The Genesis of Gonzo
Before we call in Oliver Stone for yet another cultural summation, there are certain facts that are incontrovertible. Or at least nearly incontrovertible.
Everything changed in 1989. That's when otherwise unrelated events coalesced and made it possible for gonzo's birth. Yes, of course there were events and advances that led up to that point, but 1989 was indisputably the year when everything changed.
Most obviously, it was the year that the seminal trio of titles were produced: John Stagliano's "The Adventures of Buttman," Jamie Gillis' "On the Prowl," and Ed Powers' "Bus Stop Tales." These titles ushered in a new era in porn, setting the standards for a new style that would eventually come to be known as "gonzo" and would soon become the adult industry's predominant shooting style.
As revolutionary as these titles turned out to be, there were other forces at work, from legal decisions to emerging technology to political changes, that contributed to the rise of gonzo. Looking back, it just seems as though the stars aligned in 1989 to make it all possible.
If there is one day in 1989 that was a reason for celebration among California's producers of pornography, it was Feb. 1. That's when the California Supreme Court overturned Harold Freeman's conviction. Freeman had been convicted on pandering charges for hiring adult actors. When his conviction was overturned, shooting porn in California was effectively legalized. After years of shooting at secret locations, adult productions were able to come out of the closet.
Eight days after the Freeman decision a small item in the New York Times announced Sony's plans to begin selling the CCD-V900, the first Hi-8 camcorder, in the U.S. for $1,850. This was a major breakthrough that gave shooters mobility never before possible, and the price made owning a camera affordable to an army of potential shooters. From there the quality increased while the cost plummeted.
When President Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall in June 1987 and challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," we can be certain he wasn't trying to flood Porn Valley with Eastern European talent nor Eastern bloc countries with U.S. porn producers, but after the wall fell in November 1989 it soon opened up that part of the world to the adult industry.
Adult productions leading up to this had been primarily loops and features. In the mid-1980s the amateur market began to take hold. Homegrown Video, with its signature line currently at more than 700 and still running, was already in the hundreds by 1989. The table was set.
What is gonzo? Even within the adult industry the question is asked with surprising frequency. It was appropriated from Hunter Thompson's gonzo writing, in which the writer was a central character in the story. In porn, this is usually applied to the performers' acknowledgment of the camera as a character, frequently with the cameraperson's involvement. Over the years it has been expanded to mean just about any production where the performers are aware of the camera.
The style had been used to varying degrees prior to 1989. George Urban, who strapped equipment on his back and a camera on his shoulder as he pursued girls through the streets of New York trying to talk them into showing him flesh for his "Ugly George Hour of Truth, Sex and Violence" was enormously popular on Manhattan public access in the 1970s and 1980s. An endless list of pornographers experimented with different formats through the years. But nothing stuck like the 1989 releases from Gillis, Powers and Stagliano.
"I can tell you exactly where it all came from," Vivid national sales manager Howard Levine said of the birth of gonzo. "The guy's name is Jamie Gillis. He is the first person ever to start handheld gonzo porn. He is the inventor of it."
Gillis had been in the industry since 1971. Productions had evolved into features, which meant long days on set. As Gillis remembers it, it was a particularly long and dull day when he came up with the concept for "On the Prowl:" Take the camera, go out and find real people and, in Gillis' words, get "something spontaneous and real."
"I didn't care if people had sex or didn't have sex, if they got it up or didn't get it up, if all they did was grab a girl's ass and went home," Gillis said. "To me it was just, let's see what would happen, let's have some fun, let's get nasty and do nasty, dirty things with strangers."
Levine was with General Video in San Francisco when "Prowl" came out. The concept was unheard of, the cover was completely black and it sold for 25 percent more than other titles at the time. And it worked.
"It was a complete departure from anything anybody has ever done," Levine said. "From the box to the concept to everything, I really didn't know how well it would sell, but when I saw the product I really got very excited about it and thought it was unbelievable."
After seeing "Prowl," Ed Powers shot "Bus Stop Tales," at the end of which he thanked Gillis for inventing the genre (Gillis also appeared in "Adventures of Buttman"). Soon after, Gillis shot what would become the first-ever scene for "Dirty Debutantes," the series Ed Powers has since released several hundred volumes of, in various incarnations.
While Gillis brought true reality to porn, Stagliano's "Buttman" brought a true POV character to porn. He knew that he was making changes, but he had no grasp of the future impact.
