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II)C)3: Buttman, Janet Reno, and the Sony VX1000: The rise of “Gonzo.”

Betamax failed as a consumer format, but it was destined to be reborn as BetacamSP and come to dominate the professional video acquisition and post-production market. “BetacamSP” emblazoned on the side of a full-sized video camera was an easy to read ear-mark of a working professional. The cameras were expensive to buy, and expensive to rent, putting them well out of reach of even the most aspirational hobbiest. BetacamSP was the tool of choice for the post-theatrical era of  adult video, including John “Buttman” Stagliano’s seminal work, The Adventures of Buttman.

Stagliano wasn’t the first to experiment with highly reductionist, shot-on-video, sexually explicit productions. As soon as their were consumer camcorders there were people making and marketing what were more or less home video versions of the super-ultra-low-budget loops and smokers that had been available since the invention of cinema. But these productions remained very much at the margins of the adult video business; catering to niche interest, and under greater threat of obscenity prosecution because the low production quality and lack of cinematic pretense made them harder to defend under the Miller Test. Mainstream adult videos were mostly scripted featured, stitched together around five or six sex scenes, or a series of scripted vignettes.

What John Stagliano and Andrew Blake both realized was that “pretending” to make a movie was getting in the way. But where as Blake’s solution would result in something akin to a Penthouse magazine layout come to life (shot on film, aspirational fantasies involving mansions and sports cars and sleek women wearing sunglasses) Stagliano would take his reductionism in an entirely different direction. 

John Stagliano was already an established performer and director, in full procession of the production resource and directing chops to make a porn feature. But in his 1989 The Adventures of Buttman, he cast off the encumbrances of the feature approach, and fully embrace the aesthetics of video, on its own terms.

In Buttman, cameraman Stagliano follows  performers through a series of sexual hi-jinx. The action is loosely scripted, the dialog is improvised, and in an odd way, the video is as much about the chemistry between cameraman Stagliano and performers as  it is about the sex. Even as the sex acts unfold, the performers  and John trade quips (often at John’s expense), and this interaction imbues the sex scenes, and the whole movie with a degree character and narrative drive that is (in my opinion) far more engaging (and erotic) than the half-baked features that were the mainstay of the business.

But from a production standpoint the take-away from The Adventures of Buttman was that all you needed to make a successful porno film was a (professional) camera, a well-hung, sexual aggressive male performer, able to become erect and ejaculate on demand, and a half-dozen women willing to have sex on camera for money. Fancy locations? Who watches porn for the locations? Script and dialog? We’ll make it up as we go along, and it will sound better than any sort of “writing and acting”. And of course we won’t be shooting on film. 1) It would be way way too expensive; 2) it would interrupt the natural chemistry; 3) It wouldn’t look right. Even if it’s not as beautiful, the ENG look of Betacam gives the whole production a kind of immediacy that enhances the verity. The look of video says, “This is really happening. This video camera just happens to be here to capture it.”

The only things keeping any idiot with a video camera from jumping in is that in 1989 even the cheapest Betacam package rents for about $500/day, and even a cut-only editing suite rents for about $50/hour, plus another $40/hour for someone who knows what buttons to push, and the ever present threat of obscenity prosecution, which had been given new priority in the conservative backlash of the 1980s.

But the video electronic industry was about to make a decision that will destroy Betacam as a profession format and fuel the Great Gonzo Gold Rush of the late Nineties and early Oughts.

The Sony VX-1000 and all of it’s DV codec using, FireWire equipped siblings were never intended to evolve into a professional format. To develop a digital format that could manipulated on home computers, the DV standard reduced the color space from Betacam’s 4:2:2 to 4:1:1 and then crammed that already highly reduced image through 5:1 compression. It was never imagined that the blocky, jaggy, color warped image that resulted would ever be used for professional work. But DV was absent one bug that even high-end Betacam equipment was plagued by: drop-outs  – little defects in the tape that would result in flecks and missed lines in the recording, the dust and hair of the video world. I remember “drop-out compensation” being a much touted feature in the online suites I used in the early Nineties. It would turn out that this lack of drop-out and the ease with which DV footage could be manipulated on a home computer would count for a lot more than the lost color information and compression.

But most important was the price. The Sony VX1000 debuted with an MSRP of $3995, which translated to a street price of about $3,500; or about an order of magnitude less than Betacam, the former standard standard for professional adult video production. And footage from the VX1000 and it’s digital descendants (Sony PD150, Panasonic DVX100, etc.) could be edited on a home computer — cuts, dissolves, titles — all the basic ingredients of a finished product were now available at a fraction of the previous cost.

Prior to Reno, Buttman and the VX1000, producing videos of quality sufficient to make a return required expensive equipment and specialized knowledge. Fear of obscenity prosecution and the need to appeal to (relatively) wide audience encouraged producers to ape narrative film conventions.

