Skin Flick

James Westby uses the seedy backdrop of the adult film industry to craft a love letter to Hollywood. Just don’t call it a porno.

By Jason Cohen May 19, 2009 Published in the November 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Jim Golden

SINCE PREMIERING at New York’s star-laden Tribeca Film Festival in April, James Westby’s The Auteur, the Portland director’s follow-up to his 2005 cult-hit comedy, Film Geek, has earned praise from Variety and Vanity Fair. It’s played at festivals as far away as London and Greece, and views of the film’s trailer recently passed the 6.4 million mark on YouTube. But surely the most flattering accolade is the one from Robert Rosen, a former editor at classy gentlemen’s periodicals like Swank and D-Cup. “Westby,” Rosen beamed in a blog post, “is clearly a porn fan of the first magnitude.” Given that The Auteur—which opens here in December—is a faux biopic of the legendary highbrow adult-film director Arturo Domingo, that typewritten high five is better than the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, right?
Sort of.

“I don’t really know my porn,” Westby admits a bit sheepishly. “Most of the inspiration came from regular Hollywood movies.” If Film Geek was about a guy who had no life other than watching movies, The Auteur is about a guy who has no life other than making them. While most would revel in casting strippers as porn stars or directing legendary swordsman Ron Jeremy, Westby was more interested in paying homage to cinematic heroes such as Bob Rafelson and Stanley Kubrick, which makes this a bit like Fellini’s 8½ crossed with Altman’s The Player—plus gratuitous nudity. “Putting it in the context of pornography,” he says, “just makes it funnier.”

A DIY director since moving to Portland in 1992 to attend the Northwest Film Center, the 36-year-old Westby, who lives in Kenton with his wife and two children, certainly brings to mind a few of his more famous peers. Like Quentin Tarantino, Westby paid the bills during college by working behind the video store counter, including stints at Videorama in the Pearl District and the now-defunct First Stop Video on SE Hawthorne Boulevard. His 1996 noir comedy, Bloody Mary, was frequently compared to the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple. And Westby’s films prior to The Auteur could have been financed by the change found under a couch cushion, just like Kevin Smith’s movies back in his Clerks days. 

But thanks to the buzz created by Film Geek, which received theatrical and DVD distribution through First Run Features, Westby enjoyed six-figure financing on The Auteur, allowing him to pull off cinematic tricks such as the movie-within-the-movie (in this case, porn-movie-within-the-movie) shtick, which not only was integral to the plot but also allowed the director to come up with hilarious spoof titles (Five Easy Nieces being the best of the bunch).

Despite the film’s expanded budget, Westby’s vision is still grounded in all things Portland. The Auteur features local strip-scene stars Viva Las Vegas and Malice 666, not to mention less fleshy scenery such as Sauvie Island, which stands in for Vietnam in Full Metal Jackoff. There’s also a soundtrack that’s chock-full of local musicians and an original score composed by Jason Wells of the MarchFourth Marching Band. And as in every other Westby movie, the entire parade of freaks orbits around the ample chops of local actor Melik Malkasian. 

In Film Geek, Malkasian—who met Westby in 1993 while a student at Portland State University—gave a bravura performance made all the more impressive by the fact that his character, an obsessive video clerk, was so annoying that he was nearly unwatchable. For The Auteur, Malkasian upped the theatrical ante: He pulled a DeNiro, packing on 50 pounds before the shoot, then taking it off again to film a series of documentary-style flashbacks. “He’s the Divine to my John Waters—my muse,” Westby says. “He’s one of the reasons I make movies. It’s so much fun to write a character for him and have it be completely different from the last one.” 

Malkasian’s next left turn is playing a counter jockey at a lesbian bookstore in Westby’s upcoming film Dykes: The Complete Second Season. “It’s a fake TV show, about a kind of ma-and-pa bookstore that gets a gym built into it in order to compete with the corporate lesbian store up the street,” Westby explains. If that sounds a little like a certain video rental chain with gyms built into it, well … “It did start out as Videorama: The Complete Second Season,” he admits. “But I think I’m done with the self-referential movies.”

Warning: adult content.

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