There’s a remarkable shot in Rocco’s first half of a woman standing still with a fishnet stocking pulled over her face as her eyes wander unfocused and concussive around the set of the porn she’s performing in. The diffuse glow of a window seems to subsume her pale skin so the stocking veins her face like a web pulling her into focus. This image is captured by filmmakers Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai and is the documentary counterpoint to the porn-scene-proper it’s extracted from, in which this woman’s crepe paper nerves are necessarily disregarded for the shredding of her body. By framing her in isolation and showing the dubiety in her eyes, a moment that would otherwise be lost to porn’s carnal monomania is recast into art. It is one of the few times the film achieves its artistic pretensions and one of the few times the film sees its subject, this orgy of male self-absorption (no matter how enigmatically) through a woman’s perspective.
The camera casts a Kino eye into a gang-bang. Men’s muscle-clotted backs are lavished with a steel-filtered glaze as the lens laps at their trapezii and deltoids. In the barren gunmetal interior of a warehouse they thrust like a many-headed body into one woman – the aesthetic point of reference could be Blake’s Great Red Dragon paintings reimagined by Zack Snyder. The scene is imbued with a sense of Olympic grandeur, glorifying male bodies as if they were the coliseum, the sport, and the athlete. When the scene is finished and the camera follows the men into the shower where they jump and sing, happy as a cad, it then cuts to the woman showering alone, bent over and exhausted, her backside tallied with welts, kneading her leg like she’s wringing it out. The juxtaposition is only an affectation on the behalf of the filmmakers, an affectation they know will be compensated for by the inevitable dismay the viewer feels.
Thematic duplicity is even more apparent in the disjunction between the film and its ostensible subject, the international porn “giant,” Rocco Siffredi, a disjunction the great film critic Manny Farber would have identified as being between Termite Art and White Elephant Art. Termite Art is kinetic; it isn’t taxidermied into significance by the boundaries of the frame but imposes its self-absorption upon traditional logic and limits (recent examples: Good Time, JPEGMAFIA). White Elephant Art stuffs the frame with a veritable I Spy of semiotic pertinence and is casuistic in fulfilling its own motives (recent examples: Marvel Studios, Slam Poetry).
As the subject of a film, Rocco is as Termite as it gets. For him, the only limit of his work is the (breakable) obduracy of women’s bodies, never questioning whether he might or might not be giving them pleasure. Women are a demesne retained by his official decree, like Robert Moses’ Long Island developments. When he is shown a picture of an actress’ back after it was flayed with a bullwhip during a “before porn” sexual encounter he asks, “why did you do that?” She tells him it’s enjoyable and Rocco is nonplussed. He thinks of himself as the ultimate dispenser of violence. It’s pleasure for him, business for them. Whatever “rough sex” a woman engaged in in the past was in no way related to her own desires and sexual autonomy but was obligatory mithridatism before ingesting Rocco’s super-intense roughness. He facetiously thinks of himself as being fatal. While grooming an amateur he asks if she’s scared, when she says “yes” he asks if it’s because “they said, ‘Rocco will kill you?’” Then, having nibbled through her defenses he bores into her vulnerability until she’s alone, standing before a window with a stocking pulled over her face. Termite.
To vindicate its portentous artiness the film fabricates a narrative that Rocco is a holy hedonist. It contends that his becoming a pornstar instead of a priest, which his mother wanted, was predetermined by the fickle hand of fate. His penis is the “devil between [his] legs” and has taken possession of him, obviating his protestations as if he were his own gimp. Violent sex, like death, is compulsory: his sexual awakening coincided with his brother’s death at a young age, so Thanatos and Eros are inextricably linked. The violent sex he’s famous for is an attempt to push himself and his partner to the brink of liebestod, enunciating the sex/death corollary of his confused desire. Yadda yadda yadda.
