Porn of the Gods

Venus and Adonis
An ancient curiosity about the lives of the Immortals in Paolo Veronese’s “Venus and Adonis.”
(Erich Lessing / Art Resource)
Times Staff Writer

I wouldn’t presume to advise beautiful and wealthy celebrities how to get along in life, and yet I think someone—some agent or manager or kabbalah rabbi—ought to lay down the law: No video cameras in the bedroom. As of this writing, Britney Spears and swain Kevin Federline are being threatened with the release of yet another celebrity sex tape, this one purportedly made while Britney was pregnant. Oh dear.

There’s only one proper reaction to this news: nostalgia. This is a celebrity sex tape the old-fashioned way, stolen by some traitor in the entourage and used as blackmail. Far preferable, I think, to the new, made-for-release sex tape of the patently un-beautiful Tom Sizemore.

This 70-minute document features a fleshy and thoroughly potted Sizemore rutting and romping with three young women of uncertain dentistry. And yet, considering the number of bodies, the production is notably understaffed, if you know what I mean.

The video has been available on the Internet since August; in September, Vivid Entertainment Group announced it would bring the DVD to market this month. By that time, Sizemore—star of movies such as “Black Hawk Down” and “Saving Private Ryan” and a dangerous liaison of Heidi Fleiss—is likely to have been released from residential rehab, where he has spent the last three months. Sizemore and Vivid can expect to profit handsomely from the venture, unless a serendipitous meteor ends us all.

This is an occasion, if we can call it that, to decode the genre of celebrity sex tapes, which seem to surface with the regularity of corporate earnings reports. What are their conventions and expectations, their cinematic grammar? And if it isn’t too naïve a question, what is the attraction?

Unlike other celebrity sex tapes—Paris Hilton, Tonya Harding and, of course, Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, the Rhett and Scarlett of the category—the Sizemore video was made with the evident intent of distribution. It is, in other words, theatrical, or meta-theatrical, and I don’t see how Sizemore’s reputation as an actor can survive this performance, as baroque and dissonant in its way as Joan Crawford in “Trog.”

Sizemore’s acknowledgement of the anticipated audience violates the first principle of voyeurism, that the subject is unaware, that there is a larceny of privacy. This keyhole quality is the sine qua non of celebrity sex tapes. Without it, you have, well, Sizemore’s tape: a gymnastic pantomime of sex, a toxic horizontal square dance. But if a tape is genuine, that is, if it shows the celebrity and partner(s) in an unguarded, unpackaged exercise of humanity, in “an ecstasy of fumbling” to borrow from Wilfred Owen, then it holds out the promise of revelation. These are the ultimate paparazzi pictures, with the subjects themselves peeping through windows.

What is revealed? That’s just it. Not much. It’s all so exceptionally unexceptional. Even with Pamela and Tommy Lee’s conspicuous physical gifts, what you see are a couple of nice young people getting busy in that old familiar way.

You could argue that this disenchantment of celebrity sex is just the point, that consumers of these videos want to see that the stars are, in their awkward carnality, just like us. But that doesn’t explain the insatiable curiosity. Don’t we know by now what goes on behind closed doors? Apparently not. When this paper ran a story about the transcripts from Marilyn Monroe’s taped sessions with a psychiatrist, in which the star detailed her sexual liaisons (including a weird one-nighter with Joan Crawford), it was the most e-mailed story for days on end.

The metaphysics of celebrity operate on the belief that the rich, famous and notorious are the keepers of a secret knowledge. And nothing baffles us more than intimacy and sex, which is precisely the hinge of our Cartesian mind-body dilemma. So we keep looking to those we presume have greater authority. And because demand has always outstripped supply, a whole industry has sprung up to create celebrity look-alike porn, like the ersatz Veronica Lake prostitute in “L.A. Confidential.”

This is a very old curiosity. I remember reading Ovid’s bawdy poetry in college—the gods were always pouncing on each other in creative ways—and thinking how much like a bad Hollywood tell-all it was. From the Song of Solomon and the Titan-peopled erotic poetry of Sappho, from the pagan canvases of Veronese to Catherine the Great’s horse to the pilfered videotapes of celebrities—our Immortals—humans can’t seem to get a satisfying answer to the question: “Is that all there is?”

The irony is we already know the answer.