The porn of yore – defined by the decades of the '70s and '80s when explicit sex on camera moved from smoke-filled backrooms to smoke-filled theaters – is a period credited with producing an undeniable canon of classic work: "Behind the Green Door," "The Devil in Miss Jones," "The Autobiography of a Flea," "The Opening of Misty Beethoven" and "Debbie Does Dallas," and of course the benchmark film that audiences have been gulping down for 35 years, "Deep Throat." And despite the massive success of the million-dollar-budgeted showpiece that was 2005's "Pirates," fans still will claim they don't make 'em like they used to.
Compared to most of the XXX of today, it was a time of major production values, of pioneering talent, of actual lights, cameras and action, of vaginas hirsute and bold. Certainly, it also was a time when the fledgling industry patterned itself after the only blueprint available – mainstream Hollywood. The result was a product wholly other than today's adult fare, and the Tinsel Town influence was crucial.
THE MEN WHO CALLED THE MONEY SHOTS
"They called it the Golden Era because it really was golden," said director Roy Karch, recent recipient of the Los Angeles Erotica Film Fest '07 Lifetime Recognition Award.
Karch began directing in 1974, helming "The Underground Tonight Show" on cable access in New York City before moving to Los Angeles where he still continues his impressive behind-the-camera career.
"What you had then was a bunch of aspiring filmmakers," Karch said. "You had people who knew how to shoot on 35mm Panavision, who worked with film, who edited on a Movieola and knew how to light. It was moviemaking. There were many setups in a movie, and directors who were good and wanted to learn more.
"We did a movie, 'Dracula Sucks,' in 1979 that had nine Hall of Famers," Karch said. "It was Seka's first hardcore movie on film, and we were five days on location shooting in 35mm Panavision. We rented a castle, we had costume and wardrobe departments, we lived in trailers. It was really moviemaking, all day, all night."
A major factor in what is now looked upon as the era of gold is the societal transition of the 1970s. Suddenly, what was once a dirty, hidden thing was now out in the open, albeit with a quasi-illegal image that made watching adult all that more sexy.
"There was a chicness to it," said industry vet Ron Jeremy, a man who has morphed his lengthy career from '70s Playgirl centerfold into an oddball pop culture icon (witness his latest non-porn turn, as a wriggling, bikinied Britney Spears replete with mustache and back hair, courtesy of YouTube). "'Deep Throat' had come out, and it was actually OK to see adult. There was class to it, it was all feature film," he said.
One of the many at that time enjoying the newfound acceptance was future adult director Andrew Blake, a man who would go on to make his own significant mark in the porn biz of the late '80s.
"Back then they were shooting on film and showing these movies in New York theaters – great films like 'The Devil in Miss Jones' and 'Behind the Green Door,'" he said. "I used to go see that stuff in my 20s. It was wonderful. I thought, this was what erotic material can aspire to."
THE QUALITY LEVEL
"You had to be an actual filmmaker to do it," Jeremy said. "We were using a lot of the same cameras that mainstream used. A DP at that time meant director of photography. A few years later it meant something else. A lot of guys back then went on to become mainstream directors, like John Appleton who did 'Rocky,' Wes Craven who did 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and Abel Farrara who did 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.'
"Things have dropped in budget, quality, talent, script, production values and locations. That's why the old days were the Golden Era of porn because they were producing films that could actually stand up: 'Ecstasy Girls,' 'Amanda By Night,' 'Fascination,' 'Roommates,' 'In Love,' 'Cafe Flesh,' 'Talk Dirty To Me.' These looked like feature films that happened to have sex. Today it's all automatic focus, blast lighting and shooting on video. It's like a father shoots his kids at Disneyland."
When it comes to onscreen talent, once again the Hollywood analogy rears its head. No doubt there are countless fans of Jonah Hill or Kate Hudson who would find the cinematic work of Clark Gable or Liz Taylor nothing less than a yawn fest. Yet the Golden Age of mega porno acting looms large in the legend.
Names like Vanessa Del Rio, Marilyn Chambers, Jamie Gillis and schlongmeister supreme John Holmes were and are the calling cards of classic adult fare. And, without a doubt, the platinum blond bombshell who launched a million loads of standing ovation crotch homage, Seka.
