By Stephen Marche
Anyone who's spent any appreciable amount of alone time in front of a computer lately knows that the culture of instant accreditation, in which a million blog posts are added to the Internet each day and everybody is a mouse click away from becoming somebody, has infiltrated the world of smut. Just as so many aspiring Spielbergs dish their chop suey on YouTube and would-be Basquiats splay their wares in cyber galleries, Americans are no longer content to leave the business of porn to the professionals. Ever larger numbers of ugly people are setting up poor-quality cameras to film themselves in unimaginative positions for the benefit of all mankind, with Kevin Smith taking a front seat in his latest, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." The title more or less sums up the plot, but Smith's aspirations are higher: He's trying to make an "Uncle Buck" for 2008--a middle-of-the-road comedy that defines the figure of the crass-but-ultimately-decent schlub for a generation. While Uncle Buck drove a Mercury Marquis and hit golf balls at teenagers, Zack produces and stars in his own adult films. That's what regular guys do now--even as porn increasingly loses its share of Internet traffic, DIY porn sites like YouPorn and RedTube have shown an annual percentage increase in the thousands. The desire to videotape and share every last detail of ourselves has spread to our sex lives. Pornography, like every other type of expression available in contemporary life, has been democratized.
This is new. The production of porn has historically been an elite activity, and the tradition of the obscene has always thrived in the highest realms of high art. The walls of the best-preserved cities of the ancient world radiate with high-grade pornography--like the man weighing his enormous cock in a huge balance at Pompeii--which was crafted by a select few, utilizing the finest techniques transmitted by a literally priestly caste. Postmodernist art, too, has flirted constantly with the pornographic, in pieces like Warhol's "Blow Job" or the sculptures and images of Jeff Koons's "Made in Heaven" series, which show Koons and his Italian porn-star ex-wife, La Cicciolina, engaging in poses that are both an homage to and a mockery of the history of art-making: explicit references to Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," Manet's "Déjeuner," and Courbet's "The Origin of the World," among others.
But pornography isn't a close relative of high art anymore; it's now mass culture, a mainstream business that Smith's Zack likens to "Coke or Pepsi, with dicks in it." Days after John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, an Atlanta-based porn producer posted a casting call for look-alikes. Naturally. The porn Palin was as inevitable as the action figure, the lipstick-pit-bull foam cap, the Tina Fey impression, and the editorials in "The New York Times." Just another way of processing the event.
The explosion in DIY porn, like so many crazes and mass phenomena, has been sparked by celebrities--Tommy and Pam, Colin Farrell, Paris Hilton, to name a choice few--and they remain our best hope for understanding our own worst impulses. All of their tapes were stolen, or taken under conditions of extreme betrayal, and their appeal, more than titillation, is that they offer a glimpse into the real lives of fantasy people. They show the airbrushed and preening at their most vulnerable and contorted, and the intimacy of our schadenfreude is the main attraction; it turns out that even someone as good-looking as Colin Farrell looks ridiculous taping himself in bed. The stars really are "just like us!" Kim Kardashian, meanwhile, changed the rules of DIY pornography almost before they came into existence. Her effort was the last homemade celebrity porn video with any capacity to surprise us, and she kept addressing "everyone" throughout the production, as in "For everyone who thinks my boobs are fake, they're real." The game was up right then. Surely, the trick is to maintain the fiction that this is somehow a private moment. "Ars est celare artem"--the art is to hide the art. Kardashian too clearly knew what she was doing. "Everyone," as it turns out, was the massive audience who would later tune in to "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." The sex tape wasn't the price she paid for being famous--it was how she achieved fame in the first place. Homemade pornography is the Kardashian arrangement extended to the vast and numinous world of our personal lives: Homemade pornography is do-it-yourself celebrity, and in a world in which just about anybody can get a reality show, the homemade sex tape is the closest most civilians can come to feeling like a real star. Taping oneself and posting the footage online offers the same deal as Hollywood: For the price of your body and your dignity, you get the joy of being an image others cannot tear their eyes from, the lightness and glory of intimacy's form without the burden of its content. This arrangement has seemed entirely equitable to millions of young Americans who've been promised their 15 minutes. And who would deny the world's youth the chance to exhaust their capacity for illusion by betraying themselves?
And so when rumors of a Britney Spears sex tape started to swirl, the news was greeted with perfunctory reporting and a collective yawn--in the world of amateur sex tapes, we're all superstars now. In the epilogue of "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," the two lovers start a company in which professionals help you make your own porn, a neat attempt to reconcile the professionals with the amateurs. But it's a failed attempt, a bad joke. Who wants to look like a porn star, which is, in the end, a gruesome example of a menial laborer? No, we want to be the celebrities, the people who are so wonderful at looking like they don't want to be looked at. In America today, the shadowy game of personal exposure is better than sex; the desire to have our dirty little secrets revealed is so much deeper and stronger than lust.