BY PAUL J. MAHER JR. Sasha Grey brings to mind the character of the wicked Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, East of Eden, a psychological and physical likeness so eerie that it bears detailing.
“It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in the world.”
Cathy’s physiognomy, apart from hair and eye color, suggests Grey as well: “As though nature concealed a trap, Cathy had from the first a face of innocence. Her hair was gold and lovely; wide-set hazel eyes with upper lids that drooped made her look mysteriously sleepy.” Grey often looks stoned, though she is not, she exudes lucidity and passion about any subject lobbed at her. However, it is the mindset Steinbeck describes, that eerily pins her down, as if the master novelist had also written her off the pages. She is an “inner monster,” not malformed without legs or arms, but malformed within: “To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honest is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”
When Sasha Grey is interviewed, she reveals the same smugness that she relies upon in her acting roles, whether it’s a film by Steven Soderbergh or Erik Everhard. It was one of the characteristics most Girlfriend Experience critics puzzled over; is she acting, being herself, or a little of both? Chelsea’s cold demeanor allowed no passage of emotion to enter or leave. Instead, she must be what men pay her to be. We can only guess that her private dynamics with fiancé Ian Cinnamon but we could safely surmise that that too probably follows the same pattern she follows with onscreen fiancé Chris. Each must suffer the indignity of knowing that the main woman in each of their lives offers themselves to other men for a fee.
Grey often employs a wry half-smile, a sort of crooked leer, like a teenaged girl caught in the act of lying, ashamed, with no recourse but to laugh it off. During her sex scenes, she is less of a performer than she appears to be the sacrificial offering of the lamb to the tigers. This is no performance art; it’s actually less performance than art. It’s certainly no Cirque de Soleil. Her sex scenes are robotic, like a duck to water, with the only variation on a theme being the spurious lines of dialogue she spouts as a means of turning on her viewers and even then she resorts to time-worn clichés. Her performance is commonplace, another cog in the greased wheel of a multi-million dollar enterprise chewing up and spitting out the lost, lonely and left-out young females of our nation. There are no victims, she claims, and to that we must agree to disagree.
Sasha Grey maintains that she is the “new breed” of porn star. In other words she is not a victim of a broken home, or of abusive parents, or left to the mercy of a wayward uncle. She reads books, she prizes Criterion discs for her love of foreign film. She maintains that she often receives fan mail from teenaged girls that look up to her: “I get fan mail all the time from young women telling me what kind of positive impact (not just sex related) I’ve had on their lives.” One wonders where they have the opportunity to watch her films, or is it because she is part of the shopping mall culture, or the MySpace culture or that she oozes vibes of female self-sufficiency in a spectacle of sexual aloofness. I suggested that being a role model may spark a witch hunt by their parents: “as far as a witch hunt goes, the moment I took up the mantle of becoming SG I understood that i would have a target on my back…it’s also part of being a celebrity in that your opinion gets applauded hailed and perverted/distorted all in one breath.” Contradictorily, she tells another interviewer that she is also a “wrecker of civilization.”
The music of her band aTelecine forebodes a civilization gone awry; it is industrial noise, the sounds of the Terminator stomping through Eliot’s Wasteland. In this medium, Grey asserts the powerful stamp of her enigmatic personality. My curiosity was piqued by the appeal of drawing together the primal qualities of her sex acts in porn with the primal pulse of her music. aTelecine didn’t see that. In a Re-Gen Mag interview with bandmates Pablo and Sasha in November 2008, several questions focused solely on porn, of which they seemed agreeable to the task. Their label site, Pendu.Org, avidly promotes Sasha’s porn career in their publicity blurb:
“Sasha Grey is a well-known, award-winning porn actress who has been in, let’s just say, a whole lot of films. She’s a performance artist who takes it all to a new level. Known for sometimes violent and rough erotic actions, Sasha is unafraid to push boundaries and limits. She’s won multiple AVN (Adult Video Network) awards including the coveted Female Performer of the Year (2008). She was Penthouse Pet of the Month (July 2007). She was featured on VBS (Vice) TV’s ‘Shot by Kern’.”
In the not-so- distant past, Sasha Grey had more than once connected her music, writing, photography, and her porn under the united moniker of “performance art.” Everhip, in 2009, asked Grey, “Do you see yourself incorporating your writing, music and filmmaking all as one?” Grey’s response was confident and ambitious, “I don’t set a boundary between anything I pride myself on and I’m passionate about. And if I didn’t have passion, I wouldn’t want to live.”
Art by definition is created without purpose, and I am prepared to believe that aTelecine, a band of committed artists (Sasha Grey: Voice, Synth, Tape loops, Guitar. Pablo St. Francis: Voice, Bass, Drums, Dulcimer, Tape loops. Anthony Djuan: Voice, Rhythm, words, Synth, Tape loops) have created just that. The swirl of Grey’s vocals buried in the mix of the track “semitree” is ethereal, hypnotic. There is a disconnection, an urgency of spirit far-flung from the corners of a private universe where sex, even within the velvet rope of her penchant for pain, has a home within the ambient textures of synthesizer, looped audio samples and sparse instrumentation. The music is a synthesis of “Post punk / Acousmatic / Tape music / Black Metal” says Grey. Available, barely, on limited-edition vinyl (as of this date, it is delayed due to mastering problems), it still brings thousands of listeners to their MySpace site to take advantage of the currently- available streaming tracks. The ambient tracks are aural wrecking balls, urging the listener toward an unshackled state of libidinous emancipation. Sasha claims she records naked and it certainly sounds that way. Like the boundless spirit of her porn, it too deliberates its musical stance without boundaries. It does not escape Grey that part of the current reaction to the music is because of her notorious celebrity status. The music, however, never makes that connection on its own; it transforms and recreates chaos into logic, a dark, disturbing niche of her design.
During this interview Sasha Grey was busy filming an episode of Entourage. Though she did answer some questions, she backed off from others that had less to do with porn, but of how being part of a “new breed” would consequently alter the landscape of porn and thusly, her overall imperative as a performance artist. I was eager, I stated, to see how she could offer this well-trodden field populated by digicam-yielding perv-boys with barely enough ingenuity to edit their videos, never mind an existentialist bent. I also told her that what she regarded as “new” has become common and monotonous, a jaded minstrel show in a world gone wrong. Porn has finally reached the opposite end of its trajectory, rising from titillation and descending into all-out abuse toeing the tepid waters of moral decency and federal law. We could safely draw comparisons to the Marquis de Sade whom she perhaps comes closest to in artistic temperament. She like the Marquis wants to merge her philosophy with pornography for the sake of the altar of Onan. Like the Marquis, she is a proponent of freedom tethered to its furthest extremities, yet untethered by laws, morality or religion, inciting an air of repulsion and utter fascination.
PHAWKER: I am intrigued about your love of cinema, and your critical eye about film in general. In what way(s) does your appreciation of cinema inform aTelecine?
SASHA GREY: Well starting with the name …it’s obviously a reference to the telecine machine used to transfer film to video. Transferring your medium to another…I mean I can’t say that we are making mini-soundtracks to films that will never be . . . but you have to think, ‘hmmm, that would answer it all very efficiently. We are also filmmakers, so . . . however we watch a lot of films too.
PHAWKER: The tracks remind me of some musical vortex absorbing the sounds of humanity, its pain, anguish and pleasure, and then compressing it before spitting it out into a moody multi-textural wash. Did each track take a lot of tampering to get it right? Or did you operate out of an intuitive impulse and nail it? How much of a perfectionist are you when it comes to music?
SASHA GREY: We operate like dub scientists, Avant jazz men from the 60’s, punk rockers who don’t even know 2 chords but feel a wealth of emotion. We stand up like a Jackson Pollock version of an Andy W[arhol] as menstruated on by de Kooning. I saw someplace that This Heat used to spend months just talking about an idea before a single note or sound was put to tape . . . we like that too.
PHAWKER: In several interviews you stated that you believe that your work in adult films is part of an overall artistic imperative; do you find your artistic expression in aTelecine more or less gratifying than adult films?
SASHA GREY: I like hip hop and classical that don’t mean Erik B. is better or worse than Erik Satie.
I am prepared to believe that Grey is an artist. She comes across in her television and printed interviews as an astute and intelligent person, passionately defending her choice at eighteen years old to enter porn after authoring a manifesto pointing out her reasons for doing so. Grey is, at the time of this interview, 22 years old. She has endured five years in an industry that tends to prematurely age the young until they appear, in looks and demeanor, to be much older than their years. There has yet to be, in my opinion, much change at all, despite her proclamation to shake the porn industry under the banner of her New Breed-dom. The only difference may be that Sasha Grey has gotten wealthier, building her magical kingdom piece by piece, an enabler in her own time when most others squander their earnings on drugs and alcohol.
Porn, if it is her intention alone of enabling this, is slowly merging into the mainstream. She was hired by American Apparel for a clothing campaign wearing hardly any clothing at all. There she was, a vision of banded yellow-and-white thigh highs with pert nipples and one Ivory Snow hand palming a sprout of dark pubic hair, peering from the glass windows of a shopping mall near you. The marketing ploy was clever, their aim dually-efficient: Dad’s masturbatory love doll can also sell clothing to his underaged daughter. One message board writer addressing American Apparel’s usage of a porn star in their ad campaign crystallizes the average American slant: “It has crossed my mind that she may be a dirty, stinking, perverted old man trapped in a young girl’s body. Either way I neither love or hate her, but I do think she’s fascinating and that AA’s marketing is brilliant for getting so many people to continue buying their shitty clothes.”
Grey told the Boston Phoenix in May 2009, “We’re not hurting anybody. This isn’t involved with the mob or slave trading or sex trading.” True, porn is legalized trade, but to state that porn on any level whatsoever isn’t harmful is woefully naïve. The true statistics of psychological/physical abuse arising from marathon bouts of fucking, and throat gagging fellatio and slapping in fetish porn films aren’t truly documented. Legions of willing women are daily sucked into a vortex of a lifestyle that deceives them with a brittle shell of fame and glamor means that they will be spit out just as fast. The victims outnumber the precious few that proclaim their love for what they do. Does Sasha Grey love her job? I have no doubt, but her love comes with a Faustian bargain that she alone will contend with.
My next lines of questioning were all ignored. I asked her if she was “taken aback by all that lies before her” in regards to future plans. Ignored. How does the future pose challenges for her? Ignored. I proposed that through her love of foreign cinema, her music, her existentialism, that maybe she could one day make porn interesting again. Can she change that with her production company, or will it be the same old shit reheated under her name? Ignored. When I asked three more questions about the music, they were ignored as well.
PHAWKER: Will this music be available more widely in the future, and what would you do if it caught on and its popularity threatened to sully your original intentions behind the songs? Are you choosing to stay indie?
SASHA GREY: Keeping the music at arms length… that’s part of it all …part of the mystery and atmosphere …it’s just so easy now to download everything all at once…i don’t know ‘bout you but i like the thrill of the hunt …finding a secret album [and] having a love affair with it.
PHAWKER: I am waiting for you to write a book, Sasha, I feel that you alone can bring this whole “porn star writes a tell-all tome” to a whole new, and compelling level. I intuit you as sort of a female Charles Bukowski with the same humility, spirit, wit and frankness. Am I on the right track and do you have a book in mind at all for the future?
SASHA GREY: I do have a book coming out, a photography / sex philosophy book [Neu Sex to be published in November 2010]. It won’t be the last.
The book’s Amazon listing describes the author, Sasha Grey, not as an aspiring or groundbreaking photographer or author in her own right, but solely as a porn star. Presumably this marketing strategy passed muster with Grey before her publisher placed it on Amazon. Porn as an entity doesn’t faze me, nor does she as a person. I admire her courage and applaud her audaciousness. It’s her sudden necessity to control what’s written about her that signals a widening fissure in the fault line of Sasha Grey’s newfound sense of celebrity that questions her integrity. Everybody has their place in the universe, but I wouldn’t label her “the new breed.” The label rings hollow in an age where porn can be seen at your favorite mall, the Internet becomes a wide-open playground and television sitcoms resort to the lowest common denominator of acting talent in a desperate attempt to seem hip. She’d be cool if she wasn’t part of an industry that has become uncool, a porn fringe frequented by any guy with a digital movie camera, shoddy production values and the river of petty cash to lure in all the Sasha Greys in the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Maher Jr. is the writer of two biographies of Jack Kerouac, the editor of two volumes of interviews with Kerouac and Miles Davis and another with Tom Waits due out in fall 2010. He is also a photographer. Maher is working on two screenplays about the captivity of Mary Rowlandson and the prison years of Dostoevsky.