Smut (2006)

[20 September 2006]

By Andrew Horbal

Smut begins with our protagonist, Marty (Lee Holmes), asleep and dreaming of his recently deceased mother. “What’s troubling you?” she asks him. “I’m worried about my future,” he replies. “I don’t even know who I am without you.” “It’s a cold world out there, Marty. Do your best to warm it up!” she tells him. And so, guided by these words of wisdom, Marty goes on the road to find himself with nothing to his name save for his motorcycle, a video camera, and the clothes on his back.

As fate would have it his motorcycle breaks down in “Anytown, USA” right outside of an adult bookstore owned by the garrulous Max (veteran character actor Mark Boone Junior). Marty accepts a temporary job at the store so that he can make enough money to fix his bike and move on. But wouldn’t you know it? As he’s drawn into the lives of the colorful cast of misfits that frequent the store, he begins to suspect that everything he’s looking for might be right here around him. . . .

As both the title and the setting suggest, Smut is about, well… smut. Or is it? The film certainly spends a lot of time pondering what smut is. Smut‘s direct engagement with the meaning of its title begins when Marty looks out the window of the store at the sign-wielding Christian protestors (“No smut in our town”) that have gathered outside. “What’s smut, Max?” he asks (it’s hard to tell whether he’s being naively serious or wisely rhetorical).

This question, “What is smut?” becomes the basis of a series of films Marty makes that he and the tattoo artist next door, Bav (Meredith Scott Lynn), screen as a program called Freak Show in the store’s rundown porn theater. Freak Show consists of interviews with the town’s inhabitants where they define smut in their own words, intercut with found footage and other material shot by Marty. As it grows in popularity, Freak Show itself comes to be labeled as smut (is Marty a “poet or pervert?” a local radio station asks). 

The wide range of responses in Freak Show (one subject begins, “in my country there is a ritual to cure the homosexual,” another, “the smell of piss alone is enough to make me cum”) and the variety of things explicitly labeled as “smut” in the film suggest that smut is hard to define. This idea of “smut” is further complicated by the actions of the players in the Anytown vs. Max’s Adult Emporium drama. The smut peddlers inside and outside of Max’s store (a group of transvestite prostitutes occupy the back alley) are kind people who keep their business to themselves and their clients. Acts of violence, meanwhile, are perpetrated by the town’s most prominent businessman Tex Scram (Maxwell Caulfield) who has Marty beat up to pressure him to sell the rights to Freak Show and the Christian protestors who begin to attack Max’s customers as their campaign against the store intensifies.

Smut makes the point that much of what is called “smut” is harmless and that the process of labeling is a slippery slope: once we identify something as “smut” do we then identify all considerations of it (like Marty’s films) as taboo, as smut as well? And must we then condemn anyone who sells or consumes said smut? Unfortunately, the film’s black-and-white presentation of its theme isn’t worthy of this controversial topic. By presenting Max, etc., as uncomplicated “good guys” the film neatly ignores the violent and exploitative aspects of pornography; likewise, by presenting the protestors and Tex Scram as unredeemably bloodthirsty and spiteful it ignores the many thoughtful, considered arguments against the various things that fall under the broad heading of “smut.”

Smut‘s characters are as shallow as its theme: it relies upon stereotypes and antics with the seeming intent not to enlighten, but only to entertain, and that in a most obvious manner. There’s the kinetic, affected quirkiness of the tattoo artist Bav, who spouts nonsense like “if life throws you a curve ball you just make lemonade.” There’s the affected world-weariness of the store’s resident stripper Mary Jane (Jenette Goldstein) who lives by the motto “do unto others before they do unto you.” And there’s the faux-wisdom of the self-styled “knight” Marty: “every important journey is terrifying and unexpected.”

These characters are so overwhelmed by their eccentricities that they seem more like caricatures than people, and dramatically they’re all strangely inert. No one grows, no one changes (though Melvin Van Peebles’ Elmore does die), and though Bav claims in a voice-over that after Marty came “nothing was ever the same again”, it’s hard to see how. The conservative townspeople are treated even worse. Only one, Kirsten Nelson’s Mrs. Maplethorpe, is graced with a motivation beyond simple greed or vindictiveness, and that motivation seems to be the old Freudian saw sexual frustration (in one scene she confronts Mary Jane and asks her how she gets men to like her).

There are things to like about Smut. It’s nice to see an age-defying love affair between the 20-something Marty and the middle-aged Mary Jane (Goldstein was nearly 40 during filming). There’s also much to dislike. Director-screenwriter David Wendell betrays his roots in the early-90s American Indie film explosion (he graduated from Northwestern in 1992 with a degree in film) by borrowing too heavily from the films of that period. At times the film feels uncomfortably like a Frankenstein monster constructed out of the pieces of Miramax’s Greatest Hits: Marty and his video camera roll into town in much the same way that Graham and his video camera rolled into town in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Marty’s movies resemble Lelaina’s movies in Reality Bites, and Max’s Adult Emporium feels an awful lot like the Qwik Stop Grocery in Clerks.

It’s not clear in the end if Marty finds himself in Anytown, USA. But he does get the girl (Mary Jane) and an “Attaboy” from his mother (in another vision sequence), so I suppose that she, at least, is satisfied that he did warm up this one small part of the big, cold world. But I can’t see that anything’s changed since his arrival. Bav notes in a voice-over that “he [Marty] left us with more questions than answers,” and I guess that’s something. Perhaps the film would have been better served by settling for raising questions about the nature of smut instead of offering up such easy-to-digest, simplistic answers. Smut is packaged with a limited selection of unimpressive extras: four deleted scenes that together total less than 30 seconds and a trailer.

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