The title, Rate It X suggests two equally tedious possibilities: a predictable diatribe against pornography or a discretely titillating peep at the world of sex for sale. But Rate It X is a film that offers a refreshingly candid, surprisingly witty look at the attitudes that allow pornography to thrive. Like smoking, drug abuse, and drunk driving, pornography is a tolerated vice that depends on broad, if undeclared, popular support. While a majority of men might not come right out and admit to consuming pornography, the fact remains that it is a multi-billion dollar per year industry.

Directors Paula de Koenigsberg and Lucy Winer have compiled a remarkable selection of interviews that put pornography—and the attitudes that nurture it—into a larger perspective. The filmmakers remain off camera while their questions, always polite, direct, and insistent, provoke discomfort and awkward mutterings from their subjects.

They begin with “average guy” types: a baker who specializes in three-dimensional “bikini cakes,” and an ad executive who explains that the voluptuous model whose ample cleavage all but overshadows what is being sold is consistent with a “quality product.”

But the film’s technique is most effective in interviews with the men who directly control pornography. A thirtyish manager glibly conducts a cook’s tour of his three-story sex emporium, giggling at Nazi paraphernalia while he demonstrates a life-size, anatomically correct female doll. “How do you blow her up?” asks the narrator. “Do you use your lips or a bicycle pump?” The manager is momentarily at a loss for words, as deflated as his sex-surrogate doll.

Even more illuminating are the interviews with the “humor editor” of Larry Flynt Publications. Romping playfully with his two-year-old daughter, he explains lamely why his Chester the Molester cartoons are not really offensive. Failing to get a laugh from the interviewer, he explains one of his cartoons: a leering man luring a young Jewish girl into an alley by pulling a dollar bill on a piece of string. In this cartoon, Chester wears a swastika armband and brandishes a club.

The erudite, articulate, even charming, editor of Players magazine explains tenuously that nude centerfolds of black women are necessary to foster black pride, a central aim of his publication for upwardly mobile black men.

The banality of evil, the bland ordinariness of sexual exploitation, emerges like a foul, festering sore. “We didn’t go out to find monsters,” said Lucy Winer in a telephone interview. “And although we can see that these men are really struggling with conflicts in what they do, I don’t know if they know it.”

Foes of pornography might prefer to imagine the enemy as a sociopathic Mafioso or wheezing lecher, but as de Koenigsberg and Winer so artfully demonstrate, sin is not “out there”; it is in the way our society is structured. Societal values, the desire to make a buck, and basic lust are the stuff of everyday life.

What separates Rate It X from much of the blather about pornography is that it does not fall into the usual trap of seeming to oppose free expression and artistic choice. It merely offers us images of men who know better, choosing to lie to themselves.

Reviewed by Stefan Ulstein, a writer living in Bellevue, Washington.

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