4:56pm

Thu April 26, 2012
Arts & Culture

"Cherry" and the other side of the San Francisco porn industry

Generally, pornography isn’t something that comes up in casual conversation. It’s a taboo topic for obvious reasons – but local author Stephen Elliott says this means people know very little about the people who work in that industry, and often consider them victims or bad people. In his twenties, Elliott was a stripper in his hometown, Chicago, and he's part of the sex worker community here in San Francisco. He and his friend Lorelei Lee, an adult film star, decided to co-write a screenplay that would share their perspective of what it’s like to work in porn. What resulted was the film Cherry, starting A-list actors such as James Franco, Heather Graham, and Dev Patel.

It centers around the story of Angelina, an 18-year-old girl portrayed by actress Ashley Hinshaw, who runs away from her home in Long Beach to San Francisco, and ends up working in the adult film industry. Stephen Elliott, who also directed the film, sat down with KALW’s Martina Castro to discuss the movie and how it tells a San Francisco story.

STEPHEN ELLIOTT: It’s so a San Francisco story. How is it not a San Francisco story?  A lot of the things that we’re seeing, third wave feminism, a lot of stuff about queer rights and gay rights and lesbian rights, and all these things that are happening all over the country, they’re really emanating from San Francisco, you know. Alternative porn comes out of San Francisco more than it does anywhere else.

MARTINA CASTRO: What does that mean, alternative porn?

ELLIOTT: Porn for women, porn for people that don’t like regular porn, porn with performers who look like real people as opposed to with all the plastic surgery and stuff, not that there is anything wrong with plastic surgery. But now that we’re seeing pornography becoming more diversified because of the Internet, you have all these alternative categories of porn and a lot of that is coming from San Francisco. There’s a lot more female porn directors, proportionally, in San Francisco then there is in L.A. Because a lot of the porn in San Francisco is new – it’s newer companies – and a lot of the porn in Los Angeles is older companies. They’ve been around longer and are set in certain ways. And so a lot of the stuff that’s more progressive in the porn industry is starting here.

CASTRO: You address all these different sides of intimate relationships: sexual relationships, friendships, mother-daughter relationships. And there was an interesting scene, and actually I’d like to play a clip from it, where Angelina is with her mom on the street, and her mom is named Phyllis, is the character, and she’s played by Lili Taylor. Angelina’s played by Ashley Hinshaw. And in this little clip you’re going to hear them on the sidewalk right after Angelina’s boyfriend stands them up after dinner. So let’s listen to that.

PHYLLIS (Clip from "Cherry")” Thanks for dinner Angel.

ANGELINA: It’s no big deal

PHYLLIS: Sorry about your boyfriend.

ANGELINA: He has a name, and you know it.

PHYLLIS: Yeah we all do, we all do. You know, you may not believe it, but I know the mistakes, ‘cause I’ve made ‘em, see. He says real nice things to you, makes you feel special, apologizes when he’s done something wrong, but you’ve got to keep your head because the next thing he’s

gonna

say is, ‘I wanna, I wanna take care of you,’ and it’s just then that he’s going to let you down real hard.

ANGELINA: You know mom, I don’t think that that’s true.

PHYLISS

: Well, there’s true and there’s true.

CASTRO: Stephen, in that clip, that advice that she gives, the mother gives, I felt it was so familiar because I think we’ve all heard our parents give us some piece of advice to prevent us from making the same mistakes that they do. And it made me realize how much your film is about growing up, and rights of passage, and what it means to become an adult.

ELLIOTT: You know it’s really a coming of age story. I mean, it happens to be set in the world of San Francisco, in the world of San Francisco pornography. And that’s the setting, and it’s an unusual setting because nobody has really treated that world the way we have, which is just as a place that people go work. I think every movie that’s been set in the world of porn, the movie’s really been about porn, and the character either dies, or if they’re going to be happy they’re going to transcend and they’re going to leave. The porn is always a mistake, it’s always about doing drugs and loosing yourself, and it’s never just a job. And we kind of treat it like it’s a job, and the actual front story is a story of a women finding herself, finding her footing emotionally and sexually.

