Smut in 1080p

This article on the porn industry’s response to the HD DVD / Blu-Ray format wars caught my eye, reminding me that changing technological standards are an equal-opportunity disrupter. It’s not only the big  movie studios (like Warner Brothers, which made headlines last week by throwing its weight behind Blu-Ray) that must adapt to the sensory promise and commercial peril of HD, but porn providers,  television networks, and videogame makers: up and down and all around the messy scape of contemporary media, its brightly-lit and family-friendly spaces as well as its more shadowy and stigmatized precincts.

The prospect of HD pornography is interesting, of course, because it’s such a natural evolution of this omnipresent yet disavowed form. The employment of media to stimulate, arouse, and drive to climax the apparatus of pleasure hard-wired into our brains and bodies is as old as, well, any medium you care to name. From painted scrolls to printed fiction, stag reels to feature films, comic books to KiSS dolls, porn has always been with us: the dirty little secret (dirty big secret, really, since very few are unaware of it) of a species whose unique co-evolution of optical acuity, symbolic play, and recording and playback instrumentalities has granted us the ability — the curse, some would say — to script and immerse ourselves in virtual realities on page and screen. That porn is now making the leap to a technology promising higher-fidelity imaging and increased storage capacity is hardly surprising.

The news also reminds us of the central, integral role of porn in the economic fortunes of a given medium. I remember discovering, as a teenager in the 1980s, that the mom-and-pop video stores springing up in my home town invariably contained a back room (often, for some reason, accessed through swinging wooden doors like those in an old-time saloon) of “adult” videocassettes. In the 1990s a friend of mine, manager of one of the chain video places that replaced the standalone stores, let me in on the fact that something like 60% of their revenues came from rentals of porn. The same “XXX factor” also structures the internet, providing a vastly profitable armature of explicit websites and chat rooms — to say nothing of the free and anonymous fora of newsgroups, imageboards, torrents, and file-sharing networks — atop which the allegedly dominant presence of Yahoo, Amazon, Google, etc. seem like a thin veneer of respectable masquerade, as flimsy a gateway as those swinging saloon doors.

The inevitable and ironic question facing HD porn is whether it will show too much, a worry deliciously summarized in the article’s mention of “concern about how much the camera would capture in high-definition.” The piece goes on to quote Albert Lazarito, vice president of Silver Sinema, as saying that “Imperfections are modified” by the format. (I suspect that Lazarito actually said, or meant, that imperfections are magnified.) The fact is that porn is frequently a grim, almost grisly, affair in its clinical precision. Unlike the soft-core content of what’s often labeled “erotica,” the blunt capture of sexual congress in porn tends to unfold in ghoulishly long takes, more akin to footage from a surveillance camera or weather satellite than the suturing, storytelling grammar of classical Hollywood. Traditional continuity editing is reserved for the talky interludes between sexual “numbers,” resulting in a binary structure something like the alternation of cut-scenes and interactive play in many videogames. (And here let’s not forget the words attributed to id Software’s John Carmack, Edison of the 3D graphics engine, that “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”)

As an industry that sometimes thrives on the paired physical and economic exploitation of its onscreen workers, porn imagery contains its share of bruises, needle marks, botched plastic surgeries, and poorly-concealed grimaces of boredom (at best) or pain (at worst). How will viewers respond to the pathos and suffering at the industry’s core — of capitalism’s antihumanism writ large across the bodies offered up for consumers’ pleasure-at-a-distance — when those excesses are rendered in resolutions of 1920×1080?

8 thoughts on “Smut in 1080p

  1. Coincidentally, the Onion has an interview with a porn star that I read just before reading this.

    I find myself again thinking about the imminent possibility of realistic computer-animated porn, and what the impact of that might be.

  2. Mike, what’s the headline on the Onion article? I poked around their website but couldn’t find it.

    Re: CG porn, I agree with you that the implications will be profound. Such a thing already seems possible in a purely technological sense — at least graphically, as evidenced by any number of sex games issuing from Japanese and other non-U.S. markets. The question for me is why CG porn hasn’t caught on as a social and commercial phenomenon in the West. (I know it sounds odd to speak of porn “catching on,” given its renegade social status, but you know what I mean — catching on in an underground sense.)