The film contrives bleak little mis-en-scenes to fortify this thesis that Rocco is a deep and troubled soul. In one, we see Rocco looking at himself in his bathroom mirror for an extended period of time. He’s haggard, he has potato-pouches under his eyes and his face hangs like sodden clothes from the lines of his wrinkles. The mirror leaks out of darkness through a jaundiced peel of light and the bathroom’s pitch interior eases sfumato shadows along the slope of his skull and the curve of his jaw. Now, I have never waited for someone to set up a light-tree, decide between gobos, and focus the Lekos before I could brood in my bathroom, but I imagine my brooding would ultimately feel inauthentic as a result. Considered as such, whatever was meant to be conveyed about Rocco by having him phone-in his woes in the mirror becomes suspect. As a study of introspection, the scene is only a portraiture of its own prompts.
In creating so much solemnity the filmmakers overlook that porn is camp (they film a young male porn actor skipping around wearing rabbit ears with the dour sluggishness of an Ordinary People composition). Porn itself is aware of this, but not in the ingratiating, tongue-in-cheek manner of respectfully intentional camp like Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool or whatever. Those are films that subsist on cynically appropriating the referents of camp for their own mainstream purposes. In this sense, Guardians of the Galaxy’s co-option of soporific 80’s pop (to wink at its plot’s banalities) and Deadpool’s megalomaniac but demotic stupidity (he talks to the audience!) are not irreverent intrusions on staid narratives, like true camp, but focus-tested tropes. We are an audience that bears our own cleverness, the cleverness of anti-jokes and memes, as the standard for art to aspire to. Thus, the ready-made ironies of Guardians and Deadpool are intended to satisfy the audiences’ homogeneous sense of cultural superiority. Very capitalistic. Very uncamp. Porn, despite being more ubiquitous than most mainstream entertainment, is always outside of the mainstream. This is contingent on the puritanical nature of our society and of the entertainment industry – white Christian mothers are still plucked from their SportWagens and pews and enlisted as MPAA gofers to officially descant on the immorality of female orgasms and pubic hair – that wishfully thinks of porn as a backdoor creepshow. But porn is also marginal because it is, of its own volition, bad – even anomalously good porn like 1973’s The Devil in Miss Jones is bad. Porn can’t burden itself with being good. Capital “A” Acting and neatly coherent plots would detract from porn’s effect, but ludicrous motives and actors whose expressions appear as if they were dubbed over their faces facilitate the necessary distanciation from reality the audience needs to believe in an aesthetic of impersonal cartoonish fucking. Porn’s camp is not a pageant for subversion like Rocky Horror Picture Show, but a necessary logic founded on its own naiveté.
In Rocco’s final scene before he retires, he is being crucified and flagellated by two women’s gently slapping fingers when Kelly Stafford (who is “the pornstar,” according to Rocco) comes to save him dressed as an angel (camp!). The scene was filmed at Kink, a production studio in San Francisco that specializes in BDSM scenes. Stoic leatherfolk whose hands are callused from heaving body-weighted ropes, and serious looking “fuck machines” like a latex cudgel strapped to a piston, seem to operate in a pornographic world unmediated by camp. A world that justifies the solemnity of the documentary. Not so. Kink too is a purveyor of camp. Adorning the walls of Kink are Photo-to-Painting acrylics of screenshots. In one, a woman fists another from behind. Their flesh is rendered as nondescript content, something to fill in the outline of their bodies. The labia isn’t striated from the effort of accepting a fist because there is no labia. The fist appears submerged in beige jelly. Taking a “fine art” and non-parodically revamping it as kitsch is campy. Sincere camp, enamored of its innocence. Despite the rebarbative qualities of Rocco’s work, his is too.
The film mistakenly tries to elevate a pornographic myth to a classical stature, but porn resists this. Rocco is not biblical. He is not some Shining Sodomite who escaped perdition and is possessed to fuck everyone – Lot’s daughters, angels, everyone – into eternity. He’s a ham on a cross compelled by the commandment of a naked woman wearing tinsel wings to “crucify [her], big boy.”
— Bryce Jones, Guest Contributor
Bryce Jones is a former child comedian who used to open for Doug Stanhope at too impressionable an age. He is now a mild-mannered bookseller. His writing has been published in Treblezine and Slant Magazine.
All text reprinted here copyright © 2018 Bryce Jones, all rights reserved.