TV Killed the Blue Screen Star
I’m a young writer. I’ll be the first to admit that when the legendary film Deep Throat made its sensational debut in theaters in 1972, I was barely learning to walk and talk. Lacking the experience of watching porn filmed with real film, up on a big screen, it’s easy for me and writers of my generation to pass over all porn pre-1985. It used to be that the only way to watch porn was to see it in theaters, and those who watched porn back then still extol the virtues of past porn princesses, saying that porn of days gone by had “real stars.” People around my age often look at golden-age porn and see nothing but overly hairy bodies, guys with mustaches and lots of big feathered hair.
But I have to say that the people who lament the old glamour days have a real point when they eulogize those bright, shining stars of the blue screen. I review brand-new new films every week, and much of today’s porn lacks the star power, freshness and (sue me) innocence of days gone by.
It’s undeniable that times have changed, but is today’s porn really missing something? Every generation grows up hearing that something-or-other was better in the past. This may be true, but it’s not telling us anything new or giving us information that might help us make good, informed porn selections. Finding out what really changed porn over the past 30 years is the information that is lacking — and the clues are all around us, shaping our world, and still changing porn: the advances and social impacts of technology.
By the late 1960s, adult movies had settled comfortably into adult movie houses. These were old theaters that exclusively showed pornographic films, usually all day and evening long. The audience was primarily “raincoaters”: men who slinked into the theaters to masturbate, though occasionally women and couples ventured in to do pretty much the same thing as the single guys. Porn was also watched at home or at “smokers” or “stag parties” — parties attended by single or married men, with no women — on movie projectors. When Deep Throat was released, the attention it received drove mainstream America into the adult theaters in droves. Much of the attention came when bad boy heartthrob Frank Sinatra used his own in-home movie projector in a private screening for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
That porn was viewed at home on personal projectors was no surprise — explicit films had been watched in privacy since the inception of the projector. But projectors were expensive and porn reels were just as pricey and much more elusive. Watching dirty movies in private was for the wealthy. But at the same time Deep Throat opened wide to the American mainstream, a revolutionary device arrived that would change everything. In 1972, the VCR was born.
Sony had been working on prototypes of devices that would allow home viewing of movies on magnetic tape for years, and they were not without competition. Sony labs completed and demonstrated the first VCR in 1969, and the first set of Betamax machines hit the market in 1972. These were difficult to get and very expensive. Sony responded by improving the technology, releasing a cheaper version that could record up to one hour of TV in 1975. From 1975 to 1977, Sony and RCA continued to improve and cheapen the devices, and by 1979 800,000 American homes had VCRs.
The VCR affected the world of moviemaking powerfully. Never before could viewers have such control over what they saw, and see it in the privacy of their own home. Like books, VCRs allowed the viewer to be selective, active and individual. These factors of newfound power and control on the part of the viewer caused a significant shift in the markets by allowing consumers to determine industry output with their buying power. Also, these factors made VCRs the perfect tool for watching explicit movies. These factors were behind the skyrocketing demand for porn created by the new machines.
In the 1980s adult industry blossomed with the VCR, then all but exploded with the development of inexpensive video cameras. Where there was increased demand, the supply had to meet it, and despite getting busted, censored and targeted by lawmakers and law enforcement, pornographers grew less concerned with the artistry of making films and more concerned with churning out profitable product. In the mid-1980s, Sony technology was about to give the industry another leap when it staged a competition for designers to create the best camcorder. Many were submitted, and the designs that won were given to a Sony team whose goal was to create a small, affordable camcorder that would get the attention of consumers around the world. They reached their goal in 1988.
By the end of the ’80s, you didn’t need a budget to make porn — just a camera. It seemed no longer necessary, and not at all practical, to make high-quality adult films like those that had screened in theaters. Demand for porn continued to increase. And with the increasing ease of production, the quality of porn plummeted. Practically anyone could churn out several films a week — and they still can. In 1989 a new genre was born: “gonzo,” where there is no plot and the man with the camera directs the action, occasionally getting involved and giving the viewer a first-person experience. Taking its name from Hunter S. Thompson’s irreverent, improvised situational style of journalism, the genre gave every camcorder owner the feeling he or she could make porn, and made voyeurism into a style of video production. John Stagliano (aka Buttman) and Ed Powers pioneered gonzo and are considered by many to be at the top of the trade, though they have heavy competition from filmmakers such as Adam Glasser (Seymore Butts) and Ben Dover.
While past technological breakthroughs like VCRs and camcorders, and new ones like the Web, cheap digital video and satellite/cable accessibility have decreased the level of cinematic quality in porn, they’ve also increased the sexual heat. When gonzo is done well, there are plenty of unscripted, incredible sex scenes and gonzo often uses amateurs, so the enthusiasm and freshness of the performers can be riveting. The Screaming Orgasms series is a great example, and my top pick for couples gonzo is the Amateur Angels series. The whole style of plotless voyeur porn can make for absolutely the best masturbation material for many of the same reasons, and you can see the arousing results in John Leslie’s exceptional Voyeur and Fresh Meat videos.
It’s tougher today than it was 30 years ago to find a video that stands up to high-quality stroke classics like Outlaw Ladies and The Opening of Misty Beethoven. But even though there’s a whole lot of bad new porn flooding the market, there are plenty of gems that continue to be produced as a result of the industry’s change and growth. In fact, because of technology’s impact on how much the viewer controls what she or he sees, adult filmmakers and distributors are really starting to hone the films to meet the market’s demand for good videos, hot sex, believability and people who reflect who we are and what we lust after. It’s an exciting time to be a porn reviewer.