I'm Ready for My Dildo, Mr. DeMille

On the day President Clinton was impeached, I was on the set of a pornographic film. Not in the film, but on the set. A curious observer. A peeping Tom. I was there, I told myself, to catch a glimpse of America's soul.

And, in a way, I was, if you consider the fact that in 1998 Americans spent over $12 billion on hard-core videos, peep shows, live sex acts, adult cable programming, sexual devices, computer porn and sex magazines. This was more than all of Hollywood' s domestic box office receipts. This was more than Garth Brooks made. This was more than rock and roll and country music made. Combined. Americans spent another $1 billion on phone sex. That's more than was spent on education or the environment.

According to U.S. News and World Report, "Americans now spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and nonprofit theaters, the opera, the ballet and jazz and classical music performances -- combined."

That was over three years ago. Ratchet the numbers up accordingly, as cable channels and Internet connections proliferate like tattoos.

This indeed was a glimpse of America's soul.

Prior to this experience, I'd believed porn "stars" were either desperate junkies or wannabe actors filmed by has-been directors. It was, in my uninformed opinion, a classic case of the old adage about being careful who you meet on the way up because you may meet them on the way down.

While this may be true for the lowest of the low-budget operations, most porn is filmed under stringent hygienic and technically proficient conditions. And the "stars" aren't complex enough to have such pathologies or dreams. To them, it's a job. A career opportunity. They want to get laid and get paid, not get AIDS.

My companion on this misadventure was a has-been music star living in Los Angeles. He knew the director of this film, the working title of which was World Without Men Amen. As the title suggests, the film required the services of nine women and zero men. Except for us. Onlookers. And we weren't required. Just expected. And certainly not alone, as we found out. Besides a few rancid looking film crew members and some steroid-inflated security goons, we were joined by a gaggle of giggling Korean businessmen in suits, the financial backers of this enterprise.

We'd been invited by Arnie Piper, a onetime maker of documentary films. Arnie Piper, through age and bad habits, had been knocked lower and lower on the film industry food chain and now, within sight of the bottom, was making porn films. This was, he said, the only work he could get.

We follow the directions Piper provided in his impulsive phone call that same morning. We travel deep into the featureless industrial zone of L.A.'s unfathomably ugly sprawl, into a landscape so devoid of character that they'd ceased even trying to use bucolic names for the towns. The one we're searching for has the sort of name reserved for prisons or nuclear waste disposal sites: Chatsworth.

We locate the building after several passes. It is a rectangular cube like a thousand others in the 462-square mile strip mall known as the City of Angels.

We park and walk gingerly to the door. I make out the voices of two women talking; then I see them, one a tiny tanned Asian woman dressed in T-shirt and jeans, the other a skinny athletic brunette dressed similarly. They're seated in folding chairs, facing each other, going over some papers, a script.

"I'll take that part. I like going down on Ginger," the Asian woman says, then turns to us with a friendly greeting. "Hello, fellows, go on in."

Behind the glass door stand three menacing black men, one on a wheeled workout contraption. All three sport stylish paisley-patterned sweatpants with "Everlast" emblazoned at belt level. They each have hand weights and hand grips and fingerless riders' gloves, like drummers in heavy metal bands. Their wardrobe and body language suggest severe corporal punishment should you get out of line.

"Hello gents," they say. Smiling. "Can we help you?"

"We're here to see Arnie Piper," the rock star says, to lend purposefulness to what in effect is our leering voyeurism (or maybe he hopes they'll recognize him from his arena rock days and ask for an autograph). We are not here to see Arnie Piper. We are here to see horny action babes. Arnie is our foot in the door. Personally, I do not care if we see Arnie Piper and will, in fact, be glad to achieve our goals without the pleasure of his company.

The three goons pretend to not know Arnie Piper. Or maybe they pretend not to hear us. Finally, they gesture sideways with their heads to a flight of stairs. We're half way up, when one of the trio shouts, "He's shooting now, but go on upstairs and wait."

In a hallway conference tables offer a spread of healthy nibble food (carrots, celery, cauliflower, soft drinks and juices). It's all very normal, healthy, mundane. Fully dressed professionals flit about with clipboards.

I walk over to the food table, which requires passing an open doorway. Glancing inside, I see three young women, hair in curlers, worried hands poking at worried faces in mirrors, primping, preening, presumably preparing for scenes in front of Piper's camera. Funny, no one will ever see the perfect hair and green glowing eyes. These young women, average-looking by L.A.'s cruelly exalted standards, could pass themselves off easily as the pretty girl next door anywhere else in the USA.

