“About Cherry” (2012)
In days of old, the pastor, priest or conveniently situated village moral wag would extend the quivering finger of damnation at those to whom the communal boundaries of decency were found to be disrupted through alarming breaches of acceptable conduct. Nowadays, Civilization may take comfort that the tradition of condescending damnation by way of self-appointed moral superiority has been rejuvenated by that most unlikely of suitably qualified candidates: Hollywood (or, more accurately, the independent filmmaking community), whose occasional acknowledgement of its “unclean” idiot cousin from the seamy Valley, of late, appears to generate a surprisingly sympathetic dimestore philosophical view on the subject of the professional sex worker. However credible Tinseltown’s moral posturing is on any subject, the prevailing viewpoint now expressed indicates a redirection from dismissal and condemnation to a more empathetic gaze; an unexplained, antithetical reversal from moral immoderacy to blind altruistic acceptance brought on by an intellectually lackadaisical extension of political correctness. Equally curious is the concurrent attitudinal shift resulting in the subsequent elevation of the denizens of the porn industry (inexplicably portrayed here as morally superior and enjoying greater emotionally stability) and a devaluation of the remainder of the human population; an abstractive nobility of ideals suddenly finds itself an unlikely bedfellow with the ignobility of exhibitionistic action.
Somewhat hypocritically, this sugar coated aggrandizement of the “adult” industry is merely a cosmetic application of high-minded tolerance that sounds edifying in press releases but does little to explain why such liberality does not extend to real-life participation of genuine porn “talent” (that which might exist) within the lofty gates of Hollywood studio productions (in non-sexual roles or otherwise, [see “Inside Deep Throat”]), nor has there been any movement toward that once predicted bridge between mainstream commercial cinema and explicit sexual content. If anything, the move to a greater immaturity in subject matter, especially toward film explorations of adult themes. which might find even a modest interpolation of sexually graphic content (not necessarily hardcore) thematically contributory, have been virtually erased within the confines of the mainstream corporate system, contributing to the continuing stunting of the evolutionary advancement of the art form through an insatiable economic appetite catering to the celebration of the infantile.
Ironically, the increasing widespread commonality of the pornographic occurred concurrently with the rapid deterioration of Hollywood’s carnal doppelganger from an almost spontaneous alternative film industry to a baseless collection of producers of marketed sexual acts absent of any context beyond the narrowest presentation identical in nature to the most primitive form of film loops. As always with the film capital, the operational methodology of the industry is in direct contradiction with its traditional posturing of superiority; in essence: “do as we say and not what we enjoy behind locked doors.” How else to account for hypothetically sympathetic posturing while remaining creatively timid? While the next leap in the evolution of commercial film in moving toward a more committed exploration of adult themes hardly necessitates the inclusion of herdcore graphic sexual action, one might presume that a creatively insightful filmmaker truly interested in the advancement of complex and mature themes might avail themselves of the same frank explicitness in the expression of ideas to which the other art forms (certainly in literature) have indulged with meaningfully artful results.
Just what is it about the makers of pornography (as opposed to the product itself) that fascinates so many “legitimate” filmmakers as a subject? The earliest notable practitioners of commercial pornographic feature filmmaking are now casually regarded as pioneers of a sort, if viewed through a more commonplace fuzzy lens directed through historically incautious critical thinking by setting the evaluative bar to record depths and fueled by, among other distractions, an unwarranted nostalgic glow in association with what has now been labelled “the last Golden Age of Hollywood”, during which the essential elimination of the Production Code (replaced by the MPAA ratings system, which would prove to have its own set of problems) allowed for greater thematic freedoms (generally squandered by creatively petrified industry thinking) within the rank and file of the traditional motion picture production outlets. However, what was also new was that this hastily enjoyed creative freedom also accounted for an atmosphere of total censorial abandonment amid a number of fringe exploitation entrepreneurs recognized the lucrative siren call of forbidden sex; producing an escalating number of explicit features that were essentially patterned on the already exhausted formulaic tropes readily available in low budget exploitation cinema at the local drive-in or grindhouse. The difference in these films was the inclusion of unsimulated hardcore sex; in fact, this inclusion and the resulting legal limitation of the audience for these films was the only reason for their existence. The resulting boom of this new alternative incarnation of the film industry became an expansion of sexploitation forms which had been struggling along for years in various forms, from nudies to sexualized suburban potboilers to roughies, with uninhibited intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus and sodomy substituting for the previous sexually inarticulate menu of awkward pawings and bodily grindings that made it seem as if the makers of the movies were unfamiliar with the fundamental mechanics of sex. The leap forward of wink-wink legitimacy of genuine gynecological widescreen action has been commemorated with ill-conceived hyperbole as the “Golden Age of Porn”; a severely premature and unaccountably optimistic assessment considering there was not one film produced during this brief but celebrated period which could even suggest the remotest ambition to Art.
