New York Diary: From high heels to highbrow

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The Independent Culture
HOW CAN you tell art from pornography? How indeed when you are at New York's Show World, the Times Square porn emporium, and you are watching Breadman, a short film about a man with a basket of actual bread. The film is part of Firewater Festival, a non-X-rated brief films selection that plays at Show World four nights a week.

Last year, the city tried to zone sex establishments out of the centre of Manhattan but, due to a loophole, peep shows like Show World as well as adult video emporia have stayed in business. As long as they maintain the required 60 per cent non-adult entertainment, the sleaze factories stay legal in Manhattan.

It's easy to suspect the city's new prudishness as stemming from the real-estate interests of Disney and others, rather than a surge of moralism. And it's just as easy to suspect Show World's new taste for the art of virgin film directors as a painless way to cheat on the new laws.

In order to get to the fest, one must walk up the stairs marked Big Top, past signs declaring No Live Girls. I wind up alone in a room like a lacquered jewellery box - mirrored, black and red walls - and flickering lights. The video monitor plays Angelmaker, an earnest quickie featuring a girl in pioneer costumery running through a foggy glade. Another young woman walks into the theatre. We eye each other suspiciously. "Are you from Show World?" she asks.

"No. Are you?" I reply.

It turns out she's scouting short films for a company. She says she's also starting a "Big Apple" dating service. This singular scene is of a piece with the story of how Firewater came to be. Dana Burnell, the

31-year-old screenwriter/festival cofounder, ventured into the strip joints after the Supreme Court voted to uphold Mayor Giuliani's new anti- porn zoning laws. "I had worked on short films before, but they never got shown," says Burnell. "I saw an opportunity with this summer's ruling against the theatres." Of course, the festival's setting is its hook - its seedy atmosphere gives it a hipster credibility. Burnell says that one of the favoured activities before or after watching the Firewater films is to go into the strippers' changing rooms and have a chortle at the legends on the wall. The favourite one reads, "Every dancer must wear high heels or boots".

Not everyone gets the joke.

"A very highbrow TV channel that will go nameless interviewed us, asking us over and over again whether people masturbate while watching the shorts," winces Burnell.

Ivan Lerner, executive editor of Screw, a magazine which reads as its name suggests, says he feels a pang when he passes Times Square's sex accessories shops that were once filled with "whips and chains and dildos" and are now full of "ugly luggage and toasters". But Lerner sees the upside of the curious new arrangements of Manhattan's sex businesses. "I think the short films and the Kung Fu films they show now at Peepland are quite wonderful," he says. "And I think it's good that Show World is playing the movies because New York's venues for revival films have all closed down. Porno and art have both been ghettoised by the Mickey Mouse monolith."