On the Prowl (1989) Notes

Jamie Gillis

I watched On the Prowl (1989) twice the other night. It’s 64 minutes long, and I didn’t jerk off. Just watched. I could have jerked off to it. It is something of a turn on. There are certain hot moments, but it’s not really about that at all with this. There’s something very appealing about it as a documentary. It’s very evocative to me. I don’t know if that’s because it’s set in San Francisco, and that’s a special place to me, or what it is…

Jamie Gillis On the Prowl

Jamie: And 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 – see what we get.

It’s primarily about the concept – innovative, simple, open to possibilities – which I see as an extension of Jamie’s personality. It was with this attitude that he initially approached porn in the 70s.

Part of my motivation for talking about the video is to smash the representation of it that Boogie Nights put forth. Anderson’s film aligns On the Prowl with AIDS in bringing about the decline and fall of the sexual revolution – an inversion of what Gillis’s film actually was.

I’m glad that Paul Thomas Anderson referenced it in his movie Boogie Nights, which I think is an important film for its subject matter, not its aesthetics. I commend Anderson for giving pornography the grand cinematic treatment and think he was ahead of the game on that one.  I understand that Boogie Nights was a work of fiction, and he distorted On the Prowl to suit his plot and all that. The point is it’s propaganda nonetheless. The third act of Boogie Nights, particularly the gross misrepresentation of Gillis’s masterpiece, was a reinforcement of the Puritanical notion that sex is evil and those who engage in it freely must be punished.

“The first half of the movie is all fun and games, but the back-half of the movie is a sort of punishment for those fun and games. It’s my own guilty feelings about pornography.” -Paul Thomas Anderson

For all its 90s indie liberal veneer, Boogie Nights was part of an ongoing anti-sex campaign that stretched back to the Reagan-era attempt to roll back the sexual revolution through the exploitation of AIDS. The irony here is that the sexual condemnation was coming from a presumably liberal, porn-friendly angle. Boogie Nights was glossy Hollywood pseudo-porn with an anti-porn message. Boogie Nights, as I see it, is part of the problem, and the solution is the very film it demonizes, On the Prowl. We are here presented with a bizarro Orwellian reversal so characteristic of Gen X. Gillis was a sexual revolutionary and liberator whose masterpiece was distorted by a cheap, exploitative Hollywood morality play with the depth and cultural insight of an 80s after school special. On the Prowl was an aesthetically innovative work that was caricatured by a film that was a wholesale aesthetic rip off of Scorsese’s Goodfellas

So the task here is to understand On the Prowl as a cinematic masterpiece…

Renee: My name is Renee Morgan and I’m waiting for Jamie Gillis to get back with his espresso so he’s got lots of energy for tonight. I’m rather excited … excited about what’s going to happen. I don’t really know what’s going to happen but we’re going to find some strangers and see what we could do with them. It’s kind of a first time for me so just hang in there and we’ll see what we can come up with. 

Jamie: So here we are standing outside the Condor in San Francisco, where Carol Doda went topless, or something, for the first time in history – I don’t know. Anyway, standing here with Renee and we’re trying to see if we could pick up somebody in this group of people.

On the Prowl is true guerilla-style filmmaking. Gillis gets kicked out of the first location. No location permits. This is what’s ingenious about it. Not working within a professional context.  I see it as highly significant that it takes place in San Francisco; North Beach in particular as a Beatnik mecca. City Lights bookstore can be seen in the background of the shot of Jamie, Renee, Carl and Shawn standing in front of the Condor. Two cultural landmarks: one a strip club, the other a bookstore – sex and intellect.

Jamie Gillis On the Prowl City Lights

Jamie: If you want to call it a catch – when you come in, you have to just, you know, we’ll give you a release that says if your footage appears anywhere that’s ok with you.

