The Sobering Origins Of Movie Porn

The Deuce is the latest series by David Simon and George Pelecano of The Wire, and like that much-acclaimed series, it reveals itself incrementally through fly-on-the-wall observations of its key characters as they go about their lives. It’s a distinctive style of filmmaking, from the old-fashioned title sequences through to the occasionally slightly staged feel of its scenes.

Telling the story of the advent of the movie pornography industry in this way makes real sense, because the last thing it needs is the tint of glamour or conventional narrative. It’s a gritty subject and a large proportion of the first series takes place in the mean streets of New York, so it’s very much in keeping with the flavour of the its Baltimore-based predecessor.

If it wasn’t for cable TV though, or more specifically the phenomenon of subscription streaming, it seems unlikely that a show like The Deuce could ever have eventuated. The depiction of violence – particularly towards women – and sex is overt and takes no prisoners, and on occasions this reviewer found it almost too much to bear, but there’s no way of telling this story accurately without it being confrontational.

Centred on ‘the deuce’ and its street trade of hookers and their pimps, the series follows one of the good guys, barman Vincent, who is lured first into running a mob-owned bar and finally into managing the first knocking shop. It’s a different world to the one we now know, with prostitutes risking their lives selling their sex in the street and ‘protected’ by pimps who think nothing of inflicting violence on their ‘property’ should they commit even a small indiscretion like falling asleep on the job.

It’s a painful, excruciating watch at times and the brutality of the lives is an eye-opener, but it also gets more compelling as you start to get to know the characters, and the narrative begins to take shape. Ultimately, it feels like the eight episodes that make up the first series act as an intro to what happens next, as the street girls start to ply their trade in the safer confines of brothels and some of them venture into the burgeoning world of porn.

Set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the context is made clear: the freedom of the peace and love generation together with mob deals with the law means that strict censorship standards are slowly relaxed. The result is the incredible mainstream success of relatively big budget porn films like Deep Throat with its explicit scenes of various kinds of copulation, and which couples attend in proper cinemas as if it was a regular flick.

There are a few aspects to the recreation of this era that don’t quite ring true: somehow, the ‘spades’ with their afro’s seem too stylised and clean, but all the main characters come off as totally authentic. Chris Bauer, who played a union boss in the second series of The Wire, returns as a union boss turned brothel manager, so he plays pretty much exactly the same character.

But most of the best parts belong to women. Maggie Gyllenhall, in particular, is extraordinary as Candy, the aging street pro who turns things around by becoming a porno film director; and she’s so convincing in her depiction of a still attractive but frayed around the edges prostitute, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine her in any other role. And I gather that her role will be further extended in series two, given the amount of time taken in series one to explain her situation – that she has a young boy being raised by her mother, who is still with her father, in denial of the sexual abuse he perpetrated on Candy as a young girl.

James Franco is very good as the barman, who is one of the few characters that has some semblance of conventional morality, and is as soft-hearted as he is popular with the ladies. His love interest, played by Margarita Levieva, is a privileged hippy university dropout who seems intent on slumming it on the streets, and is also a luminous presence. Slightly confusing, however, is Franco also playing his troublesome brother, and the scenes in which they both appear together feel somehow not quite right.

Music is used frequently to pin the story to its era and it’s mostly the civil rights black music that gets an airing. The late, lamented Curtis Mayfield’s ‘If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’, for instance, is used on the title sequence and it’s perfect. Sometimes I wondered whether there would have been more rock being played in the bars of that time, however. The only time rock gets a mention is when the hippy girl mentions having seen the Velvet Underground… a band that few would have admitted at the time to having any interest in.

Overall, the few flaws are entirely forgivable in a series that becomes more enthralling as it continues and tells a story that previously – given censorship issues – probably couldn’t have been told effectively. Boogie Nights seems bogus by comparison.

* Season 1 of The Deuce is streaming now on Neon.

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