Devil in the Flesh

"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.

The fact that gonzo rentals have largely eclipsed the slick "couples porn" of major companies like Vivid and VCA is no small coup in the booming video world. By the '90s, a decade of obscenity prosecutions and anti-porn activism had rendered mainstream porn tame compared to its nastier, headier days in the late '70s to early '80s--the so-called "Golden Age" mythologized in Boogie Nights. But while gonzo was a relief from the usual air-brushed Playboy Channel fluff, it also represented a kind of male revenge against the starlet system. As Susan Faludi observes in her 1995 New Yorker piece, hetero "porn... is one of the few contemporary occupations where the pay gap operates in women's favor." If most men in porn had become dick-props--the "object of the object," as Faludi puts it--then gonzo made them subjects again, putting them in control of the scenes and the sex. Not surprisingly, a number of actors eagerly made a grab for the director's chair, and directors began appearing in more of their movies. (The company Stagliano co-founded, Evil Angel Video, is home to a number of renegade auteurs, with actor-turned-director John Leslie in the forefront.)

This might explain why Max Hardcore's foul-mouthed revenge fantasies and clumsily staged deflowerings struck such a responsive chord in 1992, when the director introduced his Stagliano-inspired Anal Adventures of Max Hardcore series, then whipped out Cherry Poppers, a series exploring every last variation of the stranger-picking-up-little-girl-with-candy scenario. Over-aged and under-endowed for a would-be porn king, the sweaty Hardcore compensated by using younger and smaller actresses, mostly unknowns, to inflict the most painful sex possible without employing overt violence. (His videos now commonly begin with "a message from Max" that advises, "Never use violence to get what you want, especially from women.")

Having entered the business under the wing of pro-am producer-director Bobby Hollander, Max took the gonzo premise to lurid extremes: With little pretense to realism, a typical "plot" prelude might consist of nothing more than our hero driving around Hollywood Hills picking up "schoolgirls" in his van. During sex, he'd soundtrack a scene by talking a blue streak instead of using music, and his lexicon came to include such coinages as "cum-belching whore" and "teenage ass-fucking party."

But it was Hardcore's way of filming rough and graphic anal sex that rocked the industry, and his techniques have been endlessly copied by other directors. He invented at least one new anal position--called the "piledriver"--which has caught on in gay porn. The director also popularized the truly bizarre use of speculums as S/M instruments, turning a product of the women's health movement into a tool of torture. As his notoriety grew, surviving a Max Hardcore scene became a badge of endurance, and the Net buzzes every time he's rumored to pair with some actress considered to be too prim--like "good girl" Marilyn Starr. Hardcore's work is male revenge in both form and content.

Max Hardcore's profound influence on porn is comparable to, and contemporaneous with, gangsta's influence on rap or Tarantino's influence on film. When I recently asked portly porn superstar Ron Jeremy about the state of porn, his response was swift: "I don't like it at all. It's too extreme. These days it's all about how many dicks can you stuff in one ass." Jeremy finds Hardcore's popularization of "choke-fucking," or gripping a woman's throat during sex, the most distasteful. "If a girl's not smiling, if she's not enjoying it, then I don't like it."

Jeremy can afford to be critical of the industry now that he does predominantly non-porno roles, cashing in on his cult-figure status to make countless movie and music-video cameos. In the early '80s, the generously endowed Jeremy--known as "the hedgehog" in the industry--helped perfect the three-porn-a-day conveyor-belt style video-making, all under the direction of porn emperor Mark Carriere, whose '80s passion for surgically "perfecting" women is one reason breast implants have become the industry norm. A sign of porn's more demanding '90s workplace is the depressing phenomenon of faded actresses coming back with new hair and new breasts to do all-anal videos (Bunny Blue pops to mind). These days, if you don't do anal, you don't do porn, though most actresses only earn about $300 a scene--a drop in the industry's $8 billion-a-year bucket--and the conservative Screen Actors Guild bars them from joining the union.  

While Jeremy and other stars specifically cite Max Hardcore as the trendsetter in this more brutal environment, they also point to competition from Europe, where censorship is more lax and harsh sex the longtime standard. Every scene in Sweden's video line, Private, has anal sex, and other European studios are making inroads in the American market. Max Hardcore was a big fan of German porn, taking his name from a German video line. But he set a new standard for humiliating women: Now the Germans imitate his technique of positioning an actress so her anus or vagina becomes a gaping hole; his use of "facials"; his abusive language, speculums, and throat-grasping; and his quick switches from anus to mouth without editing cuts. With his hair-pulling performances, Italian import Rocco Siffredi typifies the new blood in porn super-stardom.

