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Inside Deep Throat

Kevin Smith’s new film is a romantic comedy about making a pornographic film. Paul Dale wonders when and why we started celebrating sex capitalism

Platonic friends Zack and Miri one day decide that in the current economic climate the only way to diminish their respective personal debts is to make a pornographic film together, but the world of amateur porno filmmaking is not as easy as it seems. So goes one synopsis of Kevin Smith’s new film Zack and Miri Make a Porno. The film stars Elizabeth Banks (last seen as a polished Laura Bush in W.) and omnipresent Canadian slacker Seth Rogan (Pineapple Express, Knocked Up) as the titular couple in this likeably silly and sentimental film that’s rooted both in the gleefully horny Jewish teenager aesthetics of the films of über producer Judd Superbad Apatow and the DIY filmmaking fantasies entertainingly evoked in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and less so in British sex comedy I Want Candy. In this his eighth feature Smith’s only real agenda seems to be to turn a comedian’s eye on amateur pornography, and anyone familiar with Smith’s work as either a stand up performer, actor or filmmaker (Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma) will know that a large part of Smith’s shtick is about forcing acceptance of the things that mankind enjoys most (sex, drugs and free speech are top of the list). Indeed in the more censorious states of the US, the film is already pushing all the wrong buttons — not only did the Motion Picture Association of America ban the original poster, which implied that the title characters were performing fellatio, but the city of Philadelphia has banned posters of the film from their bus stops and the NFL has requested that the words Make a Porno be left out of commercials shown during their games. The result is that Smith, against his admirably libertarian sentiments, has been forced into a position of defending the porno industry in all its forms. The question is — is it worth defending?

Unlike films that use graphic sex to either blur or investigate the relationship between pornography and regular cinema (In The Realm of the Senses, 9 Songs, Intimacy, Shortbus, Caligula, Romance), films directly about the porn industry can serve to be both insightful and apocryphal. Recent documentaries on the subject are particularly interesting. Take three documentaries – Inside Deep Throat (2005) – a film about the making of the legendary breakthrough 70s sex feature, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (2001) and Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999). The first two films deal with the evolvement of the industry, and both cast the once vilified dirty movie-maker and porn star as postmodern anti-heroes. The third film is about Singapore/American actress Chong whose biggest claim to fame to date is taking part in the world’s biggest gangbang. She is shown to be a conceited and misguided victim of the modern porn world (the $10,000 she was promised for allegedly having sex with 251 men while being filmed never even materialised). Right, there are a couple of things going on here. Firstly, the mantra seems to be: ‘if you are a product of pornography’s supposed golden era of the 1970s you are worthy of re-evaluation, anything more recent is just filthy and corrupting’. Secondly ‘the objectification of women is still alive and healthy – it has just been given cultural kudos by a new irony towards the sexploitation industry.’

And then there’s fiction film. Hollywood and beyond, arthouse or mainstream, have all long held a fascination for their celluloid bad brother. Depictions of the porn industry can be traced back to the silent era but let’s start with three very diverse films: Ken Loach’s groundbreaking 1967 docudrama Poor Cow, Russ Meyer’s 1970 sex, drugs and sleaze extravaganza, Beyond The Valley of the Dolls and Paul Taxi Driver Schrader’s remarkable 1979 film, Hardcore. Loach’s film depressingly touches on the domestic porn club where pathetic unwashed amateur photographers ask a cash-strapped young mother to lower her blouse a little. Meyer’s film (co-scripted by popular US film critic Roger Ebert) luridly details the cost of fame for a bevy of lovely female musicians, and Schrader’s movie follows an evangelising George C Scott as he trawls California’s porn underbelly in search of his daughter. As flagrant and different as their depictions of the adult industry world are in these films not one of them celebrates the existence of such illicit trades. American’s founding Puritan dreams were still holding strong through to the late 1970s.

The change, of course, came in the shape of two films – Milos Forman’s wistful 1996 biopic The People Vs Larry Flynt, a largely fictionalised account of the controversial pornography publisher’s attempt to uphold Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (freedom of speech) and more importantly Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 epic Boogie Nights, a film that borrowed heavily from legendary porn star John Holmes’ biography to create a wacky portrait of dirty movie making in the 1970s in all its big budget, 35mm, druggy decadence. Almost overnight the pornographic film scene became ripe for appropriation in theatre, television and film. Among others films Wonderland (oddly and tangentially based on the real events upon which Boogie Nights was also based) and amusing Sundance hit The Fluffer tumbled forth along with all manner of aforementioned manner of revisionist documentaries about those hazy, crazy, lazy days of Johnny Wadd, Screw magazine and high times in the Laurel Canyon woods.

Strathclyde University’s Professor Brian McNair, author of two excellent books on the subject – Medicated Sex: Pornography and Post Modern Culture and Striptease Culture puts it best when he points out that: ‘Since the 1990s popular culture has lost its fear of pornography, and embraced porno-chic – the appropriation of pornographic styles and iconography in fashion, style magazines, literature, pop music and video, and mainstream cinema. Boogie Nights and The People Vs Larry Flynt looked sympathetically at the porn industry and those who work in it. Documentaries such as Sex: the Annabel Chong Story, and Louis Theroux’ Weird Weekends on TV have also shed light on a once taboo subject. The current vogue for comedy porno-chic in the cinema like The Moguls and The Girl Next Door are a logical extension of the pornographication of mainstream culture’.

In Zack and Miri Make a Porno Smith uses YouTube as the entry point into the filthier side of erotica, as the hapless duo become overnight celebrities through some fumbled footage from the café in which they work. By doing this he democratises and crushes any notion that what these two are doing has anything to do with the more sinister side of the business of sex. Indeed the films they make have more in common with Mel Brooks wretched 1987 Star Wars spoof Spaceballs than anything on Video Box or the Bangbros Network. This is porn defanged and made cuddly and warm, but there is also something else going on here. From Welles to Warhol, from Sam Peckinpah to Ken Russell, filmmakers have long used sex to bring opprobrium and oxygen to their ailing careers. I really must have a look at those box office takings of Clerks II and Jersey Girl.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is on general release from Fri 14 Nov.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

  • 4 stars
  • 2008
  • US
  • 101 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Kevin Smith
  • Written by: Kevin Smith
  • Cast: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks

Rogan and Banks give ebullient performances as the auteur lovers of the title who've been best friends since school, but their shifts in a local café aren't paying the bills. They're inspired by a former classmate and a YouTube escapade to try porn with hilarious results. Great dialogue, real emotions and laugh-out-loud…

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