The Godfather of Gonzo Porn

Jamie Gillis’ On the Prowl was the first gonzo porn video ever shot, spawning a genre that now dominates the Internet, and the minds of many men. But is gonzo today what its creator—intellectual, urbane, disgusting, and sometimes downright evil—had in mind?

Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto. He has a degree in journalism from Columbia, and has...

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We open with a view of San Francisco by night from a limousine window. Jamie Gillis is squeezed into the back seat, flanked on his right by a dark-haired vixen in a bustier and on his left by a stone-faced woman in street clothes. He speaks into a microphone and looks directly at the camera.

“Here we are, driving around in San Francisco, going down to North Beach, where I’m going to get a quick espresso to keep me up for the night.”

He looks at the glum woman. “A friend of mine, Linda, is on my left, and Renee Morgan, who is really the star of the film, is on my right. Linda’s just along for the ride. Maybe we’ll get rid of her, maybe we’ll keep her, we’ll see.” Linda remains nonplussed; she’ll leave midway through the video. We never find out who she is, exactly—only that she grew offended by Gillis’ idea of fun.

“The idea is, we’re just going to go around town tonight and pick strangers off the street—men, maybe a woman, maybe we’ll go to a dyke bar—and see if they want to fool around with Renee, and see what we get.”

These are the opening moments of On the Prowl (1989), an hour-long amateur porn video directed and hosted by Jamie Gillis, by then a 19-year veteran of the adult industry. As he travels through San Francisco with Renee and a handful of release forms, he repeatedly tells prospective studs that the evening’s experiment “has never been done before.” Sure enough, On the Prowl is generally credited as the first “gonzo” porn video—a genre that, like the so-called gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, places the filmmaker within the scene, at the service of realism. Director/performers like Max Hardcore, John “Buttman” Stagliano, Seymore Butts, and Preston Parker, as well as series like Girls Gone Wild and Bang Bus, all use first-person POV, with the participants allegedly playing themselves.

Aided by the Internet, gonzo has become one of the dominant pornographic modes of the 21st century. In a 2008 video called “Reinventing the Porn Star,” Preston Parker explains his philosophy to a costar: “Girls can just be themselves … It’s just hanging out, having a good time, getting to know someone, getting horny, and then having sex.” But the genre offers little of the kind of realism its founding father had in mind.

“The Prowl series has not done that well,” Gillis reflected years later. “Perhaps people can’t take too much reality.” While his successors have always offered their audiences an escape to fantasy of one kind or another, he never felt the obligation. If anyone can be called a post-erotic pornographer, it’s Jamie Gillis.

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Born in New York in 1943 as Jamey Gurman, Gillis was a Columbia University graduate, off-Broadway actor, and part-time cab driver when he answered an ad for “nude modeling” in 1970. He was paid to have sex on film, liked the money and the sex, and pretty soon was making a living in loops. After transitioning to feature-length productions, he became one of the busiest male performers in New York’s thriving ’70s porn scene, appearing in many key films of the “porno chic” era: The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, Every Inch a Lady, Sometime Sweet Susan, and dozens more.

In his signature role as sexologist “Dr. Seymour Love” in The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), Gillis saunters through the streets of Pigalle in a natty overcoat and tie, observing the peep shows with aristocratic detachment. When he enters a porn theatre, he picks a pair of panties off a seat and inspects them bemusedly—he’s such a genius at sex that he has practically transcended it. Looking and sounding a little like Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, with a similarly wry sense of humour, he was often praised by female costars for his good looks and charisma, and with his background in Shakespeare, he was often called the best actor in porn. He was known for reciting Shakespeare soliloquys during live sex shows in Times Square, where some New York porn actors regularly performed. (Gillis’s ostensible motive was to provide “socially redeeming value” in case of a raid.)

Gillis is still best remembered for his role in Misty Beethoven, the porn industry’s most conspicuous bid for mainstream acceptance after the success of Deep Throat. Still widely considered the best adult film ever made, Misty Beethoven was distinguished by a relatively full-bodied screenplay based on Pygmalion, and the Felliniesque flourishes of director Radley Metzger: scenes shot in Rome and France, modernist sets and costumes, and a vaguely Nino Rota-esque library soundtrack. Crucial to the film’s success is Gillis, whose icy detachment made him well suited to play the Henry Higgins role.

Like Henry Higgins and “Dr. Seymour Love,” Gillis was a man about town: he dated the New York Magazine food critic Gael Greene and the restaurateur Zarela Martinez; befriended geneticist James Watson; and his 2010 memorial service—he died of cancer at 66—was attended by writer Calvin Trillin and publisher Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press fought a Supreme Court battle over Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Porn actress Veronica Vera eulogized to the attendees, “in the early years many of us got into porn for fun; there was a lot of idealism involved. To many of us, Jamie really represented that idealism.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Gillis didn’t indulge in drugs and alcohol, but he did indulge in everything related to his chosen trade. “In the old days, we called him ‘tri-sexual’ because he would try anything—male, female, other,” costar Ron Jeremy told Adult Video News. “He could fuck a pound of calf’s liver.” He did gay scenes, like when he received a blowjob from Zebedy Colt in The Story of Joanna (1975)—unprecedented for a widely distributed heterosexual porn film. He starred as “the enema bandit” in Shaun Costello’s Water Power (1977), and delivered the enemas himself. He was heavily involved in S&M, and was known to walk one of his girlfriends, the porn star Serena, around with a dog collar in public. He costarred in a bestiality loop, although in a supporting role. “I’d like the readers to think I have scruples,” Gillis told the Canadian porn magazine Rustler in 1979. “But alas … none at all have I.”