It’s this anything goes atmosphere. You can do whatever you want with the girl as long as you sign away the rights to your image. That invitation to come inside and do anything. It is a social experiment. You’re not necessarily watching it to get off, yet it’s porn. Gillis set out to make a more exciting porno film and wound up creating a work of art. What’s most fascinating about it is the behavior. There is something very human about it. Some of these guys have small dicks. Some of these guys can’t get it up. A lot of people in that situation probably couldn’t get it up. They’ve been drinking or whatever… You hop into a fucking car with a strange woman, you’ve got a camera – particularly a light pointed directly at you – some guy with a fucking microphone. I mean, it’s understandable that they might not be able to get it up in those conditions. But it’s part of what gives the piece a vivid, alive quality. You typically watch a porn, and these dudes have done viagra. They’re rock hard walking around with an erection between takes. Not to say that that stuff isn’t appealing. I’m just trying to say that what makes On the Prowl unusual and so compelling to watch not just as pornography but also as a documentary piece is the inclusion of situations that would be edited out of conventional porn.  “A fan wrote to complain that he liked the reality aspect of [On the Prowl], but that this one girl seemed really bored. I explained to him that reality wasn’t about coaxing girls into pretending to enjoy themselves. Reality was reality.” The impotence underlines the fact that he’s creating amateur porn, that these are regular people not porn stars. It is more documentary than porn even though 90% of the imagery is sex of one kind or another.

To me this is the breaking of the fourth wall of porn. This is taking the sexual revolution into the streets.

Jamie: So, you know, you’re not obliged to do anything special. But whatever you feel like doing, it’s ok with us. If you want to do anything serious, we got condoms if you want that … What do you think?

He’s doing this in the 80s for fuck’s sake. 1989 is the fallout of the 80s. I see it as the first significant attempt to break the curse of AIDS and to reignite the sexual revolution in conservative Reagan-Bush-era late 80s. The Anderson film it presents it like some wrathful Jehovah – Now they’re all going to get AIDS and die! I’m the wrathful Jehovah here to punish this decadent evil people! Look at how degenerate the industry has gotten! This despicable Jack Horner cruising around making this poor defenseless girl get fucked! The reality is Gillis was breaking through to a new era of porn and reality television.

Gillis is an excellent model for a 21st century rebel who’s activity doesn’t conveniently fit into either side of the left-right paradigm but manages to offend both sides.

Jamie: You want some head, Sean?

Valentine’s Day is really all about exclusivity and exclusion. There’s nothing better than watching On the Prowl on Valentine’s Day.

Aesthetically Boogie Nights is largely a rip off of Goodfellas and Casino, which is why I was never impressed with it as a film. Great subject matter. Great casting/acting. Cliche aesthetics. This is an examination of one of the pivotal scenes in the movie and how movies and media generally contextualize things, how they spin things, how they frame certain things in a certain way to go along with a certain agenda.

 Obscenity – Anything that turns me on is of redeeming social value.

Everything about it is very rough. The way Sean pulls off the condom. Tarantino talks about the hang out movie. On the Prowl definitely has that quality. He’s riding around like Santa Claus picking people up off the street and allowing them to fulfill their fantasies. The appeal of the film is in this surreal inversion of everyday reality.

The highly-anticipated adaptation of the erotic bestseller dominated the domestic box office with an estimated $81.7 million, and grossed a staggering $158 million overseas, the biggest international opening of 2015 so far and the biggest R-rated opening ever internationally.

 The appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey is politically incorrect sex.

the opening of misty beethoven

In considering Jamie Gillis and the trajectory of his career as a pornstar and artist he began by playing these Hefner playboy types, well-to-do, sophisticated, ladies’ man figures: The Opening of Misty Beethoven, The Story of Joanna. That initially it was about these archetypal characters and plots. The Opening of Misty Beethoven = Pygmalion. That’s what he was known for in the 70s. He was also known as a sadist. Anyway with the On the Prowl series he broke out of all the conventions of fictional porn, the 70s porn characters and plots that initially made him famous.

What I like about Jamie is that he never ceased to be amazed that people were actually paying him to have sex. It’s a bit like what I’ve said about Welles never losing the sense of the movies as magic. Someone who watched a form evolve and played a pivotal role in that evolution. He’s reliving the initial excitement he felt upon entering porn by offering this opportunity to random guys on the street.

