Ashcroft’s anti-porn crusade threatens everyone’s free-speech rights
BY DAN KENNEDY
SHALL WE GET right down to it? The penultimate segment of a pornographic video called Ass Clowns 3 — one of five videos at the center of a federal obscenity case — begins with an Ashleigh Banfield look-alike reporting from Afghanistan.
Within moments, she is kidnapped by an Al Qaeda terrorist, who drags her back to a cave occupied by Osama bin Laden and a third terrorist. For the next 20 minutes or so she is slapped, repeatedly spat upon, stripped, and raped, forced to take part in oral and anal sex and vaginal intercourse.
"America!" the bin Laden character says at one point, glowering at the camera before hocking an extraordinary load of phlegm in her face. "America, ha, ha, ha!"
A few minutes later, as bin Laden is doing her anally and she’s simultaneously forced to give a blowjob to her kidnapper, she pauses to ask, "Oh, Mr. bin Laden, does this mean you’re going to give me an exclusive?"
I could go on, but why? Eventually, American and British soldiers arrive. They kill the three terrorists, bin Laden by rather gory, if cartoonish, decapitation. And then they have sex with our foreign correspondent, only this time it’s consensual.
There are many things you can say about this video, none of them good. The graphic, close-up sex is about as erotic as Intestinal Surgery Night on the Learning Channel. The rape brings the proceedings to an entirely different level of offensiveness and misogyny, unconvincing though the simulated violence may be.
But perhaps the most important thing about Ass Clowns 3 is this: it could land its distributors, Robert Zicari (a/k/a Rob Black) and his fiancée, Janet Romano (a/k/a Lizzie Borden), in prison for the next 50 years.
As Zicari observed in an interview last week with ABC News’s Nightline, that’s double the amount of prison time faced by Hemant Lakhani, the British national who was recently charged with trying to sell a surface-to-air missile to government agents posing as terrorists seeking to shoot down a commercial airliner.
No wonder Zicari has posted a page on the Web site of the company run by him and Romano, Extreme Associates, labeled "America’s Most Wanted!", with bin Laden (head firmly attached) as public-enemy number three, Saddam Hussein as number two, and himself as number one.
The movies made by Extreme are disgusting, perverted, and hateful. They may even meet the legal definition of obscenity as handed down by the US Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Miller v. State of California. In that decision, the court ruled that material could be found obscene under local community standards if it was found to appeal to "the prurient interest," if it depicted sexual content in "a patently offensive way," and if it lacked "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
This standard is vague — deliberately so. As the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once memorably said of obscenity, "I know it when I see it." But it is easy to see how a jury forced to watch Ass Clowns 3 (as Zicari told Nightline, the jurors who decide his fate will be the only people ever to watch his movies against their will) could conclude that the obscenity statutes have been violated. And unlike pornography in general, obscenity (like child pornography) does not enjoy the protection of the First Amendment. Which is why Zicari and Romano may indeed be prison-bound.
But hold on. Ultimately, deciding what is obscene and what isn’t is a matter of drawing lines. In a culture in which sex and violence are part of mainstream entertainment, who is to say whether Zicari and Romano have crossed that line?
And by going after small-time operators whose movies gross out even porn aficionados, has the government come up with a strategy of divide and conquer? More to the point, has Attorney General John Ashcroft declared a new holy war against what adults like to look at in the privacy of their own homes?
Ashcroft, after all, is a fundamentalist Christian who ordered an exposed female breast on a statue at the Justice Department covered up at a cost of $8000, and who, as governor of Missouri, once had himself anointed with Crisco.
Those who wish to draw lines could certainly separate Ass Clowns 3 from classic hard-core fare such as The Devil in Miss Jones, or distinguish between Forced Entry and The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival. But it’s not at all clear that Ashcroft wants to, or even understands the difference.
And for those who worry about the slippery slope — a specious argument in many instances, but applicable when you’re talking about Ashcroft and free expression — there aren’t all that many degrees of separation between Ass Clowns 3 and the writhing strippers at the Bada Bing on The Sopranos.
In the 2002 Frontline documentary "American Porn," Mark Cromer, a pornographer who works with Larry Flynt, put it this way: "They hate it all. They’re looking for their easiest targets, their edgier, more provocative filmmakers, and they’re going to hold those up as the examples of pornography."
In other words, the prosecution of Extreme Associates is, at bottom, a free-speech issue. You might not think you have a stake in Rob Black’s right to make movies depicting rape and violence. But you do.
