[21 July 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Why paint visual interpretations of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow? Why write a memoir about your surrealist experience of the art world and almost instinctual segue into the adult entertainment industry? Why become an alt-porn star and sometimes awkwardly pose for the camera during a blowjob scene? Well, isn’t it obvious? To get laid, of course, and to have sex with some of the hottest, toughest, inked women to grace the punk scene for decades. Is that really so hard (no pun intended) to understand?
The short answer, yes! Simply put, kinky sex infused with fist-wielding subculture fascinates viewers (and readers) around the world, and an artist’s journey from painter to the lucky bastards who gets to have sex with hardcore chicks is even more fascinating. Naturally, Zak Smith’s memoir We Did Porn is the stuff dreams are made of (at least the dreams of us male part-time punks).
Be warned though: Smith’s book isn’t just steamy sex scenes between goths and misfits, but rather a detailed journey down the alt-porn rabbit hole, a journey that sends Smith tumbling through the catacombs of the ephemeral New York art world, enduring bouts of genuine depression, unleashing his sexual freedom while also carefully choreographing his pleasure for the camera, flying across the country (and sometimes across oceans) to appear in seedy movies and blood orgies.
All the while, Smith sells his drawings and paintings, migrating between Los Angeles and New York, exploring the boundaries of erotic content and shaping the future of the porn industry. In bed with (not literally) legends like Leom McFrei and Osbie Feel, his intense voyage through the sex biz has been as bizarre as it has been enlightening, though—interestingly enough—in contrast to some of his modern ideals about great art at times. For instance, in his chapter “Like Porn Only a Place”, Smith states:
When you consider the 36 pornographic videos that are being made today, and were made yesterday, and the day before and the day before that, and are made every single day, and if you add in all the romance novels and soap operas and socially acceptable sentimental movies and all the other brands of entertainment that exist not because their inventors hoped their audiences would find them, y’know, interesting as things, but because they allow their audiences to pretend to be wanted in the way they want to be wanted by the ones they want to want them—instead of being wanted by people they don’t want or by no one at all—and then remember each represents an entire audience, then you will immediately see how arid and failed the human project is and how, when you ask people to give up their addictions, they are bound to ask you just what they are going to get in return.
That’s not to say that Smith is a nymphomaniac (insofar as we’re all addicted to sex to some degree). First and foremost, he’s simply Zak, and his jobs include painting, writing, and doing porn which (let’s not kid ourselves here) is indeed work. As Smith (known as Zak Sabbath on set) himself confesses, “Sometimes, you can’t tell whether the female talent wants to have sex with you and also there’s some other simultaneous distractions like temperatures so extreme that any mammal would think twice about normal sex in such circumstances, much less porno sex.”
Can you just imagine? Posing for a camera, reading dirty lines and wooden dialogue from a memorized script, surrounded by a camera crew and maybe a dog taking a dump just a few feet away from the set, moving from one shot to the next whether you’re in the mood or not, looking for an excuse—any excuse—to leave and just go home and sleep.
Unfortunately, as readers will find out, there are no excuses in porn, short of a plane crash on your way to another movie. Take a moment, and really think about this. Interesting, daring individuals are getting paid for sex as you read this very review, and whether or not you convince yourself that this exchange is somehow degrading, that doesn’t change the fact that porn (and talent) operates by the same silly principles of any entertainment industry: give the audience what they want.
Which creates a strange new portrait of reality, one that Smith captures quite eloquently with his energetic voice, reminiscent of the over-caffeinated beats. Essentially, through his internal debates during graphic sex scenes, his dealings with the critically self-acclaimed art world (which is not a neighborhood in New York, contrary to common belief), and his touching experiences with the strangers he’s come to call friends, he reveals the blurred line between genuine intimacy and sexual instruments that is a symptom of our blessed (and cursed) generation.
Let’s face the music: sex is our middle name. And though we may be lost at the sea of our post-modern lives, streaming porn, reading about alt-porn stars, we’re still human, just like the artist Zak Smith, searching for truth. After all, why write a memoir unless you want to share what you’ve learned, reveal your personal revelations, and perhaps glean the truth from your seemingly fucked-up past?
In summation, if you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes psychology and emotional development of the talent teeming in the new, exciting alt-porn industry, We Did Porn is a must-read. Not to mention the fact that you get a sneak peek at over a hundred new portraits by Smith, artwork that dares you to flinch, paintings and drawings that demand your attention and your respect of the people behind the most recent (and damn erotic) sexual fad.