Michael Stabile's short documentary takes a look at San Francisco's rich sex-film history.

A City’s Smutty History, Embraced

Julia Barbosa June 21, 2011

Two years after the Haight gave birth to the Summer of Love, San Francisco pushed the cultural revolution one step further by being the first city in the nation to decriminalize pornography. As documented by Michael Stabile in a new short that played Frameline35 last weekend and Tribeca last month, the Tenderloin became that sex industry’s bustling center in the early ’70s. Stabile’s The Smut Capital of America gathers adult film stars, producers, theater owners and local celebrities in a short yet satisfying historical tour. The film will also be featured next month as part of a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 'Smut Capital of America: San Francisco's Sex Cinema Revolution' series. Director Stabile chatted with SF360 about the pains and pleasures of making an historical documentary about sex.

SF360: How did the idea for this documentary came about?

Michael Stabile: I've been covering the industry as a journalist for several years, and I think the porn industry, especially the gay porn industry, is a really fun incubator for ideas. I started doing some behind-the-scenes featurettes, and I would talk to guys about sex and sexuality, and I found talking to the stars and the models that were appearing in the movies, that it was often quite a different story than the one that was generally portrayed in the media. As I started researching, I came across an article from the New York Times Magazine from 1971 called ‘The Porn Capital of America.’ It was all about how San Francisco was doing things differently than anywhere else in the country, and could get away with a lot more in terms of what you could show on film. The way in which [porn] was marketed was a lot louder, and a lot more brazen. A small group of filmmakers, led by Alex de Renzi, the Mitchell Brothers, and some others, had really been the ones who had pioneered what is now known as hard porn, as opposed to suggested sex, or soft porn. I had worked in the business, covered and read about the gay and straight ends of the industry since 1996, and I had no idea that San Francisco was sort of where porn was born—that it wasn't just only the place where it had really exploded, but also the place that first understood the First Amendment's right to obscenity. We were an anomaly nationally, sort of the Amsterdam of the United States.

SF360: So when you started the documentary you didn't set it out make a documentary about San Francisco, but realized accidentally that you had a story there?

Stabile: For me it started out as the story about [Chuck Holmes, founder of Falcon Studios], this pornographer-turned-philanthropist who had integrated himself into polite society. I felt this was really an American story—you make your money one way, and then through philanthropy people will sort of accept you. Chuck Holmes was sort of an outsider in 1971 in San Francisco, and by 1999, 2000 he was living in Pacific Heights, he was friends with celebrities and politicians, he was a fundraiser for Bill Clinton. So I thought this was really a story that was American in scope, like a Rockefeller, but in this particular industry. And after I got into this, I discovered that it wasn't accidental that he was in San Francisco in 1971. He had to come San Francisco as a businessman selling pre-fabricated houses, and when he came here he realized that there was money to be made in sex, when were sort of the middle of a sexual gold rush, and thought: Well, I can do this. So that's how I traced it back to San Francisco, and why it wasn't something that was happening in L.A. or New York, at least not in this scale or with this intensity.

SF360: Did you have any problems getting the subjects on the screen to talk about their involvement with the porn industry?

Stabile: A lot of these older pornographers were really camera-shy, particularly because in the era that they became of age, it was dangerous, you could go to jail for distributing obscenity. Some of them expressed reservations even after so many years, about the FBI, about surveillance, and things like that. Another reason was, I think, vanity. In those cases, we were only able to get them to agree to an audio interview.

SF360: Aside from the fact that you didn't know that S.F. was the birth of the porn industry, what would you say was the most curious thing you discovered while researching for this documentary?

Stabile: I did not realize the amount of harassment and legal complications that came from this. San Francisco has always been a somewhat freewheeling place, with a history that extended back to the Gold Rush of being a sexually ambiguous town, but I didn’t know how tough the vice squads were. It became harder and harder for these businesses to operate. The police would shut you down and you could be back up later that afternoon—they would seize your film, take you to a judge, who would dismiss it—and that was a continued standard pattern for harassment. [Some businesses] would get busted 50 times in one week. Nationally, it was a lot more dangerous. You would get 10 years in jail for distributing what is now considered standard pornography.

SF360: One can see from the film that it might have been costly to get rights to use so much archival footage. How were you able to raise funds for the film?

Stabile: Yes, that was the hardest thing about this documentary. With most documentaries you can sort of follow a subject around, if you're telling a smaller story about a particular person, but when you're dealing with something that's historical, you run into so many costs. The format of the short that we have now is sort of a steamroller; it's a lot of information, and that's largely because we don't have time to linger on points, and we don't have the footage to really deal with it. The adult industry was pretty great about giving us footage but when you're dealing with for-profit news organizations, you’re looking at thousands of dollars per minute of footage, and if you're looking at a national network you could be looking at something like a hundred dollars per second to use it. We raised the money predominantly through Kickstarter.

