Last Saturday I sat with four lesbians and a drunken OSU doctoral student to watch porn...along with almost 500 other people. This diverse group of friends and I met in Portland to see stuff on the big screen we wouldn’t watch on our laptops. So, this is an essay about watching a porn film festival. This is the only warning you’re getting. Stop reading now if you don’t want to see what I do to an essay about watching a porn film festival.
Every year dozens of Northwesterners of all persuasions get their creative juices boiling and produce short, homemade, x-rated motion pictures. Those with an exibitionist's bent contibute their works to the string of pornographic pearls known as Hump Fest. This collection of amateur explicit shorts plays one weekend every November to sold out shows at the 500 seat Cinema 21 in Portland (and at theaters in Seattle and Olympia, too). The event is a tightly run program with the popular sex advice columnist Dan Savage giving the intro and making sure the audience knows the two very important rules of Hump Fest. The first rule is that recording of the program is absolutely prohibited. He is adamant that the people staring in these movies want to be porn stars for the weekend, not all eternity. Savage announces, and makes the audience repeat back, that anyone seen even holding a cell phone will have it taken away and never returned. It doesn’t matter if you are a heart surgeon on call, you will lose your phone forever if it is even in your hand during the show. The second big rule is "no assholes". No disparaging comments because many of the people in the movies are in the audience. You can yell, clap, sigh, and whistle; but no asshole comments. As if this is all quite normal, when the welcome and preamble was over, the lights go down and previews of mainstream arthouse coming attractions roll as the curtains open. Very soon the slick studio preview is followed by the first short, which is grainy iPhone recorded porn. (iPorn? Seems almost redundant...)
With the prevalence of pornography on the internet, why would anyone go to festival like this? I mean, in this age of rampant isolating technologies watching intimate relations between consenting adults in a room full of hundreds of strangers seems pretty unnecessary (unless you're into this kind of thing). One draw could be that all the shorts in this program will never been seen anywhere else. Ever. Once the program is over, all the movies are destroyed. There are no DVD sales in the lobby, no RedTube links (stop pretending you don’t know what RedTube is); nothing. So this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see amateur movie making at its kinkiest. Another draw might be Cinema 21 has good beer and fresh theater popcorn.
As culturally insensitive as this might seem to the people of Corvallis, I don’t care about beer. Porn in any form is not too high up on my list of things that make me swoon, either. However, what does draw me to Hump Fest is it is cinema in its oldest and, arguably, purest form. This is the sense of community one feels when drawn into the cultural epicenter of an event that cannot be replicated online. People from all demographics are experiencing film in real time as a group--not as individuals stuck in their lives that consist of commuting, work, and Netflix. This is the cinema experience remembered in movies like CINEMA PARADISO or MATINEE. No, really. The major difference is that Hump Fest happens to be pornography, but coming together at the cinema is not new. We used to populate cinemas to see newsreels before TV made news something on in the background while most Americans eat dinner. At the Darkside Cinema a singular experience might be a local film that deals with health. Such events bring people out of their caves and into the flickering light of a cinema to experience life at 24 frames per second. (I guess now it’s 30 scans per second.) We as a species still can be drawn out and brought together by such happenings. Be it live music, a play, or even good beer--many of us will show up for the show...and the beer. It is a cultural bonfire around which we gather for not only warmth and safety, but to share stories. Granted, at Hump Fest many of those stories you may not want to share with the whole tribe.
The stories that comprise Hump Fest run the whole gamut of sexual experience. The blessing is the five-minute cap on the length of the short films so if you are being hit in the face with a gusher of experience that isn't something you care to have anything to do with, it ends soon enough. Through more than a couple of the films I found myself looking at my feet rather than at the screen. Every year it seems they have to have something so edgy no one really wants to see it--and if you were at the festival, you know what one I meant. The audience is asked not to make comments on the specific qualities of the actors (technically, they weren't really acting...), but certain acts elicited rather loud exclamations. Fortunately, most of those responses were laughter. Almost all of the shorts used humor. It was humor of all stripes--from sophisticated political satire to, quite literally, a pie in the face, and other places. Production quality ranged from cellphone video to professionally lit and edited pieces. Though some of the actors were, how do you say, well equipped for their role as a pron star, most were quite normal people. Some were a little heavy, out of shape, unshaven, and had asymmetrical boobs. Many of the women were like that, too. Everything shown is what would be MPAA classified as X rated, due to the fact the sex is not simulated. Obviously, this is not for everyone, no matter how open minded.
I'm not sure if our minds have gotten more open or if we have just become desensitized to pornography. Though the unspoken Bro Code compels us to convince our friends’ partners that porn can be "accidentally" downloaded onto one's computer against our will by some unscrupulous Internet spammer, most of us stumble on it all the damn time no matter how careful we are to not click an unknown link. So it seems almost silly to pay to see it. But, we are not there for the product on the screen as much as we are for the event. No, really. We are there to gather with others who are sex-positive (Remember, Dan Savage is the host) and the fact it is a porn film festival is just the icing on the cake. Though at this film festival, it's not always icing.... No small part of this experience is the venue. There's something just right about watching low-budget porn in a theater built in 1926.
Cinema 21 is an old single-screen theater in one of the coolest neighborhoods of Portland. Hundreds of people surge in and out from one sold out show to the next for this event. Those exiting are making their marks on the ballots collected at the doors. Yes, we vote on the sexiest, kinkiest, and funniest videos in the show. We stuff our ballots into ballot boxes topped with plywood orifices fashioned shockingly similarly to orifices we just saw on the screen. I had a private chuckle while “voting” when I realized this theater saw the same crowds when it ran SOUND OF MUSIC in 1965.
Once on the street my group decided on a destination for food where the other 494 attendees might not be going. As if right from central casting, a loosely-wrapped individual was yelling from the street; warning the gathered crowd of God's displeasure with the movies being shown and the price we will all surely pay. The rain started as we ducked down the sidewalk in pairs with those who smoke lagging to the rear. The red neon of the old theater disappeared behind us, which I probably will not see for another year. But I will be back for Hump Fest 2013...unless the nut-job is right about God's ire. In that case we'll just sit around a fire in the midst of the rubble that used to be the theater and I'll tell stories about what I saw when I worked at a drive in movie theater. Now that I think of it, some of those stories would make a great short film...