It is an interesting yet ironic contradiction that the porn movie world is continually referred to as an “adult” film industry, a designation which suggests a loftier-posture-than-Hollywood immaturity within a very generic label- acknowledging the fact that the material is only for those of legal adult age and may also be an unconscious admission that mainstream film fare has generally yet to advance beyond the tittering adolescent phase of the engagement of genuine adult themes -while offering up little more than peep show exhibitionism without the benefit of related thematic contextual sophistication. If the porn film widely enjoys identification as “adult” simply by the sexual content making it appropriate for adult eyes only, then could not such a arbitrarily generic label be equally useful for the bulk of commercial cinema: “toddler” cinema perhaps? The “adult” designation also presumes that the mere insertion of explicit activity is in and of itself a reliable indication of content conducive to a mature presentation of sex; though the nature of the pornographic legacy appears to favor the performance of professionally robotic coupling without even a utilitarian consideration of emotional or psychological consequence. Sex without emotion or psychological connection. (Oddly, the procreative aspect of sex is never addressed in the porn film, lending the proceedings an distancing from reality- the fantasy factor -while emphasizing the psychic remoteness for which the genre might be justifiably disparaged as dehumanized.) This unexplained concession to an extreme arm of the entertainment industry, which through its very extremity. grants the occasion for mercenary mainstream producers to both exploit and recoil against the more unapologetically gratuitous aspects of this aberrative cultural arm with equal (if uncommitted) zeal. Moral and artistic hypocrisy allied arm in arm in a shameless exercise in cultural tail chasing. The irony of this contradiction has yet to find conscious acknowledgment anywhere within the Hollywood establishment (purveyors of a different kind of fantasy, but with a shared love of profit as an endgame) and for this reason, mainstream cinema’s public attitude on the subject of porn will always reveal more about the mainstream cinema than it ever will about the porn industry.
Stephen Elliott’s vaporous, slight portrait of a good girl gone porn, “About Cherry”, would appear to arrive with something resembling a knowledgeable, insider’s pedigree, considering the participation of writer-director Elliott, himself no stranger to edgy S&M erotica, and his co-writer, porn veteran Lorelei Lee, who might certainly be expected to bring to the film a sense of unflinching verisimilitude concerning all aspects both emotional and psychological, central to a life in porn. However, what is on display is merely another example of filmdom’s rose-colored embrace of a career choice of erotic exhibitionism in what is rather naively depicted as an alternative, but fun loving, artistic community, unjustly chastised by the acutely judgmental, hatefully persecutive, narrow-minded cowardice of non-porn outsiders, most especially- and this is where the film ultimately loses whatever nerve it pretends to have -the familial or those intimately bonded in emotional relationships. It’s not that the film completely shies away from the arguments arising in a career choice in the sex industry, but in stacking the deck by portraying porn performers as the only characters blessed with emotional stability- naive innocence seemingly resistant to an enthusiastic coarseness of behavior -the film becomes a biased valentine to wanton libertinage. The occasional anti-porn vantage point is raised and then summarily dismissed without further recognition.. Seldom have so many opportunities for vigorous debate between the agents of appalled disbelief and indignant defensiveness been denied even the briefest flirtation with coherence. What this film encompasses and expands upon is a Disneyfied view of a Faustian compact popularized (especially by a mainstream critical community which would still rather throw its first-born to the lava pit rather than to openly admit any attraction to the explicitly carnal) in the wildly overrated, embarrassingly delusional portrait of porn brokers as an unzipped, urbanized version of The Waltons in Paul Thomas Anderson’s shallow hipster opus “Boogie Nights”. Elliott’s film advances this happy notion of psychological naivete to preposterously insane levels. What is the justification of the filmmaker’s fascination with the porn world if their artistic integrity is tainted by such a paralytic hands off approach?