Horrible epiphany # 1: Breathes there a man with libido so dead that he would not want to see a porn film being made, even for five minutes? Actual flesh and blood humans engaging in sex right in front of his nose? If you say, "No, that's degrading, that's sick," I will call you a liar, sir. Because if you have ever fantasized about sex, you have made a porn film. You have assembled the cast, choreographed the action. You are no better or worse than Arnie Piper, who is putting his three kids through college doing it for a living.

My companion goes first into a pitch-black, sound-deadening labyrinth, a sort of outer sanctum of the film set. I follow, don't realize he has stopped and collide with him when he does. Two stooges in search of Arnie Piper.

"Do you hear that?" he whispers.

"Hear what?"

"Listen."

I hear the rhythmic moaning of a woman, perhaps several women. This must be the place. We move toward the sound bumping into padding that covers the walls, in a darkness so pitch you lose all orientation except for sound.

"Oooaaah. Oaah. Aaaah. Aaaah. Oh YES. Oh. Uh huh. OOOOh. Uh Huh," the voices moan. "Uh huh" is popular with porno actresses, the accent on the "Uh."

"Hey, this is hard work, Arnie," a woman says to much male laughter.

"I've got to get a couple stills," someone says.

"Go ahead and get your stills," another voice says.

"That's Arnie Piper," my friend whispers to me in the dark.

"Ready? We're going to shoot," Piper says, "Shoot the back of your head."

There's a delay, followed by women's voices, "Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Do it. Uuuh Yeah, uh, uh uaaahUHUH. Moan. Uaaahuh. Whoaaah. Mmmmm yeah, mmmmm yeah. Oh hoooooo. Okay Bill. Get the camera in there. Uh huh. Ohhhhhh. Mmmm yeah. Mmmm yes. Whoah. Mm hmmm. Mm hmmm. Oh yeah. Ooooh woooahh."

By the light from a TV monitor, we can make out a couple more gigantic men standing sentry beside a stage door. They malevolently cast a sidelong glance at us, then look away, as if registering that we are not people whose skulls need pummeling. They're not smiling.

I take the opportunity to stumble further into the darkness, past the door opening, out of the circle of light that plays from their door frame. I stumble on a perfect viewing spot at the back of the set. It's a window frame without a window, a faux window with curtains that gives me a full view of the camera monitor, not more than five feet from my face.

"Ooooooo yes," the voices continue. "Uh HUH. Uh HUH Uh HUH." I put my head through the window frame, craning my neck. At first I don't comprehend that the monitor is recording the film in progress; the angle of the camera is so gynecologically close I can't make out what I'm looking at, like blobs under a microscope enlarged 1,000 times. Then I realize I have the best seat in the house. On the screen is a lime green sexual device, a sort of inflated pacifier that had been greased and inserted into -- well, I can't tell what it is, all I can see is a lime green dildo going in and out, shoved there by the disembodied hand of another player, shoved part way in, then almost viciously all the way to the hilt, inducing a scream of, what, pain? Pleasure?

I make a quick mental inventory of the crew: two youngish nerds who hold printed papers (the script men), a cameraman, a still photographer, the director (Piper), his assistant, and several spectators who serve no purpose except to register that this is happening.

What's instantly clear is that the only people with any semblance of a healthy physique are the women. Other than the hired goons every person is a sweatily obese and/or painfully ugly white man.

The still photographer is particularly repulsive, a wheezing Weegee pushing the livestock scales at a quarter ton, I'd surmise. And his blandishments to the women to "fake that orgasm" and "show me the meat" are enough to put one off sex for a month. He's like Swamp Thing sucking the life out of a peroxided honey-dipped beach bunny.

Horrible epiphany # 2: The set is mundane, an apartment that could be used for a situation comedy or soap opera. Cum to think of it, porn films bear a passing resemblance to soap operas. These scenes of penetration and exchanges of fluids are the ones you never see but transpire off screen in these fictional histrionic lives. Without steamy, illicit, adulterous encounters between characters, where would the maudlin emotion, the plot's very glue, come from?

In between takes, the women banter with the men, as if the squiggly lime green object and their splayed genitalia are an elaborate prank, a psychological sleight of hand. And that really, deep down, they are good people, sharing family values, just like Newt Gingrich and Oral Roberts.

