While doing research for a book on the history of gay male porn, Michael Castigan (Matthew Montgomery) discovers what looks like “proof” of the perennially suspected darkest side of the adult film industry. Back in 1995 Mark Anton (Jared Grey) was the new “it” boy. He made his debut with a low-rent studio out of New York, starred in a number of films (none of which had the impact of his first performance), and then disappeared. Following a series of mysterious leads and seeming happenstance, Michael finds himself in possession of a degraded videotape that suggests Anton’s final performance was in a snuff film.
The existence of snuff films is questionable at best, both in our world and in the world of Pornography: A Thriller. When Michael brings up the possibility to his video store aficionado Harry (Larry Weissman), telling him that he’s “heard a rumor” about Anton’s demise, Harry tells him, “There’s always a rumor about a video”... but snuff films are the stuff of urban legend.
Michael persists, and his investigation is arranged in three acts; Anton’s life in 1995, Michael’s current day reconstruction of the story in New York, and, simultaneously in Los Angeles, porn star turned wannabe porn director Matt Stevens (Pete Scherer) attempts to reproduce the story on film. The fragmented narrative never quite coheres, and we are left wondering whether or not Anton did meet a snuffy end—perfectly appropriate to ongoing questions about the reality of the genre.
Mainstream films repeatedly draw connections between pornography and snuff. Though David Kittredge’s film doesn’t exactly tread new ground topically, it is testament to our continued fascination with the question of snuff. Pornography: A Thriller doesn’t quite achieve the excellence of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), it is far superior to Joel Schumacher’s horrid 8mm (1999). Where Pornography: A Thriller is more of the moment is in its observation about the proliferation and provisional normalization of pornography over the past two decades. While porn production and consumption have grown exponentially since the introduction of VCRs in the 1980s, its “legitimacy” continues to be vexed.
Pornography: A Thriller looks closely as the tension between porn’s ubiquity and the moral judgment cast against it. Matt Stevens is wracked by guilt over his mother’s disapproval of his career, despite the fact that he insists that he likes and is good at his job. When queried about how and why he got into porn, Anton offers the expected narrative (that he was molested, abused, and exploited as a child, ran away from home, had no other alternatives, etc.), only to directly reject that simplistic equation (bad beginning leads to bad end).
The film also considers the moral borders negotiated by consumers: while trying to explain his affection for the genre, Michael tells his boyfriend William (Walter Delmar), that porn tells us “who we are” as a culture. There is a least a partial truth in this estimation, or at least one that’s entered into common parlance: the increasing proliferation of adult entertainment, for instance, has a name: “pornification”.
This colonization of everyday life by pornographic ideality is directly spoken in the film by Matt Stevens. In the interview clip that opens Pornography: A Thriller, Matt is asked why porn is important. He initially offers the usual answer about exploring sexual fantasies in a safe environment and manner. Then he gets to the crux of the matter, identifying the pedagogic function of porn: “Not everyone can fuck a porn star, but everyone can fuck like a porn star.”
The problem is that the word “can.” Within the pornification of everyday life, this aim is less an elective than an imperative. We are all, apparently, now supposed to look and fuck like porn stars, and to want to do so as marker of our sexual liberation. But the porn star is a commodity, and represents the commodification of the self. In holding up pornography and its representatives as ideals, we participate in our own exploitation. Feminist philosopher Nina Power has recently made precisely this argument (in One Dimensional Woman), calling such “auto-objectification” and the expectation that we be continual “self-sellers” demonstrative of our full submission to capitalist imperatives.
Pornography: A Thriller notes this process, as well as the kicker ultimate end: life and death both commodified. Asked what it’s like “fucking in front of a camera,” Anton answers: “It’s kind of like fucking in front of a camera.” It’s not glamorous, it’s labor. In this regard, the proliferation of porn looks less and less like sexual liberation and more like work.