Can porn be art? On the set of an indie erotic film

Can porn be art? On the set of an indie erotic film
May 23 15:15 2016 Print This Article

Getting access to a porn set isn’t easy. Pornography has become a $100 billion industry without really letting anyone see behind the curtain and most producers are keen to keep it that way.

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Director Erika Lust with set make-up artist Laila Alsane

Trying to broker a visit to a shoot for a major US studio that is about as close to a household name as a porn studio is going to get recently, a former employee warned me that they might be “weird about it” due to “sketchiness around the girls”.  Reassuring them that I can be trusted and don’t exactly work for ‘Tits Monthly’ or similar, they replied: “Oh it’s not you that’s sketchy. It’s them!”

Self-styled ‘indie erotic film director’ Erika Lust was more than happy for me to stop in on a day’s filming however, given she’s at the fore of a cabal of female pornographers trying shift the porn paradigm in terms of both ethical and aesthetical quality.

But let’s back up for a second. The last few years have seen porn become more overtly mainstream and the stigma around talking about it get eroded, while TV and film has sought to deal with sex in a more realistic and less winking way. Consider for instance, how Sex and the City and its discussions of teabagging over lunch was shocking when it first arrived on HBO, and now seasons of fellow network alum. Girls open with enthusiastic analingus over the kitchen sink, or how Lars von Trier is making two-part sex epics using real porn actors from the waist down.

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Meanwhile in porn, producers like xHamster are making their first forays into original programming a la Netflix, and the monolithic Pornhub has gone ‘IRL’, advertising on billboards instead of via those fast-looping explicit GIFs you find in the website sidebars of more esoteric corners of the internet. If you worked in porn you used to keep it on the down low, whereas now you will find stars cheerfully tweeting things like: “Just finished a double penetration scene with [@whoever], thrilling shoot!”

The assimilation of erotic content and just content is coming, and it’s going to be big business.

Arriving to the luxury apartment in Barcelona that Erika Lust is using for today’s shoot (I believe it belongs to an acquaintance, which is not uncommon; having your home used to film porn apparently providing a bohemian thrill for the liberal bourgeoisie), I’m struck by how similar it feels to that of a micro-budget indie film, i.e. much bigger than expected. Instead of the balding, sweaty director and boom-holding sound guy with a fanny pack whose lurking presence you just assume when watching conventional porn – the kind with lurid sofas and similarly lurid, perfunctory intro dialogue – there is a whole team of young, casually hip women darting around the set in Converse. I think my headcount is 12, but they move so fast, occasionally pausing to debate compositional points in Spanish, that it’s hard to keep track. The film my photographer and I are here to see being made is Vampire, the latest instalment in Erika’s XConfessions series, which sees the fantasies of fans, submitted on her website, come to life.

Actor Parker Marx playing the titular Vampire

Actor Parker Marx playing the titular Vampire

Vampire’s premise typifies sex-positive feminist Erika’s subversive approach to porn (subversive at least in the sense that the sex doesn’t revolve around an inexplicably ripped pizza delivery boy going above and beyond the call of duty), centring on a girl on her period daydreaming about a vampire coming into her home and lapping up her menstrual blood. Erika’s scenes are short but carefully composed, coming with a finesse that we’re not used to in the 480p clips repeatedly ripped and uploaded to streaming sites. As such, her shoots tend to take much longer than conventional porn, and as much care is taken over establishing shots as the ones of actual f*cking.

Reclining on the bed which will shortly be thoroughly defiled in an upcoming scene, I watch on the monitor as Erika’s team of ADs (assistant directors) beaver away applying fake blood to the actress in the bathroom next door, painstakingly trying to get the perfect drip down her thigh in close-up as she stands naked in the marble bath tub.

 

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An excerpt from the XConfessions blurb:

‘Real films with real sex: this is not a place for stereotypical porno-cheap imagery. To Erika, artistic pornography goes beyond designer furniture, violins, glasses of wine, golden masks and vanilla sex. We want to keep you excited: unlike many other adult sites, at XConfessions you won’t find the same story or setting twice. Every short film is a story on its own, displaying a huge variety of situations, characters, fetishes and ways of having sex.’

In between takes, the mood is fairly convivial – cast, crew and your correspondents hovering around the vast dining room table below the mezzanine which is strewn with strawberries, snacks and Spanish lunch staples. Though everyone’s jobs are very specified, they share a camaraderie and friendship that clearly runs deeper than just professionalism. The team is 95% women and it’s pretty f*cking cool/heartening watching them work as a unit in an industry troublingly dominated by men. Laila, the shoot’s make-up artist and essentially spirit animal, seems integral to the set’s buoyant mood, and is so smiley and chatty that your correspondents briefly forget to actually pay attention to the filming.

