The subject -- or rather, the object -- of Christine Fugate's unsettling and surprisingly poignant documentary The Girl Next Door is one Stacy Valentine, a pneumatic blonde from Oklahoma who recently concluded a brief but reasonably lucrative career as a porn star. The film spans two years, and for that whole time, Fugate (Tobacco Blues) tirelessly sticks her camera into Valentine's life, recording (from oblique angles and discreet distances) the faked orgasms and double penetrations ("DPs," in the trade) that make up her workday, the ups and downs of Valentine's doomed relationship with a fellow "actor" named Julian, even her bloody trips to the plastic surgeon, where men in masks change out, build up and carve down her various body parts in the manner of mechanics working on a stock car.
We see Stacy at the supermarket, debating which brand of toilet paper to buy, and at a pornfest in southern France, where she prostitutes herself to a well-heeled fan. We see Stacy back home in Tulsa, where she assures her only slightly bewildered mother that everything is just fine in glamorous Hollywood. She goes to her hypnotherapist's office in L.A. and blandly reports that the doctor is "working on my self-image." Evidently, irony is not her strong suit.
Delusion and a kind of innocent vanity are. Propelled into the so-called adult entertainment industry by her abusive ex-husband, she wins an amateur photo contest, moves on to a Hustler magazine layout and then into hardcore porn flicks because they promise, in her words, "a very bright future." In this version of the American Dream, though, the hardworking, self-absorbed achiever buys a big-screen TV and marvels, "I can't wait to see myself on that."
Not that she doesn't have a few dim second thoughts about her career choices. "There's more to me than just having sex with me," she laments. "A lot more." Could be, but the giggling, desolate woman-child the film wants us to know -- likable Stacy Baker, late of Tulsa --keeps getting upstaged by the calculating profiteer Stacy Valentine. "I have something men want," she announces, "and rich men have something I want."
Like all well-paid athletes, though, Valentine's fluency resides in her body, not in her words. And this real-life glimpse of the Boogie Nights crowd -- sleazy directors, screwed-up performers, bottom-feeding hangers-on -- is best when it keeps quiet and shows us things. In other words, it's best when it's most intrusive. Valentine poses for a snapshot with a leering fan, who tries to cop a feel. There's the spectacle of awards night in the porn trade, after which Stacy takes her hard-won version of Oscar to bed with her, like a little girl obsessed with a doll. We see her wriggling into an evening gown that would make Jayne Mansfield blush. She admires her new lips, freshly and painfully injected with collagen.
For her part, Fugate takes great pains to show us that a none-too-bright small-town girl trapped in a dangerous marriage found her way out, her path to independence, by performing fellatio on strangers. But to her credit, the filmmaker stops short of proposing Valentine as a neo-feminist heroine or promoting the fiction, still in vogue among certain academics and social thinkers, that pornography embodies some sort of avant-garde liberationist philosophy. Porn chic may have its adherents, but Stacy Valentine apparently isn't one of them. She loves sex, she says, and she's good at it. She doesn't hesitate to show off her collection of whips, butt plugs and dildos. Still, after an especially hard day at the office, when the director is screaming and co-star erections are in short supply, she can also get fed up. "This fuckin' sucks," the former Miss Baker exclaims. "I wanna go home."
After spending a hundred minutes in the presence of Stacy Valentine, so might you. Both her heaving flesh and her adolescent pronouncements evoke sympathy, and this documentary has plenty of fascinations --notably, a clear-eyed look at a netherworld most of us can only imagine. But despite the strategically placed bulges in her fuselage, dear, sweet Stacy can wear a little thin.
Don't tell that to Seinfeld sidekick Jason Alexander, though. At last month's Denver International Film Festival, Alexander pursued fellow fest guest Valentine from screening to cocktail party to hotel with a vigor he rarely brought to his performances as geeky George Costanza. Whether, in the silence of the wee hours, he qualified for Stacy's rich-man-with-something-I-want category is a question no one but the principals can answer.
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