In “About Cherry”, the domestic existence of high school teen Angelina (who will later assume the porn alias “Cherry”) is depicted as existing in something resembling an adolescent Hell, featuring a full compliment of the usual suspects in the depiction of homebound horrors: rampant alcoholism, violence, irresponsible parenting and a strong hint of at least the threat of sexual abuse. This last is referenced with a vagueness peculiar to a film supposedly dealing with a subject that demands a more frank depth of engagement, otherwise what’s the point, except as a seed for cheap sexploitation titillation? This reticence to directly confront the grittier, more unpleasant aspects of Angelica’s story is characteristic of the script’s pedestrian dismissal of the fundamental importance of connective details. Right away the film stumbles with contradictory story elements and characters haphazardly introduced and disappearing quickly, as if the filmmakers were afraid of any scene which might touch upon inconveniently unattractive background information which might suggest anything but healthy incentives to enter the world of the enthusiastic sex performer. As portrayed by Ashley Hinshaw, Angelica is a comely, well scrubbed young lady; a country club blonde from the wrong side of the tracks who, despite the initial evidence of an upbringing of misery, maintains such an unusually cheery, wide-eyed doltish disposition, so much so that one can’t help but imagine her drooling rather than achieving climax during her sexual entanglements. For a novelist, Elliott has constructed a scenario that is starved of essential detail and consists of a ramshackle series of ill-defined incidents which lack both substantive narrative and character development, as if important connective scenes were either ignored or never filmed. These gaps are of expositional consequence, especially in the early part of the film preceding Angelina’s escape to San Francisco with her best friend and confidant Andrew (Dev Patel), whose relationship is also muddled with glaring inconsistencies (is he gay or merely easily susceptible to his surroundings, and if the former, why his later outburst denouncing Angelina for excluding him from romantic consideration?) that culminate in a ruinously illogical confrontation when Angelina discovers him masturbating to one of her films. (Is Angelina so naive that she doesn’t realize this is the commonly expected reaction to porn videos?). By this point in the film, the stunted confrontations- those in which the characters seem gripped with a spontaneous mutism rendering them incapable of expressing the simplest thought -have revealed a stunning intellectual paralysis on the part of the screenwriters. Is it possible to initiate and produce a film in which no thoughts are deemed necessary? (The only accomplishment- if it can be called that -of the film seems to be that Elliott has struck a parallel model between the contextually vacant porn loop and the narrative film. Surely the director must have had something more in mind than this gossamer thin faux cautionary tale, so lacking in honesty that it emerges as a recruitment film for directionless nymphets. One can sense that the director feels that any measure of disapproving tongue clucking might seem unhip to a young audience submerged in a world of easy and almost commonplace voluminous profusions of lewd sexual material available at the touch of an internet link. However, Elliott lacks even the crude dedication of a true exploitation hawker by failing to go the logical extra mile and have his little opus feature genuine sexual action; an act of back peddling which completely undermines the overtly pro-porn message of his film. If one works to compliment the porn life, why the reticence? Ultimately, the film elicits only exhausted annoyance, similar to that of a dirty joke told by an eight year old, who ignorantly chortles over what they’re convinced of is a leap of imaginative adult daring.
If the film intends to show that porn performers are people too (and who doubts this?), there is there any reason to present them in so defensive a manner that it discredits the film’s point of view? Or treat them as anything but facile sex dolls? It is a cautionary tale which fails to be cautionary, yet never musters up enough artistic honesty for understanding (or desiring to understand) the people who populate it. What is ultimately missing- yet would seem supremely central to such a specific portraiture -is any character’s attitude toward sex. Despite the ultimate shallowness of the production, there is a proliferation of supporting characters, each given sufficient screen time to create a densely novelistic verisimilitude, yet all opportunities are wasted. Not one character one is fleshed; every thought expressed is strangely truncated, every exchange of dialogue vague and unfinished. Important characters disappear without further reference; abandoned at critical moments, allowing for important plot points and conflicts to dissipate without resolution which only reemphasizes the frustrating lack of depth of both narrative and character development. The film shouts boldness while displaying timidity at every turn, and in the end, every motivation is unexplained, every character undefined, unstamped and unfinished. (With little effort the movie could be converted into a sexualized version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers since, by the conclusion Angelina remains a soulless blank.) If the scenarists intend to suggest that girls who sell themselves for sex are bereft of essential emotional and psychological development making them susceptible to the easy but destructive draw of quick cash and a distorted conception of celebrity, this would be entirely consistent with the portrayal of Angelina, but contradictory to the Candy Land optimism to which the film subscribes.
The one bit of originality in the film is that it ultimately depicts a career in porn as, not a descent, but an ascension. This would be an audaciously original point of view if the filmmakers demonstrated any backbone in the method in which they approach their subject, and thus even such a provocative perspective smells suspiciously like the result of conceptual incompetence rather than the product of boldly idiosyncratic intentions. This provocative perspective is unsupported the transparently manipulative anti-intellectual calculations that characterize Elliott’s and Lee’s scripting, in which both Angelina and the general porn industry seem suffused in a cloud of radiant fairy dust to which all negative provocations are granted immunity.
The surprisingly high quality cast is technically proficient but wasted, given the absence of opportunity to give sufficient shape to their characters that might clarify any thought, action or motivation, most notably perpetually underused Heather Graham (portraying Angelina’s pseudo-mentor/director Margaret), whose panoply of conflicted emotions visibly churning under the surface, demands a better film, Neither Elliott nor Lee seem to realize that their only creation is a cast of shadows. Now, it is possible that this vacancy of thought, personality and character in the film’s central role was a clever but misguided conception on the part of the screenwriters, perhaps suggesting that to accept a life in the pornographic trade one must be incapable of emotional insight or introspection, or, at least, functioning in a rationale deadening cloud of self-denial. But to what end? Since Margaret has been seen as trolling for the freshman Angelica since her first film shoot, the final scene of the film strongly suggests that such mercenary emotional stalking may be systemic to the type of person who finds a position of control over a vast buffet of gullible girls within the porn industry. However, this would cast a noxious motivation on every character in the industry who could suddenly be seen as unhealthily predatory, with Martha acting as a Svengali to Angelica’s Trilby. This contradiction of the film’s uncritical view of porn is presented without a hint of irony, failing to explain how this predatory denouement reconciles with the film’s singularly gee whiz attitude toward the rest of the adult industry. The one point of consistency in “About Cherry” is that not unlike their written creations, neither Elliott nor Lee seem to have formulated any credible ideas about sex.