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The fake blood, ready for application

 

The only bad vibes in the apartment come from actress Misha Cross. She of Pornhub top 10/Adult Video News Awards stalwart/79,000 Twitter followers fame, Misha has a haughtiness that jars with everyone else’s attitude and is a pretty weird choice to star opposite her newcomer co-star, today’s titular vampire, Parker Marx. Parker, who recently drifted into porn, he tells me, after becoming involved in the London erotic scene, is just an incredibly unpretentious, nice dude who is there to do a job. It’s awkward watching

the pair not really interact, let alone chat and joke, ahead of their incredibly intimate scene, and vaguely comedic as he stands dressed as a vampire nervously by the table as Misha preens and checks her phone facing the opposite

direction nearby. Their contrast is probably best summed up in their respective Twitter feeds, Parker tweeting long reads about government sex legislation, Misha trying to flog a pair of heels that she broke in a recent scene to desperate male fans. It strikes me from talking to the crew that this is not indicative of the usual relationship

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between co-stars on Erika’s sets though, and hiring an actress used to conventional porn production for this very new kind was simply a misstep.

When everyone returns from lunch at a nearby restaurant (a day’s shooting can be long, so a hearty lunch is of utmost importance), filming begins on the first sex scene, in which the vampire appears in the girl’s bedroom, rouses her from her daydream and begins going down on her. It will come as little surprise that watching repeated takes of this is anything but arousing, just as an incredibly moving scene in a drama can actually be pretty gruelling and prosaic to shoot. I have two main reactions half an hour in: directing porn looks like a lot of fun, trying to capture the passion of a scene like a painter, and starring in one does not, such is the invasiveness of the job – I’m sure there are days when you’re a bit tired or hungover and don’t massively feel like deepthroating a stranger. Erika’s enthusiasm and diligence for what she does is inspiring, and every single take she is glued to the monitor, occasionally shouting orders and tweaks to the performers as subtle as the placement of a hand on the bed.

Almost all of the (considerable) press coverage Erika has had so far, including our own, has been focused on the feminist aspect to her work, both in front of and behind the camera, but of equal interest is its artistic mission statement.

Erika was driven to make pornography after feeling “disgusted” by the often “tacky” and “ugly” porn she was first exposed to in college. “I portray sex the way I see it,” she says, “beautiful, intelligent, and full of joy.” She is certainly a cinephile (instead of the usual incendiary comments, her site is full of discussions on things like sex in the oeuvre of filmmaker’s filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky) and her films share stylistic points with the kind of movies you might find at Sundance or SXSW. Though bluntly named, the short His Was First In My Ass opens with sunlight-soaked shots of a girl’s bookshelf, as she lounges in bed reading prose to herself. The super HD, high-quality footage is ideal for porn and adds to its carnality, while the more realistic sets and more eclectic choices of performers makes the scenes feel more authentic in comparison to conventional ones, which are so thrown together someone even made a blog charting all the appearances of Ikea furniture in them.

But can art and porn co-exist? Films like the aforementioned von Trier film Nymphomaniac, along with Palm d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Colour and Gaspar Noé’s Love show that art and sex can, but the former pairing reaches a paradox, where narrative immersion and sexual arousal clash. Consider for instance, that your favourite film was punctuated by a sex scene that instead of flashing forward to the morning after, took its time to show every last thrust and bio-emission of the intercourse, transcending its role in the film’s tone or plot so as to titilate the viewer, would you not feel pulled out of the narrative? Erika is clear that her films are not designed with masturbation in mind, though I suspect many of her customers, male and female, do indulge. It’s hard to imagine this type of content feature length, though it’s encouraging to see people like Erika, Lucie Blush, FrolicMe’s Anna and other pornographers giving sex the love and care it deserves, not out of some duty to better educate people, but because they get that someone lying in knickers and a t-shirt in post-nap horny stupor can be infinitely more sexy than a cosmetically enhanced, creosote-skinned porn ‘star’ perched on a modernist sofa.

Debriefing and knocking back some sangria in a bar after the shoot, my photographer and I decide that ‘girl’s boyfriend surprises her by actually being turned on by her period’ might have been a more compelling and progressive period-orientated fantasy than the vampire one, but also that, being men, what the hell do we know?

The indie porn scene is endlessly fascinating, and only destined to grow as distribution becomes easier online and the mass-market style feels increasingly archaic. It might still be a way off being taken seriously as art or cinema, but it’s important that people like Erika are brave enough to put themselves out there as pornographers and start a discussion about the way we view and depict sex.

 

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