No Concessions: My Porn “Experience”

Written by Film, No Concessions

Bob Cashill went out and had himself a Girlfriend Experience this week — an experience he relives in the latest edition of No Concessions.

Twenty-five years ago, Brian De Palma planned to give porn star Annette Haven the lead role of “Holly Body” in his film Body Double, but backed off as controversy threatened to erupt. Today, Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh builds a whole movie, The Girlfriend Experience, around porn star Sasha Grey, and no one blinks. Why does the star of Anal Cavity Search 6 and This Ain’t Star Trek XXX land this rare crossover opportunity?

For the same reason that the 21-year-old has appeared in videos by the Smashing Pumpkins and The Roots, sat down with Tyra Banks, and been interviewed/celebrated by publications including Los Angeles magazine, Rolling Stone, and The Wall Street Journal—shaved and airbrushed, the porn industry just isn’t as dirty as it once was. I remember the filthy old days of the ’70s, when the New York Post ran titillating ads for adults-only fare like The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (“It’s Not Just His Nose That Grows!”) and the neighborhood cinema where I grew up in sleepy suburban New Jersey went from showing Disney double features one summer to hardcore porn in fall. When Love Muscle replaced The Love Bug, a snake had clearly crawled into the Garden State.

In 1979, when porn was outlaw, it was easy to believe in the premise of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which scandalized my high school. “Oh my God, that’s my daughter,” fretted the poster, above an image of an anguished George C. Scott. From what we knew of the sleazy shenanigans out in Hell-A, it was entirely believable that an innocent girl like the one in the movie could be lured from an amusement park in California, drugged and raped on film by “Jism Jim,” then transported south of the border for snuff movie murder at the hands of the fearsome “Ratan.” (It was never believable that Scott, as the girl’s rigidly conservative father, could successfully masquerade as a swinging porn producer to find her, as also happens in the film.) Twenty years later, a similar premise seemed laughably quaint in 8MM, with Nicolas Cage doing the worrying. It wasn’t just that 1997’s Oscar-nominated Boogie Nights had looked at the 70’s porn scene with bemused nostalgia. The entire industry had moved off the streets and onto our VCRs, DVD players, and finally our computers, where it became tamed and domesticated, at least for the viewer. The porn theater merged with the home theater; no need to hide behind a raincoat and join the unwashed at the triple-XXX bijou, or skulk out of the videostore with tapes embarrassingly concealed from passers-by.

Porn and the mainstream are at second base these days. Last year Zack and Miri made a porno; this year there’s an indie called Humpday, about two straight male friends who decide to make gay porn together. I don’t know if the upcoming HBO series Hung has a porno element but the title would seem to hang in that direction. Riley Steele, Grey’s co-star in the sex spoof Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, has a part in Piranha 3-D, a remake directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), with Elisabeth Shue and Richard Dreyfuss. And I’ve read possibly fake-but-nowadays believable tales that parents bring their daughters to porn auditions, hoping they’ll become the next Jenna Jameson or, who knows, Sasha Grey. “Hey, that’s my daughter!”

To hear Grey tell it, she and other members of the new breed of porn have house-broken the industry. Being slapped, gagged and gang-banged for money and a kind of fame is no longer degrading or a sign of victimhood; it’s empowering, a woman’s fearless reclamation of her sexuality. “One of the upsides of being an adult-film star is that you can be yourself,” Grey told the Village Voice this week. “You are the personality. In the art I create, my strength is who I am—my brand is who I am.” Whatever: If saying so gives her the strength to go from American Apparel ads to Cum Buckets! 8, and lets viewers get off on her work guilt-free, power up.

Grey isn’t the first porn performer to try extending her brand to the mainstream. Traci Lords, Ron Jeremy, and Nina Hartley are among those who’ve been spotted in films with printable titles, and the late Marilyn Chambers was well ahead of the curve in David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977), as an attractive plague bearer. (I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say I valued her more in 1980’s Insatiable, a more typical credit that played a part in my, umm, formative development. I won’t distance myself—porn, yes, I’ve inhaled.) But Grey’s part is more central and enveloping, if the film itself isn’t much more than a New Wave-ish trifle, another of Soderbergh’s hi-def diversions that, like porn, is destined to be viewed more at home than in theaters.

She plays Chelsea, a high-priced New York escort whose clients are coming apart at the seams as the economy collapses and McCain and Obama duke it out. The film was shot in 16 days last October and, though there was a script, by Ocean’s Thirteen co-writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, the non-actors used improvised in places. Non-actors and improvisation can add up to a lot of dead air when the movie gods don’t smile upon a production, and while Soderbergh tries to get a surface buzz going with a lively Ross Godfrey score and some clever cutting it’s apparent they were mostly stone-faced those two-and-a-half weeks. The 77 minutes of The Girlfriend Experience are excruciatingly dull in spots, as conversations you wish you weren’t privy to unfold in sleek, soulless restaurants and boutiques you’d never be tempted to visit. There’s a funny bit at the end, when one of Chelsea’s clients, an Orthodox Jew, urges her to vote McCain “for the survival of Israel”; otherwise, what might have been an end-of-an-era comedy-drama along the lines of the 1975 classic Shampoo, where everyone’s hustling, winds up freeze-dried. Given how difficult it was for me to get it up for much of anything about The Girlfriend Experience, I appreciated the intrusion of former Premiere critic Glenn Kenny as The Erotic Connoisseur, a web homunculus who gives Chelsea a failing grade online and disrupts her business.

Trouble is, his cutting remarks, starting with her “flat affect,” are pretty much on the money. Strikingly Slavic-looking from certain angles, Grey is seen to better advantage in stills or, frankly, the bits and pieces that constitute her day job, which you can find streaming on the Web. When she speaks—she natters Bret Ellis Easton-type lists of expensive clothes in voiceovers—The Girlfriend Experience is compromised. The voice doesn’t match the styling. You’d expect something huskier or smokier, and I’d ask for a refund if I had planned a whole weekend with her, as a client does in the film. I think Soderbergh liked her because she knows art cinema and she wanted to porn-name herself Anna Karina, after Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s muse. But she may only be special, or a spectacle, in small doses. He may have felt the same way: In a couple of sequences his camera drifts off her to focus on a lighting fixture, as if it were more interesting than his star.

Outside of mild sex scenes and a little nudity, The Girlfriend Experience is timid, not even hard R. There’s nothing to push the envelope here, as in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) or Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), which used Grey’s first blue movie co-star, Rocco Siffredi, in his native element. Soderbergh was too thorough in cleansing the movie of possible exploitation. The problem with Grey’s crossover is her guardedness, a screw-me-but-don’t-screw-with-me attitude with no hint of mystery. She’s literally skin-deep: Jane Fonda is far more alluring and vulnerable selling herself in 1971’s Klute, and so for that matter is Billie Piper in the similar Showtime import Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Perhaps acting it, rather than being it, is more freeing.

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