"Okay, when the money shot comes," Piper interrupts the banter, "the discharge will be on the side of your head. Delaney! You got me?! Okay on this shot we're going to do it on the side of your face. Bill? I really want this shot."

"Right. Right."

"Ready? Action!" Piper said. "Now roll back your head! Now. Samantha, spit on her snatch! Spit! Go ahead! Now go and lick out that spit! Good! Cut!"

A palpable sigh fell over the set. The still photographer waddles forward and snaps a closeup of Delaney's genitalia. "Smile," he says, a stale joke he has probably used thousands of times.

"OK," Arnie says, "Let's do it one more time. This time for the hardcore shot."

"Hey, don't wave that dildo at me!" says the cameraman, sweaty unshaven doofus in shorts and UCLA Bruin muscle T-shirt, Brill-O hair and pimples rutting his back.

They reshoot the scene with the green dildo, the moaning continues, the women barely able to suppress the urge to laugh hysterically (their faces are off camera so they can act any way they want as long as that green dildo keeps going in and out on camera). A successful fadeout shot is taken of the two women doing a lingering kiss. There were no men in World Without Men Amen? Yet some sort of semen substitute streaks the cheek of one. The other cheek is streaked with a brown splotch from something the two of them have been rolling amongst on the floor.

"Let's take a break," Piper announces.

Piper demands that we stay for the next scene and see one from start to finish. Well, okay. It's not like we're being tortured. I return to the food table, leering in the door of the dressing room to find the next batch of girls getting primped for their big scene.

"This will be the first time I've ever done dialogue," one of the young girls, her brown hair in curlers, says excitedly. If I closed my eyes I'd swear I was at a high school play, so naively amateurish is their emotion. I imagine the titles of productions: The Ass Menagerie, The Glass Menage-a-trois, Ass-In-Dick and Old Lace. While we wait, the old rock star and I discuss the fascist impulse that seems to drive the pornography industry, based entirely on what we've just seen.

Epiphany #3: There's nothing tragic or even comic about modern porn because everyone in the films is physically perfect. Perfect bodies functioning at full throttle in the heat of commodifying sex. They could pass each other on the street tomorrow and not say hello, not even recognize the other's face.

Also: It's so clearly a precise enterprise. The beepers, clipboards, walkie talkies, applications, clearance forms, props, catered food, expensive gear, barked orders, paramilitary goons.

Also: The threat of violence is palpable.

And: "I'm not sure what I mean by fascism," explains my companion. "It's loveless, bloodless, a kind of grim lust. No tenderness."

("Oh, come on, man!" I want to shout at him. "What sort of degrading acts did you put your groupies through on a nightly basis back when you were king of MTV!")

A sexy woman in street clothes sits down. "I've just been toy shopping," she chirps. I am naive enough to imagine she is referring to a spree for a niece or nephew. Moments later, a technician breezes past.

"Cassandra, where are those toys?" she demands. "You're needed on the set!"

Her toys are, in fact, sexual devices, rubber truncheon-like things with stiff brush heads on one end, gelatin filled misshapen objects. Another prop woman runs past our table cradling a turquoise double-headed dildo, at least three feet long, its body writhing like an eel. She runs breathlessly to catch Cassandra.

"I think they need this for the next scene," she cries.

The banality of the whole enterprise suddenly hits me. The wait is interminable and we've yet to speak with Piper. He said he'd be with us in "two minutes," but his two minutes is a new time measurement, worthy of quantum physics. When he does come waddling up to shmooze, he seems surprised to see us, as if already forgetting that he'd seen us earlier while he was supervising the insertion of the lime green dildo.

"Sorry, I've got to take care of a couple things," he says, distracted, not even looking at us but to the side, as if expecting catastrophe. His life must be one gigantic multi-car pile-up. This doesn't look like fun and he doesn't look like a well man. He is out of breath and his belly protrudes from his Polynesian tourist shirt like a terrible mound. He will never be able to work on a creative serious film project again, not after this. This will haunt him. Once you've been up the ladder you can never return, only fall to the next rung, then the next rung, and the next thing you know you're working lights in Reno while a Phyllis Diller impersonator abuses a crowd of nine people who got in free and are drinking for half price.

"Two minutes," he says. "I'll get someone to come get you when we're ready."

A two-minute call on a porn set is the opposite of a New York minute. It lasts half an hour.

