Gram Ponante: There has always been a trend in porn to intellectualize the things we do, you know, with ladies, to somehow justify the animals we are. This often backfires because porn performers are so good at fucking that it's difficult for them to effectively interpret the deep, tortured thoughts of the writer. This leads to the smug assumption that America's pornistes are stupid, when in fact you should really try quoting Nabokov when you're fucking someone. Enter Joe Gallant who, along with David Aaron Clark, very often makes East Coast intellectual porn exciting with his latest film, "The Skin Trade."
Joanne Cachapero: It always makes me laugh when he's associated with alt — Gallant's dark vision couldn't be further from the youth culture-oriented, nerdy, kitschy hipster fun that has come to define alt as a genre. Part of what his vision is all about is a deep, primal understanding that we're all animals under the skin and some of the things that make us horny are twisted and strange. Dangerously close to approaching indie filmmaking with this movie, it all begs the question: Does the audience want a lot of intellectualism in their porn? Oh, Gallant is alternative, all right … existing in some netherworld roadside motel room where you drop hits of acid called "Blue Velvet" with tiny pictures of David Lynch embossed on them and end up in a three-way with a transsexual who looks just like Anita Pallenberg and a one-eyed homeless girl who wears an eye patch and quacks like a duck. And there's a sting quartet playing chamber music in the parking lot next to a burned-out Volkswagen bus that has the word "beauty" spray-painted on the side of it. It's fucking far out, man.
GP: None of that happened in "The Skin Trade," Joanne. Mightn't that be the movie in your head?
JC: Shit, I think I just gave away the plot of his next movie …
GP: A cast that includes Sasha Grey, Dino Bravo, Lexi Bardot and Brian Surewood weave a tale of sadness, despair and false retribution in the sex-for-money world in a movie that uses multiple film stocks, loopy '70's dubbing and Gallant's own eclectic soundtrack. Sasha Grey is Janet, abused by her trollop mom, who attaches herself to the sleazy Armand Paris (Dino Bravo), a man who makes erotic entertainment for private clients.
JC: Bravo plays his role with slimy, evil finesse and Surewood looks like he just rolled in from a biker mama gangbang. These guys deliver standout performances. Sasha Grey was born to play this part; long dark hair hanging down like black ribbons against alabaster skin — beautiful, fragile and damaged. She reminded me of Mallory (Juliette Lewis) in "Natural Born Killers." The scene with Bravo is vag-only and unbelievably hot. A special mention for Ginger White, in the non-sex role as Janet's mother; she makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and not in a good way.
GP: Grey's is the main story of the film. She is passed from Paris to accomplices like Lexi Bardot and Brian Surewood in her downward spiral. But we also meet Laurie Vargas as Lisa, a dancer too plump to interpret "Swan Lake," who also falls into Paris' clutches. Theirs is one of the movie's outstanding scenes, as her exuberance and unshaven bush clearly turns Bravo on.
JC: Laurie Vargas is a perfect example of what I imagine a '70s porn star to be: Natural body, a little bit thick but sexy, not glamorous, but pretty in a small-town way like she just got off the bus from El Centro. Performing with Bravo, she's hot and just keeps getting hotter. Her bushy snatch lights up the scene like the marquee at the Pussycat Theater.
GP: Where this movie denies its plot is that the actual sex scenes are fun, hot and enthusiastic even though we are supposed to believe that the characters engaging in them are miserable. This is the pitfall of brainy porn; it's rare that an increase in thoughtful dialogue is ever directly proportional to a sense of the character's enjoyment. Things get gloomier the smarter the director is.
JC: My interpretation was that the girls were horny and insatiable because of the abuse they had suffered — and let's face it, that's a story that's been around ever since girls started running away to Hollywood to become big stars, willing to do anything for a little recognition. Pick-up shots of neon on Hollywood Boulevard combine with voice-over narration telling the tale, and the sex is all part of it. Gallant's shooting style, which is skewed and tilting leaves you feeling kind of disoriented, which fits nicely with the drug-induced tone of the movie. Clearly, Gallant is a smart guy but for a long time he was considered New York's smutty enema king. Titles like "Ultravixens NYC" and "Bongwater Butt Babes" fill most of his considerable portfolio. But 2004's "Crackwhores of the Tenderloin" brought out the urban decay sex vibe of San Francisco. Last year's "Avenue X" was a bi-coastal sex-charged politico-morality tale of impending doom and defined a more mature style by allowing Gallant a bigger budget and greater artistic considerations.
GP: But Gallant and crew still make an engaging, arty, smart porn movie that doesn't torpedo itself with the overused self-hating pornographer premise that sex for cash is bad. This is because of people like Grey, who is a genuine actress who gets better each time she is allowed to act. To Bravo, she improvises "I want to fuck everything I see. I want to fuck your cock. I want to fuck your foot. I want to fuck the people walking outside." (And their feet, too, I'm assuming.) Then there's Bardot, who was 29 at the time of shooting and looks better as she gets older. In the final scene she appears in glasses and a pair of overalls and delivers the following line: "Little Lambykins, you're a long way from Dreamland ... why don't you tell us your little lamby thoughts?" At this point Brian Surewood, who single-handedly redeems the male porn star's former role as a shaman lunatic, says, "they say that if you cut the tail off a scorpion there's a sac inside, and if you eat it you see God or die horribly. And everything you do up to that point determines your fate."
JC: I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering how long Surewood would be able to control his pop shot when matched with two such horny, nasty women. When Grey started calling Bardot "mommy," alarm bells went off in my head and I didn't know whether to masturbate, eat some peyote or call my therapist. I felt like doing all three.
GP: As we saw an advance copy (that's how goddamn cool we are) I wonder if Adam & Eve will let that line through, as well as an earlier scene of Rachel Love's anal squishings.
JC: I wondered about that, too, and I'm willing to give Adam & Eve kudos for branching out with the Bad Seed line to include diverse content in their catalog. I may be a pervert, but I consider myself fairly average in most respects. And I loved the edginess of the dialogue and found it to be a big turn-on. When Surewood and Bardot are breaking down Janet in the desert, the resulting threesome is raw and amazing.
GP: But as great as these lines are, the problem is that those are not the only lines people deliver; they deliver far more and the general mood of failure and decrepitude is at odds with the zesty sex people are having.
JC: The only thing that really didn't work for me was the gonzo-style eye contact with the camera which is something that some of the female performers are obviously used to doing. I thought the scenes were hotter when the girls ignored the presence of the camera, but then, I usually do. Here, though, it really took away from the authentic '70s feel of the movie. And personally, gaping doesn't do much for me but I'm sure Gallant and lots of guys really dig it, so … Maybe there was gaping back in the old days, but again, I felt it deviated from the '70s thing and it was disconcerting when the rest of the movie seemed so well planned out.
GP: Yes, for me gaping is unnecessary. If I wanted to holler down a rain barrel, I'd read "Huckleberry Finn" again.
JC: Jesus, Gram — that may be the first time in history anyone has ever referenced "Huckleberry Finn" in a porn review.
GP: Regardless, the preview copy of "The Skin Trade" that we saw proves once again that Gallant knows how to direct. At no time do the trippy dialogue or editing get in the way of good sex. The final scene in the desert is particularly effective, even if it looks like Bardot, Grey and Surewood were about to burst into flames.
JC: All I can say is, "Burn, baby, burn."