Consider the LobsterAnd Other Essays
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2007 David Foster Wallace
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780316013321
Chapter One BIG RED SON
THE AMERICAN ACADEMY of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.
It is to the 30+ testosteronically afflicted males whose cases have been documented in the past two years that your correspondents wish to dedicate this article. And to those tormented souls considering autocastration in 1998, we wish to say: "Stop! Stay your hand! Hold off with those kitchen utensils and/or wire cutters!" Because we believe we may have found an alternative.
Every spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents awards for outstanding achievement in all aspects of mainstream cinema. These are the Academy Awards. Mainstream cinema is a major industry in the United States, and so are the Academy Awards. The AAs' notorious commercialism and hypocrisy disgust many of the millions and millions and millions of viewers who tune in during prime time to watch the presentations. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV's Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it's still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush cliches of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.-the whole cynical postmodern deal-but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there's no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there's still joy. That we think it's funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.
Your correspondents humbly offer an alternative.
Every January, the least pretentious city in America hosts the Annual AVN Awards. The AVN stands for Adult Video News, which is sort of the Variety of the US porn industry. This thick, beautifully designed magazine costs $7.95 per issue, is about 80 percent ads, and is clearly targeted at adult-video retailers. Its circulation is appr. 40,000.
Though the sub-line vagaries of entertainment accounting are legendary, it is universally acknowledged that the US adult-film industry, at $3.5-4 billion in annual sales, rentals, cable charges, and video-masturbation-booth revenues, is an even larger and more efficient moneymaking machine than legitimate mainstream American cinema (the latter's annual gross commonly estimated at $2-2.5 billion). The US adult industry is centered in LA's San Fernando Valley, just over the mountains from Hollywood. Some insiders like to refer to the adult industry as Hollywood's Evil Twin, others as the mainstream's Big Red Son.
It is no accident that Adult Video News-a slick, expensive periodical whose articles are really more like infomercials-and its yearly Awards both came into being in 1982. The early '80s, after all, saw the genesis of VCRs and home-video rentals, which have done for the adult industry pretty much what TV did for pro football.
From the 12/11/97 press release issued by AVN (visitable also at www.avn.com):
* The nominations for the 15th Annual AVN Awards were announced today. This year's awards show, commemorating AVN's 15th anniversary, celebrates "History". [sic]
* Awards will be presented in a record 106 categories over a two night period.
* The adult industry released nearly 8,000 adult releases [sic] in 1997, including over 4,000 "new" releases (non-compilation). AVN reviewed every new release in every category [sic] this past year, logging over 30,000 sex scenes.
* By comparison, last year there were approximately 375 films eligible for the Academy Awards that these voters [sic-meaning different voters from the AVN voters, presumably] were required to see. AVN had to watch more than 10 times the amount of releases in order to develop these nominations [usage and repetition sic, though 4,000 divided by 375 is indeed over 10].
From the acceptance speech of Mr. Tom Byron, Saturday, 10 January 1998, Caesars Forum ballroom, Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino complex, Las Vegas NV, upon winning AVN's 1998 Male Performer of the Year Award (and with no little feeling): "I want to thank every beautiful woman I ever put my cock inside." [Laughter, cheers, ovation.]
From the acceptance speech of Ms. Jeanna Fine, ibid., upon winning AVN's 1998 Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in Rob Black's Miscreants: "Jesus, which one is this for, Miscreants? Jesus, that's another one where I read the script and said 'Oh shit, I am going to go to hell. [Laughter, cheers.] But that's okay, 'cause all my friends'll be there too!" [Huge wave of laughter, cheers, applause.]
From the inter-Award banter of Mr. Bobby Slayton, professional comedian and master of ceremonies for the 1997 AVNAs: "I know I'm looking good, though, like younger, 'cause I started using this special Grecian Formula-every time I find a gray hair, I fuck my wife in the ass. [No laughter, scattered groans.] Fuck you. That's a great joke. Fuck you."
