Sex & Senibility
“What I want people to know is that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies,” says the beautiful buxom blonde onscreen. “Nor should we be ashamed to express ourselves through sexuality.” Her partner, a young, slim man with curly black hair, nods, a wide grin dividing his delicate face. The two sit side by side, fully clothed, talking directly into the camera. “It’s important to follow your heart,” says the blonde, “And this is what’s in our hearts.”
So begins the beautifully edited lovemaking session of Xana and Dax Star, one of the real-life couples director Tony Comstock has filmed for Comstock Films, a radically different adult film company that’s appropriated its moniker from one of the most infamous names in U.S. censorship, Anthony Comstock. The work coming from Comstock Films challenges what we’ve come to expect — as humans, as sensitive, sexual beings — from an industry whose latest lucrative trend focuses, like the omnipresent reality shows of network television, on realistic, but decidedly fake approximations of human interaction.
“There's this presumption that porn is only about fantasy,” says Comstock from his home in New York. “Well if that's so, then I'm not doing porn.” He’s not being flip; it’s just that the word is so loaded, so fraught with tackiness and compromise. “Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against fantasy, but my work is not about something remote and unobtainable, it's about something that is right here, in each and every one of us, something that can make us connect to another person in a profoundly pleasurable way.”
In short, his work is like very little else in the world of modern American porn. According to Violet Blue, award-winning sex writer and longtime Good Vibrations editor, the phenomenon referred to as “reality porn” or “gonzo” got its start at the end of the 1980s, when John “Buttman” Stagliano made his first porno verité. This early work, specifically the kind of fun, almost interactive stuff of Stagliano’s, helped inform the candid, honest lens through which Tony Comstock films. But not all of Buttman’s successors were as humane. More than fifteen years later, Blue says current trends in mainstream porn tend to focus on the “refinement of the gonzo genre — reality porn where the performers interact with the camera. Under that [genre] are the increasingly popular BangBus.com and spin-offs that purport to convince ‘strangers’ and the ‘reluctant’ to perform or consent to a sex act on camera, giving the viewer the feeling of seeing an actual pickup with an ‘amateur’ occur — those these are all, and always, staged.”
Shauna Swartz discussed BangBus recently in Bitch (Fall 2004): “Reality porn features some of the most violent and demeaning porno scenes to hit the mainstream,” she writes, “what some call 'humilitainment.’ Tagging these disturbing spectacles of deception and abuse with the reality label enhances their allure, as it claims to offer consumers unstaged and authentic action.” But were the action truly unstaged, as Swartz makes clear, it would also be illegal. The thrill, then, comes not from seeing real people enjoying their bodies and sexuality, but from elaborately staged replications of forced — or, at best joyless — sex.
When did real sex between consenting sexual beings become too boring to shoot? Tony Comstock couldn’t tell you. He’s professed ignorance to the adult industry at large, citing early Stagliano films, the advent of amateur Internet porn in the early ‘90s, and some well styled, competently acted ‘70s flicks as his few influences. He says he’s uncomfortable with the whole idea of porn, the myriad of factors that run an industry based on cheap and exploitative production standards. What needs to happen to the industry can be seen in the evolution of sex toys: from shoddy plastic dildos sold exclusively in sex shops to the glass-blown beauts fetching upwards of $200. Consumers just need to own up and demand quality. Maybe, mulls Comstock, mainstream porn will get better. But first, “people have to reach a point where they want it to be good.”
While the internet’s viral breeding has birthed gross-outs like BangBus (and the equally evocative Trunked), more and more independent outfits cater to sex-positive men and women who want stimulation without the bad lighting, cheesy plots, or overt gender stereotypes of pop porno.
