On Dads And Dog Cocks: Michael Nirenberg Dishes on BACK ISSUES: THE HUSTLER MAGAZINE STORY

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Michael Nirenberg remembers the moment in 2nd grade it occurred to him his father’s work was different from the other dads. Like his father, Nirenberg works in art direction; he’s a scenic artist for film (Salt, Shame) and TV (working on Girls Season 4 right now). His father William Nirenberg spent his career as an art director for men’s magazines, most famously working for Larry Flynt's Hustler Magazine.

The younger Nirenberg is remarkably centered about his father’s contribution to the heyday of smut rags. It’s a mix of frankness and familial pride that binds these stories—many of which his father shared with him after Michael had first son. It's a strangely sweet place to start the history of Playboy’s nasty cousin, but biology's not sacred.

Michael Nirenberg’s Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story is playing at SF Docfest this weekend (details at the bottom) and while he’s in the Bay Area, Nirenberg’s working on a new documentary. I asked him about porn, parenthood and the possibility of theatrical for a movie about the magazine famous for “showing pink.”

Movies With Butter: So you live in New York but you’re shooting a documentary around San Francisco?
Michael Nirenberg: Yeah, it’s about the history of computer hacking from the 60s to the pre-Internet era. The 80s hackers [featured in the film] all grew up and got jobs, so they’re all in Silicon Valley and I was like “while we’re in SF for the fest let’s do that, too.”

MwB: Is theatrical a possibility?
MN: Absolutely. There’s a lot of fear around whether or not people would come out to see Back Issues and how much backlash there’d be. That was a problem with many festivals, too. They’d say, ‘We love this but we’re afraid of programming it.’

MwB: Was that fear echoed by any distributors?
MN: Well, we have several distributors. We have Epix, HBO Canada and FilmBuff will be the online platform in the U.S. Solo Media distributes for the UK, where it’s already out. We’re parceling it out piece by piece, VOD here and theatrical there. Etc.

MwB: You’ve done things to safe guard against that fear. For example: Back Issues isn’t x-rated.
MN: What scared people most was the original version, which had exposed vaginas. How do you talk about the history of Hustler without dealing with the content? [In that context] the film was likely to end up preaching to the choir—people already interested in the subject matter—but if you pull back a little on the gratuitous nudity you can reach out to more people. Since the film is about a magazine known for tough nudity it’s a hard line. Maybe later we’ll release a full x-rated version for DVD, but I don’t know.

MwB: Why did you choose to be in the film?
MN: My dad was the art director of Hustler for a long time, so I’m there when he is to give the viewer a family connection (see the image above). I’m only in the scenes with my father so the viewer can get the sense these are all real people. There’s a certain dehumanization that comes with pornography. I put [longtime Hustler photographer] Suze Randall and [her daughter, also a photographer] Holly Randall in the same scene to show these people are normal and professional, though what they did was not normal. I didn’t want to perpetuate the myth of the crazy pornographer, like Boogie Nights. The magazine was crazy, not the lives so much.

MwB: What was your birds and bees talk like?
MN: I kind of allude to that in the first few minutes of Back Issues, when I show a Hustler cover and ask “is that’s a dog erection on the cover of the magazine?” And my dad answers: “I thought we had this conversation.” I don’t really remember having any conversation like that [with my dad] I just assumed he thought I was smart and that I’d sneaked his magazines and figured it out on my own. I knew what he did and there was never secrecy or shame about it. I just figured my friends’ dads were doctors and teachers and my dad worked at magazines. It was just like any other job. The society baggage came a little later.

MwB: When you say “society baggage,” what do you mean specifically?
MN: I realized in second grade, when we were talking about what our parents did for work, I saw my teacher’s face and thought, “this is different”—my father’s line of work was not like the others. When I got older, I cultivated that and traded magazines for pot. That was in high school, when he didn’t work for Hustler anymore. But he worked for magazines for several more decades.

MwB: And watched them dwindle, despite the evergreen value of some content.
MN: That takes up the last third of the picture, which preoccupies itself with the decline of publishing. My father was at several men’s magazines throughout his career. Just last week, I was having drinks with Bob Rosen and learned he had worked with my father. Rosen is a NY writer who recently published “Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography” and previously wrote “Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon,” based on Lennon’s diaries. Turned out Bob had worked at Swank! Men’s magazines were small but outlasted most others. Adult entertainment will always be around and the Internet is changing it and I don’t know how it’ll pan out but I was thinking yesterday: I live in NY where everyone’s collecting vinyl, and I think if that’s still around, then magazine publishing will find itself on the shelf next to it. When VHS came out people said: “who’ll go to the movies anymore?”

MwB: Why make this movie?
MN: I had a son about 3 years ago. When I had my son, I was hanging out with dad a lot. I loved his tokey, old 70s stories. They were interesting and I was surprised no one really knew those stories. At the time, my life was changing and my work was changing. I decided to move from shorts to features and I started filming him, and after [I filmed] him I filmed 42 people over the course of 2 years. In fact, he didn’t even think it was a good idea at first.

MwB: They never do.
MN: And I never listen and it turned out great.

MwB: I can’t help seeing a kind of masculine legacy in process here. Your son was the catalyst for a film about your dad’s work in men’s magazines…
MN: It could be read that way and maybe that was subconsciously at play. However, I thought it was important to get these stories down because in the film you see they’re in a cultural moment that couldn’t ever happen again. I’ve always been interested in subcultures and this one hasn’t been documented. The films we have about it are filtered through Larry Flynt’s point of view, and that’s good but it’s incomplete. He was drugged out, running for president and all the while publishing a magazine. I never thought of it, but had I had a daughter maybe it’d been different.

MwB: How’d your mom feel about it?
MN: She’s cool. They’re still together, been together my whole life, and people have been surprised by that. My dad never brought work home and when I was a teen he’d take me to work, but he was very good about turning that off and coming home a regular guy. Whatever problems they had, they were good about not letting my sister and me know about, so to this day I don’t know much about the interior of that relationship. Maybe that’s why I have a healthy view towards his work. There are so many stereotypes about people in this business—that people [who work in porn] are damaged. Maybe a lot of them are, but I did an interview yesterday and they asked, “What surprised you most?” and it was how normal everyone is. I interviewed Larry’s shooter, and he was crazy, and [I talked to] some other people who could be considered villains, but mostly everyone’s really sweet and open.

MwB: Do you feel like handing down the tradition of Hustler is like creating a legacy of rebellion? It’s a contradictory notion because generations don’t usually share rebellion.
MN: I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually. Because of the music I listen to I’m interested in culture and wonder how my son is going to rebel against me and I think sometimes [he’ll choose] mediocrity. Rebellion can take so many forms but it’s likely youth culture has hit a wall with it. Rebellion could be ending or something undiscovered could be the next line, like a new drug or new music. I love George Clinton’s line, “I love music that parents hate.” I have a hard time with the idea of handing off rebellion as part of cultural evolution. I’m not sure how to investigate that. I think I’ve always been interested in transgression on some level. My new picture about computer hacking is technically about something that still scares people, so of course I’m attracted to that and the subculture around it. I’m always interested in these subcultures that emerge from a counterculture because they always shoot off in unexpected directions. I have a regular column in Huffington Post covering the stuff I couldn’t fit into the film, but am still interested in. It’s like I’m always uncovering a new highway, so the column features a little cultural anthropology, as it were.

Michael Nirenberg’s Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story is playing at SF Docfest on Sunday June 8 and Tuesday the 10th at the Roxie with a subsequent showing at the Oakland School for the arts on June 15. See details at www.sfindie.com.

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