Devil in the Flesh

From painful sex to foul-mouthed revenge fantasies, a meaner brand of pornography takes the back door to commercial success.

"You're hurting me," the actress says to the man spreading her legs. But she resumes her lines anyway, grimacing: "That feels good...Fuck my ass." Methodically doing just that is Max Hardcore, the so-called "bad boy of porn," the "anal king"--and the most influential pornographic director of the '90s. Max has a warm voice, like the narrator in A Christmas Story, and his nonstop stream of dirty talk and abuse can sound almost fatherly if you're not quite listening. Here in 1997's Maxed Out 2, he tells Sabine Vonberg what to say: "Rip it open." And though she repeats it, there's no erotic charge: The agonized expression on her face suggests she's waiting for an excruciating shift to end.

But male indifference to female discomfort is exactly the hook here: When Barbie Angel played a little-girl innocent in 1996's Max World 3, cooing, "I'm scared it'll hurt, Mister," the director said reassuringly: "Oh it's gonna hurt a little bit. But that's okay--it makes my cock feel good." That about sums up the philosophy of Max "Hardcore" Steiner (a.k.a. Paul Little), who, through some half dozen hugely successful video series, has carefully cultivated the persona of an amiable-but-predatory sodomizer of young girls. His misogyny is both in-your-face and tongue-in-cheek (puns are unavoidable here), and he can retain a cracker-you-love-to-hate charm. With graying chest hairs and a Cheshire-cat grin, he performs wearing nothing but his white cotton socks and a cowboy hat--which he rarely removes, except to don a baseball cap.

There are good reasons Hardcore is among the most hated men in the industry. He's rumored to have put several actresses in the hospital, and most starlets refuse to work with him; porn queen Nici Sterling calls him a "psychopath." "Apparently they think I play a little rough," he says of the European sex stars who dodge him in Maxed Out 2. Watching the video, it's not hard to imagine why. After finishing Sabine's aforementioned anal scenes, he grabs her hair and begins to plow her face, covering her in spit, cum, and makeup smear--what Max calls "giving a facial." "The only way you're able to get the saliva out is to take your cock and choke the girl," he once told Adult Video News. Mere dirty-sex aesthetics, you might say, except that by now it's obvious the actress is not at all "into it"--her eyes look dead, her mind perhaps in the far-off place you're supposed to go in moments like these. When it's over, the camera lingers above her, leering triumphantly. Fake lashes barely cling on, and her eyes well up with tears as the subtitles read: "Oh my God! Like on the phone all you said was you wanted to cuddle." Then: "This is one fucked-out stupid cunt! Go Max!!"

Misogynistic theater like this should surprise no one; it is porn, after all. But in a medium that regularly traffics in taboos, the director crosses a subtle but important line: Max invites the viewer to share his pleasure in hurting and humiliating not a character, but a real woman. Here and elsewhere, he reduces porn to the rape propaganda anti-porn feminists have long claimed it to be. The Sabine sequence feels like a snuff film--that mythical bogy of anti-porn crusaders. And because this isn't obscure stuff--one of his tapes is always hovering in the top-20 adult video charts--Max might just be the miscreant that zealots need in the new age of Boogie Nights, when most people couldn't care less about squelching smut. This stroke-sadist's popularity represents a seismic shift in American porn, though no cultural eruption occurs without considerable historic foreplay.

Open up Adult Video News's 1998 Adult Entertainment Guide and you'll find a surprisingly sizable section of amateur videos, the homemade genre that has transformed professional porn much as D.I.Y. punk transformed pop. "The amateur video is a hotbed of equal opportunity," writes Susie Bright in her 1997 title State of the Sexual Union, where she also notes how the amateur's unabashed fascination with anal sex has become ubiquitous in porn.

When the camcorder-fueled amateur market blew up in the late '80s, pornographer John Stagliano must have seen the future of the skin flick. Dispensing with story and studio, he took his camcorder off its tripod and drove around looking for raw, first-time talent to shoot. 1989's classic The Adventures of Buttman created the genre of video porn now dominating the market: "gonzo," or its alternate label, "pro-am" (professionals mixing it up with amateurs). Buttman became the most popular series of the '90s, and Stagliano maintained his between-you-and-me rapport with viewers over the years as he scoured every hotel-accommodated corner of the planet searching for the perfect booty. (No longer performing, Stagliano shook the industry last year when he announced he was HIV-positive.)

By the dawn of the '90s, scores of low-budget directors were cajoling curious young women onto hotel beds in front of a hand-held lens. Director Ed Powers got his start by videotaping girls he'd picked up at bus stops, and debuted his Dirty Debutantes series in 1990. Over the course of a hundred or so videos, Powers has evolved a simple approach to porn that appropriates the cinema vérité philosophy of French documentarian Jean Rouch and adapts it to sleaze. With a minimum of cutting, the director conducts long, unscripted interviews with his subjects before asking them to take off their clothes. Powers is always on camera, and though he looks more like R. Crumb than John Holmes, he uses his everyman presence to consciously dismantle the fantasy, much like Rouch; he talks to his camerawoman directly for similar effect. When the first-timers are finally persuaded to get down to business, the results vary: Some women seem turned on by the attention--others look uneasy, seemingly uncertain about what they've gotten themselves into.

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