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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Boom times and hard times at Pornhub

Screen Grabs: Boom times and hard times at Pornhub

Plus: Charles Bronson is a rock 'em-sock 'em hustler, Carol Kane gets bananas in 'The Mafu Cage'

A shut-in neighbor whose dog I walked for several years, till he (as well as the dog) had passed away, worked in the entertainment industry during healthier times, and had an often-racy anecdote about nearly any star you could name. He’d been steadily employed on movies, in television, and in theater before illness cut his career short.

Still, I was unprepared for his response when I mentioned having tracked down a personal celluloid Holy Grail—Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days, a 1975 flop from SF’s own Mitchell Brothers, who’d just made a fortune with “porn chic” megahit Behind the Green Door. Unsurprisingly, that long-forgotten, quasi-Biblical f*ckfest turned out to be something of a slog. Still, personal curiosity had been satisfied re: what was once (and may well remain) the most expensive feature ever made for the XXX market. Imagine my shock at having this PAWS client say “Oh, I worked on that,” as a costumier, even if four decades or so later he remembered little about the experience beyond “The money was good.”

Since that moment nearly half a century ago—when the high-flying Mitchells might drop a then-unheard-of cool million on a “porno” in the sincere belief that such movies would soon gain stature equal to mainstream Hollywood releases—the adult entertainment industry has undergone various permutations. One tidal shift came in the move from theaters to home viewing, with the arrival of VCRs. Then the internet became an inevitable new depository for XXX content, as well as a problem for those profiting from it: Having public forums for free sharing of somebody else’s property meant a huge exodus of paying customers, impacting much as Napster had with music, or other sites did/do with regular commercial feature films. One thing is for sure: It only gets harder for creators to maintain control of their property, and its revenue.

A case study in that scenario is Money Shot: The Pornhub Story, which premieres on Netflix this Wed/15. Suzanne Hillinger’s documentary is about the Canada-based website that has come to dominate the adult market (though globally, it runs a close second to French-owned XVideos). Its ascendancy in the late Noughties, combined with users’ ability to upload content themselves, had a devastating effect on the preexisting industry, which saw its material being given away too fast and too frequently for rights-holders’ objections to register. That forced a new shift, akin to the readjustment of product when home viewing originally killed off projection venues. Choosing to swim rather than sink, pornographers began collaborating with Pornhub rather than resisting it. This in turn led to a rise in performers (or “models,” as they’re often called) seizing controls in a way they seldom had before, often via live-streamed solo showcases catering to a particular taste (like “Big Beautiful Women”) or fetish.

Probably nobody would ever dream of a large-scale endeavor like Sodom and Gomorrah again, let alone paying the entire cast and crew the kind of more-than-decent wages my PAWS client once enjoyed. But an exhibitionistically inclined “amateur”—a term that’s grown increasingly irrelevant—might generate a fair personal income in their own bedroom, on their own time, for viewer-fans willing to pay a modest subscription or other fee in return for content outside Pornhub’s vast store of free videos.

It is noted in Money Shot that this opened the field, as well as creative freedom and financial independence, to people who might not have suited the typically more conservative needs of studio-produced porn, where higher costs necessitated broader appeal. It also allowed a career (or side job) in types of sex work without the dangers of more traditional forms, such as “streetwalking.” Various platform celebrities including Siri Dahl, Cherie DeVille, Wolf Hudson, Gwen Adora, and more attest to having found the expressive outlet—and, yes, the money—very good indeed.

But the sheer quantity-over-quality scale of PornHub (and affiliated sites, all owned by umbrella corporation MindGeek) rested largely on its posting material by unverified users. Only verified ones could monetize the system, like the performers mentioned above. Anyone else, however, could post anything they liked, with site moderation nominal at best. Understaffed, overwhelmed personnel tasked with finding offensive or illegal content had little chance of keeping up. Thus there was a small but nonetheless highly disturbing minority of files available that were “nonconsensual” in one way or another: Uploaded without participants’ content, involving underage and/or sex-trafficked personnel, depicting actual (as opposed to play-acted) assault.

Activism against these kinds of exploitation reached a zenith after the publication of a 2020 New York Times expose by Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof titled “The Children of Pornhub,” which claimed (among other things) that the site was “infested with rape videos.” Soon there was also a lawsuit filed on behalf of 30 women, accusing PH of running “a criminal enterprise and exploiting them for profit.”

Its owners as well as many contributors protested that these portrayals were distorted and sensationalized, tarring them with a brush relevant only to a tiny percentage of site content. But under pressure amidst a high-profile backlash, major credit cards withdrew from Pornhub, which itself pulled all unverified-user uploads from the site—as many as ten million, the vast majority of them perfectly legal.

Unfortunately for the performers who’d previously eked out a living from their visibility there, the erasure of payment options put an end to that. Their loss didn’t matter much to PH’s owners, who in any case primarily made their astronomical profits not off users, but from advertisers.

