Friday, March 30, 2018

Hot Girls Wanted

When Hegel observed that the past repeats itself, Karl Marx added the famous caveat “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. To subject oneself to the hour twenty minutes of Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, produced by singer and actress Rashida Jones, is to witness tragedy and farce awkwardly intertwined, both of them trying to pretend they’re enjoying it, while keeping one eye locked on their Instagram feeds and desperately hoping for another dozen likes.

Sticking with the Karl Marx theme for another paragraph, he and Friedrich Engels’ revolutionary political manifesto started with the words “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”. Likewise, a spectre is haunting ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ – several spectres, in fact. Actually a whole fucking graveyard full of them. Shiver at the Ghost of Abject Narcissistic Stupidity! Gasp at the Ghost of Obsessive Social Media Inanity! Try not to piss your pants at the Ghost of Monumental Self-Delusion! (That’s piss your pants laughing, by the way, not piss your pants because it’s scary.)

There is, however, one spectre missing from the soul-crushingly interminable 80 minutes of this flick – and that’s the very spectre Bauer, Gradus, Jones and writer Brittany Huckaby went ghosthunting for in the first place.

The project started out as an investigation into male campus attitudes towards, and consumption of, online pornography (because God bless the internet that the youth of today no longer have to scrutinise a video store carpet while scarlet patches spread across their cheeks as they hand over to the matronly clerk an empty VHS case with a cover image of Nina Hartley about to steer some girl-next-door type down the rue de Sapphos), only to realise that the aforementioned girl-next-door types accounted for the majority of these thick-necked jocks’ viewing preferences: a hand-shandy subgenre known as “amateur porn”.

Thus it was that Bauer and Gradus and Jones and Huckaby, old Uncle Tom Netflix and all, went haring off in pursuit of these (mostly) teenage adult entertainment ingénues. The resulting documentary merited (that’s “merited” as in “was inexplicably on the receiving end of”) some festival buzz, even though early audiences felt that it lacked focus. Viewers and filmmakers batted their opinions around on Twitter while the auteur theory crawled into a hole and died. Re-edits occurred.

I’ve not had the opportunity to view the original cut, so I can’t say how it differs from the version now floating around near the scuzzy plughole of Netflix, but I can only assume that if the cut I watched was the one with all the focus and clarity, its erstwhile incarnation must have been headfuck incoherent on the level of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky going on a two-week bender during which they summoned the ghosts of Aleister Crowley and Jim Morrison via a ouija board whose letters were in Croatian and whose numbers roughly correlated with the Mayan calendar.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a clusterfuck on pretty much every level, but the essence of its clusterfuckery is Bauer and Gradus’ inability to find a tone, a context – hell, even a fucking point – to their film. At base level, you could précis it as the failure to bridge its Presbyterian disapproval at the depravity its subjects throw themselves into with its you-go-girl insistence on defending to the death (or at least a flesh wound) their right to do it in the name of empowerment, feminism, Belle Knox or the flying spaghetti monster.

Belle Knox, the so-called “Duke University porn star” (a weird conflation of alma mater and something-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-alma-mater that must make me the Bluecoat Sixth Form College sarcastic motherfucker), haunts the periphery of this film; and, given her soundbite-friendly eloquence and its-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it pseudo-feminist narrative, you get the impression that she’s the person Bauer and Gradus would rather be making a film about. Sadly, though, they have to satisfy themselves with a short clip from Knox’s toe-curling interview with professional British skeaze-meister Piers Morgan and an even shorter clip (mercifully) from one of her “facial abuse” videos.

Bauer and Gradus also have to make do, in terms of interview subjects, with Tressa (porn name: Stella May*), Rachel (porn name: Ava Taylor), Michelle (porn name: Brooklyn Daniels**), Karly (porn name: Lucy Tyler) and Jade (Ava Kelly). Their ages range from 18 to 25, though Jade at 25 is edging out of the girl-next-door market and forced to do more “specialist” videos. Bauer and Gradus capture her response at being asked to dress appropriate for a “ghetto” shoot. She cannot believe, she avers, that “there are guys who go to a pawn shop and they’re like ‘I wanna fuck that girl’,” and having delivered this value judgement against some poor shmuck reduced by circumstances to hocking his worldly goods for far less than they’re worth, she toddles off to the same kind of degrading experience Knox put herself through – she’s verbally abused, spat on, slapped around and much much worse – all for the same devalued handful of greenbacks.