Nofauxxx.com, an image-based site, describes itself as “a sex-positive, pansexual alternative porn site,” with models ranging in size, sex and gender, with plenty of body mods. Nerve.com, a virtual clearinghouse of sex media written and photographed by professionals and amateurs alike, defines their offerings outside of terms like “erotica” or “pornography,” deeming these labels too dainty or “blockheadedly masculine,” respectively. In addition to saucy short stories or personal essays and photography, Nerve features analytical nonfiction and reviews, dealing with, as co-founders Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field put it, “our society[’s] schizophrenia, at once sex-obsessed and puritanical.” The link between mind and body, intellect and desire, linchpins the content here, creating work that stimulates both.
These print and image based sites offer more truthful reflections of everyday sex — exciting, strange, love-handled, messy, beautiful, sex — than the mechanical dolls of mainstream American pornography. But finding erotic films of the same caliber (the medium hasn’t been an ingredient in the porno equation since the late 1970s, when movies like the excellent The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) were made) can be, ahem, harder to come by.
Which brings us back to Comstock Films.
For a progressive pornographer, a man who unabashedly claims sex as “a really important part of my vision,” the nom de smut he’s chosen seems a bit jarring.
“Helen’s face may have launched a thousand ships,” Comstock insists, “but the reason Menelaus was so upset was because of Helen’s twat. It’s pussy that enflames our desire, arouses our passion, drives us to acts of madness. And it’s pussy that drove Anthony Comstock to try and drive all evidence of sexuality from the American social landscape. Art, literature, medical textbooks, birth control information, all burned on Comstock’s pyre. It was his life’s work. It was his calling.”
Why then would this filmmaker, who’s been steadily wedging a place for his groundbreaking work, choose a name with associations of repression and censure?
“By taking his name, by calling ourselves Comstock Films, that’s my way of saying this company is going to be devoted to bringing that same fervor that a Comstock-like person would use on being agitated, incensed, and hateful; but we’re going to put it into professionalism and energy and enthusiasm for the work that we do.”
And damn good thing. Marie & Jack: A Hardcore Love Story came out in 2002, and slowly, steadily, the DVD, featuring real life married porn stars discussing and displaying their intimate private life, garnered acclaim from viewers and reviewers at the fringe of the industry. Comstock says he never intended to use porn actors, but it was hard to find a “regular” couple for the first film. That problem seems to have cleared up in a few years, since 2005 saw the release of Xana & Dax, (an edgier, hotter film to be sure) among others. “We want to show sex and love from as many points on the sexual compass as we can find…we’ve got young people and older people and people in between. We’ve got gay and straight and bi. And the hope is that no matter who is poking what into whom, the audience is going feel the sexual joy.”
The couples are captivating, and not just because their fucking is so joyfully recorded; it’s the way they relate to each other, both clothed and coital, that captures an intense connection we’re rarely privy to outside our own private relationships with loved ones. And Comstock’s commitment to professionalism extends to more than just guaranteeing his viewers get off; he uses real-life couples because of their chemistry, sure, but as someone who came of age sexually during the onset of AIDS, his couples-only agenda seemed like “the only responsible thing to do.” Prioritizing safety and quality, honoring real sexuality; these seem like the tenets of Comstock’s philosophy, along with an unswerving desire to insult neither his audience nor his performers in the process.
“The idea was simple,” maintains Comstock, “Try to get some real personality into the work, give the audience a way to relate to the people doing the fucking, and try to get the exuberance of real people having real sex and showing off for the thrill of it.
“I wanted to make something that people could relax and enjoy while they were watching, instead of wondering why it seemed so cheap or wondering why the actors would want to be in something that was so tacky!” he says. “Those aren't fun questions to have when you're expecting an erotic experience.” He pauses, slowing his words to sharp specificity. “I wanted to make something that would let the audience feel certain that everyone involved was proud of what they were doing.”
More info : www.comstockfilms.com
Caitlin Corrigan writes about a variety of subjects for magazines
including Bust, Kitchen Sink, and The New
Colonist. She recently co-founded ROIL,
an activist group working on intersections of theatre and social