I think it’s critical to understand On the Prowl as the work of a 70s sexual revolutionary, and someone who got involved in porn as a fluke, to make a few bucks, just for the fun of it. Boogie Nights presents On the Prowl as part of the downfall of the porn industry and the sexual revolution, i.e. the opposite of what it actually was. By the late 80s the sexual revolution devolved into a business that churned out formulaic, predictable product and cheap fakery. And he basically just wanted to make it exciting again by setting up a situation where the outcome was unknown. It was essentially the same maneuver that we saw in France in the late 50s/early 60s with the French New Wave or the film school generation here in America in the 60s and 70s. These filmmakers tended to pare down their work and do simple, minimal, improvisational, risk taking kinds of movies. And this is what On the Prowl was.

He broke through to a new aesthetic. For me Gillis’s On the Prowl is Godard taking the camera into the streets of Paris and improvising Breathless. This is radical revolutionary filmmaking with a purpose. The irony of it is that here we have Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s not doing anything aesthetically innovative with Boogie Nights, demonizing someone who is doing something innovative, namely, Jamie Gillis. Paul Thomas Anderson was lauded as an artist for making a film that was essentially an aesthetic rip off of Goodfellas and Casino, whereas Gillis is written off as this trashy exploitative degenerate who destroyed the sexual revolution.

Of the film series’ depiction in the Boogie Nights series, Gillis was unhappy and dismissive, saying that he felt that they “took it and made it into a very depressing and kind of ugly thing …. I mean, I’ve done a lot of sleazy movies and things in my life, but I never felt dirtier than after I saw Boogie Nights. I said, Oh my god, they’re taking my little joy, my little treasure, and shitting on it, making it ugly and stupid and violent.”

 “And that’s not what it was to me. To me it was freedom, it was about going out with a camera in public and seeing what would happen. I enjoyed it, and it was also hot. I still love the Prowls.”

 

“‘We just went out and shot this tape, is there anything we need to do?’ And he said, ‘Are you crazy? Burn it! Bury it!’ Because there was such a fear that we would pick up some straight kid, a mayor or a senator’s son, and here we were going out and dirtying the public and bringing the public into porn. There was going to be an outcry and they’re going to come down on everybody.

 

It was a fly-by-night thing happening in a counterculture. So on top of the sex, you had this attitude: “This is our generation doing something different than anybody else would do.” Even though it wasn’t explicitly political, in the sense that some of the rock and roll was — it was of the time, like smoking pot or dropping acid. It had that vibe: “We hang together because we have some kind of consciousness, and we’re also making some bucks and getting our rocks off.” But then you had this complete change in technology in the business, and now there’s nothing countercultural about the scene — nothing “outlaw” about it.

 

Jamie Gillis: She wasn’t just some innocent kid, you know? She knew exactly what she was getting into. She loved all kinds of sex, so she was never, in any sense, a victim of the business. And I think she did well in the business.

 

Those were some pretty raunchy days in New York. But you’d go someplace and there would be a line of guys trying to get to touch her. I’d never seen that big a line. And she loved it! She told me that one of the things that got her excited was the hunger of the guys who got to spend one or two minutes with her. She would relate to that kind of hunger that they felt. And she loved that. It turned her on.

 

SB: You got started in the business in the early ’70s, I think.

 

JG: ’71. There wasn’t even a business. It was a dirty basement.

 

JG: Never. I was a duck to water. I mean, to me it was like — wow! Even though it wasn’t good money back then, it was like — “Thirty bucks to fuck a pretty girl!” I couldn’t believe it.

 

I don’t know if it was because I was a sex freak or because of my acting training. I didn’t care if anyone was there. I would just concentrate on what I was there to do. It wasn’t hard to do that.

 

I’ve always had this funny image of myself as a straight guy who just happens to have more fag sex than any fag I know. Because when I was coming up, gays were the only ones that were really sexually crazy. Before there was a Plato’s Retreat, there was a place called Continental Baths. It was the exact same location. And I used to go to the Continental Baths, because that’s where you could have crazy, wild sex! Nobody else was doing that. And I remember walking around that fucking place thinking, “If only there was a heterosexual place like this. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” And I didn’t even dream that it would happen — but it did, like about two years later, with Plato’s Retreat. It was this straight place with all these hundreds of girls going there.