SF360: Did you have to sacrifice any footage strictly for lack of funds?

Stabile: There is stuff in a documentary that you are going to end up leaving behind regardless, but if I had free access to footage, I'd certainly like more of it, not in the hard porn way, but in the way that I believe these films, particularly in San Francisco, tell a visual history that isn't told by the mainstream media. These early porn films were really documenting a culture that wasn't appearing anywhere else.

SF360: You had mentioned that the main idea was to make a feature-length documentary. Was producing this short a way of getting your feet wet, and using it as sort of a business card to show to potential investors?

Stabile: Yes, we are looking to make a feature, and the shape of it will be determined in a lot of ways by what type of funding we'll be able to get, whether it’s from private fund raising, distributors or grants. What I found was that while porn can be really enticing and that people are really excited to hear about it, it's a double-edged sword. It's not impossible, but it can be hard to raise money for a sex-related documentary. People are trying to be a little more conservative in where they send out their money right now, and it’ not something that’s necessarily a natural fit for, say, the California Documentary Project. So we really wanted to make this short as a way to give people a taste of what we might be able to do in this story, and that we can tell this without being hardcore. That tends to be, in my experience, a real challenge with distributors, and broadcasters as well. They say: Well, we can't show porn, and you say, well, we don't want to show porn, we want to talk to people who are involved in it, and it can be racy or less racy, but there's no reason that we even need to show nudity, really.

SF360: Alex De Renzi’s documentary Pornography in Denmark was the first great example of getting around the censors by making something that would be considered less racy just because it was self-proclaimed to have educational purposes. It’s interesting to think about the definition of ‘obscenity’ in that light, and how framing it in such a way makes it easier to talk about sex.

Stabile: Exactly. I think that when we talk about porn, we're ultimately talking about sex, not just sex acts, but what our attitudes towards sex are, and what we think is acceptable and not acceptable. Pornography, even in its basest forms, even in forms that you and I might deem obscene, or say that this is unacceptable, at least forces the discussion, and that is really important. I think that in terms of our obscenity standards, they haven't really changed since 1973, and in some ways they've sort of gotten more stringent. What happens is that it never really mattered whether or not something was legally obscene. In 1973 the Supreme Court would decide that this movie has gone too far, and this one hasn’t, and it’s like what the MPAA does today. There are some guidelines, but generally it’s just a gut feeling.

SF360: Watching the documentary we get a sense that San Francisco was a unique place for the porn culture to flourish because it seemed to come more from a genuine desire to initiate this counter cultural movement rather than to create an industry per se.

Stabile: It was less about making money than it was about self-expression. Here we had a bunch of hippies with cameras that were out there recording their lives, and having fun and thinking that maybe they’ll put some of these movies up, and suddenly they are striking it rich. This was an expression from this city in a particular moment in time. In [Former porn actor] Kathryn Reed's stories, for example, there wasn't a way of separating one from the other. The entire culture was sex-infused, and it felt like it was going to change the family structure, and the way we related, and there was something liberating about sex. We lost some of that as it became more commercial. New York and Los Angeles came later and they didn't really understand that. Certainly there were exploitation movies in Times Square, and was stuff happening on Hollywood Blvd, but the porno theater as we came to know it in the '70s and '80s was really born in San Francisco. We were really at the vanguard and we pushed it and created this entire industry. [Another advantage was] the community-minded aspect of San Francisco. In Los Angeles you couldn't take your film to development agencies because they would turn it in to the FBI, but in San Francisco you had these independent film labs that just wouldn’t mind doing it for you. While in L.A. you had porn company A shooting in a hotel somewhere, and then porn company B would call the FBI on them, in San Francisco it was more like ‘We're all in this together.’ It wasn’t about screwing other people over, it was about liberating a nation.

SF360: Do you think that in San Francisco, a place where sexuality is seemingly so out in the open, it is still difficult to deal with sex? It was not too long ago that Kink.com proved to be a controversy when it occupied the Armory Building.

Stabile: It's odd. In some ways it's very easy to talk about sex in San Francisco, and you have a very supportive community, but there's always people that don't want it there. In the ’70s you had Irish Catholic and Italian politicians who worked with Dianne Feinstein, who didn’t want it here, and in some ways I think that still exists. One of the things that I think are really interesting is the debates around feminism that go on in relationship to sex, and that happened in the ’70s with Feinstein and the Women Against Violence in [Pornography and] the Media, and it happened again with Kink.com. There are all these debates around women's sexuality and about what women can consent to and what they can't consent to and whether or not they can be actual sexual agents. I think when we talk about porn we're talking about a lot of that, and those battles sort of creep up. I think that San Francisco continues to be at the vanguard of sexual expression, but there's always going to be a counter element to it, and there's always going to be part of a city that questions whether there's a right to do this.

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