Applying this theory to adult films may not seem like a natural approach to discussion of the genre, but pornographic filmmakers were not exactly a dime a dozen in the 1970s and 1980s, the era of porno chic. Much like the stars of the era, the directors working in the industries of the east and west coasts often made features identified and sometimes even advertised as the work of an auteur. "A Gerard Damiano Film", "Alex de Renzy's...", "A Film by Cecil Howard", "Carter Stevens'...". Taking a hint from the New Hollywood of the 1970s, when the director's authorship was used as a marketing tool for a more hip and informed audience, films began being branded not only by their female stars, but by their directors. Accordingly, each director's films are distinctive from another's, visually, stylistically, thematically, and artistically.
This is the driving thrust behind "Skin Deep: The Adult Film Auteur". Much has been written of the adult industry at large, the drugs, the crime, the tragedies and controversies, and of the people in front of the camera, the men and women who bravely revolutionized sexual cinema. But precious little attention has been given to the men behind the cameras, working to create something special, signature films defining their aesthetic and thematic views while also striving to be commercial enough to turn a profit. The comparison between adult film auteurs and those working within the box office-driven studio system of classic Hollywood is not to be curtly dismissed.
The man responsible for the two key films of east coast porno chic, Gerard Damiano, is perhaps the most important director in the genre. While Deep Throat (1972) has become a pop culture phenomenon, The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) is more indicative of the work this artist produced throughout the 1970s and 1980s. More than any other filmmaker, Damiano personified the auteur theory of director as author. He wrote, produced, edited, and directed all of his key films, involved with every aspect of production to bring to the screen works close to his creative heart. Much has been made of his Catholicism informing his films, and while there are elements of guilt threaded throughout his work, there is more of a sense of old-fashioned conservative values clashing with the new social mores in the wake of the sexual revolution. Directing his documentary Changes (1970), Damiano examines the various facets of the new sexuality, not merely for exploitation purposes, but out of a seeming genuine curiosity and interest in expanding his horizons. Damiano was also not afraid to experiment within the confines of the genre: a male-on-male blowjob in The Story of Joanna (1975), an all-puppet sex film with Let My Puppets Come (1977), a one-woman show in Portrait (1974). His most complex film, and my personal favorite, is Odyssey (1977), a examination in three parts of people's lives saved or destroyed by sexual desire, and he would return to this three-story structure for his last great film, Night Hunger (1983), with similar thematic juxtapositions of three members of a family suffering from satyriasis, an abnormal sexual craving of torturous extremes.
As gifted as he was a storyteller, Damiano was also a brilliant actor's director. Few of his contemporaries could provoke the kind of performances given in his films by performers not known for their thespian talents. Suzanne McBain in Odyssey, Loni Sanders and Mike Ranger in Never So Deep (1981), Lysa Thatcher in The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue (1980), these performers challenged themselves to give what are surely their career performances. There are few, if any, poorly acted Damiano films, and his ensemble casts were among the finest in the genre. Even elegant talents such as Georgina Spelvin (the original "Miss Jones"), Jody Maxwell (Portrait), Terri Hall (Joanna), and Sharon Kane (Night Hunger) give arguably the best performances of their careers under Damiano's careful direction. The man also cast himself in some of the most memorable non-explicit roles of the genre: the nut in the padded cell in Miss Jones, Samantha Fox's father in People (1978), the producer in Skin Flicks (1978). There truly is no one more deserving of the adult film auteur title than Damiano, the Orson Welles of the adult word.
With his background in Hollywood production, Spinelli's films were always professionally made, with heavy emphasis on cinematography, lighting, and performance. The latter element is what sets Spinelli's films apart from other films produced in California during the first decades of the genre. His well-drawn characters are brought to life by winning performers aware of who their characters are and what Spinelli is doing with them. Richard Pacheco and John Leslie became Spinelli's leading men par excellence, and he also found a winning leading actress in Jessie St. James, an athletic blonde with an intoxicating sexual allure and tremendous acting talent used to great advantage in a series of brilliant starring roles. He gave future disco singer Andrea True her finest role as the title character in Lynn Carter, and did the same for Sharon Thorpe in Sex World (1977). To continually compare Spinelli with Damiano would considerably diminish the individual talents of each director, but the two surely share the title of the best adult film auteurs of the classic era.
Italian-born Lasse Braun is the one true success story of a European pornographer making his way across the Atlantic to bring a continental sensibility to American adult films. Others tried (including Gerard Kikoine and gay porn auteur Wallace Potts), but none had the lasting impression on the genre, with such distinctively kinky panache, as Braun. His first major hit, Sensations (1975), was technically an American-produced film, financed by porn mogul Ruben Steurman, and his first film on U.S. soil, American Desire (1981), was his last shot on celluloid; subsequent projects shot in America were shot on video. Braun's roots were in lavish, deliciously sordid loops, contributing to a segmented vignette feel to his features. His trademark was adventurous exoticism, with the titillating prospect of European corruption of American ideals, as Braun did to American leading lady of choice Brigitte Maier.
The most successful gay director working in the straight adult film world, Chuck Vincent wore the fact that he wanted to make "real movies" on his sleeve. True to form, all of his work is character- and story-driven, to the extent that many consider his films overly glossy and un-erotic. To dismiss Vincent as a pornographer in denial, however, is to ignore one of the genre's greatest artists at work. His comedies are raucous affairs, and his dramas emotional powerhouses, but flowing throughout them all is an uncertain distrust of love and relationships. Most noteworthy about Vincent's work is his casting of a series of actresses who would become his muses: Samantha Fox, Veronica Hart, Kelly Nichols, Merle Michaels, Gloria Leonard, Candida Royalle, Leslie Bovee. Frequent director-star partnerships were not uncommon in the adult film world, but with Vincent, these women informed his work to such a strong degree that he could very well be the George Cukor of adult films.