IT IS PRACTICALLY impossible to exaggerate the offensiveness of Extreme’s productions. The first segment of Ass Clowns 3 features the rape of a woman in a wedding dress by two men who are supposed to be either hillbillies or vegetables that have come to life; I couldn’t tell which. (She’s dreaming, you see.)
And believe it or not, some of this stuff is so mind-blowingly horrendous that even Extreme puts some limits on its availability. A long stretch of the Ass Clowns 3 DVD that I purchased at a local porn emporium is labeled CENSORED, but it reportedly consists of a crucified Jesus coming down off the cross to have anal sex with an angel. (If you want to see it, you have to buy the "director’s cut" version, available only by mail. In fact, it is this version that is named in the federal case.)
The most notorious of Extreme’s videos — Forced Entry, which I was unable to find except by mail order — is said to consist of the actual (consensual) beating and simulated rape and murder of a woman by a serial killer. The film became briefly famous in the Frontline documentary, in which the crew members became so nauseated that they walked out. The incident is reportedly what mobilized the feds to take action.
But what, precisely, separates obscenity from pornography, pornography from erotica, erotica from mainstream, or, for that matter, simulated rape as taboo from simulated rape as — well, as entertainment?
The other night I visited the Web site IFilm.com to watch a scene from Straw Dogs, a 1971 film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Straw Dogs was and is a well-regarded mainstream movie. Visitors to the Internet Movie Database give it 7.3 on a scale of one to 10.
But Straw Dogs also features a terrifying scene in which George, her clothes pulled apart and her breasts exposed, is forced to have sex. You can rent the movie, or you can watch her getting raped for free on the Internet.
Here’s the description from MrSkin.com, a site that specializes in celebrity nudity: "A super-long, well-lit series of shots of Susan’s sacks while one of her ex-boyfriends rapes her on the couch. It’s pretty disturbing, but man, oh man is that one awesome rack!" And, frankly, it’s a hell of a lot more realistic — and, therefore, chilling — than anything you’ll find on Ass Clowns 3.
Nor is rape all that unusual in mainstream filmmaking. From Rhett Butler sweeping a protesting Scarlett O’Hara off her feet in Gone with the Wind to the considerably bleaker images offered up by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, movie executives have not shied away from forced sex when they think it will improve the story, make an artistic point, or just keep things moving.
But Hollywood has always had an uneasy relationship with sex. Unlike the 1970s, these days even nudity is rarely seen in mainstream movies. Hollywood’s real love affair is not with sex or its evil cousin, rape, but, rather, with good, old-fashioned American violence.
In 1999, shortly after the Columbine killings, the New Republic published a fascinating pair of essays. The first, by Gregg Easterbrook, laid the blame for homicidal teens squarely on such ultraviolent films as Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone’s quirkily brilliant send-up of modern media culture. Stone’s killers are drenched in blood from beginning to end, and they do it all for notoriety, for celebrity.
For the mentally unbalanced and for teenagers, Easterbrook wrote, violent movies such as Natural Born Killers can act as a catalyst, setting off a violent spree among those who, otherwise, would presumably lead lives of quiet desperation. "For those on the psychological borderline, the calculus is different," Easterbrook continued. "There have, for example, been at least two instances of real-world shootings in which the guilty imitated scenes in Natural Born Killers."
Stanley Kauffmann responded with a defense of Natural Born Killers, answering Easterbrook with this: "Is any film worth the life of anyone, especially of a teenager? The question is at the level of a game of Truth or Consequences. A more useful question is whether we want to restrict the cultural fullness of film that those teenagers will see after they mature. In our eagerness to change the conditions in which teenagers are stuffed with garbage, it would be easy to maim the possibilities for serious work intended for the mature audience — possibilities that are slim enough anyway."
Both Easterbrook and Kauffmann, though on opposite sides, make an important point. Easterbrook blasted Time Warner for seeking — and winning — an "R" rating for Natural Born Killers rather than accepting the "NC-17" that it probably deserved. Kauffmann defended the film on artistic grounds, but conceded that it should only been seen by people "after they mature."
Thus, if you’re the sort that worries about the effect Natural Born Killers — or, for that matter, the latest Freddy vs. Jason epic — will have on impressionable viewers, then you should be more concerned about what’s going on in the mainstream studios of Hollywood rather than at the North Hollywood headquarters of Extreme Associates.
