Monday, March 12, 2012

95) Pornography: A Thriller (2009)

95) Pornography: A Thriller (2009) Dir: David Kittredge Date Released: April 16, 2010 Date Seen: March 10, 2012 Rating: 3.75/5

Normally, the idea of watching movies that were made by friends scares me. It's an irrational fear, really, since I'm normally afraid that I won't like what I see and that I'll consequently offend my friends by being, well, less than enthused. Thankfully, my real friends, the ones that actually value my opinion, all make good movies. Messy, yes, but they're definitely not, to use an image from Pornography: A Thriller, crossword puzzle pictures. They're often full of radical ideas that are sometimes intentionally alienating. Being intentionally alienating is not a merit unto itself, mind you. But the movies I'm thinking of are also not facile or empty-headed, either.

So as a word of introduction rather than disclaimer, let me start by saying that I'm proud to know David Kittredge. He wrote and directed Pornography: A Thriller and I feel it's a very strong film, warts and all. I disagree with the L Magazine's Henry Stewart, who was generally positive about the film in his review but also wrote that Kittredge's dialogue is "pretentious." Pornography's dialogue is blunt and it is sometimes groan-worthy. But that's part of its creaky charm. Kittredge doesn't want the viewer to feel totally comfortable, even though his film does evoke several older horror films, which may put viewers somewhat at ease. When I watched Pornography, I saw: VideodromeLost HighwayMulholland Drive, Kaufman's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, too. I think viewers' ability to make such free-associative connections is, furthermore, the film's point: movies and photographs are not, as one character points out during the first of Pornography's three inter-connected vignettes, strictly the past nor are they just imaginary. They "exist," as this naif innocently denies.

This opening segment of Pornography will later be repositioned as the most naive portion of the film. The beginning of any character's story is, after all, the part of their stories where they lay out their incorrect assumptions, the ones that will be challenged as their stories progress. This didactic conceit becomes abundantly clear during the film's third segment, when Matt Stevens (Pete Scherer), a semi-established gay porn star, tries his hand at screen-writing and winds up accidentally channeling the life story of Mark Anton (Jared Grey), a porn star from back in the early '90s (How weird it is to think of the '90s as the past!). Anton's the lead character of Pornography's introductory segment. Stevens, when telling a colleague about his script about Anton's life, explicitly says that Anton is introduced to us as having a naive perspective. Or, to put it another way, Anton is still in denial since he spends most of the film's first vignette trying to impress his ex-agent that he's now too cynical to be wrangled back into show business again.

But Anton is fundamentally naive. After all, he still believes in the organizing power of crossword puzzles. At a coffee bar, Anton bumps into a boy that he takes a college-level photography course with. The stranger, who gracelessly gives Anton the opportunity to declaim that he likes the neatness of crossword puzzles, additionally tells us what he likes about photography: it's imaginary because it's not the present and hence is not existence as we now know it.

The underlying assumption behind this statement, which thankfully remains the subtext of Pornography, is that this boy is, just like Anton, wrong. The past is just as valid as the present. The tape/DVD/VOD/avi file/streaming video you watch is affecting you even when you're not watching it. So when Stevens later asks (no one in particular) when does something we watch become real to us, the answer should be: the simultaneous now that messily conflates the present act of watching, the past of what you're looking at and the future of reflecting on a film after you've watched it.

That's what's squirming underneath my friend David's movie. So in spite of some chintzy performances and blunt dialogue, I can't help but really admire Pornography. It's got a sense of humor that I really appreciate, like in one scene where three guys are having a gangbang on a couch. And it looks like it's just a video recording when in fact the three guys in question are actually fucking opposite the television monitor we first see them screwing on. I don't think you can, in good conscience, write such a movie off. Because for every scene where Pornography looks too square and self-serious, there's another scene or two that points to a slippery, De Palma-style sense of humor. And because I know David and his love of De Palma movies, I know that that's probably not unintentional. I can confidently say that many of the things I responded negatively to in Pornography are meant to be alienating and hard to swallow. But they're the building blocks for something really interesting, namely a thesis as heady as, 'Passive spectatorship is an elaborate form of denial.' That should be Pornography's tagline, actually.

For example, during the film's middle segment, where aspiring writer Michael Castigan (Matthew Montgomery) talks to his boyfriend about why he's writing a book about the history of pornography, you start from the notion that Michael is also naive and in denial. He refuses to acknowledge that his interest in pornography is founded in personal interest. It's not just a cultural history and he's not just a disinterested historian: he likes what he's looking at. Which is why one shadowy character, dressed up in a hokey domino mask, forces Castigan to admit that, yes, he does likes to watch (Where's Chance the gardner when you really need him?!). Even Stevens, who is presumably the most self-aware character of the film's three protagonists, is naive enough to not immediately realize that the screenplay that he's writing, the one that is actually literally writing itself, is coming from outside of him. Eventually, Castigan comes to terms with the idea that participating in a porn (ie: acting in it) is just as much an act of active exhibition as it is a kind of passive reception of projected assumptions and desires.

What I'm trying to say is: I'm very glad I gave Pornography a chance. I'll be experiencing it for some time to come, I think....

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