By C.J. Arellano
“Pornography: A Thriller” is a title that either seduces you or makes you snicker. The same can be said about the movie itself. Surely, this indie curiosity from 2009 features elements of pornography and vestiges of a thriller, but it’s not wholly one or the other. In fact, it aims to don several identities at once: a disjointed nightmare in three parts, a hard-boiled neo-noir populated with brooding gay porn stars and their slimy producers, a serious-faced rumination on pornography and “why we watch,” or a kinky psychosexual trip down the rabbit hole of the gay male collective subconscious. Or something.
Director David Kittredge‘s movie strikes out with some of these goals and nails some of the others. It’s a mixed bag, this slick, stylish, and scrappy feature that insists on confounding the viewer at every turn. But it does come stocked with terrific performances from its three male leads and a killer visual style that sets it apart from many of its queer movie counterparts.
“Pornography: A Thriller” weaves its dream-logic narrative around an urban legend in the gay porn community regarding the disappearance of a celebrated star. The first act follows the star in question, a cynical moper named Mark Anton (Jared Grey), as he makes bold declarations of wanting out of the biz to try to pick up the pieces of his post-porn life…before he agrees to one more shady-sounding job that ultimately leads to his mysterious fate.
Part Two flashes forward to present-day 2009, where an everyguy author named Michael Castigan (Matthew Montgomery) has just moved into an enviable New York apartment with his boyfriend. Since Michael’s writing a book on the cultural history of gay pornography, he ends up uncovering and investigating the gruesome mystery of the Mark Anton case.
Part Three involves Matt Stevens (Pete Scherer), an ambitious actor/screenwriter/director, who may or may not be connected to the first two parts only by dreams, fantasies, inter-dimensional thoughts, or whatever metaphysical forces Kittredge’s script has secretly built itself upon.
The characters that populate “Pornography: A Thriller” are familiar beings in the land of noir: the embittered veteran lured in by the prospect of One Last Job, the reluctant amateur investigator pulling off hidden wall panels to find the next clue, and the Hollywood ladder-climber who’s coming apart at the seams. The characters may begin in well-worn territory, but thanks largely to the actors, they don’t end there.
Jared Grey imbues Mark Anton with the necessary angst – he even pounds a wall! – but nonstop moroseness would have been tiresome to watch, even for the few scenes we spend with him. Thankfully, Grey balances the bitterest pills of Anton’s existential crises with a wry, defeated, and vulnerable intelligence. He comes off as a scholar who’s just figured out that there’s no right answer to an ancient paradox and now is more than happy to see the next eager student try to figure it out. With a character like Anton, it could have been easy to devolve into obvious acting choices. Certainly, in some scenes, Grey seems tempted. But seeing as Anton is at the center of a mystery that will last two hours, it’s best to keep that character mysterious, and Grey, who plays his acting beats close to his chest, keeps his character’s soul delectably enshrouded.
In the second episode, Matthew Montgomery’s appealing openness as Michael serves as a direct antidote to the burdened aura of Mark Anton. As the everyday citizen caught up in an unlikely investigation, he fulfills his role as audience surrogate with a taut blend of fear and fascination toward every foreboding clue that he unravels. Investigator characters are difficult to keep interesting on paper and even harder to maintain as lively entities onscreen. Montgomery’s quizzical attitude and easygoing presence make him the most sympathetic of this bunch. Several times, the movie credits Mark Anton’s appeal as being “the boy next door,” but Montgomery’s the true embodiment of folksy innocence here. That he seems like he could have moseyed on in from a romantic comedy makes his ominous journey all the grimmer.
Pete Scherer may have had the toughest hill to climb in “Pornography: A Thriller.” Not only is he playing the third protagonist in a movie with an obtuse story structure, but his segment is the most drenched in reality-skewing mindfuck rug-pulls. Furthermore, his job here is to look like a character from a CW show, and act like one, too. Like the other two lead actors, he somehow transcends the material by filling the potential contrivance of the character with tantalizing subtext. Scherer presents Matt Stevens as a cocksure showbiz player excited by the prospect of his own dreams and nightmares but terrified at them all in the same breath. He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur or a hyper-inflated ego; instead, Scherer plays him as a caffeinated optimist who fears the dark because he’s never been inside it. He has the jocular, anxious vibe of a suburbanite BMOC who’s suddenly having doubts about his first day of college.
All three stories are buoyed by a sensational visual schema that pervades the entire movie. David Kittredge and his cinematographer Ivan Corona lay the stylized lighting on thick, but in a way entirely appropriate for a trashy-slick movie about a “seedy underworld,” and all the mystery-genre trappings that the phrase implies. Colored gels leak from behind dark corners. Faces are cloaked in chiaroscuros of heavenly halogen white and thick devious black. The camera floats, zooms, and tilts with the unflinching coolness of a silent voyeur. For a low-budget indie, the sumptuous camerawork and visuals are half the fun of this movie.
The script, however, is more of a question mark. If the whole multi-pronged web of “Pornography: A Thriller” sounds discombobulated, well, it is and it isn’t. The three separate stories are joined together at misty intersections by names, images, faces, and lines of dialogue that recapitulate throughout each of the three segments. Exactly how the stories connect is a question that has as much of an answer as does an inkblot test.
The movie garners instant and unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch. With its refracted notions of reality, dreams, and the idea of a moviemaking experience cursed by bad juju steeped in urban legends, the similarities to Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and “Inland Empire” are almost stunning in how audacious they are. Surely, David Kittredge has enormous creative debts to pay to Lynch, and it’s almost a pity that he felt so insistent on referencing such an iconic director with a distinct artist’s perspective. Lynch felt free to explore the twisty and surreal roads of his own subconscious, even when they led to recursive dead ends. That MO works for deeply personal works like “Eraserhead” or the aforementioned Lynchian nightmare visions of Hollywood.
On the other hand, the mysteries of “Pornography: A Thriller” are set up as concrete ones, like what happened to Mark Anton? Or who is sending Michael mysterious photos? Or who’s the shadowy cult that seems to be watching everyone and everything? By the time the narrative devolves into entropy of memory and dreamland, it doesn’t have the delirious catharsis of a Lynch or Cronenberg film. Frankly, it feels a little like a cheat. Kittredge may want to argue that the overall weirdness might be saying something deep and serious about pornography, the media, and what it means to consume sex or have it consume you.
But when Michael, under the pretext of discussing his book, starts to philosophize about pornography, the movie’s perspectives are revealed to be a little leaden and narrow. “The nature of desire demands the new,” Michael observes with too much gravity. Someone should tell him that even persistent and regular consumers of pornography regularly think these things about the smut they’re watching, and that he should try to dig a little deeper if he wants to sell a few copies.
Still, the movie is schlocky and seductive fun, despite itself. The male leads are all classically handsome and spend a good amount of the movie having sex with each other on camera or talking about what it’s like to have sex with each other on camera. For some viewers, that might be enough. The fantastic performances, arresting visual style, and labyrinthine structure might also be enough to satiate anyone who stumbles upon it on Netflix Instant. But for those who are looking for full-on pornography or a full-on thriller, they may want to look elsewhere. Beware any movie that has a semicolon in the title. Often, it wants to be too many things at once, and winds up being but a dream. Or a nightmare. Or something.