JESUS CHRIST, PORN STAR
On "THINKING XXX," a Documentary Film About the Making of the Book "XXX,"
by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
|by Christopher Fulkerson|
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Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has probably done a greater service for the Cult of Venus than anybody else alive. And in the process, he has helped art criticism expand its horizons. (To get to the Jesus part of this message, brush up on your art history, and read all the way to the end.)
Of course, neither his book, entitled XXX, 30 Porn-Star Portraits, nor this film, called Thinking XXX, are pornographic in the sense the porn industry currently uses the word. There is no sexual intercourse here, not one picture of a sex act. Well, there is a picture of Nina Hartley licking the camera lens, but let’s pretend that’s not kinky. In fact, the poses are not even necessarily pornographic, as I will attempt to amply describe. The subjects seem to have understood this was the intention. For example, during the shooting of Ginger Lynn’s photos, a number of poses were tried. At one point Miss Lynn strikes a pose which she immediately realizes isn’t what the book is going to be about, and, remarking of the pose that it is “Too porn,” she quickly strikes a different one.
These are trophy photos of some of the most famous lovers in the world, and since the modern world has the largest population of all time and, for some people anyway, the greatest ease of having sex, these are some of the most celebrated, and busy, lovers of all time.
The photos consist of two shots of each porn star, in one of which the actor is clothed, in the other, nude. The idea for this format clearly comes from a suggestion by Kenneth Clark, from his beautiful and scholarly study entitled The Nude, A Study In Ideal Form, first presented in 1953 as the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. In The Nude, Lord Clark teaches us how artists have looked at naked people for a long time, and how we ourselves, if we know what we are doing, should look at pictures of naked people. Again, it’s a book about form, in which the examples are nudes. Since Clark’s is a classic study of form in art, art students should recognize the source of the idea of parallel poses clothed and unclothed, revealing different degrees and types of expression. But just in case they don’t remember or know that book, in his filmic documentary Mr. Greenfield-Sanders makes the connection clear at one point, when he shows the exact same parallel images that Lord Clark discusses in his book, where for example there are three parallel poses of reclining female nudes: Lord Clark’s plate 89, the Giorgione Venus; his Plate 90, Titian’s Venus of Urbino; and his Plate 119, Manet’s Olympia. Developing this idea as actual art rather than the mere study of art, Mr. Greenfield-Sanders creates thirty pairs of photographs, each pair of which portrays the sitter in poses that are basically identical, but reveal different things. Don‘t snigger when I say that.
Choosing their lives, these people exhibit some kind of courage. Any fraction of what they face can destroy a life. It is surprising how great the strictures are against deviation from conventions about even discussing matters related to sex. I myself have experienced only the most routine ignorant response to garden variety bigotry, yet when I was punished for it my teaching career never recovered. When I used to teach Music Appreciation at the U.C. Berkeley Extension, I was surprised at the students who couldn’t believe the great composers of the past wrote in Sonata Form “on purpose.” They wanted to believe that the great composers were more “intuitive” than that. They had no idea what formal technique is, and they certainly didn’t want to believe it’s desirable. Like any teacher I had learned that multiple sensory combinations, sights with sounds for example, helped students understand some point being made. Since, as I mentioned earlier, Lord Clark’s book was about “Ideal Form,” I made some photocopies from his book, to demonstrate that artists in other genres, better understood than Classical music, used the same forms as one another. I prepared a book of these images from Lord Clarks’ book, and showed my classes how the different images of Venus or Eve, made by different artists at sometimes very different eras, were often of the same pose, with many of the same details. The relatively slight differences between the works were the whole point of the work.
When it was learned that one or more of my students were offended that I showed these images of the Great Masters in Music Appreciation class, U.C. Extension fired me, amid insinuations that there were some kind of wrongdoing on my part with my students. Since I didn’t have sex with my students, and have never even dated a girl who was a student first, I was confused by this, but I knew there had been complaints about the Clark photos, so perhaps that was the nearest thing to a reason for the insinuation. I have to wonder how UCX gets art appreciation taught without allowing people to see nudes.
But such a situation is only a particle of the problems these porn stars must face. I hope they enjoy their work. They deserve it.
There is healing in this film. Watching it I finally got, regarding porn, the more genuinely aesthetic experience I always need for any artistic genre to have credibility for me. I have begun to get a better feeling for why porn fascinates me, but also a feeling for why I refuse to pay very much for it, and why one of the biggest backlogs among my projects is the pile of unwatched porn videos stacked on my TV. When I find a porn star I like, I usually watch only her videos, and at any given time I don’t have more favorites than girls I could do in a single, ambitious day. Rocky Roads and Christine Smith are constants. Porn isn’t very aesthetic… yet. Of course, there is a good chance it never will be. Generally, it seems to be less aesthetic than it was forty years ago. But maybe there is hope.
