Monday, August 18, 2008

ADVENTURES IN THE SKIN TRADE -- PT.I

Recently, Will Dixon wrote a perceptive piece on the show that most exemplifies recent Canadian television, "Train 48". In his post, Will focused on the Canadian network tradition of eschewing quality and entertainment value in favor of cheaply produced quota fulfillment.

Ken Girotti followed up with his own musings on the subject, positing that the CRTC wanted more of the same and in their perfect world, we'd all be doing porn.

Not 24 hours later, Denis McGrath broke the news that the CRTC had licensed a new Porn Channel with the proviso that it program 50% Canadian content.

A lot of giggles and merriment ensued in various comment sections from us creative types. Some of it provoked by the perfect comic timing of the announcement and some out of fear that Girotti's prediction might be coming true.

The Family Compact only wants us around if we'll fuck for them.

Over this week, I'm going to publish three posts about the porn trade. Each will focus on a different aspect of the game. Because what most people don't know is that I started out in Porn.

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Now, I've never been in a porn movie, nor written or produced one. But one of my first jobs was in the industry.

I arrived in Toronto in 1971, fresh out of theatre school, my first professional contract under my belt and ready to break into the big time. But I needed some way to pay the rent until I'd made the rounds with my sparse resume and 8x10's, found an agent and shown the casting directors what I could do.

So I trotted down to the Canada Manpower office to find a job. The helpful Government clerk looked over his files and sent me off to a Yonge Street hole-in-the-wall called "Reid Books" which, along with its sister outlet "Cinema 2000", were the city's main purveyors of smut and where the efficient public servant had discerned I had a marketable skill.

For during my time at the University of Regina, there had been a failed attempt to launch a student TV station. In the process I'd learned to operate one of those old 2" video tape machines. And Cinema 2000 showed porn films on video tape because of a little wrinkle in the Law.

Exhibiting Porn could get you arrested back then. But nobody had foreseen the advent of video tape, so it wasn't listed in the criminal code and therefore charges couldn't be laid for screening dirty movies on video.

Not that the Toronto Police Morality Squad didn't try. One of the first things the store manager warned me about was that I could get arrested for working there. But hey, the money was good, the hours allowed me to go to auditions and shoot commercials and I looked cool in the "Fuck Censorship" T-shirt all the staff got to wear.

So my first summer in Toronto was spent working the midnight shift in two of the sleaziest joints in town. Both were narrow store fronts. At Reid, the first third could be mistaken for any other book or magazine outlet. The second third was hardcore porn magazines and books, the hardest shielded in provincially mandated plastic wrap. A curtain hid the back third where video booths that resembled the original Pac-Man games would play 3 minutes from a stag film for a quarter.

We sold a lot of rolls of quarters -- and didn't go past that curtain into the back unless we absolutely had to.

Cinema 2000 was more in your face. The books, magazines and an assortment of sex toys were right up front along with posters for what was playing in the plush red velvet 40 seat theatre downstairs, where you watched the movie on a 4 foot screen.

I've always been convinced this was where Garth Drabinsky got the inspiration for the first Cineplex.

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And except for a few minutes of hardcore sex, most of the movies weren't much different from what you'd see in a neighborhood multiplex or Art house today. Most had an actual story although it was little more than an excuse to hang nude scenes on and there were always a couple of completely irrelevant plot points to wrap up after the final money shot. I soon realized they were there to allow the clientele to scurry out before the lights came up.

I hadn't had much exposure to porn, but as a child of the 60's I didn't find anything offensive about it. And from the point of view of an aspiring actor, being around it offered me an incredible insight into people.

Biologists may claim our first instinct is survival, finding food and water, etc. But I'm convinced they're only the necessities required so that we can follow our prime directive which is to fuck somebody.

You saw all kinds in the store, from the furtive perverts to the anxious to understand teenagers to women who'd slip you a 20 to deliver a vibrator to them in the coffee shop next door so their friends would think they had only come in to buy the early edition of the Globe and Mail.

Some of the clerks called the customers "maggots", tired of their constant cloying desperation to somehow get off. All of "us" were young, hip and cool. We were struggling artists and musicians who had no trouble getting laid.

We found a myriad of ways to have fun with them. One night we created a display of fresh cucumbers labelled "Organic Vibrators -- No Fuss, No Muss, No Batteries or Cords" and we actually sold one. On another occasion, we invented a perversion, placing signs in the magazine section that Customs officers had seized that month's issue of "Thighbiters International" but we had a limited stash offshore we could mail. In a week we'd collected over a hundred names and addresses.

But the more I watched the customers, the more I started to see something else -- the way their need for gratification was being used to control or subjugate them.

Julian Berry's 1971 Broadway Play "Lenny", the stage biography of comedian Lenny Bruce, opens with a scene depicting ancient tribal elders choosing the best man in the tribe, who will be chosen by what he will sacrifice for the tribe. One offers to divest himself of his cows, another will give away his lands. But the winner announces that he's giving up fucking. The others can't believe it.

Then they realize that the people will be in awe of anybody who they believe has given up fucking. It's the ultimate proof that you are superior to them. The scene ends with the decision to make people feel shame for needing sex and to harass anybody who talks about it.

Cue Lenny's entrance...

Likewise, the feeling in the store was always that of an illicit activity in progress. Sometimes uniformed cops would walk in, instantly emptying the place. And we were regularly raided, with the Morality squad walking out with boxes of books and magazines that might or might not be used as evidence.

All of the clerks were harassed. I awoke one morning to find two Morality Squad detectives at the door. Their names were Cryderman and Parks, later immortalized as the Pinkerton Men in Carol Bolt's play "Red Emma" -- after being the guys who busted the Toronto Free Theatre's production of Michael Hollingsworth's "Clear Light" in 1973, the only time a Canadian drama has been closed as a threat to public morality, its artists living for months under the shadow of criminal prosecution.

I made the guys tea, following my personal credo of showing your adversary an initial courtesy and the opportunity to exhibit their own humanity. But the two cops were there to put the fear of God into me. Either I quit or they'd bust me. I told them I didn't understand how I could be arrested for doing a job the government had found for me. That stopped them cold and they soon left. But I've often wondered if their next stop was Canada Manpower to kick somebody's ass.

I always had this nagging suspicion that something else was going on in the Porn trade. If what we were doing was so harmful, nothing was stopping the authorities from coming down on us like a ton of bricks, confiscating our entire stock and tossing a few guys in jail. But they never did. And there was no perceivable link between what was seized. Sometimes it was bondage, sometimes copies of "Jugs" or "Gent" that were no different from the issue they'd ignored the month before.

I'd also noticed something else that I hadn't mentioned to the cops that morning. Somebody had told me that the best way to get to know a new city was to read the newspaper every day from cover to cover. And it worked. I soon knew who was who on City council, who the big business players and influential citizens were, and how some of them were inter-connected. And I also saw most of them in the store.

Many would swan in on a Saturday evening, wives in tow after an evening at dinner or the theatre, the wife carrying the ubiquitous rose from a street seller that signified date night. They'd sweep through, weaving between the pervs, sniggering at a title or two, before leaving with a dismissive glance to the guy at the cash register -- communicating clearly that they were far above such activities.

And then, the guy would come back -- sometimes later -- sometimes the next day and pocket what had caught their eye, unaware the same clerk was taking their money.

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As porn has become more pervasive in our culture, the stigma attached to it has diminished. But not that much. It's still seen as being created by less savory individuals; a kind of necessary evil that somehow keeps the masses preoccupied.

So it doesn't surprise me that the CRTC is demanding that half of the programming on the new porn channel be Canadian in content. They'd never require that the primary content of any other broadcaster approach those numbers. It's a ruling that almost  instantly creates an industry within months of rulings which have reduced work opportunities for legitimate artists.

There's a message being sent here. A direction is being charted. More on that in Part Two.

3 comments:

Fake Ouimet said...

Read the press coverage: The CRTC did not demand 50% CanCon; it was proposed by Northern Peaks and accepted.

Anonymous said...

regarless who proposed it...the irony that the government that made so much hoop di do months ago about "young people fucking" is now willing to greenlight an industry based on that...

My question Jim is ...was Stephen Harper one of those trolling late night after diner regulars? Bet if we checked with his local "adult video" counterstar...we might get a big yes!

Bitter Animator said...

>>a kind of necessary evil that somehow keeps the masses preoccupied.

Yeah, that's television too. We're in the Age of Distraction. Porn is a really strong part of that.