CASTRO: We do get to peek inside this other world via Angelina’s path because she runs away to San Francisco and ends up joining the adult film industry. And we get to peek inside the Armory, which if people don’t know what that is – it’s a building on the corner of Mission and 15th and it’s where the Internet porn site Kink.com has it’s studios, which I didn’t realize is the largest studios in the world for pornography. And this is where Angelina gets her start in the adult film industry. What did you want to show of this world that you think isn’t represented in other films?

ELLIOTT: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where I felt that the adult film industry was represented. This is my community, so these are the people I hang out with. And the portrayal of sex work…it’s just treated like heroin in most movies. You get into sex work and it’s like becoming a junky…it’s the worst thing that can happen to you, and that’s just simply not how it is. There’s also the idea that sex workers are always manipulated into becoming sex workers, they never do it of their own volition. They’re either straight-up victims, you know, like sex slaves and so forth, or they’re manipulated by some evil man, when in fact we’re seeing more female porn directors, especially in the Bay Area we’re seeing that a lot. And the people I know that have gotten into porn did it because they wanted to, because it was a better job than that other job that was available to them. And you know, Cherry isn’t the story of point, it’s a story. But the way that Angelina gets into porn is extremely normal. It’s not trying to be an advertisement for pornography either. It’s just this is a job. This is what she’s doing. She’s the girl in a city and she’s young and she has a lot to learn.

CASTRO: I was a Women’s Studies major, and for me, I sort of had equated pornography with misogyny and what’s degrading to women. And I think that this is a totally type of story different story. And I wanted to hear your thoughts on that.

ELLIOTT: I think you know, if you’re at Kink.com and you’re hanging out, as I’ve done quite a bit, and you talk the performers, most of them consider themselves feminists. A lot of them just feel like they’re taking control of their lives and they’re deciding what to do with their body. And we’re seeing in San Francisco in particular more people like Courtney Trouble and pornography companies run by and owned by women, it’s becoming a lot more common. And the female directors, and the transgendered directors at Kink.com is extremely common. So we’re seeing that more and more. But these people, they’re not victims, they’re very much – they have agency, you know, they make the decisions, just like you and me. But not everybody understands that and that’s one of the reasons sex workers end up dating each other so often because a lot of people outside of that don’t understand that.

CASTRO: There’s a great clip that exemplifies that, a scene where Margaret, Heather Graham’s character, is talking to her girlfriend Gillian, played by Diane Farr. She’s a real estate broker and she’s invited her girlfriend, the porn film director, to her real estate broker’s function, her party and they have a little argument. So let’s listen in on that scene.

GILLIAN (Clip from Cherry): You just don’t care about what I do.

MARGARET: Nobody cares about what you do.

GILLIAN: Yeah, but making young girls take off their clothes so old guys have something to wank off to is a really noble job.

MARGARET: No, I’d rather into talk them into buying homes they can’t afford.

GILLIAN: What is the matter with you?

MARGARET: I hate these people!

GILLIAN: Then you hate me!

MARGARET: Why do you invite me to these things?

GILLIAN: Because you’re my girlfriend, that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what people do in the real world. That’s the contract.

CASTRO: Now, in that scene, there’s a lot going on: not only the judgment that Heather Graham’s character is facing from her girlfriend. You also see this concept of what you’re supposed to do in relationships and what means, again to be an adult and to be in the real world. So what do you think would change peoples’ stereotypes about sex workers?

ELLIOTT: I think the main thing, the absolute main thing, is simply to look at sex workers as people. It’s all about agency. Once we admit that these people are there of their own volition, that is definitely the most important step, I think. And then hopefully with that, we can get in and solve some of the labor issues.

CASTRO: Do you think they face discrimination when they try to transition out?

ELLIOTT: I do think there’s a lot of discrimination against sex workers. There’s this idea that they’re impure, bad, or you know, it’s this American puritanical bias, which I think is for the most part is just sexist, this idea that a women can’t decide to do this. I wrote this movie with Lorelei, who is still making porn, while she’s lecturing at NYU. She’s teaching creative writing at NYU, but she is still also a porn performer to this day. We consider this a feminist movie, of course you know that term can mean different things to different people, but we feel quite strong that this is a very pro-women film.

The film Cherry is screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Friday, April 27 and Saturday April 28. Visit the SFIFF websitefor more information.

 

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