[24 March 2006]
Enough porn documentaries now exist to devise a tripartite taxonomy for the subgenre. Class 1 might be called the Good Times movies, films that celebrate pornography as an expression of sexual liberation and construct porn stars and filmmakers as a cute, cuddly bunch of loveable rebels. Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, and Inside Deep Throat exemplify this category, acknowledging the dark and grimy aspects of the industry but marginalizing their significance. On the flipside of the coin, class 2 would be the Nightmare Narrative, depicting the porn world as a sordid matrix of exploitation, abuse, and pathology. Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, with its heroine revisiting the site of her gang rape and cutting herself, fits here, as does Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, which portrayed “Johnny Wadd” as a compulsive liar, drug addict, and all-around sociopath.
Finally, there’s class 3, which I’d call the Bottom Feeder. Cheapjack drivel like Desperately Seeking Seka, in which a Swedish journalist visits the U.S., ogles anonymous porn starlets at adult conventions, and haphazardly tracks down his favorite 1980s porn star to ask her banal questions in between sleazy film clips, sum this one up. If class 1 reflects a Hugh Hefner perspective and class 2 a Catharine MacKinnon one, then class 3 offers a National Enquirer angle.
Debbie Does Dallas: Uncovered strives, or at least pretends, to partake of class 2, but this is pure Bottom Feeder pabulum, through and through. The film promises us “the dark history” behind the well-known 1978 porn “classic”, but its feeble Nightmare Narrative amounts to three stories with the cumulative shock value of the Kid Rock sex tape. First, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders filed suit against the film’s producer. Then, a government antiporn operation also busted that unlucky producer. Finally, the film’s girl-next-door star, Bambi Woods, “mysteriously disappeared”. Or, as the story turns out, likely retired from porn and resumed a private life.
Director Francis Hanly handles these turgid twists with the subtlety of a Fox News special on Hillary Clinton, and he bungles the very fundamentals of exposition. The Cowboys Cheerleaders lawsuit, for instance, is simply mentioned as a source of notoriety for Debbie, but Hanly doesn’t even bother to tell us how it was resolved. Three minutes of internet research turns up a court decision upholding a Cheerleaders injunction (citation for the investigative: 467 F. Supp. 366, affirmed, 604 F. 2d 200), which means some financial arrangement was presumably reached, but we learn none of this from Uncovered, which rests content to simply tell us the lawsuit happened and press forward into equally unenlightening terrain.
That next topic is the MIPORN operation, a federal porn sweep based in Miami. The first undercover porn operation ever undertaken by the FBI, MIPORN holds a position of minor historical significance. Its connection to Debbie Does Dallas is a bit more tenuous; MIPORN was launched in 1977, a year before Debbie’s release, and its 1980 raids resulted in over 40 arrests, hardly placing producer Mickey Zaffarano in any place of centrality. Director Hanly’s main interest in MIPORN seems to be as an excuse to trot out some former FBI agents as talking heads; one former undercover agent has his face blurred even though his identity is a matter of public record, while the other brags about his jaded relation to porn after decades of obscenity busts: “Defecation bothers me,” he solemnly intones; “urination does not.” Scintillating this is not.
Then there’s the “missing” Bambi Woods, the most pathetically contrived element of Debbie‘s “dark history.” Apparently an internet fan site on dead porn stars included her on its list, which is the sum total of evidence that her “disappearance” might involve foul play. A grizzled porn producer tells Hanly of having located her parents in the 1980s while seeking her for a sequel, but despite this seemingly useful bit of information Hanly hires a Los Angeles private investigator for no particular reason. Fortunately, before the director can transform himself into a tenth-rate Nick Broomfield his short attention span gives out, so the closest the film comes to finding Woods is fellow porn star Eric Edwards shrugging, “Maybe she’s in Wisconsin making cheese.” Perhaps for his next project Hanly can investigate those rumors about Paul being dead.
There are vague intimations of humane intent behind Hanly’s inability to locate Woods. He does track down other female stars of Debbie but respects their wishes not to participate in the documentary, so perhaps he felt wary of invading Woods’ privacy with further intrusions. Regardless, the film remains inept, and it fails to even make use of the one resource it has, Debbie‘s male participants. Eric Edwards quit porn to raise two sons. Herschel Savage quit to do well, something, though Hanly’s failure to clarify basic points leaves us unclear as to just what Savage did in the decade between his 1980s retirement and his ‘90s comeback. Robert Kernan (nom de porn R. Bolla) made some minor headway into legit Hollywood acting before his agent discovered his porn past and dropped him, leading into an apparent 15-year dry spell.
These men are fascinating and clearly willing to talk, but Hanly dismissively downplays their stories. How do Edwards’ now-college-age sons feel about his porn career? How did Kernan wind up with a small role in the two Spiderman movies after a lengthy downward spiral? Savage mentions giving up on his comeback when he was disgusted by a gangbang shoot—is he still in porn, or not? These are questions Hanly never bothers to ask (he doesn’t even mention Kernan’s unforgettable performance as the anthropologist in the 1979 grindhouse classic Cannibal Holocaust, something every trash-cinema fan cherishes), opting instead to have the men pointlessly watch their 1978 performances and offer vapid commentary (which isn’t really their fault—how profound, really, can one be about a quarter-century old image of his copulating body?).
Hanly shows cowardice in failing to follow Inside Deep Throat‘s precedent of including hardcore footage, providing plenty of T&A but panning away or blurring things when they threaten to get too explicit. Ironically, this gives Debbie Does Dallas: Uncovered the tawdry feel of those 1960s softcore movies that always promised more than they gave, while the more graphic approach brought a certain legitimacy to the earlier film, lending it the straightforward frankness of a Kinsey report. But this film’s greatest sham is its 47-minute running time; the DVD box advertises “96 minutes including extras”, but assumptions of a feature-length film with some bonus materials are offset by a stultifying additional film called Diary of a Porn Virgin, which runs a minute longer than the main attraction and whose self-explanatory title saves me the effort of suffering through a description.
Suffice it to say, Debbie Does Dallas: Uncovered and its tag-along, time-padding accompaniment achieve a stunning level of vapidity that make the Jenna Jameson Biography episode appear a model of psychosocial profundity in comparison. Hell, VH-1’s I Love the 70s probably covered the film with more wit and insight in a two-minute segment. This is pure bottom-feeding drivel intended solely to cash-in on the porno-chic nostalgia heralded in by the vastly superior Inside Deep Throat, itself no masterpiece. Unless one is truly desperate to conceal a prurient interest in the guise of historical inquiry, there’s absolutely no reason to watch this.