February 23, 2012 12:11:00 PM
It is a classic American situation: a guy graduates from college and goes far away from home to some section of the promised land to claim some part of the American dream. For Sam Benjamin, though he didn't realize it when he set out, the dream turned out to be pornography. It was dreamy for a while, and fun, and lucrative, and while it didn't last for him, it was educational. Readers can enjoy vicariously the lessons he picked up, without having to be physically present at any of the yucky stuff, in American Gangbang: A Love Story (Gallery Books), a funny, lyrical, frank, and raunchy memoir. Benjamin is a gifted writer, with an ear for dialogue. Although he has plenty of self-deprecating humor, he doesn't let himself off the hook here; he did some dodgy, even reprehensible things during his porno days, but they are included in the story. People who like porn will enjoy reading a first-hand account about the facets of its production and will also enjoy a bit of titillation. Those who don't like porn will find arguments against it (but of course they won't read it). Either way, there is a high dose of entertainment here, and insights into a world that is hidden from most of us.
The book opens as Benjamin is newly graduated from Brown University in 1999, and he has but one goal, to move to California. He cannot stay on the East coast and he cannot stand New York. "I've never met anyone who honestly hates New York," argues his father. "It just doesn't happen very often. Quite likely you are the only Jewish person in the whole world who hates New York." This is just the first bout of incomprehension that Benjamin's parents face; he is understandably reluctant initially to tell them of his career moves in pornoland, but eventually he levels with them, and his telephone calls home (and the parents' visit to him in his new environment) make for absurd comic dialogues. It turns out to be an admirable relationship; the book is dedicated: "For my family, who stood by me loyally - no matter what."
Benjamin had studied art at Brown. Conceptual art, found art, video art. He couldn't draw, paint, or sculpt, but he could re-cut a video of a Miss Teen USA pageant, and also he could remove every bit of sex from a German porn film, and thought himself capable of figuring out how to make such video art pay. The means of getting money thereby didn't show itself immediately, however. One day he got to a flea market in Santa Cruz, and bought a stash of thirty old VHS porn films. He was inspired. He envisioned himself directing such films, but his would be different. "I would pull off a surprise - a sex film that had heart, one that had soul. I'd make a porno that was actually good..." It was a revelation, perhaps fired by a bit of grass on which he was toking: "I knew what I was going to do with my life. I was going to become a pornographer. An artistic pornographer."
You can't start up in such an endeavor just because you want to. Before his career took off, he worked in a health food store. He was a janitor in exchange for yoga instruction. He answered an ad for dancers at Club Hump: "Beefy Go-Go Boys Drive Mixed Crowds Crazy!" He performed in a bisexual video. He taped himself and tried to sell the tape online. Nothing really clicked until he lucked into contacting the administrator of a website which specialized in interracial videos and charged users a monthly fee. Benjamin knew a couple of men who were always ready to perform, and he could go to an organization called Reb's Pretty Girl, International, which had a directory of women who were ready to go on camera. Each woman in the album had a page with two photos and a list of what she would do and what she wouldn't do. "Many of the actresses were surprisingly hard-looking, as if they were fresh from murdering somebody with a hammer claw, or on some sort of leave from hooker's prison." But none of them were props, none were really porn stars. "They were regular people who, for some reason, decided to get naked and raw."
Benjamin meets plenty of professionals, like John E. Depth and Tony Eveready. He made one introduction on set while one of the actors had already started caressing the actress: "Tasia," he said, "meet Brian Pumper and Lucky Starr. Soon, you'll be having sex with them." There are tangles of various tabs into different slots in that encounter and lots of others which are relentlessly described. Men wander around with their genitals in various stages of preparation, some artificially erect. Some really enjoy their work and some just are making money from their freakishly-endowed anatomy. Benjamin does try to play the auteur, and pays attention to more than just the sans-clothes action: "We have only so much time, Billy, before the sun moves! And then how are our shots gonna match? Tell me that, man!" It is unlikely that the subscribers to his service really noticed. And there are always logistical, personnel, and property problems. "We'd utilize between us eight actors, which meant eight large and sometimes volatile egos to attend to - not to mention sixteen forms of ID, 4 sixty-minute Sony mini-DV videotapes, 10 Xeroxed seven-page stacks of model releases, 3 douches, 2 bottles of lube, 4 snug-fitting high-heeled shoes with giant soles, 7 to 8 automobiles featuring 28 to 32 absurdly expensive spinners..." and the list goes on to extreme items of what Woody Allen once called " a catalogue of Hong Kong honeymoon accessories, sent to me once by mistake."
When he was first explaining himself to his dad in one of their many phone calls, he justified thus: "Dad, there's no need to get all riled up. I'm part of a very well-established, historically sound industry." But as he later reflects, "How do you explain to your parents that you are completely revitalizing the face of modern urban pornography?" His parents remain shocked, and much later when his career is going very well, his father wants to know just what special things Benjamin is doing out in California "that makes videos of people having sex become art?" This is a stumper, and Benjamin can only stammer that he is right now concentrating on just making money and that he is succeeding at that. "Perhaps your artistic goals have proven slightly unrealistic?" comes the response. The art never seems to take over. When Benjamin gets his direction from his boss about a particular anatomical display that has to be featured in the next film, he mumbles, "But what about... making it funny... what about... a story." The response is purely practical, purely commercial: "Stories are all well and good, Sam. But we have to make sure we get enough hardcore footage in the bag. That's what pays our bills."
"I came here to change the game, not get changed by it," he explains to a partner, but it didn't work out that way. In particular, his fondness for a disturbing tape called Slap Happy plays itself out in his real-life dating behavior in a particularly distressing way. He does what he can to produce a cinematic masterpiece, but it never happens, not even close. "Brilliance had eluded me," he reflects toward the book's end as he is planning ways to get out of the scene and do something else. Well, OK, maybe we do not have a brilliant young pornographer to open our eyes to new, serious aspects of sexuality. But we do have a writer who has brought us a serious look at "a historically sound industry," its paradoxes, and its quirky participants, many of whom seem to be kind and courteous people, you know, just like the rest of us. Benjamin didn't make any movies he could be proud of, but there is no shame in making a memoir as lucid, funny, and revelatory as this one.