,” he said. “Like everything that comes in droves, it’s starting to be meaningless, when there was a period in time when it was becoming something substantial.”
With the first decade of the new millennium in its final legs, almost 40 years from its Golden Age, filmmakers are seeing a resurrection in the porn industry, fostering hope that the industry’s lost legitimacy may be returning.
“There is something truly incredible happening here,” Pearlman said. “I don’t want to say that there is any sort of massive shift that has taken place yet, but people are starting to treat [porn] with more respect, both in terms of the viewers and the filmmakers themselves.”
In 2005, “Pirates” became the first adult film to use high-definition digital recording cameras during production, and took its place as the most expensive adult film of all time with a budget of over $1 million. In 2007, “Pirates II” became the first adult film released on Blu-Ray, a new form of digital videodisc.
Indeed, many cite the porn industry’s backing of Blu-Ray as the reason for its win over the HD-DVD format wars in early 2007.
With the current economic crisis affecting everyone from the everyman to the CEOs, porn has remained one of the few stable markets despite early January reports of the industry’s request for a $5 billion bailout. That request, many critics and porn experts say, is more indicative of poor money management on the part of Hustler CEO Larry Flynt and “Girls Gone Wild” creator Joe Francis than it is indicative of the state of the industry as a whole.
“[The porn industry] has had to cut back, but nowhere near as much as the other major studios,” Hockyard said, citing the troubles facing the four major mainstream film companies: Warner Bros, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount and Universal. “Porn has remained constant and solid. Nothing speaks louder than the pockets of the people.”
Jacob Furdondy, a fourth-year UCSC film major whose senior thesis examines the relationship between sexual intensity and media representation, believes that reflection within the realm of pornography depends on the generation coming into power.
“It’s on us to be okay with the idea of pornography, because we will be the ones to either support or reject that medium,” Furdondy said. “The industry depends on us now … it will only be as artistic as we want it to be.”
While the industry may not see the kind of awe-inspiring success it found in the ’70s, it probably won’t resort back to the seedy underbelly it found itself a part of in the mid-1980s. And while the 1990s allowed for instant access at the hands of just about everyone, the adult film industry may find the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel sometime in the next decade.
“We get what’s going on right now,” Pearlman said. “We’re using new technologies, investing actual budgets, hiring real industry performers — this is our chance to be taken seriously as an industry, as a genre.”
For Pearlman, the reason for this second chance is as a simple as the classic filmmaking motto: “Give the people what they want.” And Pearlman thinks that maybe the adult film industry knows that better than anyone else.
“These are tough times,” he said. “Sometimes, the people just want to be turned on.”