Film: Porn to be wild: cinema girds its loins to go sex mad

`Boogie Nights', a dark comedy about the rise, fall and partial rise again of a male porn star, is out next week. Laurence O'Toole looks at a film that features Mark Wahlberg - aka Marky Mark, white rapper and Calvin Klein underwear model. Is thi s the first of a new genre of Hollywood art porn films? With a title like Boogie Nights, you know you're in for a vintage disco soundtrack and some dodgy dancing gear to match. Though the director, Paul Thomas Anderson is too young to have lived the disco lifestyle, he lays on a feast of period kitsch: bubble perms, Saturday Night Fever line- dance sequences, gaudily-patterned polyester shirts. Kitsch is also how he characterises Seventies cinematic porn, captive to bad taste, loud emotions and sensual excess.

Before the rise of video, porn films used to be shown in cinemas just like other films. By the late Seventies there were nearly 1,000 sex cinemas across the US. An average of 2.5 million tickets were bought each week, with adult movies accounting for about 20 per cent of turnover for America's motion picture industry.

It was partly through being exhibited like regular films that many porn movies came to be made just like them, running at feature length, with proper story lines, scripts, sets, costumes, and explicit sex. Porn's appropriation of the feature film also came from needing an alibi. Following an American Supreme Court ruling of the Fifties, which described obscenity as anything "utterly" lacking in artistic merit, film-makers found that a tacked-on story could help evade prosecution. As social and sexual values liberalised at the turn of the Seventies, adventurous porn producers such as Gerard Damiano and Alex de Renzy emerged from the criminal underground of illegal short "stag" movies with full-length, narrative-based porn films, and didn't get thrown into jail. In this way did sexually explicit porn become legally tolerated.

Damiano's Deep Throat was released at the New (Mature) World Theatre in New York in 1972. Though a poor piece of work, it is estimated to be one of the biggest grossing films ever, up there in the top 10 with ET and Star Wars. For a while Deep Throat was all the rage, during an outbreak of "porn chic".

Producers found their porn features attracting a new audience. "You had middle-class women," recalls Camille Paglia, "going with their boyfriends and husbands to porn theatres to see Deep Throat. That was a breakthrough. We'd never even heard of oral sex, much less seen it demonstrated."

Other films followed. Devil in Miss Jones, Pandora's Mirror, Sex World, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, to name a few, many of them playing off established cinematic sub-genres: there was the porn noir thriller, the period porn drama, copulatory sci-fi, even the occasional porn musical. Some of these films, whether or not you like or approve of porn, were quite accomplished. In fact, the Boogie Nights era is known as American porn's "golden age", when porn dreamed of becoming a mainstream film genre free of legal hassle and social opprobrium. This was, after all, a period when "legitimate" cinema was exploring new levels of explicitness in Last Tango in Paris, Ai No Corrida, Bad Timing, Immoral Tales, etc. There were even rumours at the time of leading auteurs such as Scorsese, Nicolas Roeg and Brian de Palma contemplating doing a "porno".

Several Seventies porners had previously worked in mainstream cinema, whilst many more yearned to do so. In fact, Paul Thomas Anderson's near namesake of the porn world, Paul Thomas, started out in stage musicals such as Hair and Godspell. He also played Peter in Norman Jewison's film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, before switching to porn in 1975.

Anderson is clearly tickled by porners and their dreams of fame and artistic status. Wahlberg's mentor in Boogie Nights, the director "Jack Horner", is depicted as an Ed Wood figure of grand delusions concerning the ropy sex films he makes. The technical sophistication of Boogie Nights - the audacious tracking shots, split-screen effects and brilliant edits - is pointedly contrasted with the slipshod movie work of porners, with whole scenes "lifted" from original 1970s John Holmes films such as Exhausted to help make the point.

This faintly patronising take on porn doesn't stop Boogie Nights itself from embracing another "lower" cultural form as it turns into a bit of a soap opera. A pretty racy soap opera at that, featuring booze and cocaine aplenty, a crime passionel, a heist and a bloody shoot-out. The drugs and pillage are partly influenced by the real-life capers of Holmes. Nevertheless the final third of Boogie Nights is more concerned with keeping the customer satisfied, providing the levels of cartoon violence that a generation reared on Tarantino have come to expect, than telling it as it really was. Following the US release, veteran porners were quick to dispute the depiction of their era as being overrun with addictive basket cases. Veteran porner Bill Margold observed, "if my industry had been that dysfunctional, I would have opted for the priesthood."

Boogie Nights also fails to show how outlawed porn was in Southern California at the time. Porn production was illegal in Los Angeles until 1986. Performers and producers regularly had run-ins with the vice police. In contrast, nowadays porners filming on location in Los Angeles pick up their licences from the same office from which Disney and Universal get theirs.

In the last 15 years American porn films have experienced great change. Despite a sustained legal onslaught at the turn of the Nineties - also the vituperative anti-porn lobbying of the American Christian Right and certain vocal sections of the feminist community - the industry has grown enormously, almost becoming part of the entertainment mainstream. This is mostly due to the impact of video, and, more recently, that of cable TV and the Internet.

The rise of video saw the decline of cinema porn. By 1987 the adult cinema network had collapsed as the numbers of hard core video rentals had escalated. Porn became available to many more people - men, and especially women, who didn't wish to go to a sex cinema, and possibly to the red light districts of the city, but who might pick up a porn title every now and then from the "adult" section of their local video outlet. In 1997 the number of porn rentals from general video stores alone topped 600 million in America. According to Adult Video News, the industry's trade magazine, video rentals and sales combined generated $4bn last year. Almost a quarter of this business directly involved women consumers.

Although video widened access, the quality of porn declined. Films started to be made on shoestring budgets and were often shot in a single day. Only in recent times have American porn companies started to reinvest in the product. A flock of porn auteurs such as Cameron Grant, Michael Ninn and Toni English are now making big-budget, dramatic porn feature films for the so-called "couples market". In porn, art is back in vogue. And, in order to prove it, last year Vivid Video, America's largest porn video company, started screening high-gloss films such as Bad Wives for regular film critics in Hollywood.

This is the broader context of Boogie Nights' success. Not just part of the Seventies nostalgia bandwagon - see Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming homage to blaxploitation cinema - but signalling that porn in the US is chic again. An increased sexualisation of American society throughout the Nineties finds sex virtually everywhere in the media and in commerce, selling every type of commodity and lifestyle. And yet, anxieties over safe sex and the politics of dating - among many other things - finds recent sex surveys in the US (and Britain) reporting an apparent decline in sexual promiscuity. Within such a conflicting cultural mood, porn features for many as an acceptable fantasy fling, a vicarious carnal adventure. Which probably means porn's the new sex.

Boogie Nights opens to a markedly different British situation, where despite recent shufflings towards liberalisation, explicit porn remains effectively illegal. Britain's inaugural Erotica trade fair at Kensington Olympia last December brought forth talk of co-ordinated efforts to persuade the government to bring the laws on adult porn into line with the rest of Western World. Just before Christmas, however, on being appointed the new head film censor, Andreas Whittam Smith (founder editor of this newspaper), appeared to suggest that the opposite should occur.

We could be in for some high-profile porn battles during the next few months. Indeed, 1998 might well turn out to be "the year of the porno", with Boogie Nights its hip curtain-raiser.

`Boogie Nights' opens next Friday. Laurence O'Toole's book, `Pornocopia', is to be published by Serpent's Tail this spring

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