The startling coda to this scene is her rationalisation that essentially being raped on camera means that guys who get their jollies from this kind of thing will sate themselves watching it happen to her rather than “doing it to a real girl”. Jade’s dissociation of herself from any recognisable set of values is the film’s emotional nadir and flies in the face of the my-choice-my-empowerment spin Bauer and Gradus desperately try to hammer home elsewhere. It does, however, provide an interesting point of contrast to Karly, who reads intellectually stimulating books on her days off and has created “Lucy Tyler” not as a pseudonym but an alter-ego: she subtly changes her appearance and behaves differently in order to become Lucy, and shrugs off the character after the shoot is over. Bauer and Gradus were handed a pint-sized nucleus of potential in Karly, and a version of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ that focused on her methodology for surviving the industry and retaining her self-identity could have been fascinating, particularly in counterpoint to Jade’s horrifying naivety.

But no: the filmmakers went with Tressa and Rachel as their primary focus. Granted, there were avenues that could have been explored with both of them. Rachel is introduced during her first few days in the business, blinged up and not exactly rocking a beanie hat, chuffing on a cigarillo and attempting to freestyle. This is the affront to linguistics that she comes up with:

Yeah, you’re a porn star
And I’m a fucking shooting star, bitch
And now we’re going to LA
And we’re gonna sip Bombay
Yeah, and I’m smokin’ hella blunt
Yeah, and I got hella cunt, yeah

(She’s white, by the way.) Now contrast this muppet babies version of hardcore with her interview following her first shoot: “Ugh, I got macked on by some creeper,” a statement delivered with all the wide-eyed incredulity of someone who honest-to-God thought that a life in adult features would require little more than some naked orgiastic motion-capture writhing and all the nasty, squelchy, gooey stuff would be added in later by CGI. Bauer and Gradus try this trick more than once, banging the drum re: the horrible reality of pornographic features, then undercutting themselves by citing research – specifically carried out for the film – that identifies extreme and violent porn (such as the “facial abuse” subgenre Belle Knox and Jade were victims of) as being prominently advertised on porn sites.

Ultimately, none of the interview subjects in ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ present as being in the dark about what awaits them (although they bullshit each other to an almost cruel degree as to how easy the lifestyle is: a frequently peddled myth is that “the guys treat you like princesses”), which doesn’t leave Bauer and Gradus with a lot of room to pattern a victim narrative (they do their best, though). Whenever the issues of complicity or responsibility rear their heads, the filmmakers hastily swerve in the direction of why-do-these-poor-girls-do-this, and in needing to grasp onto this aspect of the story they inadvertently make Tressa the main focus of the documentary.

So what does Tressa need to get away from so desperately? Um, a comfortable suburban home, a mother who’s proud of her academic and cheerleading achievements and a father who enjoys spending time with her, it would seem. Sure, her ma’s a bit of a couch potato, and her dad likes firing off shotguns, but neither of them come across as the kind of controlling, suffocating or domineering types that one’s only option is a flight to Miami and so much sex with hatchet-faced tattooed douchebags that one develops a vaginal cyst.

The clue to Tressa’s psychological make-up has more to do with an obsession with image. I was about to say self-image, but that makes it seem too profound. Let’s just use the word “selfie” instead. Tressa comes across as an entity virtually inseperable from her cellphone or laptop. Every phone call she makes is a face-time pout opportunity. She goes on a date to the zoo with her limp dick loser boyfriend (“you’re not a prostitute to me” he says at one point, dejection spray-painted across his hangdog face) and tunes out of his conversation, so focused is she on filming herself. And again, an avenue presents itself to Bauer and Gradus – the fledgling porn star as a product of the social media age – but they lack either the interest or the ability to pursue it.

If Jade’s humiliation at the “facial abuse” shoot is the tragedy part of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, Tressa’s return to the parental abode – limp dick boyfriend in tow – is the farce. In a volte-face that plays out like the worst Hollywood melodrama, the combination of her parents’ disappointment and her boyfriend’s general deficiency of manliness lead her to a disavowal of her short-lived porn star past. “I only made twenty-five thousand dollars in four months,” she opines, “and when I came home I had two thousand left in the bank.” That she applies “only” to the twenty-five thousand not the two says something I could probably write another few paragraphs about, but the hour is late, the review already overlong, and further speculation on Tressa and co. frankly not worth the effort.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a documentary whose title all but instructs you to ready your palm for some onanistic activity, only to compel you to smack it repeatedly against your forehead instead.

*Perhaps the only example of the porn name being classier than the actual name.

**Decided on after she’s encouraged to “think of a place you like”, which is like a male London porn star alighting on the pseudonym Brixton Hardd.

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