Money Shot’s 94 minutes tell a very complicated, fast-paced, somewhat confusing story with only a side-serving of titillation—this is ultimately all about the serpentine mechanizations of business, and politics. One can hardly object to the efforts of anyone to stop sexual abuse in any form, whether it be among minors, trafficking victims, or “revenge porn” targets. Yet late in the going here, we learn that several of the individual crusaders and organizations seen carrying that torch are affiliated with evangelical organizations that are anti-porn in general, and define “pornography” so loosely as to encompass such supermarket-checkout destroyers of morality as Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan.

As with so many things today, their righteousness tends to inflate some hot-button issues while disguising parts of their own agendas, with end goals that look less like protecting the innocent than creeping (towards sweeping) censorship. In the words of one observer here, “Porn is traditionally the canary in the coal mine of free speech.” We may not always approve, but once consensual adult content is silenced, what will be next? The answer, of course, is: Everything. Everything someone disapproves of will be “next.”

The same year the Mitchell Brothers’ magnum opus bombed, a major mainstream filmmaker made his directorial debut with Hard Times. Walter Hill had had enough success as a screenwriter (notably via Peckinpah’s 1972 The Getaway) to get offered that shot on a preexisting script he re-set in New Orleans during the Great Depression. Initially intended for a younger actor, it wound up starring 52-year-old Charles Bronson—a running gag here being that his character is routinely sized up as being a mere “old guy,” only to wallop all comers. (Indeed, he’s so sinewy, he makes much bigger, younger opponents look soft and vulnerable.) He plays Chaney, a drifter of unknown past and unguessable future who decides he’ll briefly hitch his wagon to big-mouthed “Speed” Weed (James Coburn), a gambler profiting from pick-up fights between amateur boxing combatants.

Given that these figures and others simply pass through each others’ transient lives, the movie ultimately feels like sort of an anecdote rather than anything substantial. But it’s still one of the richer period buddy-caper films to follow in the wake of The Sting’s huge success, as well as an immediate indication that Hill was a natural purveyor of muscular action. (He considered all his subsequent films “westerns” at heart, whether a big mainstream hit like 48 Hrs. or cult favorites such as The WarriorsStreets of Fire, and The Driver.) So often a monolithic actor in mediocre films, Bronson’s beady-eyed smirk in this context acquires a droll dignity suggesting graduation from the school of million hard knocks, and every supporting role is colorfully filled.

The exception is the star’s wife Jill Ireland, a rather dreary Brit beauty who apparently came as a contractual obligation—she was in 16 of his films. She later won acclaim for writing memoirs about the breast cancer battle that eventually claimed her life in 1990. But as an actress, she made even her husband look comparatively animated. She doesn’t do much damage here (the worst case was the next year’s From Noon till Three, a near-great western seriocomedy significantly impacted by her wet-blanket performance), but apparently Bronson took great offense at Hill reducing her part in the editing.

The two men never spoke again—a real pity, since Hill remained a first-rate genre director for years to come, while Bronson churned out increasingly sorry dreck for the rest of his working life. Hard Times gets a rare big-screen revival next Mon/20 at the Alamo Drafthouse (more info here).

It was a solid box-office hit in original release, which could not be said for Karen Arthur’s 1978 The Mafu Cage, which also gets revived at the Alamo this Wed/15 (more info here). Indeed, despite a Cannes premiere and decent European distribution, it was barely seen in North America, and did not much benefit from the subsequent VHS boom, either. It’s a cult movie that is still finding its cult, though mercifully a few more people today know it as not just a particularly interesting psychological horror exercise, but one of the best among the few US commercial features directed by a woman in the Me Decade.

It also provides exceptional roles for two powerhouse actresses, playing the daughters of a late anthropologist who raised them in the social isolation of an African jungle. Ellen (Lee Grant) has become a respected astronomer employed at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. But her non-work life is bound to caretaking of younger sibling Cissy (Carol Kane), a mercurial, somewhat mad child-woman who cannot be trusted outside the bounds of their Hollywood Hills home, and must be placated with pet-monkey companions—whom she invariably ends up killing during periods of violent mania.

The women’s one mutual human friend is their zoologist godfather Zom (Will Geer), who agrees to keep an eye on Cissy when Ellen is reluctantly convinced to attend an out-of-town conference. But this break in routine proves disastrous, particularly for David (James Olson), the coworker Ellen resisted becoming romantically involved with because of her sister’s pressing issues.

This story (which scenarist Don Chastain drew from a French stage play) might easily have descended into exotic-gothic kitsch located somewhere between Maria Montez and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But Arthur and the performers bring it considerable conviction, however baroque. Generally typed by Hollywood as a comedienne, Kane offers a truly scarifying if baroque portrait of mental illness, while Grant plumbs tragic depths as a person whose endless self-sacrifice can’t prevent catastrophe. Geer, an offscreen veteran gay activist then still playing Grandpa on The Waltons, gets one of his best screen roles, while Olson, who died just last year but retired from acting 32 years earlier, reminds one what an underrated talent he was.

The Mafu Cage (which was also released as My Sister, My Love and under other titles in fruitless efforts at finding an audience) is imperfect but strikingly memorable in many ways. Typically for women directors then, and for years to come, Arthur had a tough time in features (she made one more interesting, underseen thriller called Lady Beware in 1987), but found her options much improved in television, where she successfully spent the remaining three decades of her career.

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