By Robin Benger
Every documentary is an adventure and an immersion. Unlike much of the news, one cannot remain unmoved, uninfluenced, un-opinionated by doing a good documentary subject.
Robin talks about the importance if finding “clipmysters”. Here he talks about finding Frederick Lane, author of “Obscene Profits”.
When I was asked to do this one, I recoiled. I rarely have that reaction to a documentary assignment. (We generate about half of our docs; the other half we are asked to develop by networks) Pornography goes to one’s own sexual morality, one’s own view of sex.
I guess I had the hangover from my Anglican heritage and my genes. My family is very monogamous. My parents were married for 60 years, their parents were married for donkey’s years, etc. I do remember my Mother once saying that it didn’t matter what you did in that department as long as you didn’t hurt anybody or wake the horses. ( At the time, our horses were stabled a good quarter of a mile away, so I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about.)
In my own life, I was a late bloomer, losing my virginity to a shepherdess on a moonlit volcanic mountainside on the island of St. Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic, at the age of nineteen.
And I would describe a period in my late twenties as a golden age of sexual generosity. It was post-pill and pre-AIDS, the 1970’s. I had my own large apartment on Queen Street, an unbelievable job as a globetrotting radio documentary producer at Sunday Morning, a burgundy Mustang and what seemed like an endless supply of beautiful Canadian women who were extremely affectionate and perfectly cool. I married one of them and, not to put too fine a point on it, have had absolutely no need to look beyond her for sexual bliss in 26 years.
So this porn doc request kind of knocked me sideways. I’ll do miners in Tanzania, anarchists in Baluchistan, billionaires in the Bahamas, murderers and saints, but really, porn?
Well, in some measure, it’s part of the ratings thang. And I’ve always believed in providing the masses want they want to watch and know about. There’s real public utility in that. Besides which, I have long since learned that what I interests me (Test cricket; African politics) bores the bejeesus out of most North Americans. The death of The Journal taught me that. (An aside: If The Journal was still around we would be inside this Gaza story like a weasel down a hole. Those great questioning double-enders, some smart Israeli analyst banging away at an equally articulate Palestinian. And then a short doc about the human side. Instead of now today, unless you want to be rendered comatose by Jim Lehrer on PBS, or pecked to death by the bantam rooster Anderson Cooper, or superficialized to death by a 30 second Q and A between The Anchor and Our Middle East correspondent, you get NO DEBATE. This creates a vacuum into which the spinmeisters flood. That’s why I have stopped watching North American TV News. The dumbing down of North American news is in my view a scandal. A scaling back of what the public needs to get to make intelligent decisions, and of something that had become part of the Canadian right-to-know. None of my children know the story of Israel or what Hamas is. But they can tell you who won American Idol.)
So, I googled porn. Whoosh.
So, I googled porn. Whoosh. Unbelievable. Under a smelly waterfall. It took me ten minutes to realize that the Internet was drenched in it.
Then I played the convention card. (Note to rookie doc directors- go to The Convention, it’s a mother lode.) I found out that there was this huge porn convention in Vegas, so although we didn’t have the financing yet, we hauled out the Amex, I booked a crew and off we went.
The AVN porn convention in Vegas was riotous. I had never been in the midst of such a joyous bunch at any business convention. Sure the pounding coital imagery was a headache, but people were smiling, laughing, and shaking their tits at each other. And characters! Oh vey. Shooting fish in a barrel. Like doc-making in Africa or China.
One woman injected a very serious tone. A former porn actress and ex-crack head, Shelley Lubben, who ran a born again service had an ex porn performer with her who claimed to have been gang-raped by twenty men in one go. Awful. We got her story on tape but despite all my follow-up efforts the born-againer never responded to take it further. But I was also tired of God-based objection, and I had told her. They had no problem carpet-bombing Iraq. Let’s just object as people, not congregants.