The idea of a “crossover” porn film more or less evaporated with the introduction of video—why mimic Fellini when the customer will just fast-forward to the good parts? Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the porn industry migrated to the West Coast, and its product became increasingly antiseptic: bleach-blonde hair, breast implants, labiaplasty, Viagra. In Pure Filth (2012), writer Peter Sotos’ book on Gillis’ videos, Gillis recalls trudging through an uninspired porn shoot in 1989, growing weary at the state of the industry. “There was no real sex going on—just a group of people wondering who they had to fuck so they could get paid and go home,” he said. “I wanted to liven things up.”

“He was talking about Baudelaire and Grove Press and these things, so by the time he came to porn, he already had an interest in the subject matter—he was into that sort of thing,” says Peter Sotos. For Gillis, who took seriously the idea that pornography in the 1970s was politically revolutionary, On the Prowl was an attempt to advance a stagnant art form.

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Gonzo pornography arguably predates Gillis: it could be observed in embryonic form on The Ugly George Hour of Truth, Sex, and Violence, a long-running Manhattan cable access show that debuted in 1976. Silver-suited host George Urban would wander the midtown streets with a camera and ask passing women to undress. Every now and then, Ugly George would find a volunteer, but most refused, and Urban would air the appalled rejections.

Though Jamie Gillis’ films more successfully deliver the goods, he and Ugly George both differ from later gonzo output by their emphasis on sexual failure. Consider the first encounter in On the Prowl: Gillis meets Carl and Shawn, a pair of marines on the town. Both of them know Gillis’ work, and are taken aback by the request. Is there any catch? Well, they’ll have to sign a release giving permission to use the footage, but otherwise, you can do whatever you want with Renee. “I’m very professional at what I do,” she says, flashing her leg to the camera.

They get in the limo and the orgy begins. Carl kisses Renee; Shawn fondles her breast and sucks her nipple. From off-screen, Gillis talks them through it. Renee gives Shawn a blowjob, but Carl admits he can’t get an erection. “Happens to all of us,” Gillis tells him. “Happens to me on film sometimes.”

Carl watches his friend with a blank look. He tries to make small talk with Gillis. “You’ve been in a lot of movies?” “Yeah. A few hundred.” Carl has trouble getting the condom on, and difficulty achieving penetration. They get rid of the condom, but Gillis tells Shawn to pull out when it’s time to finish. While Shawn and Renee have sex, Carl’s eyes widen and he looks queasy. Gillis tells him to try masturbating again, but it’s no use.

When the deed is done, Shawn and Carl pull up their pants. Shawn looks energized; Carl is speechless. “Carl, you want anything? A little head or anything?” asks Gillis. “The little guy won’t get hard,” admits Carl. Gillis replies, “Hey, nine out of ten guys under these circumstances won’t ever get hard, so believe me, y’know…”

“So when will this film be out?” asks Shawn. “I’ll tell you the truth,” says Gillis, “we don’t even know if this is gonna be a film. We’re just fucking around tonight. It’s never been done. So if it works, we get enough footage, y’know…”

“There’s nothing to worry about anyway,” says Renee, “because the percentage of people that you’d know that would see it is, like, next to none.”

“I’m sure, right Carl?” Gillis laughs. “Anyway, you’re obviously just off the street, an innocent guy seduced by this wicked woman, nobody’s going to think you did anything bad.” Carl looks a million miles away.

On the Prowl has a direct descendent in the popular online series Bang Bus, in which a couple of bros cruise town and invite an unsuspecting young woman into their van for “directions.” Gradually, they convince her to shed her clothes, give one of them a blowjob, and have earth-shattering sex in four or five positions, ending with a money shot. There is a pretense of “reality,” in that the first 30 minutes of each episode are devoted to the seduction, but the women are models or hired amateurs, and everyone’s a pro. (Some of them appear later, under different names, in Bang Bros. affiliate sites.)

Bang Bus hinges on wish-fulfillment fantasy—that it could be easy to find a beautiful woman at the side of the road, quickly seduce her, and quickly discard her (in much the same way that the solitary male viewer can discard the Bang Bus episode after he’s finished masturbating). On the Prowl hinges on a similar fantasy—that if you’re in the right place at the right time, a porn star will offer you sex with no effort on your part (in the sequels, Gillis had his starlets propositioning men in adult bookstores)—but the stars of On the Prowl struggle to take off their pants, glance nervously at the camera, and fail to sustain their erections long enough to unwrap and apply a condom. At first they can’t believe their luck, but then they realize they have to perform with a porn star, while being judged by a porn star, in a way that appeals to porn viewers. When Renee tells them, “I’m very professional at what I do,” it calls attention to how acutely unprofessional they are.

