Porno

Porno (2019) at Fantasia 2019

Porno (2019) at Fantasia 2019

Keola Racela’s feature debut opens with a sequence not entirely unexpected in a film called Porno: a couple fucking in a bedroom. Then the camera draws back, and we realise that much as we are watching this unfold within the frame of the cinema screen, others are watching it through the frame of a a suburban home’s window. There is a weird frisson here, as our own viewing of a film whose very title promises prurient pleasures is allied to the voyeurism of a pair of nervous, horny teenaged boys. Fleeing the scene by pushbikes on their way to the Christian-run cinema where they work, virginal best friends Todd (Larry Saperstein) and Abe (Evan Davies) pass a conspicuous US flag fluttering under the eaves of the neighbouring house. This serves as a reminder that the internal conflict between these boys’ strict Christian upbringing and their sexual curiosity, now at its adolescent peak, in fact reflects a broader clash in America, where puritanism and porn are industries vying for the body and soul of the nation. 

It is a conflict that Todd and Abe share with their colleagues at the cinema: the significantly named gothic assistant manager Chastity (Jillian Mueller), the secretive jock Ricky (Glenn Stott), and the high-strung, addiction-prone projectionist ‘Heavy Metal’ Jeff (Robbie Tann), who insists that the music which has given him his nickname is in fact ‘hardcore’ (a term that resonates ambiguously under the influence of the film’s title). Left alone in the cinema by their devout boss Mr Pike (Bill Phillips) one Friday night to watch a film together as a reward for their week’s work, the five discover a hidden basement, and in it an old film reel which they cannot resist playing. “Is this an art film?”, Todd wonders aloud of what Jeff prefers to call a “European titty movie”, and what Ricky insists is ‘pornography’ – even as we are similarly unsure what kind of film Porno is. Although the film-within-a-film certainly contains nudity, it is more akin to one of Kenneth Anger’s underground experiments – a sex magick ritual or Satanic invocation, freakily lit and overtly transgressive – and once screened, it conjures a succubus (Katelyn Pearce) who tempts people with their deepest desires only to attack them where it hurts.

Set in 1992, a more innocent time before sexual content was readily available on the internet to all comers, Porno starts off as a nostalgic teen hangout comedy (with strong metacinematic elements, given that, like Demons and Anguish, it is largely set in a movie theatre). It is at the point where the demonic seductress is inadvertently summoned that the film finds that sweet spot where horror and porn intersect – both of which, after all, deal in deep penetrations, bodily fluids and money shots. Yet far from celebrating sexual liberation and licentiousness, Racela’s film punishes it – just like a slasher – even as, on the other hand, it exposes the hypocrisies of those who preach the repression of desire. These contradictions complicate our own pleasure in watching Porno, as we are left uncertain whether to be turned on, repelled, or simply to look away (no matter how reluctant we might be to admit to others – or even to ourselves – that the film’s very title was a big part of its seductive draw). You can, in the end, put the camcorder back in the closet or the film back in its can, but once you have caught a glimpse of that dirty picture, who can – or indeed would want to – stop it from replaying itself? 

© Anton Bitel