Friday, April 6, 2007

the other hollywood

Legs McNeil's The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry is a book with outsized ambitions: even after doing away with gay porn entirely, claiming, probably rightly, that it's "another book unto itself," there's still at least three major strands operating here: a biography-oriented approach, dealing with major players within the world of porn; a true-crime-ish approach focused on mob involvement, industry murders, high-profile busts, etc; and, finally, an overview of major developments within the industry as an industry (the famous rise of video, for instance).

Although these three strands often overlap, they're distinct enough that the book often struggles to manage the welter of material. (To get a grasp of the magnitude of the topic, remember that the life story of just one figure in this world, porn merchant Reuben Sturman, constitutes an entire third of Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness.) Consequently, the book manages the unenviable trick of both being nearly 600 pages long and feeling like it's barely scratching the surface.

I've never been much of a big reader of true crime, and so that facet of the book is the least interesting to me (although the life story of FBI agent Pat Livingston, and his identity confusion with his undercover alias Pat Salamone is weirdly gripping: another "book unto itself" lies there). In reality, it's the third strand—what seems to me to be the "true" history of the industry—that I was the most interested in, and at times the aversion to this material struck me as frustrating: why two chapters on a porn oddity like John Wayne Bobbit and not even a mention of industry-wide efforts to come into compliance with Section 2257? Why does the discussion of the star system that dominates porn today seem to end with Ginger Lynn? And for that matter, where's the Internet? (The book closes its history in 1998, with the discovery (and swift containment) of HIV in the post-testing industry, but it was published in 2005, so certainly Internet porn could have at least warranted a brief epilogue?)

Quibbling in this way is easy and perhaps a bit cheap: sure, this book isn't definitive, but I'm pretty certain that at this stage of the game it's next to impossible to write the definitive history in a single volume. And so if this ends up being a history—rather than the history—does it matter? What matters more is that the book is consistently fascinating (although the short-sighted lack of an index does make the task of keeping track of the hundreds of recurring figures who crop up somewhat more of a chore than it, strictly speaking, needed to be). So, ultimately, recommended, albeit with reservations.

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