A young couple strolls into a cafe in Eagle Rock. Based on appearances—severely angled bird's-nest hairdos dyed in shades of bruise, emblematic tattoos that simultaneously advertise solidarity and defiance, pierced nostrils, lips, eyebrows, faces full of metal—they are the current flavor of hip.
"I'm making movies for her and her boyfriend," says Eon McKai, eyeing the pair as he sips an iced coffee at a sidewalk table. He too is young, 26, and apparently hip in retro glasses and a T-shirt bearing small red letters that spell out "sorrow."
McKai (yes, he took his working name from straight-edge punk pioneer Ian MacKaye; more on that later) is a filmmaker. A young, cutting-edge filmmaker with four movies to his credit and another in production. Though still existing in a niche within a niche, his work has a devoted and growing following, and was acknowledged in a feature in the New York Times. He's passionate about his craft and admires the outsiders, citing influences such as Todd Solondz, Richard Linklater and John Waters; he rails against the predictability of the mainstream.
But McKai isn't birthing no-budget, haunting works on teen angst or earnest documentaries about diseased fish; he doesn't produce heart-rending treatments on the human condition or fast-cut barrages of très-hip action.
He makes pornography. Specifically, alt-porn, triple-X fare for the alt-18-to-30 crowd, starring immaculately codified alt-people. That is, those slightly above and below legal drinking age who favor tattoos and piercings. McKai's films are the I-want-mine alternative to the traditional porn churned out in Chatsworth ("Porn Valley" to those in the business), which is to the multibillion-dollar adult industry what Detroit once was to automobiles.
Of course, it had to happen. Be it clothes, music, television or disposable razors (dig the new Schick Quattro ads in Rolling Stone—four blades of shaving power!), when you slap "alt" on a product, it sells. Now discerning hipsters have their very own brand of porn, made by one of their own.
Cynical smut fans may sniff at the idea. After all, sex is sex, whether the participants are covered with modern-primitive body accouterments or just plain old skin.
McKai is having none of it. He sees a massive stylistic, even spiritual, difference between the standard Porn Valley releases and what he creates. "It's coming from a different voice," he says. "Everything I do when I'm doing my stuff, I try and put my voice in there as much as possible so people know someone like them is making porn now. Somebody you would hang out with, who goes to the same shows as you do, who likes the same music as you do, is now making an adult movie. And that, I think, is the attraction."
There are a couple of other differences too:
"Fake breasts." He views physical integrity the way soda enthusiasts viewed original Coke. "I just always had a strong feeling about the fake breast thing," McKai says. "I wanted to shoot a natural breast and see if we could actually make money."
Then there's the location issue. "I'm trying not to shoot in the Valley. I think the soul of the city of Los Angeles is in the east—I totally feel that with all my heart," he says. His films "Art School Sluts," "Kill Girl Kill" (Parts 1, 2 and 3) and current production "Neu Wave Hookers"—an update of the triple-X series begun in the '80s by legendary porn auteurs the Dark Brothers—were shot mainly on small sound stages in the warehouse district near Santa Fe Avenue.
"There's some [mainstream] porn that's shot downtown," McKai acknowledges, "but we're usually shooting at places where people will come in and be like, 'Hey, two weeks ago I was at a party here. I drank beer here, and now we're shooting.' I shot at the Jensen building on Sunset, I shot 'Art School Sluts' on 7th Street, 'Kill Girl 3' was shot where Don Bolles from [the infamous L.A. punk band] the Germs was living."
And what exactly is he shooting? McKai's postmodern porn stars mock traditionally clunky porn dialogue, sometimes simply holding scripts and reading from them. He includes flubbed takes and casts his friends as clothed extras. "I try to have a little Warhol approach," McKai explains. "Here's the people and here's the script, and I'm just going to let this play out. I'm going to keep the cameras rolling until everyone becomes really uncomfortable, and those are the moments I'm going to cut in."
He hires local fringe talent as costumers and art directors, among them wheat-paste poster artist Buff Monster and documentary filmmaker Margie Schnibbe. His soundtracks feature IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) bands such as Terminal 11, Gang Lu, Libythth and 104. He mixes film textures. Grainy, not grainy. Color, black-and-white. Lighting that swings from stark to shadows. He cuts away to faked TV-screen footage of iconic imagery such as people destroying television sets and stamping on pocket calculators. Dorothy's ruby slippers make an appearance.
It may sound trite to geezers, but apparently it works. According to Hustler/VCA, the company McKai works for, his alt features sell competitively with its more mainstream adult releases.
