The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door

USA, 1999. Not rated. 83 minutes.

Cast: Stacy Valentine, Julian, "mother," "stepfather," Jack Gallagher, Fred Lincoln
Music: Denis M. Hannigan
Editors: Kate Amend, Christine Fugate
Producers: Adam Berns, Christine Fugate, Eren McGinnis
Director: Christine Fugate


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Two years in the life of a porn star–a titillating premise for a documentary. Even the prudish or censorial would probably confess to some curiosity about the lives of people who have sex in front of cameras. Do they enjoy it, or are they only doing it for the money? How can they let themselves be so exploited? How can they sustain relationships, romantic or otherwise? How can they maintain any semblance of normalcy in their lives?

Not that people generally ask themselves these questions when they consume erotica. People watching an adult video don't wonder about the stars' real lives or deconstruct the characters they play–that would defeat the purpose of the video, which is to function as a sexual aid by giving substance to erotic fantasies. Pornographers know this. That's why they don't bother much with credible stories or plausible dialogue, which is the reason most adult films are supremely silly. To the consumers–and there are millions of them–adult videos are just visual stimuli. People derive pleasure from them by superimposing their own fantasies to the images they see on the screen. Effective erotica is not about what's going on in the heads of the filmmakers or stars; it's about what's going on in the head of the viewer.

The average consumer probably forgets the adult video as soon as he–or she–is through with it, and prefers not to think too hard about why he or she uses pornography. Purveyors of porn do have their rabid fans, but for the most part, they exist on the fringes of society, dehumanized and forgotten by those who consume their products. Societal acceptance is the casualty of a double-standard that holds that, even if you enjoy the product, you don't have to esteem the people that make it.

The Girl Next Door redresses that imbalance by humanizing a single porn star. It comes to us from director and co-producer Christine Fugate, whose previous efforts include Fighting for Our Lives, which studied the efforts of Korean women to survive in the International Marketplace of Waikiki, Hawaii, The Southern Sex, an examination of the myth of the Southern Belle, and Mother Love, Director Christine Fugate and star Stacy Valentinewhich was first broadcast on PBS.

Christine Fugate obviously has an interest in the lives of women. Thus, you might expect her documentary to be skewed by a pre-defined point of view, either pushing the idea that the multi-billion dollar porn industry victimizes women or the reverse–i.e., the notion that women in porn are somehow empowered by what they do. It's a choice, in other words, between the opposite poles of Andrea Dworkin or HBO's Real Sex. Heck, pornography is such a controversial subject that you would expect anyone interested in making a documentary about it to have a pre-defined point of view establishing the tone of the film before even a single frame has been shot.

Certainly, The Girl Next Door has a point of view. But Fugate never pushes that view. Except for the ill-advised use of a handful of songs with too-obvious lyrics, Fugate never tells you anything. You only hear her voice once or twice during the entire film. There is no narrator; captions introduce each segment of the film. By staying behind the camera exclusively and allowing her subjects to do all the talking, Fugate allows you to develop a point of view on your own. Furthermore, by not drawing attention to herself, Fugate lends a voyeuristic quality to the film that makes it all the more intriguing.

The Girl Next Door follows two years in the life of Stacy Valentine, who rose meteorically in the adult film industry in 1997 and 1998, appearing in dozens of features and magazines and winning numerous awards. Fugate opens the film by establishing that Valentine, née Stacy Baker, really is "the girl next door." She hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was a young housewife until, in 1995, her abusive husband pushed her into competing in an adult magazine's amateur model contest. He got more than he bargained for, however, when Valentine won the competition and then modeled in her first professional photo shoot.

When Fugate first finds her, Valentine is quite happy. Her attitude toward her work, which has provided an escape from her bad marriage and "suck-ass" life in Oklahoma, is grateful and enthusiastic. "I've never been good at anything," she confides, "except sex." Valentine admonishes women not to enter the porn industry for the money, but only if they love sex. The sex itself, however, doesn't seem to be that enjoyable. The performers have sex in front of a large crew, assuming unnatural and probably uncomfortable positions so that the camera can get a good look at "the action." Budgets are tiny, male stars fail to show up or get it up, colonies of ants interrupt poolside shoots, other outdoor scenes are shot in the freezing cold, naked stars contrasting sharply with parka-clad crews.