    One reason, I suspect, is that the primary use of CG at the consumer entertainment level is limited to a relatively small subset of the market — videogames — and to the audiences associated with it. There is a social determination, in other words, that computers are “for” gaming and not for more adult pastimes. Computers are also powerful telecommunication and networking tools, of course, but here we come up against porn’s solitary nature. The equivalent of renting a movie and watching it in the privacy of your own home is the CG sex simulator, something there seems to be no market push toward.

    For some history on this subject, you might be interested in Eric Freedman’s piece “8-Bit Porn: Atari After Dark” at FlowTV. More tangentially, there’s David Levy’s new book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (Amazon link here). I flipped through it at the bookstore but wasn’t, you know, ready to commit.

  3. The interview was with Nina Hartley. It’s in the Onion A.V. Club section.

    I guess the possibility of CG porn interests me because it challenges me to sort out some things that I haven’t bothered to sort out about porn. I have some qualms about the porn industry. I think my qualms about it have more to do with issues of degradation and exploitation of the people who make it rather than content–but not entirely.

    The possibility that CG porn might NOT catch on raises other interesting questions. It seems obvious that porn has a lot to do with the meanings that its consumers attach to what is presented. Suppose that CG reaches the point where it is indistinguishable from the “real thing” (which, after all, already involves a certain amount of artifice)–if simply knowing beforehand that it is animation and not live action alters viewers response, I wonder what that might indicate?

  4. “The question for me is why CG porn hasn’t caught on as a social and commercial phenomenon in the West.”

    Some possibilities:

    1) Commercially viable CG porn is actually fairly capital intensive to produce well. Consumers may have a threshhold of verisimilitude that discourages the kind of CG within reach of small producers. Videogames may be a small subset of the overall entertainment market, but I suspect the gaming producers most invested in verisimilar CG have decent marketshare. The capital intensity will, of course, decrease over time.

    2) Path dependence: producers by and large may have stubborn notions of what works in the market, notions that may not change as rapidly as consumer desire might. This may seem odd, since porn often seems even more trend-driven than legit film industry, but given that so many porn directors and producers are ex-stars, it’s not far-fetched.

    3) Both #1 and #2 are exacerbated by oligopolistic industry that nonetheless does not corner a significant market share for any given maker. True, internet distribution has allowed amateurs and small entrepreneurs to create a new porn Poverty Row, but these businesses get by scrimping on production values (handheld homevideo formats) and labor (no porn stars). CG would be too expensive for these producers.

    4) Your suggestion that the industry might be willing to adopt CG in porn, but consumers have social reasons for resisting it. You mention the sociology of taste issues. There may even be a spectatorial investment in the untampered indexicality of the image. As much as the better than life impulse reigns in porn spectatorship, so does a stigma hold to “faking it” in certain regards (though, not others). This is hard to prove, but maybe the continuum between porn films and star’s live presence as dancers or escorts may place premium on bodies that are unmanipulated in their video presentation.

    Don’t know if this rundown is helpful, but it seems a start for an explanation.

  5. Cogent and convincing thoughts, Chris. Sounds like a prime factor in CG porn’s “tipping point” (all other things being equal) is the expense and technical complexity of producing it — when small porn producers are able to produce verisimilar CG using software packages available at Best Buy, points 1 and to some extent 3 will become less of a barrier. (Point 2, I imagine, will mitigate slowly over time, as the new mode of production makes inroads.)

    I wonder, though, how crucial verisimilitude will ultimately be as an overall target (and hence condition of economic possibility) for 3D porn? After all, in mainstream film, something like 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (still a high-water mark of near-photorealistic rendering IMO, despite its dead-on-arrival screenplay) has given way to much more stylized visual schemes — everything recent from Pixar and its competitors (Bee Movie, Monster House, etc.) suggests that CG animation’s cartoon DNA is coming to the surface in inverse proportion to the advancing technology.