"It wasn't a gonzo concept at the time," Stagliano said. "It wasn't supposed to be thought of as a new way to make movies; I just thought it was a gimmick that would work really well and be really interesting and be inexpensive to shoot while I was shooting my high-budget movies."
The gimmick worked. After an initial shipment of 2,300 the reorders didn't stop. Initially a couple hundred monthly, those numbers increased over the next few years. Stagliano puts the total today at more than 40,000 pieces sold.
Brian Eno said, "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but of those 10,000 people, every last one of them went out and formed a band." Finding a director in adult today who wasn't directly influenced by Stagliano may be impossible.
Stagliano has built a true empire with Evil Angel and his stable of directors. John Leslie, Rocco Siffredi, Joey Silvera, Nacho Vidal, Belladonna and several others are on his all-star roster. Any attempt at creating a list of directors under the influence of Stagliano would be inadequate, making it a pointless exercise. Some of the earliest were Rodney Moore, Seymore Butts and Max Hardcore, each of whom puts Stagliano on their shortest list of influences.
Glasser, who brought his character Seymore Butts to life in 1992, was influenced by Stagliano in an unusually direct manner. Glasser was a gym owner who had rented out his space to Stagliano for a shoot. By the end of the day, Glasser had decided he was in the wrong business.
"He made it look easy," Glasser said. "He came in with a handheld video camera and one guy shooting stills. I had thought the movie-making process was much bigger, more technical deal than what he made it out to be. That was probably 1990."
Among the advancements that Glasser incorporated was shooting entire scenes POV style.
"I don't remember anybody else who was shooting full vaginal, anal, squirting, female ejaculation scenes where it's going right in the lens point of view," Glasser said, acknowledging that the process destroyed more than a few cameras.
In time, Glasser added other characters to his arsenal, most notably Shane — Glasser called them "the Burns and Allen of porn" — and later a series of Tushy Girls. Shane was so popular when the off-camera couple split that she was able to form her own production company, Shane's World.
Bob East, who was the sales manager for Odyssey Group Video, moved from amateur material into gonzo with Rodney Moore and later with Shane.
"Rodney's stuff took off immediately," East said. "He was so well-liked in the amateur end of it that his stuff immediately started selling well, because it was so different. He was tall, lanky, not very good looking, with a big dick and a camera."
Moore was an early innovator who also shot completely POV — initially because the aspiring musician didn't want his face on camera. That all changed when he went to his first Consumer Electronics Show.
"There was this softcore model and I was hitting on her and she didn't seem all that interested in me," Moore said. "Then some guy who was a fairly well-known porn actor walked by and she went all ape-shit over him. I said, 'Okay, that's it, I'm putting my face on camera.'"
Moore said he was influenced by Stagliano and Ugly George, "who I think might have been the first guy who went out with a camera and filmed girls from behind a camera and put himself in the scene."
One of the amateur lines that Moore was shooting for before producing his own stuff was "Mr. Peepers." Another gonzo pioneer who got his start shooting scenes for the line was Max Hardcore, whose aggressive scenes not only lived up to his moniker, over the years they became standard fare in gonzo productions.
"John Stagliano was a big influence for me," Hardcore said. "It was something new, something different. Up until then, the barrier between the viewer and the participants was very direct."
Jim Powers was a lifelong porn fan before he got into the industry in 1990. He clearly remembers watching the early "Buttman," Ed Powers and Butts videos.
"They were just your classic amateur stuff," he said. "Amateur video was always POV style; Stagliano just really took it way over the top."
Veteran director Roy Karch, who started shooting video in 1974 for his Manhattan cable show, said amateur videos that showed "two people fucking just because they dig it," paved the way for gonzo.
"It's Ed Powers using Jamie Gillis in 'Bus Stop Tales,'" Karch said. "It's cheap, it's fast and the people who made it made dirty porn. There was nothing frilly about it, there was nothing fancy about it. Powers said, 'What if I can set up those little scenarios and you didn't know I'd set them up, so it still looks like two people just meeting and fucking only because they want to. That was brilliant."
For his part, Stagliano knew he had something with "Adventures," but it took a while before he realized just how successful the concept had been. Even now, after years of accolades and awards and certainly making a very fine living post- "Adventures," he's aware that many things had to come together to make the style successful.
"From the beginning, it had a good box cover, it had a good title, it was a different format and it developed a word of mouth," Stagliano said. "It was also at a time when the demand for porno was constantly increasing and the supply of porno hadn't increased that much, because it was more difficult to shoot it. I was taking advantage of there not being as much competition at the time."