I’ve been reading a lot of Bill Simmons these days (”The Sports Guy” from ESPN). He can rock a column like no one I’ve seen since Hunter S. Thompson or Chuck Klosterman, and the beauty of it is, I don’t really care what he’s writing about. Yes, I’m partially fixated on his columns about the NBA because I’m a rabid basketball fan, but while I hate both football and baseball, I find that when Simmons is writing about them, I’m nonetheless totally interested. Some people are just geniuses like that. Hunter Thompson’s book on the 1972 McGovern campaign made me a political junkie for a few weeks, when in my real life, it’s something I basically can’t stand to even speak about.
Recently, one Simmons column featured an extended email-engagement with author Malcolm Gladwell (”The Tipping Point” and “Outliers”). Their debate focused upon a group of celebrity athletes whom Simmons had identified as the opposite of Gladwell’s “Outliers:” in his words, “Inliers.” Allow me to quote:
“In “Outliers,” your thesis was that success wasn’t as random as people seem to think, and that outside factors play a much bigger role than we realize. I thoroughly enjoyed the book even if you totally missed an obvious chapter: How the dawn of the Internet made Anna Kournikova about three times as wealthy as she would have been had she broken onto the tennis scene 10 years earlier. Does she bank $50 million in endorsements without horny teenagers Googling her? No way. . . I also think you should have done Donna Summer, Scooby-Doo and Jerry Seinfeld chapters.
My idea for the sequel? “Inliers.” Not as catchy, and it kind of sounds like a bad George Clooney movie, but bear with me.
Just as timing plays a huge role in success, it can play a huge role in failure and/or a falling short of potential that could have been reached in another era. Take Dave Roberts, a speed/defense/intangibles guy whose career spanned from 1999-2008 (the heart of the steroids era). He retired right when it became illegal to show up for spring training carrying 35 pounds of extra muscle and a bigger head. Five years ago, Roberts was a fringe starter; today, he’d be a hot commodity with savvier teams gravitating toward speed and defense. You have to create runs from scratch in 2009, which means you need guys like Dave Roberts. Simply by showing up 20 years too late or 10 years too early, his career went in a direction that it shouldn’t have gone.
Let’s tackle the second-best sports inlier ever: Larry Holmes. He’s one of the five greatest heavyweights ever. He could box, punch, take a punch, have a street fight … I mean, Larry Holmes had everything you’d want. But he rose to prominence during the most loaded stretch in heavyweight history — the early to mid-70s, when Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Earnie Shavers ruled the division — and couldn’t land a big fight because the big guns wanted to fight other big guns or total stiffs. (Holmes actually worked as a sparring partner for some of them just to make money.) After Ali vacated his title, Holmes outlasted Norton in a 15-round slugfest for the belt that featured one of the greatest rounds in boxing history (Round 15, which played out like Creed and Balboa in the first “Rocky”), only Ali had raised the bar so high that nobody really cared. Over the next six years of an aborted prime, Holmes beat everyone he had to beat — including Gerry Cooney, who was much better than anyone remembers now — and nearly topped Rocky Marciano’s undefeated stretch. Unfortunately for him, the public had written him off as “The guy who followed Ali,” and that was that. Now he’s forgotten. Name me a better celebrity inlier. With the possible exception of Thompson, Andre the Giant and Kelly Preston, you can’t.”
. . .
Simmons’ thesis makes me wonder if perhaps there’s an analogue between his “Inlier” athletes, and a similar group of porn stars-and-starlets who could have risen to fame, had their time and place and allowed them. After about 14.5 seconds of consideration, I think the answer’s an obvious yes: certainly, I think almost instantly of the Belladonna/Sasha Grey conondrum. Bella, though not as classically beautiful as Grey, is (or was, in her prime, which I’ll identify as 2000- 2003) cuter, more charismatic, just as much as a sexual powerhouse, and likely, given the chance, just as strong a non-sexual actress.
But while Grey is tearing up the indie world with her pussy-baring American Apparel billboards (admittedly amazing), Vice Magazine layouts and meaty role in Soderberg’s “The Girlfriend Experience”, the closest thing Bella has ever made to a mainstream splash was in John Stagliano’s 2002 35mm masterpiece, “The Fashionistas” and in a botched ABC “Primetime Live” interview with Diane Sawyer. And while she killed it in “The Fashionistas,” (and cried on TV) Bella didn’t exactly garner the type of cross-media exposure that a superstar in any profession might consider her due.
So why is Sasha Grey riding a super-wave of indie celebrity, while her equally talented predecessor never really did? Why is she suddenly the “It” girl for edgy layouts by Richard Kern, while Bella, famous in her own world, is more or less confined to languish in her own modest kingdom on Myspace? And don’t give me the intellectual argument: maybe Grey is supposed to be some sort of Jean-Luc Godard with amazing deep-throat skills, but I dunno - I saw her on Tyra and I wasn’t exactly blown away by her rhetoric.