"It's like MTV or alternative filmmaking rather than straight TV or straight features," says director/producer Jim Malibu, a 30-year adult industry veteran whom McKai considers an invaluable mentor. "He's taking a story and jumping around. It's like experimental filmmakers in art school, but he's doing it with sex. It'll have its own little niche, depending on who's going to view it. Eon's a real creative young guy, and he's added a new spirit to the business. He's added a positive spirit."
Mckai began his triple-x journey as a curious youngster in Ventura County.
"There's that underground trading that kids do of videos of guys blowing their heads off and porno movies and stuff like that. That's where I probably first got it," he says of his early exposure. "Then as soon as my family had two VCRs in the house, I started renting movies and dubbing them. My parents were progressive like that, but it wasn't like, 'I'm going to be checking porn out in my room, don't come in.' I never wanted to embarrass my parents like that."
(McKai is still close to his folks—at one point he interrupts a heated discussion of a sex act that's probably illegal in certain states to answer a cellphone call from his mom—but he maintains a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on his current career. "My parents know that I'm producing adult material," he says, "but I don't describe things in detail.")
The lad did have other interests: "When I was a kid I watched a lot of Huell Howser. I love when he rolls up and the old women go crazy." Soon, however, the magnetic Howser took a back seat to skin flicks as McKai delved into the groundbreaking directors of the 1980s. "I was really interested in the old stuff, the Rinse Dream 'Café Flesh' stuff, the Dark Brothers era. It seemed like those people were having a good time and doing it exactly the way they wanted, not just cranking them out." Years passed. McKai earned a master's in film from CalArts, and he now teaches during the summer at a school he'd rather not name. "It's a critique class," he says. "We rush through the technical stuff so everyone can make stuff so we can talk about it. That's what art school is. You make stuff, then everyone picks it apart, and you go and make more stuff, and everyone picks it apart, and that's how you learn."
Art school is one thing, but how does one learn the ins and outs of the porn trade? McKai had shot pinups for various websites, including the notorious Suicide Girls site, an early purveyor of pictures of free-spirited goth/punk/alt gals revealing their ink- and steel-augmented selves. (Even now, most of McKai's video sales are over the Internet, where his demographic lives and breathes.) On a trip to San Francisco, he saw former porn star Veronica Hart lecture at a gallery and approached her. The contact led to an introduction at Hustler/VCA, a film arm of Larry Flynt's empire.
"That got me in the building and got me a little job there" shooting incidental footage, he says. "I went on sets for six to eight months. I had shot erotica, stills, but I needed to see people making movies."
Fifteen months ago, he directed his first feature and adopted his moniker. "It was basically something I could wear as a badge, and people who could understand why I chose that name, they would know there'd be something different, that I'd be making a few choices that are hard to make in the adult industry," McKai says. He's a fan of the legendary indie record label Dischord, founded more than 20 years ago by Ian MacKaye. "It just reminds me, carrying this name, that I have to stick to my guns, much like Ian did."
His debut was "Art School Sluts." It was well-received, meaning it sold. Thus was born alt-porn, and McKai found himself spearheading the genre.
the tribe of alt-porn auteurs is still a small one. Though industry types might mention Rob Rotten and Joe Gallant, both actor/director/writers, McKai refers to Joanna Angel. "She kind of became my East Coast porno sister," he says. "We've cried on each other's shoulders."
In 2002, the New York-based, 24-year-old Rutgers grad started the Burning Angel website, dedicated to style, fashion, music and, again, pinups of tatted-up young ladies, with the accent on young. She's since directed and starred in her own adult movies, and is a power-player in the alt-porn world.
"We cross-pollinate, in the sense that we help each other out," Angel says. "I look up to him and he looks up to me. We both have our differences and our similarities, and it's really cool to have a good friend in this business. There's not a lot of people doing what we do, because what we do is really stupid. It's stupid because it takes a lot of time and there's not a lot of money in it. And porn people like to do things that don't take a lot of time and do make a lot of money. We just love to make porn. We have this love for it, so we put all of our passion and all of our time and all of our energy into it. We're both creative people using our creative energy in porn."
Pornographer as struggling artist? McKai himself is undecided.
"I really want to see alt-porn happen," he says. "If I can create that shelf and keep making good movies and the company is happy with me and I'm supporting myself, then I'd be cool with that." On the other hand . . . "I'm on the fence if this is my Work. Will this now be what I went to school for, or is this just a really, really fun and playful way to have a job that pays off my student loans? That's an internal struggle. I'm kind of getting swept up in it, but at a certain point I'm going to need to nut up and say, 'This is what I do. My art is porn.' "
Peter Gilstrap last wrote for the magazine about Ben Vaughn and his Wonder Valley Music Festival.