ON JULY 27, Frank Rich wrote an essay in the New York Times arguing that pornography has become a part of mainstream culture. His evidence: phenomena such as the popularity of former porn star Traci Lords’s memoir, Underneath It All, and the forthcoming Jerry Bruckheimer television series Skin, about the porn trade.
"A classic example of the political turnaround is the current attorney general, John Ashcroft," Rich wrote. "In his 2000 senatorial campaign, he attacked his Democratic opponent for ‘standing with the producers of pornography and Hollywood’s worst trash’ by accepting a $2,000 contribution from Christie Hefner, the chief executive of Playboy. You no longer hear Mr. Ashcroft, or anyone in the Bush administration, complaining about far larger political contributions from News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch, AOL Time Warner, Viacom or Marriott, to name just some of those who stand with the producers of pornography by either making their own soft-core variants or taking a cut when porn-industry videos are beamed through cable and satellite into hotels and homes."
And, as the Frontline report noted, we live in an era when anilingus can be the subject of an extended dialogue on the mainstream HBO hit Sex and the City.
But Rich may have paid too much attention to what Ashcroft was doing in public, and not enough to what was going on behind the scenes. Because the Frontline documentary also reported that Ashcroft had long wanted to launch a war against pornography, but was prevented from doing so by 9/11 and its aftermath. Now, with the war against terrorism having moved off the front pages, Ashcroft may believe the time has come to make his move.
The method by which federal prosecutors are going after Extreme Associates is sneaky. Even though Extreme operates out of California, the bust took place in Pittsburgh. According to the trade publication Adult Video News, "the pro-censorship organization Morality in Media considers Pennsylvania its first ‘saved’ state, meaning that it considers Pennsylvanians to have less tolerance for sexually explicit materials, among other things, than other parts of the country."
That’s where the community-standards provision of Miller v. California comes in. As civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate notes, the strategy is reminiscent of the 1970s, when then-porn-star Harry Reems was prosecuted in Tennessee, which Justice Department officials evidently believed was the most prudish jurisdiction where Reems’s movies had been shown. The case against Reems failed. Robert Zicari and Janet Romano may not be so lucky.
In a profile written by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin nearly a year and a half ago, Ashcroft came off as a right-wing zealot — far more socially conservative, for instance, than Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, who made fighting pornography one of his top priorities. Ashcroft is a man, after all, who, as a senator, tried to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts because of his belief, as Toobin described it, that it subsidized "elitist and indecent projects." Who was the first member of the Senate to call on Bill Clinton to resign the presidency because he’d had oral sex with someone other than his wife. Who supports a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag-burning, a form of protest protected by the First Amendment. Who is considered something of a prude by Phyllis Schlafly — Phyllis Schlafly — because he’s so opposed to gambling that he didn’t want to buy a raffle ticket at one of her fundraising events.
The challenge that Ashcroft now faces, as others have noted, is twofold. For the past 10 years, porn has gotten more outrageous — largely because prosecutions ground to a near halt during the Clinton years — and more ubiquitous, thanks to the Internet and to services such as X-rated channels in even the finest hotels. Porn today is a big business — worth perhaps as much as $10 billion per year.
At the same time, the culture has changed significantly since the days when prosecutors were trying to make examples of Al Goldstein, Larry Flynt, and Harry Reems. The very ubiquity of porn makes it far more difficult to enforce or even define "community standards." And prosecutors who hope that jurors will be shocked by the likes of Ass Clowns 3 may learn that it’s harder to outrage ordinary citizens than it used to be, given what their own pay-per-view or Web-surfing habits might be.
If you go to the Extreme Associates Web site, you can buy the "Federal Five" — the five videos for which Zicari and Romano are being prosecuted — for a special price of $110, with the proceeds going to their legal-defense fund.
In the Frontline piece, Romano describes her filmmaking technique this way: "I don’t shoot the lovey-dovey porno that you watch all the time. This is for people who watch porno all the time, and they’re sick of the husband and the wife making love with candles. This is for —if you want to jerk off to fuckin’ porno with your old lady, and you’re watching it and you’re getting into it, and it’s hot, steamy sex that you’re, like — after you get done you feel like you just did drugs. Like, ‘Yeah!’"
We can’t always choose our First Amendment champions. In this case, John Ashcroft and his holy warriors have chosen them for us.
Remember: no one’s making you watch.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.