Bobby Slayton, a gravelly-voiced Dice Clay knockoff who kept introducing every female performer as "the woman I'm going to cut my dick off for," and who astounded all the marginal print journalists in attendance with both his unfunniness and his resemblance to every apartment-complex coke dealer we'd ever met, is mercifully absent from the 1998 Awards gala. The '98 emcee is one Robert Schimmel, alumnus of In Living Color and a Howard Stern regular. Schimmel looks like a depraved, deeply tan Wallace Shawn and is no less coarse than B. Slayton but a lot better. He does a pantomime of someone attempting intercourse with a Love Doll he's been too lazy to blow up all the way. He contrasts the woeful paucity of his own ejaculate with the concussive orgasms of certain well-known male performers, comparing these men's ejaculations to automatic lawn sprinklers and doing an eerie sonic impression of same. All of 1998's marginal print journalists are together at Table 189 at the very back of the ballroom. Most of these reporters are from the sorts of men's magazines that sit shrinkwrapped behind the cash registers of convenience stores, and they are a worldly and jaded crew indeed, but Schimmel gets a couple of them-whose noms de guerre are Harold Hecuba and Dick Filth-laughing so uproariously that people at the Anabolic Video table nearby keep looking over in annoyance. At one point during a routine on premature ejaculation, Dick Filth actually chokes on a California roll.
... But all this is Saturday night, the main event. And there are a whole lot of festivities preceding Saturday's climax.
The adult industry is vulgar. Would anyone disagree? One of the AVN Awards' categories is "Best Anal Themed Feature"; another is "Best Overall Marketing Campaign-Company Image." Irresistible, a 1983 winner in several categories, has been spelled Irresistable in Adult Video News for fifteen straight years. The industry's not only vulgar, it's predictably vulgar. All the cliches are true. The typical porn producer really is the ugly little man with a bad toupee and a pinkie-ring the size of a Rolaids. The typical porn director really is the guy who uses the word class as a noun to mean refinement. The typical porn starlet really is the lady in Lycra eveningwear with tattoos all down her arms who's both smoking and chewing gum while telling journalists how grateful she is to Wadcutter Productions Ltd. for footing her breast-enlargement bill. And meaning it. The whole AVN Awards weekend comprises what Mr. Dick Filth calls an Irony-Free Zone.
But of course we should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do w/ lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby. It is humility with a comb-over. It is Nielsen ratings and Barnum's axiom and the real bottom line. It is big, big business.
Thirty-four-year-old porn actor Cal Jammer killed himself in 1995. Starlets Shauna Grant, Nancy Kelly, Alex Jordan, and Savannah have all killed themselves in the last decade. Savannah and Jordan received AVN's Best New Starlet awards in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Savannah killed herself after getting mildly disfigured in a car accident. Alex Jordan is famous for having addressed her suicide note to her pet bird. Crewman and performer Israel Gonzalez killed himself at a porn company warehouse in 1997.
An LA-based support group called PAW (=Protecting Adult Welfare) runs a 24-hour crisis line for people in the adult industry. A fundraiser for PAW was held at a Mission Hills CA bowling alley last November. It was a nude bowling tournament. Dozens of starlets agreed to take part. Two or three hundred adult-video fans showed up and paid to watch them bowl naked. No production companies or their executives participated or gave money. The fundraiser took in $6,000, which is slightly less than two one-millionths of porn's yearly gross.
As you know if you've seen Casino, Showgirls, Bugsy, etc., there are really three Las Vegases. Binion's, where the World Series of Poker is always played, exemplifies the "Old Vegas," centered around Fremont Street. Las Vegas's future is even now under late-stage construction at the very end of the Strip, on the outskirts of town (where US malls always go up); it's to be a bunch of theme-parkish, more "family-oriented" venues of the kind that De Niro describes so plangently at the end of Casino.
But Las Vegas as most of us see it, Vegas qua Vegas, comprises the dozen or so hotels that flank the Strip's middle. Vegas Populi: the opulent, intricate, garish, ecstatically decadent hotels, cathedra to gambling, partying, and live entertainment of the most microphone- swinging sort. The Sands. The Sahara. The Stardust. MGM Grand, Maxim. All within a small radius. Yearly utility expenditures on neon well into seven figures. Harrah's, Casino Royale (with its big 24-hour Denny's attached), Flamingo Hilton, Imperial Palace. The Mirage, with its huge laddered waterfall always lit up. Circus Circus. Treasure Island, with its intricate facade of decks and rigging and mizzens and vang. The Luxor, shaped like a ziggurat from Babylon of yore. Barbary Coast, whose sign out front says CASH YOUR PAYCHECK-WIN UP TO $25,000. These hotels are the Vegas we know. The land of Lola and Wayne. Of Siegfried and Roy, Copperfield. Showgirls in towering headdress. Sinatra's sandbox. Most of them built in the '50s and '60s, the era of mob chic and entertainment-cum-industry. Half-hour lines for taxis. Smoking not just allowed but encouraged. Toupees and convention nametags and women in furs of all hue. A museum that features the World's Biggest Coke Bottle. The Harley-Davidson Cafe, with its tympanum of huge protruding hawg; Bally's H&C, with its row of phallic pillars all electrified and blinking in grand mal sync. A city that pretends to be nothing but what it is, an enormous machine of exchange-of spectacle for money, of sensation for money, of money for more money, of pleasure for whatever be tomorrow's abstract cost.