    The most verisimilar stuff on the market at present is probably Zemeckis’s Beowulf, but even that film got stranded in the Uncanny Valley. And in the world of gaming (from which I suspect CG porn will draw many of its dynamics and formal structures — we haven’t even touched on the idea of interactivity and manipulability of the “pornspace” and its virtual actors, or for that matter, haptic interfaces), what comes to mind is the stylization of Team Fortress 2, described by some as harkening back to Warner’s Termite Terrace house style, but to my eye much closer to The Incredibles. I think too of the Flash games coming out of Japan, whose “sex bodies” draw freely on manga and anime style.

    I wonder, in short, if a move away from verisimilitude and its associated investments of capital and technology might not be a winning strategy for CG porn, both in terms of ease of production and palatability to audiences who enjoy some degree of abstraction because (A) it’s appealing in its own right or (B) it removes a layer of realism — the uncomfortable and conscience-tweaking knowledge that real people are being exploited on-camera — that precisely inhibits pleasure. Looks like we’re back at Mulvey’s one-two punch of fetishism and disavowal!

    All of this may be giving the potential makers, not to mention consumers, of CG porn too much credit for artistic ambition; my sense is that RL porn’s “untampered indexicality” is mainly a product of hurried production schedules in which you capture the money shot and move on. Yet within the world of porn there is undeniable stratification, auteurs and hacks, “good” and “bad” stuff (your Poverty Row), so who’s to say that the 3D tools coming into existence won’t eventually get put to use?

  6. Re: ‘realsitic CG porn’

    Mike, I’m not sure I completely agree with you on some of your points regarding the penetration (yeah, yeah, pun intended, I guess) of CG porn into the mainstream.

    There is currently a growing market for CG porn online and I recently wrote an essay attempting to understand the existence and growth of this fringe market. One of the things I argued was that previous definitions of pornography that hinge on ‘real sex acts’ and ‘real actors’ as integral to the voyeuristic pleasure of porn are problematized by the consumption of CG porn. Though I can’t quote any numbers on the relative costs of either type of production, it seems likely to me that once the 3d models and animation rigs are made up, it becomes drastically cheaper to produce CG porn compared to the costs of real actors (Who need to be paid, fed, insured, etc.).

    More than this however, I think the key to this new genre of porn lies in Lazarito’s comment (Freudian slip?) about ‘imperfections being modified’. In CG the stain of the real- blemishes, hair, etc.- is erased. This kind of disembodied, sanitized porn- sex without bodies- is the epitome of what CG porn stands to become. Another corollary of this type of production is the legal loophole it creates that legitimizes all sorts of heretofore verboted pornographic subject matter- CG perversions are not subject to the regulations that keep certain taboo pornographies out of the mainstream- all perversions are legitimized and sanctioned in CG.

    The final point that I think readers of this blog will particularly appreciate, is the promise of the porn consumer-as-producer. Already there are porn videogames available that give the user virtual control over the production of their porn. They can select and design the models, setting, music, and sexual positions and ‘be in the driver’s seat’ of their own virtual porn shoot. The simulated sense of control enabled by this technology must be compared to the control that is the hallmark of the sadean fantasy- the sadist programs an endless permutation of sexual acts between bodies that are wholly subservient to his control.

    As for the ‘oligopolistic monopoly’ cited regarding the porn industry- I think this is a gross misunderstanding of the shape of netporn. Mainstream high-production porn will always be just that, and the bigger production companies will always be the big fish who have the capital input to produce it. But netporn’s real lucrative potential has shown itself to be in niches. ‘Poverty row’ is really the long perverted tail of niche porn markets, and I think it is a mistake to disregard it merely because of its market share relative to the mainstream.

    The question is not what percentage of people would rather consume CG porn over more ‘traditional’ mainstream porn; the question is, why would someone choose CG porn over non-CG in the first place? How does this challenge our understanding of how pornography operates in our culture?

  7. eben,
    I’m not sure we are in fact disagreeing here. I was mostly raising non-rhetorical questions about CG porn, not making points. Since I knew nothing about the state of CG porn or its level of acceptance (I know a little more now after reading your post), I couldn’t say much else, except to speculate a bit and express my unease. That unease was based partly on some of the very things you point out, which I recognized as possibilities and which you have now confirmed as actualities.

    It just now occurs to me that someone I went to grad school with did her dissertation on a related topic, so I’ll put in a plug for her work in case anyone is interested–her name is Dànielle DeVoss (now at Michigan State U.)

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