After Reno, Buttman and the advent of ultra-low cost digital production and post production, the calculus changed. John Stagliano had created an easily and inexpensively reproduced template; for less than $10,000 a producer could cobble together a suite of tools that could produce clear renderings; and under Bill Clinton, the Justice Department abandoned obscenity prosecutions as a priority.  It was now possible to produce profitable titles in unit volumes of less than 2,000 pieces, and under these conditions the business would veer sharply towards producing “fetish” titles; the industry parlance for catering towards viewers’ hyper specialized interest in body types, racial pairing, age, and sex act, i.e. amply proportioned white women having anal sex with black men, or any other combination of race, body-type, and sex act you can imagine.

From an outside perspective, this explosion in low unit volume specialty titles would create the impression of the “adult industry” as an entertainment colossus. From the 2007 post Why Size Matters, aka Chatting with David Cay Johnston about Innumeracy:

Histrionic reporting on the porn industry, especially the grossly inflated size of the porn industry has given rise to the popular notion that the industry is a behemoth that nearly perfectly serves the erotic entertainment needs of the public. A phrase you’ll hear time and time again in “the bizz” is, “With 10,000 titles a year, there’s something for everyone!”

Looking from the outside, the existence of title like DIRTPIPE MILKSHAKES (volumes 1 and 2) lends credence to this idea. After all, if a $13B/year industry is making dozens, perhaps even hundreds titles a year devoted to such exotic sexual interests as women eating semen out of other women’s anuses, then certainly there must be something out there for people with more pedestrian tastes – things like convincing, well-crafted depictions of mutually pleasurable sex.

But while there’s no shortage of anal creampie themed videos, gaping anus themed videos, and other things to unsavory to mention on this blog, finding well-crafted sexually explicit films that convincingly depict mutual pleasure is all but impossible. As I said to Stacy Grenrock Woods in Esquire a couple of years ago, it’s easier to find a well-made fishing show than a well-made sex film.

For a time, this technologically empowered explosion in ultra-reductionist productions was (by some) viewed as a new Golden Era. Gone were the poorly executed conventions of narrative filmmaking (that has only served to get in the way of enjoying the sex acts,) and in their place there was a profusion of titles catering to every conceivable desire (provided your desire was to see people paid to have sex shot on a handicam presented more or less as “people paid to have sex shot on a handicam.”)

At the same time that Moore’s Law was changing the tools for production and post-produciton, Moore’s Law was also fueling even bigger changes in marketing and distribution. Over the next decade, these changes would convince the “adult industry” that any other contextualization sexuality was financially untenable, and in 2009, Vivid’s Steve Hirsch would declare the “adult feature” dead.

Up next: The Internet: The barriers to entry fall to zero.

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One Response

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  1. Kristoffer V. Sargent said

    I hope you’ll forgive this half-baked response. I’m recovering from a bitch of a week with a healthy amount of martini.

    Two immediate thoughts, springing from this embedded quotation:

    But while there’s no shortage of anal creampie themed videos, gaping anus themed videos, and other things to unsavory to mention on this blog, finding well-crafted sexually explicit films that convincingly depict mutual pleasure is all but impossible.

    What you’re describing has taken place elsewhere, the most glaring example being Youtube. On Youtube the anomalies reign. In the beginning, when Youtube came online, the novel, the weird, the outrageous, the absurd, the spectacular vids gained the most views. That resulted in the next generation of vids, which we are experiencing right now, being almost exclusively and superficially odd; Youtube’s archives are now saturated with behavioral tangents, asides, and sillinesses. It’s the P.T. Barnum, Elephant Man effect: high carnival demand creates high carnival supply. And all this while the artistic potential of Youtube — e.g., high-concept serials — remains dormant.

    This leads me to believe that the popularity of gaping anal and girlfriend fisting is not attributable to mere fetish specialization. Instead, what we’re seeing is the economics, and seduction by, spectacle, a human instinct larger than the sex drive but extremely potent when joined with it. It’s the primacy of the visual, combined with the human “prurient” interest in the sex-act, combined with the “I can’t believe someone would do that . . . but she’s clearly doing it!” fascination of the abomination that makes us all rubber neckers and email forwarders.

    My second thought follows the first. Basically, I’m wondering how you can change the dynamic. Obviously, experienced sex is no spectacle. But filmed sex is almost necessarily spectacle — unless, that is, something other than an orgasm at stake (riding on it?). That “something else” must be established by narrative; this extra emotional stake must accent the sex and inform it with meaning. Otherwise, spectacle it will remain.

    And that’s what the complaint about there being “no well-crafted films showing mutual pleasure” amount to: that current porn is consumed as “titillating vulgarity” or “raw arouser”, as sideshow, rather than as “rewarding experience” or “worthy of contemplation” (as art worth striving with).

    Don’t know if that makes sense to you. And it may not make sense to me tomorrow. But there it is.

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