So – what did those watermark films have that set them apart? What was the secret ingredient?
"Me!" superstar Seka said. "Basically what they have in comparison to films of today, and I don't mean this lightly, is when I was making films there were just a handful of stars and they were all stars. Look at the cast we had for 'Dracula Sucks': Jamie Gillis, John Holmes, Annette Haven, Serena, John Leslie and myself," she said. "Other than Jenna Jameson and Tera Patrick, I don't think you have the star quality and star punch that we had then."
Karch breaks it down: "They were hot people who just liked to have sex in front of other people. It wasn't a money-motivated thing; there was no real business. It was about having fun, and they were outlaws. You were running from the law, it was illegal; you had to want to do it, and there were actually wonderful women. Women were hired to act in a movie, they were given a script, and they were playing a role and had costumes. It wasn't like now, where you hire a girl to do a double anal at 3:30 in the afternoon in her little cutoffs."
To be fair to a contemporary standard of attractiveness, even Jeremy admits that "the sex is probably hotter today and the girls are way better looking," but that shouldn't detract from the heat generated by the ladies of the Golden Era.
"Are films today as slick and smooth? Absolutely," said Seka. "We didn't always have that, but the people then were into what they were doing and the people enjoyed themselves. It wasn't mechanical. We were people having sex that really wanted to have sex and weren't doing bizarre stupid things. We did stuff that was campy and funny. I mean, people do laugh and have sex at the same time. We didn't take ourselves so damn seriously. A lot of that had to do with the directors. They knew what they were doing and how to treat people."
Case in point: Andrew Blake, who arrived on the XXX scene with his exquisitely stylized, award-winning "Night Trips" in 1989. Blake's vision was to pay profound, lens-driven adulation to his female stars, an attitude that produced a run of highly successful films.
"I became very passionate about the girls I worked with," he said, "and if you can kind of fall in love photographically with the girl you're shooting, that creates a potent vision. I don't think a lot of these guys [today] really enjoy the women they're shooting; they're just a piece of meat.
"I think it really boils down to: if you put together a director with a vision and girl who turns him on, they'll create an interesting product. But corporate filmmaking? No. I'm not going to put down 'Pirates' – it's very successful – but to me it's a lot of hokey special effects and bad acting. I think people have to be educated and have a reference as to what has come before, no matter what art you're pursuing, and build on that. Learn from it and put it in a modern context."
When it comes to context in adult, there's nothing more modern than video. As anyone who's seen director Paul Thomas Anderson's paean to porn "Boogie Nights" knows, the advent of the inexpensive, user-friendly format danced on the grave of the Panavision era, thus putting adult production into the hands of the common man and – as many would argue – putting an end to the era of the classic blockbuster.
As with the introduction of the "rabbit ball" into America's national pastime – suddenly anyone who could swing a bat could hit a home run – the video camera allowed anyone with a credit card to walk out of Circuit City as a director. And though XXX home runs were sparse, bases on sheer balls became the norm.
By his own admission, Karch was the man responsible for the video era. In 1979 he rented the necessary equipment, found a soundstage in Hollywood and went to work.
"When I brought video around, there were all these film people who were upset and other people going, 'thank you,'" he said. "I brought everything back into your own bedroom. Now you can take it home."
The effect on the Golden Era and the hits it engendered?
"It seemed like that went away with the invention of the video camera," Blake said, "and it became kind of a low hum of basically apathy." Lost in the hum, apparently were many directors who had helmed the big titles.
"A lot of them had a hard time making the transition to video and a lot of them fell by the wayside, but they really had talent," Jeremy said.
Perhaps it's ironic that the man who ushered in the video age is the same man who bemoans the lost beauty of the adult filmmaking era.
"It's different," Karch said. "When you have a bigger budget you can feel like you're making movies. But I recently got an offer; a guy wanted 12 pegging scenes a month." (For the uninitiated, "pegging" is a chap taking a female-employed dildo up his keester). "He says, I have a thousand dollars per scene, and I'm thinking, the girl is $800, the guy is $600 … I'm already at $1,400.
Should we be preparing to mourn the death of the vaunted blockbuster, or can this grand beast somehow thrive, or be born again?
"Listen, honey. You ever tried to get back together with an old girlfriend?" asked Seka. "There's no going back. It just doesn't work."