We're allowed to watch the second scene from its inception. The immense still photographer waddles out, sporting a sombrero. He jokingly tries to put it on the head of one of the women. She recoils in disgust. She's not smiling. It's a thin line between erotic and emetic.

The film scene we're privileged to witness is set in a health club locker room, and it requires three women, two to chat suggestively while a third enters stage left to be sado-masochistically set upon by the first two.

The two chatterers are nasty in a cruel, high-pitched laughing way. Their names have a ludicrous falsity to them, Lexus and Sabrina. One is the tiny Asian woman who'd been so pleasant out front. This must be the scene where she goes down on Ginger. She likes going down on Ginger, as I recall. Only it's different back here under these conditions. She has a defiant hardness about her, an unpleasant meanness.

The second woman is raven-haired, athletic, bouncy, flat as a plank. She's also stupid in such an insouciant way it's oppressive. When someone charming or intelligent enters a room, automatically the atmosphere improves, but when someone like Sabrina enters, an element of anxiety and fear follows her like a whiff of stale hormone.

They work on the fine points of the script, tuning their technique while Piper chats off to the side with lighting and camera crews.

"I say, 'Who are you?'," says Lexus.

"No! No! You say 'Who the FUCK are you?'," shouts Sabrina.

"OK. And when you're working her over I'm going to be masturbating, OK?"

"Fine with me."

"This is supposed to be her initiation, so I'll yank the dildo hard from her mouth."

"I'm OK with that."

"Then I'm going to say 'Get on all fours, bitch'."

"Okee dokee."

"Or maybe I'll say 'Get on all fours, cunt bitch'."

"Whatever rings your bells."

We're watching all this in the dark. And the filming of what will be no longer than a five-minute scene goes on for over an hour. We keep thinking we'll stay until the sexy one (Ginger) disrobes and "objects are inserted," but they can't even get past the first part of the scene without Lexus butchering the lines.

When they finally get beyond the script -- the part all porn aficionados are eager to have done with, the part they fast forward through to get to the penetration -- the three women are game for this activity. No prods, cruel coercion, drugs or anything like that on the set. They enjoy their work. They are, in fact, so eager to cut to the chase that Lexus keeps blowing the line that goes, "Sabrina, have you heard the news about the health club?" followed hard by, "Where can a girl go in this town to get a fingerfuck and a workout now?!"

Due to their inability to get the lines right -- "As if it matters!" the rock star shouts in the darkness -- Piper has to re-shoot the scene several times.

Ginger keeps entering the scene, but before they can get to the part that involves her stripping and spreading, Lexus blows the line. Lexus is so wired that she desperately shouts, "Mr. Piper, I want to eat Ginger out so bad! Let's just go ahead and film that part." My companion and I, sitting in the dark, find ourselves agreeing with her. We also decide our choice for Ginger's opening line: "I'm ready for my dildo, Mr. DeMille."

Ginger finally makes it onto the set, slowly disrobes to reveal peach-colored frilly bra, panties, garters. This alone is worth the trip, the degradation, the loss of innocence. Just seeing this luscious specimen in fetishist garb. That moment of erotic epiphany is soon wiped clean, as Lexus and Sabrina set upon her, deflower that soft sexiness with athletic machine-like precision.

"Get on all fours, you cunt bitch whore!"

When the action gets going, tongues and tongs are inserted and the resultant orgasms do not seem faked. There is much lustrous smacking, slurping and nibbling on dangling parts.

By the end of the scene, Ginger is sucking on a red dildo and being violently penetrated by the Asian woman. She does indeed seem to enjoy going down on Ginger, as would all the fat wobbly men in the room. The giggling Koreans, too.

Epiphany # 4: The money in porn isn't being made by the Arnie Pipers and the actors, but by the backers and conduits.

The average pay for leading stars is about $1000 per scene, but because there are an overabundance of women in southern California clamoring for screen time, they will work for as low as $150 a scene, and be glad to get that.

Over 25,000 video stores, mostly mainstream, rent porn videos in the U.S., and as towns ban or curb walk-in "adult businesses," the Internet is picking up the slack. The U.S. is the world's leading producer of porn, and L.A. is at the heart of this beast. In fact, US News estimates that 75 percent of the porn films made in the U. S. are made in Los Angeles County, especially in enclaves of San Fernando Valley, home of suburban Valhalla Sherman Oaks but also the charming Chatsworth.

It is fitting, then, that the president of the United States would fall prey to a young woman who grew up here, swam in the very waters that flow through Chatsworth.

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