"As the most intravenous way for a viewer to get a quick 20 minutes of pleasure time, gonzo serves a practical purpose," says Joe Gallant, and not many pornographers would disagree.
But a glut of low-quality content combined with declining DVD sales and the past summer's slowdown hinting ominously at shifting trends in the marketplace, the gonzo genre seems to be overpopulated and suffering from a severe case of the doldrums.
"The reason that [gonzo] has become the joke of the industry is because of how it's presented," continues Gallant, owner-producer-director of New York-based Black Mirror Productions. "Endless titles of airless pool/couch/stairwell routines all done by Vicodin zombies who bat their eyes and do constant variations of "sex face" mugging for the camera, like grotesque puppet caricatures. Then, here comes the Viagra dick with no shot of the guy's face and we go into the movie's theme — gape, ATM, creampie. No sweating, no hugging, no laughter, just endless dick riding. That's what's so over."
Gallant, whose avant-garde style has led some to refer to him as the "David Lynch of porn," creates movies that are part gonzo, part political statement, part performance art — and mostly hard to categorize.
But Black Mirror titles such as "Crackwhores of the Tenderloin" and "Contract Girl" always have a storyline, scripted dialogue, original music scores (composed by Gallant who is also a professional musician), plus hardcore and non-sex scenes that are sometimes extreme and usually bizarre.
Describing "Ave X," his latest release for VCA, Gallant says, "It's set in NYC, the Mojave Desert and industrial LA in the year 2010 and it's the first porn film to use post-Bush, 'surveillance-Amerika' as the backdrop of its extremely political sci-fi story.
"It's the most dense and complete film I've ever done," he adds, "and I'm very proud of it."
Gallant and others like him represent a new breed of pornographer on the bleeding edge of adult cinema. Motivated by a backlash reaction to repetitive "Jack Ass"-style gonzo and uninspired by traditional big-budget adult feature extravaganzas, these producer-directors consider themselves independent erotic filmmakers — sex rebels with a digicam, intent on making more than just a stroke flick.
And like Gallant, who won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1996 for his work as a sound technician on "The Guiding Light," these directors are crossing over from mainstream to adult and, in some cases, back again. At the same time, independent mainstream filmmakers are testing the possibilities of hardcore sexual content.
"Making gonzo is obviously simpler than making a feature, and there's a certain audience buying porn that's only interested in it that way. But I think there is a large population of people who buy adult and are looking for something that is erotically charged, mentally," says Frank Castle, director of "The New Neighbors" from Sllab Studios.
"When directors are allowed to be creative, they will rise to the challenge and they will get more sophisticated with the scripts. But a lot of companies like to play it safe because they know they're going to ship a certain amount of copies of their gonzo title."
Castle, using a porn pseudonym, is primarily an independent mainstream director known for edgy sex and violence in his Hollywood films. Experienced in shooting gonzo, he was brought in by Sllab to direct its first feature release.
"The New Neighbors" garnered a Best Video Feature nomination at the 2006 AVN Awards and Castle was also recognized with a nod for Best Director.
"Sllab wanted to come out with something really different. It's actually a mainstream horror script I took and adapted to be shot as an adult movie," Castle says.
The movie took six days to shoot at a total cost, after post-production, of less than $100,000. According to Castle, a substantial portion of the budget went to fees for talent. Starring Mike Horner, Linda Roberts, Randy Spears and Nicki Hunter, all four primary roles were written specifically for the actors, putting a premium on having them in the film.
As characters Martin and Laura Brody, Horner's and Roberts' above-the-waist performances portraying a middle-aged suburban couple could have come from a Hallmark Hall of Fame holiday special.
"I wanted to show that these people can make a good film, when somebody lets them really act," Castle says. "A lot of them are trained actors and actresses. And I think that if people give them a shot, you know, without prejudice against adult, I think a lot of them would be working even more in mainstream."
Prejudice against the adult industry that exists in Hollywood is the reason Castle keeps his mainstream and adult personas separate.
"People think of the porn industry as sleazy and degrading to women," Castle says. "They think of adult movies as real crap. But those are such misconceptions."
Hollywood has flirted with explicit sex since 1972, when Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" became the first mainstream film to receive an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. The original, uncut version caused a huge scandal because of a scene portraying anal sex.
Recently, independent filmmakers such as Vincent Gallo and John Cameron Mitchell have tested the limits of socially acceptable content by using hardcore scenes without defining them as pornographic.
In Gallo's 2002 film "Brown Bunny," Oscar-nominated actress Chloe Sevigny performs an actual blowjob on Gallo, who plays the lead in his own movie. The title was notoriously panned at that year's Cannes Film Festival but still prompted a hue and cry because of its frank depiction of oral sex.
In Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," released in 2006 without MPAA rating, the opening sequence contains scenes of BDSM, penetrative sex and auto-fellatio (with the actor popping in his own face). Cameron Mitchell has gone on record, arguably stating that the work is not pornography but that showing actual sex was vital to the film's storyline.
