"I had a real soft spot in my heart for sex videos," writes Sam Benjamin in American Gangbang: A Love Story (Gallery Books), his decidedly hardcore chronicle of a four-year stint trying to become an artistic pornographer here in Los Angeles. Benjamin's "soft spot" sustains the book, a memoir that's at once a spiritual journey, dizzying exercise in twentysomething narcissism, and stark confessional designed to challenge readers to reckon with the origins and implications of our own often deeply buried sexual proclivities.
The book opens with a road trip as Benjamin, fresh out of Brown University in 1999, drives from the east coast to Santa Cruz, where he spends several months doing odd jobs and pondering his future. Recalling the dramatic hijinks of artists such as L.A.'s Chris Burden that he'd studied in college, the 22-year-old clearly admires artists who use their bodies in visceral ways, and even admits to some success in his undergrad video art classes. But he rejects the art world as a future home. "It felt phony and unreal to me, a playground for rich kids," he writes. "Porn, on the other hand -- that was relevant."
Why is it relevant? Benjamin pursues that question for 320 pages, trying to fathom his own desires, juggling confusion and pleasure. He performs in a bisexual video and relishes the feeling of total powerlessness; he tapes himself doing something unique with a banana peel, then tries to sell the results online; he dances at a gay bar in Silver Lake, despite having "wide hips and minor scoliosis"; and then he starts making videos with well-endowed actors, one of whom boasts a black belt in karate, a collection of Anne Rice novels, and a boa constrictor named Baby who lives in the bathroom.
So begins the odyssey at the heart of the book as youthful get-rich-quick schemes materialize, but at the cost of artistry. Benjamin ends up in a beach-side mansion surrounded by skin, sex, cameras and money. He gains a goofy sidekick and eventually even finds a really nice girlfriend. As the raucous scenes Benjamin once shot with loving attention to framing and performance become increasingly degrading -- or in professional parlance, nasty -- Benjamin slides into ennui.
Uneven and quirky, the story is best when Benjamin is either entirely frank or amusingly passionate. He occasionally veers into ardent lectures detailing the aesthetic history of his chosen medium, for example, celebrating the videos of the '80s, which he describes as predigital but postfilmic, "produced at a moment that fell between the Portapak and the Handycam." Indeed, halfway through the book he pauses to reflect on shifts in visual style and music decade by decade, dismissing the nostalgia-tinged recollections of the '70s "golden era" when films were shot on celluloid, ran for 90 minutes, and screened in real theaters, saying that they feel as if they had been written "in a single afternoon by some half-smart 14-year-old boy." In contrast, the videos of the '80s embody their moment and ethos. Yes, the stories are worse, but, explains Benjamin, the synthesizer music is great. "To me, the retarded computer-generated loopings actually work, complementing videotape's bleary, vacant resolution to perfection."
The often lurid memoir owes more to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions than something like Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love; the emphasis is less on mystical transformation than on revealing what most of us prefer to keep hidden. Like Rousseau, Benjamin doesn't hesitate to detail personal pleasures, and he pushes himself to examine what he likes and why. His blunt affection for a particularly discomfiting tape called Slap Happy is nothing to be proud of, but he lays it out for us, describing the scenes and, through the writing, striving to glean their appeal to him.
In another particularly riveting scene, Benjamin takes us through an encounter that careens from sumptuous desire to monstrous violence, and, again, he tries to understand the vicissitudes of sexual power and transgression. Granted, he never writes in such boring terms, and the book never really achieves meta-level cultural analysis. Benjamin also often backs away -- his relationship with his surprisingly tolerant parents is quaintly cartoonish. However, as the final third of the book grows increasingly detailed in its graphic descriptions of young women getting pounded by big men, the hierarchy of sex scenes to narrative flips upside down. The chronicles of each repetitive tangle of bodies become tedious, then unbearable, and you race along instead to the snippets of reflection. Will he muster the strength and wisdom to bear witness to his own soul? Is the requisite fall really going to come? Can there be redemption after so much filth?
We all know the genre too well not to know the answers, and Benjamin gives us a tidy memoir. It's clear that, for better or worse, Benjamin missed out on the porn debates that took place just before he was in school, when scholars such as Constance Penley, Linda Williams and Laura Kipnis cheerfully dissected hardcore pornography. Indeed, Kipnis' 1993 essay "(Male) Desire and (Female) Desire: Reading Hustler" surpasses American Gangbang in its unctuous descriptions of bodies bound and gagged. But it finds in the violation of taboos a threat to dominant cultural norms, and it makes us query our own feelings of disgust. Benjamin, on occasion, provokes that reflection too. And that's why I kept reading. Really.