The first half hour of The Girl Next Door, during which Fugate establishes her protagonist, is interesting but spotty. In her enthusiasm and ebullience, Valentine comes across as naive and a bit vapid, as does her boyfriend Julian, who is also in the adult film industry. Seemingly confirming all the worst assumptions about the intelligence and wisdom of people who make porn, Valentine gives you little reason to care about her as a person.

That soon changes when The Girl Next Door begins to delve into the details of Valentine and Julian's relationship. Porn stars, we learn, must live by different standards of faithfulness and commitment. "It would hurt me more," says Valentine, "to see him holding hands with someone–just holding hands. I'd rather see him banging a girl, ‘cause that's physical.... Stacy ValentineHis heart–that's what I'm concerned about." Although Julian and Valentine profess to subscribe to this idea, Valentine has difficulty trusting Julian at all and soon leaves him.

The real problem proves to be Valentine's low self-esteem. It's interesting how much importance she puts into being nominated for five Adult Video News Awards in January 1998, including Performer of the Year. Losing to fellow starlet Stephanie Swift sends her into one of several depressive tailspins. During these phases, Valentine rarely leaves her house except to work and copes with her depression and growing loneliness with wholly unnecessary trips to the plastic surgeon. She has her lips augmented, her breasts excessively enlarged and reduced (to a still-excessively large size), and fat suctioned. These surgeries, shown in unsettling detail, are not for the squeamish. It's practically guaranteed that anyone who has ever found augmented breasts to be attractive will be unable to see them the same way again.

The cosmetic surgeries are high points in The Girl Next Door. These moments sneak up on you, with little or no preamble, speaking eloquently for themselves. Another high point comes when Stacy and Julian, who have reunited, agree to shoot a three-way sex scene with another man. Despite previous pronouncements about trust, Julian can't cope. Watching Valentine fellate another man renders him unable to perform. He just sits beside them, watching, with a stricken look on his face and a pillow in his lap to hide his inadequacy. In yet another memorable episode, Valentine returns from a "visit" to a "French fan" (so says the caption) with a fistful of hundred dollar bills, and then rationalizes having sex for money. You might argue that prostitution is no different from shooting an adult film–in both cases you perform sex for money, but to Valentine there clearly is a distinction, and so the fact that she has prostituted herself to a fan feels like a major fall. Her efforts to dismiss what she's done reveal how much she's disturbed by it.

Simply by showing the life of one of its biggest stars, Fugate paints an arresting portrait of the maladies of the adult film industry. Interestingly, however, Fugate doesn't seem to argue that the industry is exploitative per se. Rather, the industry seems to be more like an otherwise surprisingly normal group of people, both men and women, who encourage and feed off each other's dysfunctions.

Though Valentine's choices are explained, there is no pat answer to the question of why any woman would become a porn star. Pop-psychologists advance many theories about how any sex industry worker must've been abused as a child, or be the product of a broken home, or have had some sort of abnormal upbringing. They would likely argue that the absence of Valentine's father is to blame. The beauty of such theories is that if you look hard enough, virtually everybody has some abnormality lurking in their childhood. How many people grow up in a storybook home, with two loving, nurturing, omnipresent parents who never once make a mistake? Now that would be abnormal!

Valentine, a complex person who conveys honesty and sincerity throughout the movie, swears she was never abused. Her mother and her stepfather, whom we eventually meet, seem extremely and genuinely loving and supportive, even though they have never watched one of Valentine's movies. There is nothing, in other words, in Valentine's background that suggests that she is somehow markedly different from the millions of Americans who don't choose to make pornography. That is a surprise. The conclusions that cannot be drawn from The Girl Next Door are as thought-provoking as the ones that can–and perhaps more so.

Review © April 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Indican Pictures.

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