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The same year he made On the Prowl, Gillis teamed up with actor/director Ed Powers for Dirty Debutantes, the first of a popular series in which the two men interview aspiring porn starlets before initiating them in their first sex scenes. Like On the Prowl, Dirty Debutantes makes a theme of its lack of artifice: the interviews are supposed to prove that these are “real” women, “really” enjoying sex. Such getting-to-know-you scenes have become commonplace in gonzo and reality porn: consider the inane conversations that Joe Francis puts his “Girls Gone Wild” through (“How often do you masturbate?”) to show how hot-n-horny they are.

These interviews are mostly tailored to the male viewer’s fantasy of sexually deferential women. But there is no such fantasy at play in the underground work that Gillis produced in the ‘90s: the videos he shot on commission for degradation fetishists, and the notorious Walking Toilet Bowl series, which is exactly what it sounds like, filmed with drug-addicted sex workers, as Gillis states continually, and sold under the counter. Pure Filth transcribes several of these videos, as well as some work that was commissioned by “wackos of every stripe and persuasion.” His conception of gonzo evolved into a cinema of cruelty, some of which I’m not sure can be defended.

In Africa, he interviews a black woman he is about to perform a scat scene with, in which he’s the submissive. She admits that when she was a child, her mother, a sex worker, offered her to tricks as a bonus, and explains that she can never be the submissive partner because she equates it with being abused. After a while, she asks Gillis to stop pressing the issue. “This atmosphere is an adult atmosphere, it’s not really a … this is where people go to get turned on,” she says. But Gillis keeps pressing—there’s no way to help people if you keep this stuff hidden, he insists. (The website who commissioned the scene rejected it for being “a little TOO interesting to post,” in Gillis’s words.)

In Eve, he interviews a young woman who is married and occasionally does porn for money. Gillis found her from an agent who makes his clients have sex with him before he finds them work. She tells him videos like his should be outlawed, but she needs the cash. During the sex, he makes her say things like, “I let dirty men spit on me for money.” He chokes her, spits on her, calls her a whore. He mocks her for fucking the agent. At several points, she cries. After it’s over and she’s cleaned up, she tells Gillis’ camera, “Karma will come eventually.”

Gillis’ successors pay lip-service to reality, but the sex in Bang Bus conforms to porn’s standard five-positions-and-cumshot, and never risks puncturing the wish-fulfillment mandate. Max Hardcore ventures farther into degradation; his more than 800 videos regularly include urination, fisting, object insertion, physical violence, and simulations of child molestation (sample titles include Extreme Schoolgirls 1-20 and Max, Don’t Fuck Up My Mommy). Still, even Max Hardcore’s videos are staged. “His scenes are always rough … however, we had an understanding that it was fake and that we were acting,” Gillis told Peter Sotos.

Gillis, by contrast, never gave an inch to fantasy. The subject of his work is why people watch, create, and participate in pornography, and he doesn’t particularly care if the result is something you can masturbate to. Is there any value to this? To my eyes, On the Prowl is less a work of pornography than a conceptual art piece about what would happen if real people were forced to live up to a porn fantasy; Africa and Eve are as close to evil as anything I’ve ever encountered. Even though nothing in them would be out of bounds in a Max Hardcore movie, there is no implied safety net of fantasy and consent. Gillis’ work is horrifying because he makes the means of production central to his erotic vision.

“Unfortunately,” wrote Gillis in his introduction to Pure Filth, “all the other guys who are doing gonzo work are setting up the scenes, and are using hired actors and telling them what specific sex acts to perform, so boredom is still rampant. … My videos contain sexual situations that were taped with as little structure and planning as possible in hope that a little humanity in all its murky glory might shine through.”

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On the Prowl inspired a crucial scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s paean to a gentler era of porn, Boogie Nights (1997). Director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who once dreamed of elevating pornography to the status of art, is reduced late in his career to hosting On the Lookout, a gimmicky exploitation video in which Rollergirl (Heather Graham) cruises Los Angeles for unsuspecting men. “We’re making film history, right here on videotape,” he says, with heavy irony. The night ends poorly, as Rollergirl encounters a high school classmate, who first fails to perform on camera and then admonishes her for making a trainwreck of her life.

Boogie Nights helped usher a resurgence of interest in Gillis and the “porno chic” era, but Gillis regularly told interviewers that it belittled his work.

“A fan wrote to complain that he liked the reality aspect of [On the Prowl], but that this one girl seemed really bored,” wrote Gillis in Pure Filth. “I explained to him that reality wasn’t about coaxing girls into pretending to enjoy themselves. Reality was reality.” In Boogie Nights, Jack Horner kicks the guy out of his limo and abandons On the Lookout. Jamie Gillis would have kept rolling.

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