Nor let us forget Vegas's synecdoche and beating heart. It's kittycorner from Bally's: Caesars Palace. The granddaddy. As big as 20 Wal-Marts end to end. Real marble and fake marble, carpeting you can pass out on without contusion, 130,000 square feet of casino alone. Domed ceilings, clerestories, barrel vaults. In Caesars Palace is America conceived as a new kind of Rome: conqueror of its own people. An empire of Self. It's breathtaking. The winter's light rain makes all the neon bleed. The whole thing is almost too pretty to stand. There could be no site but Las Vegas's Caesars for modern porn's Awards show-here, the AAVNAs are one more spectacle. Way more tourists and conventioneers recognize the starlets than you'd expect. Double-takes all over the hotel. Even just standing around or putting coins in a slot machine, the performers become a prime attraction. Las Vegas doesn't miss a trick.
The Annual AVN Awards are always scheduled to coincide with the International Consumer Electronics Show (a.k.a. CES), which this year runs from 8 through 11 January. The CES is a very big deal. It's like a combination convention and talent show for the best and brightest in the world of consumer tech. Steve Forbes is here, and DSS's Thomson. Sun Microsystems is using this year's CES to launch its PersonalJava 1.0. Bill Gates gives a packed-house speech on Saturday morning. Major players from TV, cable, and merchandising host a panel on the short-term viability of HDTV. A forum on the problem of product returns by disgruntled customers seats 1,500 and is SRO. The CES as a whole is bigger than your correspondents' hometowns. It's spread out over four different hotels and has 10,000+ booths with everything from "The First Ever Full Text Message Pager in a Wristwatch" to the world's premier self-heating home satellite dish ("The Snow and Ice Solution!").
But far and away the CES's most popular venue, with total attendance well over 100,000 every year, is what is called the Adult Software exhibition, despite the fact that the CES itself treats the Adult tradeshow kind of like the crazy relative in the family and keeps it way out in what used to be the parking garage of the Sands hotel. This facility, a serious bus ride from all the other CES sites, is an enormous windowless all-cement space that during show hours manages to induce both agoraphobia and claustrophobia. A big sign says you have to be 21 to get in. The median age inside is 45, almost all males, nearly everyone wearing some sort of conventioneer's nametag. Every production company in the adult industry, from Anabolic to Zane, has a booth here. The really big companies have booths that are sprawling and multidisplay and more like small strip malls. A lot of porn's top female performers are contract players, exclusive vendors to one particular production company; and one reason why a lot of the starlets seem kind of tired and cranky by Saturday night's Awards gala is that they will have spent much of the previous 72 hours at their companies' CES booths, on their feet all day in vertiginous heels, signing autographs and posing for pictures and pressing all manner of flesh.
The best way to describe the sonic environment at the '98 CES is: Imagine that the apocalypse took the form of a cocktail party. Male fans move through the fractal maze of booths in groups of three or more. Their expressions tend to be those of junior-high boys at a peephole, an expression that looks pretty surreal on a face with jowls and no hairline. Some among them are video retailers; most are not. Most are just hard-core fans, the industry's breath and bread. A lot of them not only recognize but seem to know the names, stage names, and curricula vitae of almost all the female performers.
It takes an average of two hours and twelve minutes to traverse the Adult CES expo, counting an average of four delays for getting lost after a chicane turn or some baroque ceiling-high cheval glass designed to double the visual exposure of Heatwave Video's display for Texas Dildo Masquerade gets you all turned around. Your correspondents are accompanied by Harold Hecuba and Dick Filth, who have very generously offered to act as guides and docents, and here is a random spatter of the things we see the first time we come in: