Friday February 17th 2012
Like an absent father refusing to accept his paternity, mainstream filmmaking wants little to do with contemporary pornography, the bastard child it fathered many decades ago. Movie portrayals of the adult entertainment industry are generally confined to two strands: gritty inside looks at the abuse and exploitation running rampant in the industry (Fame, the non-nostalgia-tinged bits of Boogie Nights) and grim meditative dramas about the power of pornography to influence and corrupt (Afterschool, Shame). Add to that the glut of documentaries detailing how monumentally fucked up large portions of the real-world porn industry are, and you’ve got a pretty negative picture of what can be — when done right — a harmless enterprise.
The stage is set, then, for Cherry. Co-written by jobbing pornstar Lorelei Lee and co-produced by San Francisco based fetish website Kink.com (who also leant their gargantuan film studio The Armory to the production), the film sets out to paint a friendlier, healthier picture of the porn industry, as seen by those within it. It tells the story of 18-year-old Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw of ‘annoying girl who films everything for her blog in Chronicle‘ fame) who leaves behind the monotony of her small town existence to pursue a porn career in California.
The film is based at least partially on Lorelei Lee’s own experiences as a porn performer. Like Angelina, she entered the industry in her late-teens, quickly carved out a niche in fetish videos and was soon directing her own movies. She’s also a staunch defender of pornography as an expression — rather than a corruption — of sexuality, and in 2009 was due to appear at a federal grand jury obscenity trial in defence of her work (the case was dismissed before her testimony). In an interview with Salon.com around that time she suggested that, “If we lived in a society in which women’s sexuality was celebrated, and was seen as usually proactive rather than usually passive, I don’t think people would jump so quickly to the concepts of exploitation and dehumanization when they thought of female [porn] performers.”
In her bid to showcase the brighter side of porn, Lee refrains from re-hashing any of the more familiar pornstar-rise-and-fall narrative staples. At no point is Angelina coerced into performing sex acts by creepy older men (instead, we get a chirpy guy named ‘Vaughn’ with a snazzy hat), nor is she ever exploited on set (rather, she discusses her limits pre-shoot with a woman in a reassuring cardigan). There’s also zero implication that Angelina’s line of work is slowly eroding her inner wellbeing (in fact, she seems far happier in porn than out of it). Somewhat uniquely, the film doesn’t seem to have a single bad word to say about the porn industry.
It’s a bold gambit, but sadly Cherry is little more than an ambitious failure where positive portrayals of the porn industry are concerned. In the absence of any conflict arising from Angelina’s porn career, the film desperately scrabbles to exploit as many other sources of drama as possible. So while it succeeds in sidestepping almost all of Hollywood’s porn industry cliches, it dives head first into a host of other hackneyed scenarios. Dev Patel plays Angelina’s nerdy friend Andrew, who’s so blatantly in love with her that he might as well have “DUCKIE” tattooed across his forehead; James Franco is a high-flying lawyer who fills the aching void in his life with cocaine, strip clubs and more cocaine; even our brief glimpse into Angelina’s childhood household (alcoholic mother, abusive father, vulnerable younger sibling) reveals little more than White Trash Family Unit 1.0.
Most disappointingly, the porn scenes themselves — surely where a film like Cherry should come into its own — feel badly compromised, switching to soft-focus, hazy close-ups as soon as the action begins. For a film whose stated purpose is the de-stigmatisation of the porn industry and those who work within it, Cherry is remarkably timid when it comes to sex. Even when we do get to see a little more of Angelina at work, there’s something distinctly 1970s about the long shots and masked nudity of her porn career. I realise a graphic double penetration might have taken a bit of the sheen off the film’s crude-but-cute sensibility, but to conceal the reality of jobs like Angelina’s is to contravene the film’s entire raison d’être.
Art movies like Destricted have made great capital of examining the intersection between porn and mainstream cinema, but mainstream cinema itself is still a little way behind. Even with porn performers like Sasha Grey achieving previously unimaginable levels of Hollywood success, there’s still an unshakeable ‘either or’ attitude when it comes to adult and non-adult career choices (Grey retired from porn in 2009, shortly after starring in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience).
Whether or not Hollywood will ever get to a point where it treats pornography as an extension of its film industry rather than as some kind of problem child is debatable, but Cherry — while awful in most respects — is at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully it’ll only take a few more IMDb entries like Lorelei Lee’s to level the playing field: