Free Max Hardcore
On October 3, a Florida judge sentenced California-based pornographer Paul Little to three years and ten months in a federal penitentiary for selling obscene materials over the internet and mailing them to Tampa. A jury there convicted Little on 20 counts of obscenity after watching eight-plus hours of his videos--it probably didn't help that the notorious producer-director, a.k.a. Max Hardcore, stars in all of them.
Defense of liberty is no vice, and I'll take my vice and my liberty separate, thanks: This is no occasion to evaluate the worth or toxicity of Max Hardcore's pornography, as I did in City Pages ten years ago (and as Susannah Breslin does here). Whatever you think of him, Little has not been convicted of harming anyone: He's going to prison for selling videos of consenting adults to consenting adults, having been charged under the novel rationale that Central Florida "community standards" apply to any material made available online.
If you forgot that federal obscenity statutes still exist in the internet era, you're probably not alone: They were barely enforced under Clinton, in the years when porn powered the developing web, and while prosecutions were stepped up after 9/11 (with some flak caught by Bush's politicized Department of Justice for skewed priorities), they were carried out selectively. Three years ago, the Third Circuit court ruled in the case of U.S. v. Extreme Associates that these statutes are constitutional until the Supreme Court says they aren't, overturning a lower-court ruling that struck them down, and paving the way for this latest case. But it's tough to imagine Max Hardcore riding a First Amendment test up to the high court after Extreme's married-couple defendants were denied an audience. (A new trial for them begins in district court next year.)
U.S. prosecutors chose carefully when singling out Paul F. Little, whose Max Hardcore website now leads to a DOJ press release. A household name in the industry, he's not well-loved even there, with barely a murmur of protest rippling out from the case into the media, though news accounts cluck about the supposed irony of a female judge handing down the sentence. Never mind that most of what you can Google using a few bad words violates somebody's "community standards" somewhere, including a lot of pornography made by and for women.
Again, the issue is not whether you or I find what happens in Paul Little's movies, or on his sets, reprehensible. That's what criticism and organized labor are for, and I encourage more of both: The screen guilds' spurning of porn performers is one of the true Hollywood scandals we never hear about.
But as I wrote in 1998, "anyone tempted to use this de Sade in cowboy boots as a poster boy for driving porn back into the pre-Behind the Green Door underground runs the risk of smothering the medium just as its gender politics are getting interesting." The subsequent era of freedom arguably improved the larger culture, even if it was a mixed bag (freedom always is). And either way, is there any going back?
The Bush justice department clearly hopes so: Putting Max Hardcore in prison is a warning to pornographers who test the limits of taste, and thus freedom. "It becomes a race to the bottom, fueled by the vastness, the speed and the anonymity of the Internet," said assistant U.S. attorney Edward J. McAndrew in the St. Petersburg Times.
But whose bottom? (Puns are inevitable.) And isn't the anonymity he's describing just the ultimate movie theater? That the screen would yield to the terrible power of the crowd's imagination has always been the promise of movies, a promise as American as strongly held opinions, and as perilous to suppress.