Half-Cocked, by Rita Cannon
Deborah Anderson’s documentary Aroused tries to be a few different things at once – an exposé of the porn industry, a character study of some its most successful actresses, and a documentation of an art project about those actresses. Unfortunately, it wind up spreading itself so thin that it doesn’t quite succeed at being any of them.
This is the directorial debut of Anderson, who has previously worked as a photographer and musician. The film is being released in tandem with a fine art photography book of the same title, featuring portraits of sixteen famous porn actresses wearing nothing but Jimmy Choo spike heels. About a third of Aroused‘s runtime documents the actual photography shoot; the rest is made up interviews with the sixteen actresses, as well as with Fran Amidor, a top-tier adult talent agent with her own bracing perspective on the industry.
Anderson states a couple of times that her intention, with both the film and the art book, is to humanize these women, and to present them “as they’ve never been seen before.” That’s an admirable goal, if one that’s slightly out of step with the times (more about that in a minute). The main problem is that while sixteen is a reasonable number of people to feature in a photography book, in a 90-minute film, there’s barely enough time to remember everyone’s names, let alone get to know them very well as people. All of them are bright, well-spoken, funny, and engaging. If Anderson’s only objective in these interviews is to prove the existence of porn stars who aren’t vacuous, dead-eyed trainwrecks, then she’s succeeded. But some of these women have more to say than just, “Surprise, I’m a functional human!”, and Anderson refuses to let them say it. Like Francesca Lé, who started doing porn in 1990, and has seen the industry undergo huge changes. She briefly mentions that when she first started, studios primarily made feature-length films, which necessitated being onset at 7am with your lines memorized. These days, “gonzo” porn – shorter films with more hardcore sex and little or no plot – is the norm. What’s it like working in features versus gonzo? Does Lé think this shift in production methods and aesthetic is good, bad, or neither? This could have been a fascinating conversation that revealed more about the industry and about Lé as a person, but Anderson cuts to another subject just when things get interesting. There’s a similar lost opportunity when Anderson interviews Misty Stone, the only black woman in the film, and someone who’s been called the Halle Berry of porn because of her unusual crossover appeal and diverse fanbase. Less than a month ago, The Root ran an article on racism in the adult film world, in which Stone was quoted saying that black actresses are routinely paid substantially less than white ones for the same acts. I would have loved to hear her thoughts on the portrayal of women of color in porn, but Anderson never touches on race at all. Why not?
While the personalities of its interview subjects are sanded down until they all seem pretty much the same, the film’s picture of porn as an industry is fractured and inconclusive. When describing how they got into the business and how they’ve been treated, most of the women’s stories seem blessedly free of out-and-out exploitation – some even say their lives have gotten better and more stable since they started. But there are a few horror stories: Francesca Lé had a drug problem, which she admits was worsened by working in porn. Another woman tells a stomach-turning story about being bullied into a certain sex act she hadn’t agreed to, which ends with her feeling violated and in tears. At one point, talent agent Amidor (herself a fascinating study in contradictions) says she believes that every time someone shoots a scene, a piece of their soul disappears. Is the industry a supportive community, or an exploitative nightmare? I don’t want the film to choose one answer over the other; I’m sure it’s both. But the tension between these extremes is never adequately explored; the opposing narratives aren’t presented with enough detail or context to make the film seem nuanced rather than just disjointed.
The strongest section in Aroused is the documentation of the actual photo shoot. What’s interesting about Anderson’s project is that, at first glance, it seems sort of laughable. If she wants to show porn stars as they’ve never been seen, why shoot them naked, wearing spike heels, rolling around on a bed? Isn’t that how we always see them? But as the shoot progresses, you realize what Anderson’s doing is teasing out the difference between what’s tasteful and what’s tasteless, what’s considered “classy” sexy and what gets dismissed as trash, and how fine the line is between the two. Is it sexual or sensual? Porn or erotica? Lisa Ann (star of the Who’s Nailin’ Palin? series, if you’re not familiar) has some ostentatiously fake, very porn-y breasts, and they really do look out of place when she’s being photographed in black and white against expensive sheets. When Anderson has to repeatedly direct another woman not to do her usual mouth-half-open sexyface, she replies, “This is hard. I could never be a real model.” This sequence is fascinating because it zeroes in on the signifiers that separate different iterations of “sexy” from one another. It’s fine art until someone’s breasts are too large or mouth is too open – then it’s porn, and what we think about the woman in the photograph is suddenly wildly different. It’s the best part of the film by far, and rich enough that it could have been its own documentary. There are moments when this theme pops up during the interviews – one woman wonders what the hell it’s supposed to mean when someone tells you you’re “too pretty” for porn – but it’s mostly confined to the photography sequence, which is a shame.
I’m not about to argue that society is totally accepting of porn stars. There are still far too many people who think of porn actors (and sex workers of all stripes) as an inhuman “other,” which is a gross way to think of another person, whether or not you approve of their job. But in a time when adult performers have popular Twitters and Tumblrs, appear in mainstream films, and get cover page profiles in the Village Voice, it’s hard not to acknowledge that the taboo around them has eroded significantly in the past few years. The first half of Aroused seems to take place in a world where that hasn’t happened, and so “porn stars are people too” is enough a shocking revelation to hang most of a film on. I don’t think that’s true, particularly for the self-selected group who would see this movie in the first place. Anderson would have done better to focus more intently on her own photography project, which has a much more absorbing and timeless theme. The film is interesting, but you might be better off just buying the book.