Shunning the somewhat schizophrenic attitudes of the Hollywood establishment, adult filmmaker Jason Green, co-owner/producer-director of Paradise Visuals, turned his back on mainstream aspirations.
"I was motivated by guys like Vincent Gallo," Green says. "Independent guys that make their own movies. I just said, 'I don't care what it takes. If I have to make porn movies to tell my own stories, then I'm going to do it.'
'I don't want to make a bullshit Hollywood movie. I'm not even interested in working on it, to be honest with you," he adds. "When I talk to people in Hollywood, they're more interested in what I do, than I'm interested in what they do."
A one-time actor-writer-director with legendary indie schlock producers Troma Entertainment, Green went from a bit player to eventually being credited for his writing on projects like "Tromeo and Juliet" and a television series called "Troma Theatre."
Several other jobs followed, with stints on "The Geraldo Show" and MTV's "Real World Reunion." But the mercurial nature of Hollywood deal-making meant that breaks kept passing him by, until he got an opportunity to become a partner at Paradise Visuals, based in Las Vegas.
At Paradise, Green's primary revenue is from DVD licensing of the company's catalog of 80s classic titles, including Christy Canyon's first film and John Holmes' last movie, "The Devil and Mr. Holmes." For every two classics released on DVD, Green wants to produce one original feature.
His next release, scheduled for January is called "The Make Up," starring Felix Vicious, Sunny Lane, Leah Luv, Kimberly Kane and Hailey Young. Green plays the male lead in a non-sex role. The comedic plot features Vicious and Green as a young couple going to a retreat to solve their relationship problems.
Like Castle, Green uses commonplace mainstream techniques; actors review the script in advance, the cast does table readings and there is on-set prompting for performers unused to having to deliver much dialogue. Green also extends his production schedule, taking weeks instead of days to shoot a film.
"There are a lot of people copying the feature trend, but for us it was never a question," he says. "If I'm going to make a commitment to this business, then I'm going to make product I know is quality. In our movies, there's acting, there's story, there's humor, but if you don't want to see that, there's plenty of sex, so you get the best of both worlds."
On the flip-side of Green's experience, San Diego-based filmmaker David Quitmeyer burst onto the adult scene in 2005 when he and business partner Chris Spoto released their spoof title, "Clown Porn." After a crooked distribution deal left Quitmeyer sour and without a dime in revenue from the film, he decided to take his hardcore to the mainstream.
Owner of Steel Web Studios, Quitmeyer has produced two erotic horror titles from the "Carnal Morgue" series, both featuring adult star Caroline Pierce. The first, entitled "Slaughter Disc," was hardcore but interpreted by some in the adult industry as "anti-porn" because the plot involves a spectral porn star killing off obsessive fans. "Mail Order Bride," second in the series, was decidedly softcore and successfully shopped around at various film festivals by Quitmeyer.
"Nobody will ever tell me how to make my films or what to put in them," he says. "If I feel the story needs an explicit scene to get a point across, I'll do it. Everything I do is driven by the story.
"I'm developing a very cross-spectrum fan-base," Quitmeyer adds. "Both men and women from the adult and horror-goth crowds around the world seem to really like what I'm doing."
It's fair to say the alternative genre has helped open the door to plot-driven porn with its hipster/goth girl aesthetics. Eon McKai at Vivid Alt and Hustler-Burning Angels' Joanna Angel seem to be leading the pack in terms of updating content trends.
Max Power, a newbie director taken under McKai's wing, won second place at the inaugural Good Vibrations Erotic Film Competition held in San Francisco. Passionate about being a "smut peddler," Power has ambitious dreams and is currently filming his first full-length release.
"I have a lot of ideas that can and will make adult films more accessible to people of different cultures who may not be marketed to by Big Porn," he says. "The term 'alt' has been linked with tattoos and hipsters, but I see it as much more."
Coincidentally, Gallant also has been approached by McKai to come aboard with Vivid Alt, and he anticipates finalizing a film deal by early 2007.
Whether porn with plots is just a trendy pendulum swing away from scene-driven gonzo will ultimately be decided by consumers. The Internet's small screen won't lend itself to the cinematic experience, but as VOD becomes more popular and viewers can order content in the privacy of their own home theaters, then movies offering storylines and hardcore sex may gain in popularity and marketability.
But when it comes to the "E" word, does erotic equal entertainment? Have wall-to-wall sex scenes finally become boring? Do audiences want their gonzo pie with acting, a la mode?
"Sometimes I just wanna shoot a fast load and I'll watch my favorite, no-frills scene for that purpose," Gallant muses. "But a titillating story that leads up to sex stuff can really heighten the sex a lot, like excruciatingly good foreplay, and greatly enhance the viewing experience."