There is true porn in some great literature. To choose just one famous, ancient example, the Odyssey has a “Satyr play” in it. Satyr plays were the porn of the Ancient World. They involved the acting out of a story that necessarily includes the sex act. This acting out went on in front of an audience. In Book Eight of the Homer, there is a story told – sung, actually – it’s a kind of porn opera! - by the bard Demodocus, in which the god Ares has an affair with Aphrodite, who is a married woman. Her husband is Hephaestus, who figures out what is going on, and devises a trap for the lovers. While they are in bed getting it on, a magic net he devises descends onto them and traps them in the very position of the act of love. During ancient times, “Satyr plays” of this kind were performed in public, and they are believed to have included the full sex act. I learned about this at the same U.C. Extension that fired me for showing supposedly dirty pictures from Kenneth Clark, and the guy who taught me is still teaching there, as he should be. I guess it helps if your students have a Greek requirement to full understanding of the course contents.
We live in a society in which in everyday life there are very few exceptions to the rule that nothing should offend the children among us. To begin with, as much as we may deplore sex and violence in the movies, and the blatancy of advertising, there are few, generally no, images that present actual sex, or even anything from which the actual act of sex can be deduced. Parents speak baby talk to their children, who are very often the actual enforcers of opinions of “right,” and whose opinions are sought from infancy. This is all wrong. The world belongs to adults. But tragically, the adults are behaving like children in order to prevent the children from encountering adult existence. Most of the time, adults are teaching infantilism by example. We see this all the time.
Some people are born sexy. While I was teaching Music Theory at a girls school, I was sometimes astonished at the glimpses of sexuality the girls would exhibit. Since I am not a father, and none of my friends have kids, such everyday reality was not part of my family or social life, so I saw junior female sexuality at work, not at home. I guess I should be thrilled that there was ever any commonality between my music theory teaching and the activity these porn stars call "work." I could be amazed by fourteen-year-olds, but there were some girls whose sexuality clearly began to manifest at half that age. There was one Theory Saturday when one of my youngest girls, she was perhaps eight at the time, refused to sit down with the rest of the class on the floor to sing her Musicianship exercises. She stood there, bouncing a hip in a truly suggestive pose (far sexier than May Sing Su, the icon for jailbait in Mr. Greenfield-Sanders' book), showing the clearest camel toe I’ve ever seen in everyday life, or on screen for that matter, bouncing there like a funny Flash icon on some kind of humorous porn site, or a blond baby Betty Boop, or maybe the Femlin’s little sister. That was totally consistent with that girl’s personality, and she became famous within that school as one of the most talented, beautiful, and vivacious girls of all. I made her sit down and sing with the rest of the class.
The interviews by writers and critics that are part of the fabric of Greenfield-Sanders' film, and which come from some of the same authors that wrote essays for the book, are generally good, but not uniformly interesting, and are, in the film, not presented as the thought pieces found in the book, but as contrast to the film’s basic gist, which is to document in moving pictures the process of creating the book’s still photos. I miss an interview with John Malkovich; the voice one of the book’s most respected intelligences is not heard in the film. Berkeley born Nina Hartley is the most well-balanced and at the same time most imaginative, articulate, and avant garde participant. Her world view is clearly the one most evidently driven by a sane mind. She anticipates and disposes of many allegedly feminist and psychobabble objections to porn. Or to sex generally: on her way to a theater opening, she once quoted approvingly the words of a male porn colleague: “I love women, and I love to fuck women.” This is the attitude of a woman who is on the right road. In the film, not all of the interviews are great. Karen Finley’s blatherings about Oedipal implications of porn are idiotic, and she doesn’t seem to realize that she is confusing genders in the process. And there are some absurd claims, such as anal orgasm, which anyone with an anus knows doesn't exist. People who say such things are in some kind of denial. Don't try to tell me your own personal experience to the contrary, because I, too, have an anus, so I know you're just pushing an agenda.
The movie helps to get more personal background about the actors, and, refreshingly, this is usually not about their bad childhood experiences. For many, Tera Patrick for instance, the move to porn was simple and easy. “Leading a normal life” is a common theme with these people, some of whom are married. Nina Hartley’s and Gina Lynn’s husbands appear, but the person who seems to me from her report to have the most credibly balanced marriage is Savanna Samson. I believe her when she says her husband is happy when she brings another porn star home after work. And she looks the most uxorious, especially nude. One of the disappointments of a porn star trying to lead a normal life is expressed here by Heather Hunter, who relates a story about how once, after intimacy with a date – I said a date, not a movie co-star – her partner asked her for her autograph. “Don’t disappoint me,” she says in frustration. (But she signed it.)
Looking again at the pictures, we find that there are some identifiable models from history and literature, and from a wider repertoire than the classic studies Kenneth Clark discusses. Tawny Roberts, debatably the most brilliantly beautiful person here, is in a pose that easily suggests the Eve of Van Eyke (Clark's Plate 256) or Van der Goes (Clark's Plate 257). Her apple-like breasts are perfect for this iconography. It is evident that the pose struck by Jeremy Jordan and Jason Hawke is meant to recall Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas. Nude, the one posed as Wilde even has Wilde’s mild boredom of his later years. I am pretty sure Savana Samson is supposed to be a gunslinger from a Hollywood Western, counting one, two, three: buck naked! Chad Hunt’s pose also suggests Western imagery; he looks like a your basic bow-legged cowboy. If you can’t see this, I think you’d miss the broad side of a barn, partner. These poses are ordinary and fun, if you get it. If you don’t, I suppose you’ll just have to look look at the pictures. Janine is obviously a mother offering her breast. Tera Patrick looks like your basic would-be Big Sister. Obviously, Michael Lucas looks like Fox Mulder, an investigator of the anal, rather than the alien, universe. Christy Canyon reminds me of your basic CEO, or even a politician, say Nancy Pelosi. Jenna Jameson looks like your basic President. Interestingly, she wore a striped business suit to the shoot, then put on the casual top she’s wearing in the “clothed” photo.
