December 3 - 9, 1998

Gerald Hannon

Even a 50-something with greying hair and a smallish you-know-what can be a porn star

How to make your own smut so it moves you where it counts

The question, of course, is whether I -- a 54-year-old man with severely greying hair, a smallish cock and moderately porcine features -- have a future as a porn star.

Then there is also the larger, to some more palatable, question, put by broadcaster and scholar of porn Max Allen, of whether it's possible to do for pornography what Aristotle did for drama in his Poetics.

These questions are in the air (you have noticed, haven't you?) because Come As You Are, the feminist sex shop on Queen Street west of Bathurst, recently organized what they advertised as Do It Yourself On Video: A Three-Day Workshop For Aspiring Smutmakers.

Now, I am not entirely unqualified to be a porn star, even by the rigorous standards of the commercial porn industry.

For one thing, I like sex.

Of course, everybody says they do, but what they really mean is that they like sex with people to whom they are attracted. That is very entry-level sexuality -- sort of like grade 8. Porn-star status requires high school at least.

As well, I am the only person I know who can masturbate while doing the cryptic crossword in the New Yorker. By this I don't mean to suggest that pretension is a career requirement for a porn star -- merely that boner action might have to call on resources other than eros.

Then, people will say I have a nice bum (while also noting that it has been rather too much on cinematic display over the last few years). I think I have an attractive lower lip. My mother says my ears are cute. It all adds up.

In fairness, though, I should say that an independent assessment of my potential, by the proprietor of an Internet porn production firm called (ironically, I would assume) Friendly Computer Guys, led to this verdict: "too old, too fat, too ugly."

Obviously, I consoled myself, this man had never heard of niche marketing. Or that aging baby boomers might do for the idea of beauty what a disdain for the voluptuous gave us in medieval art -- that look where nudes are stretched-out skinny in a weird, bony way and no one seems to have genitals and women's tits are shaped like cupcakes and everybody looks like they have hemorrhoids. That was beauty 14th-century-style.

Gorgeously old

Well, Friendly Computer Guy, you read it here first: I predict that old, fat and ugly is going to be the 21st century's drop-dead gorgeous. But don't even think you'll get another chance at me.

By 21st-century standards, Max Allen is another gorgeous hunk. He's not just someone's geezer-toy, though. He's an intellectual wizard.

Which makes him the perfect choice to kick off this smut-makers' workshop series at a forum at Tallulah's Cabaret.

Here he showed film clips (including stuff he'd made himself), fielded questions and left us with the impression that pornography is in dire straits indeed. It's an impression likely shared by many consumers. Yes, you keep going back for more because that's all that's available, all the while wishing the stuff had believable scripts and dialogue, better music, less of a wiener/hole obsession, even the occasional body that appears not to have been sculpted. from a high-grade industrial plastic. The solution, for most people, is the fast-forward button.

To Allen, those defects are an artifact of porn's origins as the part-time activity of people trained in the movie and advertising businesses. In those worlds, he says, "you tell the model what to do. So what you get is a series of stills, jammed together. If you watch closely, you see that every cut is between shots of a single thing happening. On top of that, the actors have to stand back from each other frequently in order to accommodate the camera. That is not the way sex works."

Allen's approach? Porn is not Steven Spielberg -- it's Nanook Of The North. Toss out the very idea of script and become a documentarist. Film, as unobtrusively as possible, people having sex with each other because they want to.

Allen, who has made such porn, says, "My experience in showing real sex to people is that it has a stronger effect on them than this fantasy stuff. I'm hoping for a second revolution in porn. The first was the shift from film to video, and because video is easy to make, you get formulaic, boring stuff churned out en masse.

"I hope the second revolution will be the depiction of real sex. When I say that, almost no one says to me, 'But what we're seeing is real sex.' They know it isn't."

Max Allen has other reasons for making porn -- nearly 10, in fact --which he shared with his audience that night. Among them: to show the future what we did here and now, to show the present who we are, to proselytize, to correct the record (most porn lies), to increase the quantity of pleasure in the world, to break new ground, to show off (if you're in it yourself).

Also, he said, it's fun, and you learn a lot.

With goals so laudable, there was clearly only one option left to me -- I had to put my body on the line.

Which is how I found myself in a small projection room at V Tape (one of the co-sponsors of the workshops) with a handful of other hopefuls and David Findlay, the workshop leader. He told us that once, many years ago, he had briefly been an anti-porn activist.

Articulate, black, sexy (albeit by late-20th-century standards), with an unexpected but endearing schoolmarmish quality (we would be gently chided for speaking out of turn), he was described in the workshop flyer as "a local artist whose motion picture and digital media work to date centres around sex, gender and social justice."

A bisexual, he has appeared as a performer in AIDS-education porn and worked as a camera guy as well. He agrees with Allen that the video-cam has made porn so easy to make that "there's no incentive to make quality smut. You can fill 90 minutes with crotch shots."

He told me that his motive in leading these workshops was "to inspire the creation of quality porn, and to blur borders. I have hopes for a dialogue between pornography and other genres, like comedy or romance or sci-fi or mysteries."

He thinks Allen's documentary theory is fine "if you've got two horny buddies and a camera. The whole amateur smut movement is about that, and consumers seem to like the change. But I think there are as many ways to make hot smut as there are tastes."

The tastes represented in that room that day were perhaps not as varied as one might have hoped. Besides me, there were (names and occupations, but not orientations, have been changed) Stephen (gay, a travel agent), John (straight, a civil servant), Kirk (gay, unemployed) and Mike (orientation unknown -- he didn't last past the first session). All guys, all white. Elise and Jeff, a punky young straight couple, joined the group at the second session. The course cost $150. This is what we did. Day one, at V Tape, we watched samples of nonmainstream erotic material that was mostly so arcane it made one long for a little of the old "in and out" (though I did rather enjoy Kissy Suzuki Suck, which involved two tarts swinging madly on car doors).

But, as Findlay said, we should be thinking about grabbing techniques and strategies from documentary, from art video, from Hollywood, from wherever we could.

Day two, about a week later, we got together at the aptly named Beaver Hall and received instruction from Findlay on the basics of camera use and lighting for video. It was a practical day, with real cameras and lights, but no models except each other.

We kept our clothes on, and as Kirk told me later, "It would have been better to have had someone naked. There's a comfort level you have to learn about, both for the actors and for the photographer."

Then we were sent into the great, wide, not-yet-wicked-enough world to make our own smut. First, though, I had to do my Aristotle thing.

In his Poetics, The Philosopher (a label once capable of distinguishing him from all other practitioners) set out to anatomize poetry and drama. His efforts, and those of later commentators, had an extraordinary impact over many centuries on both criticism and dramaturgy.

Porno arts

In that tradition, I modestly offer this contribution to what I hope one day will be an equally distinguished volume, Pornetics.

  1. The pornographic arts distinguished by their object. It is the object of pornography to create sexual excitement. We recognize, however, that sexual excitement may be provoked incidentally by many things -- a brief nude scene, for example -- in an otherwise straightforward drama. We reserve the term "pornography" for material whose principal object is the provocation of lust.

  2. The pornographic arts dependent on story. Any repetitive act will soon bore, and varying the details of fucking (from behind, while skydiving, etc.) is insufficient to maintain interest. Story, from long before Aristotle's time until today, has a record of audience engagement nothing else can equal. Also, since story engages on its own terms, a porn production might be able to use less than perfect bodies and still provoke excitement.

  3. The pornographic arts distinguished by length. A quick satiety is a relevant feature of human sexuality. Its electronic manifestation is the fast-forward button on the remote. The truest pornographic films will be short. Possibly very short.

  4. The importance of withholding. Sexual excitement is maintained by coyness. A whore is more useful than a virgin but considerably less exciting. The most lubricious pornography, paradoxically, might withhold as much as it reveals.

Simple story

So I settle on a very simple story. At a family reunion, the protagonist has to bunk down with his brother, a married man in his mid-30s (another Aristotelian tenet might be that pornography is the laboratory in which we explore social taboos).

The sex, I decide, would have to be tentative and exploratory, and not proceed beyond mutual masturbation. I want the action to feel slow (satisfying requirement number 4), while not taking up a lot of time (satisfying requirement number 3).