Jeremy cites the balmier political climate as another reason for porn's turn toward the extreme. "Max Hardcore came along in 1992, the same year the Democrats came to power," he notes, and he might have a point. Federal pursuit of obscenity prosecutions seemed to fall off with the new administration, and the mainstreaming of Max Hardcore may signal the high-water mark for media freedom in America--a mixed curse indeed. In the magazine world, Penthouse toys with penetration--formerly forbidden territory--and so does Hustler, newly emboldened by the success of The People vs. Larry Flynt. Anal sex, meanwhile, has found its way into major motion pictures like David Cronenberg's kinked-out Crash--and onto nearly every best-selling rap CD. Post-NYPD Blue television continues to let its pants down, and the Internet is not only porn's new frontier, but conquered territory.

Much as progressives are loathe to admit it, the consolidation of corporate power in the United States has had the positive side effect of freeing up the media to give consumers what they want. And what they want, from all appearances, is more ass.

But why do consumers want Max Hardcore? That's the disturbing question, one made more interesting by the widespread backlash against him among porn fans. "We're not killing girls," Max told Adult Video News. "We're not hurting them more than minor discomfort. What's the big deal? When you get a girl and give her a good working over, you take her to the extreme of pain and pleasure, and that's exciting." Maybe so, but in most of his videos, the emphasis is clearly on pain and humiliation. (As in most other porn, the women never come.) It's as if Hardcore had carefully pored over Andrea Dworkin's 1979 tome, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, and made himself over into a shining example of everything wrong in porn--he's the "sexualization of insult" personified.

And let's be honest: Just renting a title like Rectal Rodeo is enough to alienate most women. Like most pornography, Max Hardcore is meant for men alone, and men sitting alone. In the face of an increasingly feminized industry--nearly 20 percent of all pornos are rented by hetero couples, according to AVN--the director bonds with male fans by pitting "us" against "them": a "keep the cunts in their place" credo (in Max's turn of phrase) that, no matter how facetious, encourages guy-guys and loners to further dissociate their fantasies from real-life women.

Still, as Robert Rimmer has suggested in his X-Rated Videotape Guide, the director's work seems intended not for arousal but to shock and nauseate: Like much of porn's new wave, Hardcore's videos are less fantasy fuel than the basest kind of performance art. As one Internet poster recently complained, "the biggest problem with Max is that his stuff just doesn't turn me on. Sometimes, I don't even think his stuff is meant to turn people on." The director may or may not be a deranged woman-hater, but he is very definitely a shrewd and adaptable entrepreneur; he's started substituting "people" for "bitches" in interviews, although he also seems well aware that the more hated he is, the more videos he sells. (Among Hardcore's other enterprises: his Filmwest production company, a fan club, and a glib, self-promoting monthly column in the well-circulated Hustler Erotic Video Guide.)

Furthermore, anyone tempted to use this de Sade in cowboy boots as a poster boy for driving porn back into the pre-Behind the Green Door underground runs the risk of smothering the medium just as its gender politics are getting interesting. Much as amateur paved the way for all-anal videos, home-video directors are taking on a surprising new taboo: the hetero penetration of men. And the trend's influence in professional porn is starting to show: Take Joey Silvera's 1995 groundbreaker Kink, in which the director allows himself to be lovingly dildoed by a woman, or the whole baffling oeuvre of director Robert Black, who in name and sensibility owes an obvious debt to Gregory Dark, the bizarro New Wave Hookers auteur. Black's Abuse of Power (1997) flips the Hardcore script, as it were, with a scene depicting a couple of female prison guards (Annabel Chong and Donna Warner) who torture and torment a condemned rapist-murderer, played by the tattooed love-boy Jack Hammer. Yelling "Take it, bitch," they sodomize him with a cum-spewing strap-on. Call it the backlash against the backlash.  

And, unsurprisingly, female directors have taken to the trend with a bit more vengeance: Bionca's Takin' It to the Limit series finds Alexis Payne gleefully reaming Comeback Pussy auteur Tom Byron in its first installment, and the motif repeats itself thereafter. By video three, the actresses have their rhetoric down: "So you've never had anything up ass before, huh?" taunts Melissa Monet to her prisoner, Jerry Styles. "Well there's always a fucking first." Even when the dominatrix remarks sarcastically, "Everybody loves anal," there's just the faintest hint of bitterness in her voice.

This angry pulp is even less a turn-on than Max Hardcore's vitriol (this time, nobody comes), but it does keep up its end of a larger conversation. If, as Susan Sontag once said, pornography drives a wedge between our existence as full human beings and our existence as sexual ones, and healthy people combine the two in everyday life, watching this stuff encourages us to recognize the split. Porn is both a tacky bulletin board for turn-ons we won't own up to and a playground for discovering things we hadn't considered before. Yet even as the playground's politics change, for now Max Hardcore remains bully supreme.

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