When writer/director Paul Schrader’s Hardcore opened in U.S. theaters in 1979, it epitomized the nation’s ongoing and unquestionably dim view of porn and the industry that churns it out. The neo-noir film follows Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott), a deeply religious, moralistic Midwesterner in search of his runaway teen daughter. His quest leads him to a private detective (Peter Boyle) who in turns leads him to a cheap porno movie in which Van Dorn’s daughter appears. Tortured by the sight of her defilement, Van Dorn grips the arms of his seat as if holding on for dear life, and finally shouts, “Turn it off! Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!” So begins the revenge portion of our entertainment, wherein Van Dorn proceeds to track down and beat the snot out of anyone who contributed to the downfall of daddy’s little girl. To Schrader’s credit, the obnoxiously righteous Van Dorn is as unsavory as the parade of one-dimensional scumbags he pursues, offering a viable explanation as to why his daughter was willing to do quite literally anything to get away from a father who never said he loved her. (Cautionary Tale No. 1)
If that sounds clichéd, Hardcore is even more painfully dated today. Raincoaters, porn theaters, peep show booths, sticky floors, et al. have all been rendered virtually obsolete; first by the advent of video and DVD, which brought porn into the privacy of our homes, and later by the anonymity and ubiquity of the internet. Though the mainstream media’s love/hate relationship with porn still flourishes, it has also mellowed over the years. Always considered fascinating yet forbidden, porn has increasingly become accepted and even chic—Jenna Jameson appears on Oprah (and her ghost writer pens a bestselling book on how to make love), Sasha Grey stars in a Steven Soderbergh movie, the AVN Awards are broadcast on Showtime (complete with red carpet), and parents let their tweens walk out of the house wearing “porn star” T-shirts. Even Jesus loves porn stars, as the hip anti-smut Christian group is quick to remind us. While my generation had to forage through our parents’ sock drawers in hopes of maybe, just maybe, finding a Playboy, a much younger generation has grown up with nothing but a mouse click separating them from Two Girls and a Cup. (Cautionary Tale No. 2)
So, while many maintain that porn has gone mainstream, I submit to you that it is, in fact, the other way around. The mainstream has gone X-rated—as it has been doing for years. (For more on this, see Tom Hymes’ brilliant cover story.)
Though Hardcore may have closed the ’70s on a distinctly Calvinistic note, the disco decade began quite differently. What’s known as porn’s “golden era” transpired only a few years earlier, when Deep Throat came out of nowhere to inspire suburban couples to line up in broad daylight just to witness the breathtaking spectacle of a cock being swallowed whole. Magazines like Newsweek put Deep Throat on their covers, and Watergate’s whistleblower adopted “Deep Throat” as his code name. Dinner-table discussions became, um, interesting as kids wondered aloud as to the meaning of the term. It was a double dare for a generation of sexually liberated women to test their gag reflex—as millions of men sighed in appreciation. But when Deep Throat’s star, Linda Lovelace, claimed her performance was given unwillingly, as were her seemingly eager appearances in earlier loops like the aptly titled Dog-a-rama, the patina of free love was smudged by the image of her husband/pimp, Chuck Traynor, pointing a gun at her head. To the public it was just ugly, but it remained beautiful to the news media, who, like Claude Rains in Casablanca, are always shocked, shocked to discover fucking going on in America, and thereby must report on it breathlessly, endlessly. Paris Hilton makes a fuck tape and becomes a national treasure. Tiger Woods fucks around and becomes a national pariah. Both, however, boost ratings, with profits not far behind. (Cautionary Tale No. 3)
Now, of course, scores of stunningly more attractive porn stars can do what Linda did, only willingly and much better. The aforementioned Sasha Grey stars in Vivid’s much-ballyhooed, cable-promoted remake of Deep Throat, titled Throat: A Cautionary Tale. Deft filmmaking perhaps, but the shock value is gone. Today, deep throat only raises an eyebrow when it accompanies an ATM, which is the real feat of derring-doo in these fast times. No wonder poor Dr. Drew must constantly advise his young listeners that sucking a cock plucked freshly from a rectum is not a healthy habit, no matter how many starlets make it look as appetizing as a visit to Hometown Buffet. (Cautionary Tale No. 4)
So, as we barrel into 2010, I can’t help wonder what will qualify as a shocking sex act 30 years from now. Will it involve goose liver? Golf carts? Guillotines? Whatever it is, we probably can’t even imagine it now, except for the part where we grip our armchairs and scream “Turn it off! Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!”
Which probably means it will be a lot like Dancing with the Stars. (Cautionary Tale No. 5)
This column by Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Tony Lovett appeared in the January 2010 issue of AVN. For more on the mainstreaming of porn, read Tom Hymes’ cover story from that issue.