Despite auteur theorists attributing a film's authorship solely to the director, it would be ignorant to dismiss the important collaborations of these directors with writers, cinematographers, producers, and even actors. In the realm of photography, Damiano worked with Joao Fernandes, Spinelli with Jack Remy, and Vincent with Larry Revene. Revene worked with every major New York City adult filmmaker, but his union with Vincent produced the director's finest films, with a visual polish his earlier work is missing, and Revene would eventually strike out on his own as a director, making films that some viewers confuse for Vincent films primarily because of their stylist similarities. This is the work of Revene, as important a factor in Vincent's auteurism as his muses and frequent screenwriters (Bill Slobodian, Rick Marx).
The films of Armand Weston appear to be split into two types: the dark sinister psychodramas and the considerably lighter Hollywood homages. He is also one of the genre's auteurs with the smallest output, culminating in a single R-rated horror film before his untimely death in 1988. Weston's background in illustration and design brings an artist's sensibility to the composition and structure of his work. It is difficult to discuss Weston's oeuvre as a whole, as at face value all of his films seem so very different from one another, with only Defiance (1974) and The Taking of Christina (1976) seeming like sister films due to their being produced by performer-turned-filmmaker Jason Russell. A deeper probing into the brief filmography of Weston reveals a recurring theme of peeking behind a public facade to find the less than savory underbelly of society.
Another adult filmmaker with a brief career was Joanna Williams, another woman who began her career in softcore sexploitation (in front of the camera) before graduating behind the camera. Her output is small, but goes further to challenging the feminist critique that a woman director's work automatically qualifies as championing women. Female objectification in the Little Girls Blue films (1977, 1983) and graphic rape in Expensive Tastes (1978) provoke questions about the woman behind the camera and her artistic drive to create potentially troubling films for the image of women in adult films.
There were many other filmmakers of distinction:
-Shaun Costello, whose films ranged from weekend wonders to considerably more extravagant projects, all of them benefiting from a fevered sexuality; his frequent cinematographer Art Ben is also an auteur of note when he struck out on his own
-Jon Fontana, the co-director and cinematographer of the films of the Mitchell Brothers, and perhaps the true auteur of the brothers' oeuvre
-Joseph Sarno, regarded as one of the best actor's directors of the era
-Carter Stevens, actor-director whose films revealed a filmmaker who had more fun in the New York industry than perhaps any other
-Howard Ziehm, whose historically valuable early L.A. films preceded a series of "loop carrier" films establishing him as the first bi-coastal director
-Cecil Howard, the consummate producer/distributor whose work as a director is typified by sexual hunger connecting characters in desperate need of fulfillment
-Edwin and Summer Brown and Svetlana and David J. Frazer, two California couples producing both emotional couples-oriented films and tongue-wagging eye candy features for raincoaters
-Peter Balakoff, who co-starred in almost all of his California films with redhead exclusive Gena Lee, and sensitive New Yorker Kemal Horulu, both of whom focused on delivering turgid soap operas that are, despite their flaws, indicative of auteur mentalities
-Fred Lincoln, an early actor-turned director with a whimsical approach to sexuality that gave the impression his sets were one great big party
-John & Lem Amero, who were far more prolific in the gay industry but who brought their queer sensibilities to a handful of films that abandoned eroticism in favor of campy charms aimed clear over the heads of the general adult film audience; yet another gay director, John Christopher, betrayed none of his personal sexual preferences in films that brazenly showcased an emotionally stunted heterosexuality
-Stephen Sayadian and Gregory Dark, the New Wave mind magicians of the 1980s adult industry, producing wildly different projects with similar forward-thinking visual styles
-Early San Francisco pioneers Curt McDowell and Lowell Pickett; McDowell's films are in a class by themselves, both intensely personal and freely sexual, and while they're difficult to evaluate because so many are currently missing, the surviving Pickett features are among the earliest west coast attempts to produce professional pornography and succeed
-Zebedy Colt, known more today for his on-screen performances, directed a collection of bizarre and unclassifiable films that pushed the boundaries of good taste while also embracing the art of performance, made all the more interesting by his bisexuality
-Early pioneer Richard Robinson, a swinger whose free-love philosophy bled into his work, and his photographer Sven Conrad, producer of some of the most professional-looking adult films of the era
-Michael Zen, another bisexual auteur, whose stellar work in the gay industry tends to overshadow his worthwhile contributions to straight films; both deserve close examination
-Kirdy Stevens, who together with his wife Helene Terrie, graduated from softcore films to hardcore, taking their fascination with controversial subject matter (swinging, incest, underage fantasies) with them
-West coast auteurs Alan B. Colberg and Jeffrey Fairbanks, whose stars briefly shined bright in the adult film world, but long enough to create signature films with lasting impression
-Godfrey Daniels, whose gritty early work gives no indication of the drastic turn into professionally polished star vehicles he is known for today
And let's not forget Bob Chinn or Gary Graver, two of the most prolific filmmakers on the west coast, responsible for intriguing dramas and raucous comedies with visual style and care for dialogue and character, tackling every subgenre imaginable with consistently interesting results. Like Billy Wilder and Robert Wise before them, it may be easy to dismiss these directors when discussing adult film auteurs, as they floated through different genres over the course of two decades. Make no mistake, however, their generous bodies of work reveal auteurs at work.
These men and women, and more, warrant in-depth discussion in examination of the adult film auteur of the "golden age", and I can only hope that I do all of them justice. They are all worth your attention, for what they brought to the cinematic landscape, the ways they challenged their chosen genre, and for creating art within a crudely commercial industry.
(C) Casey Scott, 2012