San “Pornando” Valley
I was on the look-out for the dark side of porn, a murder story or some terrible abuse. Couldn’t find it. I spoke to the LAPD, homicide detectives in San “Pornando” Valley, the OPP and the FBI and they couldn’t point me to anything. Plenty of drug spinouts, yes, but generally they told me, law enforcement doesn’t have the time, money or political direction to go after abusive adult obscenity.
I like to find characters embedded in the stream of the subject, follow them over a period of time. My principal characters in Vegas were Mark Spiegler, the King of Tarts, the uber-agent of porndom. Found him via a blog on the LA Times that referred to him the head of a wedge of porn starlets, knifing its way through his buyers at expo. This in turn flows from Alan King, the noted Canadian documentarist. I attended a master class and one of the few things I learned from him, though worth the price of admission, was to work only with people who want to be in your film. Duh. I had spent twenty years thinking the best person to get would be the most difficult one to get and the one with the real goods.
So I googled Spiegler, found his website, called the number, he answered, barked OK and we were on. I liked Spiegler enormously. Like Fagin in Oliver. I was disappointed that others in the production circle found him truly repulsive. I mean he is not blessed with the best of looks, he has some kind of leg problem, and he kind of fits the clich’ of the Shylock, the twisted and conniving Jew in a moral cesspit. In fact he is a very smart man, an economics graduate, a relentless truffler. He and his girls told me he never charges them. He told me he had 350 thousand dollars cash in the bank and was worth ‘several’ million. He has also had an AK-47 in his closet. An aluminum baseball bat inside the door, but an AK in the closet. In case the baseball bat didn’t work, I guess. His corridor reeked of hashish, from a nearby dealer. He wanted to show off his machine guns. So I went into the closet with him and nodded appreciatively at his machine guns. I never understood that. The way men show off their guns like their daughter or something. He told me he has 14 vehicles. He drove me around the block at 170 kmph in his handmade Benz. Okay, I thought, some kind of materialistic onanism.
Getting the canadian angle
But of course there was the Tapestry shoot at AVN Expo, the whole megullah, and in one of its entrails I made contact with Brad Armstrong, Canadian porn star, good for Canadian content for the acronyms; vox pop; the XTube boys from Scarborough, Ont; gay porn and a security guard, seemed like 100 years old, who said “Shee-eet. Looks laike the ind of sivverliza-shun. As we know it.”
Mike Grippo shot. He’s a horse, and has a hit-to-thrown punch ratio up there with George Foreman, and it’s all quality. Never stops yapping. And Alister Bell on sound and all the other schemes necessary for the smooth, efficient execution of the task on the road. He’s absolutely brilliant; I love the guy and he keeps things in perspective. On every shoot his legend grows. On this one we were readying to interview a silicon-enhanced porn star with an English accent, a little well worn, with Tom Wolfe’s jacked-up ack-ack breasts and Grippo points to me and says, “Look at him when you answer his questions”. Her eyes slide over me and on to the beady-eyed Alister and she says, “Can’t I rather look at him?”
I had an encounter with what I describe as the Mafia of the business at an anonymous strip mall in Vegas, the operator of one of the biggest webcam sites on the net, but they were too jumpy with their webcam site girls, too many conditions and dumb questions. I’m the one who asks the dumb questions. “What am I gonna look like in the end”, fingering his gelatinous hair, “I have a very happy staff”, as a pasty-faced boy shared cigarettes with a Goth lesbian outside in the heat.
Back to Toronto now to line up the rest of the shoot, mostly spooling out from the characters and contacts I had met in Vegas. The one thing I will say about the LA shoot is – garish. Larry Flynt, who was great with us, and with whose Freedom Spirit I totally identified, has an office that is the most over the top garish space I’ve ever seen. I just wonder how much money makes it worth gawking at all that fanny all his life. Way, way too much for me. But it’s like any business. Who wants to be around paint all day? School kids? Politicians. In my business the subject matter changes twice a year, while the part I enjoy, the making of the documentary, is the continuum.