In my ideal world, if you were walking down the street, there’d be a place where you could just touch people. There would be a grope club.

Pornography is political on many levels – not just free speech. I think ultimately the reason sex and pornography are more despised than violence in entertainment is they are attacks on the cornerstone of capitalist, corporate culture, which is monogamous marriage and the family unit. The female pornstar is ultimately the most dangerous figure, because her polyamory shatters any certainty about progeny and inheritance. The integrity of the family unit is primarily dependent on female chastity, because if the woman is messing around you no longer know whose child it is.

My intention in discussing On the Prowl is to create a portrait of a baby boomer who staged a revolt in the late 1980s against the conservatism of the time, against a stagnant porn industry attempting to rekindle the energies and excitement he felt as a young person getting involved in porn in the first place.

I don’t want to use the word “baby boomer” or be explicit about this. What is so characteristic of that generation is this sincere attempt to shatter inauthentic institutions to do this real revaluation of values, as Nietzsche talks about. The drug experimentation of the 60s – some of it was probably idiotic – but the spirit of the time was very much aligned with Rimbaud and others who engaged in these activities to attain some sort of enlightenment. The sexual experimentation is about a radical questioning and attack on repressive social institutions like monogamous marriage, whether or not there should even be marriage, should marriage be completely destroyed?

I see Boogie Nights, particularly the On the Prowl sequence, as a Gen X rendition of the sexual revolution, a cynical, nightmarish, guilt-ridden reenactment of something that was done in the spirit of liberation, experimentation and joy.

BDSM for Gillis is Dionysian.

 

They used to 

dance in the forests, naked.

I think that’s what offended the

Puritans and led to the burnings.

They were a sexual threat

to their male order,

like the Bacchae.

days a year for Dionysus they used

to wander the hills of ancient Greece.

The first witches.

Clans.

Wild women. 

Looting. 

Fucking.

Eating animals raw.

Looking for Dionysus,

to tear him to pieces.

 

Gillis was breaking out of the conventions of porno filmmaking in the manner of the French New Wave directors of the 60s.

I’m trying to pinpoint figures who are representative of the intellectual maturity, dynamism and vitality of the 20th century in contrast to the cultural retardation of America in 2015. Historical figures who are more futuristic than my contemporaries.

Another underlying theme of the piece is the contrast between the baby boomers and Gen X. Again I don’t want to be explicit about it. I will not use the word “Gen X” but instead use Anderson its symbol. Jamie Gillis vs. Paul Thomas Anderson. Baby boomers vs. Gen X. I think it is essential to talk about Boogie Nights as an aesthetic rip off vs. On the Prowl, which for me is on the level of French New Wave cinema. It is the great documentary/art piece of the late 20th century, because it is documentary/art piece/pornography/political weapon all in one.

 

I never get tired of dragging girls into scummy situations and letting men do whatever they want to them. I love seeing them pawed and groped and just generally treated like cheap sex objects. It’s such a relief after being exposed to the unattainable women that are encountered every day of my life. I always wished I could live in a world where every woman that I met could at least be grabbed – just grabbed or groped as they walked down the street, or whatever. When I was around 12, I saw a guy slide his hands over a girl’s breasts in public, and she didn’t object. I was entranced by the sight, and a warm feeling came over me. It wasn’t that it was just arousing, it also seemed somehow proper, like this is how the world should be – if you see some tits and ass that you like you should be able to reach out and touch it with no problem.

 

….

 

…this is my kind of girl – tough enough (Becca had been in the army) to let it all go; to play the dirty man’s game, and lower herself to whatever filthy level he wanted to go to, because she intuits that that’s where life and energy reside – not in making men be good boys, but in allowing them to release their dreaded monsters. Let the tortured creatures out and give them full reign to explore their lasciviousness – that’s where freedom is for both men and women, not in the mincing, namby pamby world of “don’t call me that” and “don’t treat me like that.” (p. 78)

 

 

 

2 Comments

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