Review: 'Aroused' A Desperate Attempt To Be Revealing About An Already-Revealing Industry

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by Gabe Toro
May 4, 2013 11:18 AM
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There’s a probing, but flattering documentary yet to be made about the secret lives of porn stars. Unfortunately, “Aroused,” the directorial debut of photographer Deborah Anderson, is not it. This mostly black-and-white documentary boasts what pretends to be an uncensored look at the inner lives of porn stars, ostensibly a side project along to Anderson’s evocative primary skill. She brands them “some of the most successful women in the business of sex,” but the sixteen performers selected for showcase seem to be secondary to Anderson’s elaborate set-up.

What follows is mostly a free-form discussion with what is quickly becoming the narrow world of “mainstream” heterosexual pornography. The focus is on “contract girls,” those who have been selected to be the face of a certain company. Predictably, most are white, though the greatest insights into their childhood come from French-speaking Asian performer Katsuni, but her early revelation of a mostly-normal upbringing sets the tone for the banality of the modern sex worker. Anderson’s emphasis is that there’s no consistency between the origins of a porn performer (another performer, Francesca Le, is fairly candid about her broken home and drug issues), but this domestic banality is a point that only seems repetitive, as if a bit of pop psychology is meant to get us closer to these women.

Another performer, lone black participant Misty Stone, seems properly defensive at first. She eventually opens up warmly, but aggressively, putting Anderson on notice. Stone, like the other performers in this doc, are conscious of being exploited, of just being cheesecake for another fetishized look into the industry. Given the quick cuts between each interview, one could argue Anderson is doing just that. Most of the chats are captured while the stars are in the makeup chair, glamorously being pampered for a photo shoot that finds them all writhing semi-or-fully naked in bed. Make no mistake about it, “Aroused” is hitting theaters, but it’s clearly meant to titillate the VOD market, capturing these women in gorgeous black and white photography that nonetheless creates a visual conflict: once they’re all in these white sheets, over-lit by the hot lights, their naked bodies make them indistinguishable from each other.

In a sense, “Aroused” works as a beautiful infomercial for the porn industry, mostly serving as a counterpoint to all those troubled “20/20”-type hysterical anti-porn news specials that look at the billion dollar smut industry as the collapse of Western civilization. But an accurate portrayal of the adult industry, it is not. These women have already reached certain peaks in the industry. So, if anything, we’re seeing those who have withstood the difficulties and ugly realities faced by others; it’s like doing a baseball documentary and only chatting with the top-tier All-Stars. On one level, as “contract girls," because the porn industry is so lucrative, these actresses have images to project and/or protect, through social media and candid “gonzo” films where the performers portray their personalities. “Aroused” doesn’t give us a peek behind the veil, it merely shows us the same level of information that we could gather from the Tumblr or Twitter of the film's participants. Porn has moved into the modern age by allowing an availability of these actresses, making them more attainable then they were in the pre-internet days.

Anderson’s approach instead re-fetishizes them, in a way that renders them anonymous. By doing this, “Aroused” presents a limited view of an industry where a multitude of fetishes and interests are represented, where transsexual films outsell lesbian productions by a two-to-one ratio. By imagining that she’s pulling back the curtain, Anderson is instead making porn even more inscrutable, even more difficult to understand. But this doesn’t seem to be a main concern, as these actresses roll lie in bed for a voyeuristic camera that can’t get enough of their physical features. It’s like burying candy in vegetables, but the vegetables are meant to be eaten while wearing a raincoat. [D+]

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