The answer, of course, is time and cultural place. Put 2001-2 Belladonna up against 2008-9 Sasha Grey and you’ve got one hell of a fight; it’s like 2001 Kobe up against 2009 Lebron. (Just as an aside: like ‘91-93 Michael Jordan really had no rival - Drexler? Charles Barkley? - Bella similarly was unchallenged in her 2001-03 run. Though she never won AVN Performer of the Year in that stretch, her peers were lackluster: 2001’s award was taken by Jewel De’Nyle, 2002, Nikita Denise, and 2003, Aurora Snow. Bella wasn’t even nominated in any year but the last - and where’s Nikita Denise now, I ask you? Not until the mid-decade rise of Jenna Haze was Bella given an adversary of equal allure - though of course by that time she was pregnant, shaven-headed, and in the midst of creating her Deadly Nightshade persona, which might be a bit like Jordan playing for the White Sox.)
But 2002 America would never be able to handle our 2009 version. We haven’t come miles, necessarily, in terms of creating a more liberal society; but we do have a black president, a gaining-momentum gay marriage movement, and an FCC that’s becoming more liberal in character even as we speak. Grey isn’t going up on billboards in ‘02 (not without an American flag wrapped around her) - and she certainly wouldn’t have in Nixon’s ‘73 America, despite the momentary blip that was Deep Throat’s porno chic. The same goes for the Meese-’80’s, except double. Nina Hartley, sex-positive sex-goddess of the mid-1980’s? Mostly forgotten when it comes to mainstream culture, despite being as interesting, educated, talented, and potentially useful-for-overcoming-our-puritan-ethos-in-a-non-threating-way as they come. Maybe in a second-term Obama administration, Hartley’s the Minister of Sexual Re-education, but at the crux of her powers, America simply wasn’t ready. It just wasn’t her time.
The list goes on and on, of course. For in porno, the only thing that’s more plentiful than meaningless ejaculations and sets of preternaturally high knockers are the forgotten stars and ignored super-talents. How about Viper, a weird early-90’s tattoo’ed fuck beast who captured my imagination (and pretty much no one else’s)? Who cares, is the general mainstream sentiment - but in a different time (and I’m talking the future, here ) she would have been as big as Laurie Anderson.
It’s exactly the same for the directors, too: right about now, Eon Mckai is getting plenty of props for his “Alt.porn” thing; and the Suicide Girls have reaped for almost a decade the benefits of a porn that “thinks outside of the box.” Our little bullshit hipster culture will support them, and pretend they’re doing something new (though I myself would vote that Suicide-porn is Vivid-porn, but with mohawks ‘n’ piercings. What’s changed? The grandeur of the storylines? The power dynamic? The overarching male gaze? Still waiting.)
But I’ll tell you who was really thinking outside of the box: 2003-4 Khan Tusion. (Who?) A Jewish Sadist with a Cigar, Khan Tusion’s brand of immoral, envelope-pushing, trauma-inducing scenework was the most fascinating thing this side of the Vienna Actionists. Immeasurably more interesting than anything Ed Powers could dream up, and matched only by the sick-fuck legend, Jamie Gillis, Khan Tusion and his “Meatholes” were nonetheless relegated to a tiny corner of the web that you desperately hide from your wife and kids. Was he ethical? Fuck no. Misogynistic, hateful? That’s more like it. No one sane would deny it. But the question is, was he worthy of a magazine article? Absolutely. Without a doubt. The guy’s scenes dealt unflinchingly with the unspoken demons that underwrite the sex industry, sexual and emotional abuse, and they were riveting. Porn might not be useful for a lot of things - creating art, or crafting storylines, for example - but it does documentary damn well. And because of its damaged talent pool and relative lack of censorial oversight, it can push boundaries and raise compelling questions in a heartbeat.
Yet Khan received nary a profile in Vicey; and certainly nothing in Time, USA Today, or The Nation. To the best of my understanding, our country’s simply not ready to deal with writing about ethically-fuzzy topics - unless, of course, they’re roundly denouncing them. Someday, of course, we will be ready; however, Khan will have long past his prime. Already, 2009 Khan’s mellowed; before long, he’ll be forgotten.
Same goes for Brandon Iron. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Brandon was the one to watch - not Lexington Steele, not Rocco, and not Manuel Ferrar. Brandon. His brutally weird “Slap Happy” series pushed a lot of buttons, and none of them were very good. Hated by anyone with a heart, happily ignored by the mainstream, this guy’s brand of black humor and self-abnegating barbarism appealed to very few. Solitude and strangeness is anathema to modern-day culture; public hatred’s even worse. But in another, starker time and place, Iron’s peculiar brand of deviant creativity might have been lauded, for its weird honesty; for voicing an emotion that had to have been felt by more than just the tape’s creator. His work - however controversial, however despicable - would, at least, have been noticed.
These are my inliers. My unsung porno heroes.