Nina Hartley looks far more human naked than clothed. That clenched jaw in the clothed version of her doesn’t make her look like anyone you just walk up and talk to. Naked, she looks like a university professor who sees through all the mathematics.
In this book, the sexuality isn’t always in the clothed version of the actor. Ron Jeremy shows greater cupidity clothed than naked; sans clothes, he projects the image of a tired hunk of meat. Clothed, Ron seems to be saying, “You don’t know that I’m naked underneath these clothes!” Get it? That was a joke!
But there is no cupidity whatsoever in either version of Jenna. Her nakedness is invisible. Putting her image on the cover was the right idea.
The book needs the film documentary. For the stars of the human act that always feels like absolute godhood, it is not surprising that not all of the models are captured whole by the camera. Gina Lynn looks like a tragic Greek heroine in both her pictures, but a remarkable sense of joy and vibrancy comes across in the footage of her dancing. So-called Seymore Butts needs all the help he can get to seem palatable. Thanks to the film, there is some possibility he can seem normal. But in either photo he looks as though he’s about to hit you in the face with that clenched right fist. He looks coprophagous. He creeps me out. I want to get away from him. Hey, does anybody here know the number for 911? The filmic evidence proves Sunrise Adams is so exhilaratingly vain that her vanity itself is the same as her astonishing appeal. The waves of beautiful and exhilarating vanity course through her body, of which it is obviously part of the DNA, and radiate to the heavens. The universe is more exciting and more vain with her in it, and we should be thankful for that. Nobody acts the goddess hereabouts better than she does. Perhaps she is the goddess of vanity. Or maybe she’s not really vain. Maybe she’s just acting.
In its sections on the gallery openings of the photographs, the film includes footage of many more celebrities than are in the book (though John Malkovitch still isn't there). Other ideas of successful sex gods are suggested. The best example is Harry Dean Stanton, whom one would not suspect is the center of much female attention, but who became the most successful polygamist to be depicted in the popular TV series "Big Love," where he has over a dozen wives, and is called The Prophet, and is the center of his sect of Mormonism.
I apologize for every high art reference in this book that I have failed to catch, but thanks to the medium in which this is published, I can add more when find them. For now, let me say that without a doubt, the most artistically extraordinary photograph is of Heather Hunter nude, and she does a lot to make this extraordinariness happen. For this is one of the standard, traditional iconographical poses of the Resurrected Lord; I myself know of at least one Catholic church where this pose stands, high above the altar, in the stead of the usual, morbid, Crucified Christ. That’s at Saint Bartholomew’s in San Mateo, California, but it must exist in plenty of other places too. It’s really a pose that any healthy person should rather see than a crucified Jesus. That pose is for those who have made it as far as the Fifteenth Station of the Cross. (How many more stations are there, in how many more future worlds? Let’s ask Whitley Strieber, he’s right here in this book.) (For the record, Whitley Strieber is the only person here to whom I’ve been properly introduced.)
What is more, Miss Hunter’s hair style and facial position are clearly recognizable from Albrecht Duerer’s history-making self portrait as Jesus Christ, that every artist, every art historian, and, really, every person in Western Civilization should recognize. Miss Hunter looks more beautiful and more spiritual nude, than clothed. With her body clothed, Miss Hunter’s face does have just the slightest traces of auteur, and of defensiveness. These disappear in her nude portrait. There is only the spirituality.
While I was Music Director at Saint Aidan’s, the wildest and woolliest Episcopal church in the San Francisco Diocese, where if heresies were fishes, you'd get all 153 species the ancients thought existed, the rector there, a burly guy named Jim Jelinek who later became the Bishop of Minnesota, remarked once in a staff meeting on the hysteria that was then attending the film The Last Temptation of Christ, which had recently been released. The frankness of its imagery apparently offended a lot of people (I cared so little I didn’t see the movie for another decade, and naturally I still don’t care). With prudes of that sort, Jim had no truck. He remarked “People like that want to imagine Jesus went his whole life without ever having an erection, or defecating.” Jim’s idea of Jesus was realistic. Who could worship a God who, as a man, had somehow denied himself the most basic bodily functions? Which bodily function is most supposedly dignified to leave out? Who could degrade him so much as to think he didn’t have them, or worst of all, didn’t value them?
Would you recognize Jesus if you saw him in a porn film? Timothy Greenfield-Sanders helps make that a possibility. If you are offended by this, tell your therapist. I don’t care what you think. You can't fire me now, I have nothing to lose.
Copyright 2010 by Christopher Fulkerson
Posted 5/4/2010. Updated 7/5/2010.