I want the camera to register occasional embarrassments. I engage Max Allen as cinematographer. He agrees, even though he feels my approach is wrongheaded -- I am asking him not for a documentary, but for a drama. Which brings up the problem of finding someone to play my brother.

I begin, naturally, by asking close friends who might under the right lighting conditions conceivably pass for a close relative in his mid-30s. None will agree. And, I soon discover, many amateur porn-making projects have foundered on the difficulty of finding people not already in the sex trade who are willing to screw on camera.

By press time, for example, neither John nor Kirk has found anyone willing to participate. John actually progresses as far as getting agreement from two women who then freak when he brings out the camera and they realize they really do have to take their clothes off.

Stephen begins a piece, but abandons it for reasons he does not want to discuss with me. Elise and Jeff use each other in their project.

Scott, an activist and a talented filmmaker in his own right, is the only person to say yes to me. I'd actually thought of Scott earlier, since I'd appeared in an as-yet-uncompleted film of his, but there was one problem. Scott is very late-20th-century gorgeous (though, like a good cheese, he has age-and-fat potential), and a script implying we had emerged from the same gene pool might unduly test the audience's credulity.

So my brother becomes my cousin. Video artists and V Tape honchos Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak allow us to use their basement as the set. The project is on. And what a fascinating, delicious exercise it is, particularly for someone like me, who has never had to think cinematically.

Closed eyes

In the film (tentative title: My Cousin Mike), I create the context for story by speaking directly to the camera, generating a linear text which might just as well have appeared in printed form on a page. It is Max Allen who suggests that my face-on blab might be intercut with still photos. And he who suggests that Scott's and my undressing scene really needn't take as long as it did in real life.

I even treat the actual filming as if it is happening before a live audience. My script says we were always to be pretending to be asleep, so I don't open my eyes once, to the astonished chagrin of those friends of mine who were hoping for a more detailed description of Scott's cock.

Two people who clearly can think cinematically are Elise and Jeff. In their 20s, attractive and remarkably free of any sexual hang-ups, they generate a script that plays with the linearity of time, cueing lust by means both obvious (a pair of panties dropped casually in the bathroom) and allusive (orange peels scooped from the floor beside the fridge).

Elise knows to whom she wants to appeal -- "punk kids, skaters, art-school kids. I know a lot of these kids who like porn but can't relate to what's out there."

Sex guilt

Jeff's involvement is a little more personal. "I'm always trying to challenge myself. It took me the better part of my life to overcome my guilt about sex, and now it's nice to be able to watch myself on video and say, 'Cool. That's cool. I'd rent that.'"

Would I -- would anyone -- rent My Cousin Mike? There's some good boner action, but neither Scott nor I came, so you'd be short-changed on the money shot.

A friend of mine who saw the rough, unedited copy said it was trying to make an art form of the longueur but, as any writer knows, miracles can happen in the editing process.

For one thing, the piece will conform to Pornetics requirement number 3 and probably not exceed 10 minutes in length. There will be music, and that decision provoked much pleasurable reflection on what would be appropriate. Disco was out -- I'd hate to have sex with anyone who thought a repetitive beat was a turn-on. I love baroque music, but it felt wrong for the same reason disco did. Classical seemed too stately; romantic too afflicted with a legacy of swoons.

On the other hand, the harmonic astringencies and wayward rhythms of 20th-century music seemed exactly right.

I settled on the adagio of Leos Janacek's String Quartet No. 2. Written when he was too old, too fat and too ugly to interest the much younger woman who inspired it, it seemed a singularly appropriate choice.

Would anyone rent My Cousin Mike? Perhaps it is a little too edgily 21st-century. Preview audiences have been almost unanimous in wanting more of Scott and less of me -- surely a testimonial to the stifling power of 20th-century aesthetics, even on the brink of the millennium.

It occurs to me, though, that My Cousin Mike, in a gracious nod to the philosophical speculations of some 2,500 years ago, does conform, albeit more or less accidentally, to the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action.

Whether I also succeeded, in the Aristotelian sense, in creating a work that would inspire both pity and terror is, of course, a judgment best left to the viewer.

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Created: December 6, 1998
Last modified: December 6, 1998

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