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Robert Cettl

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Book Review - 'John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches' (by Nelson & Sugar)
By Robert Cettl   
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Last edited: Thursday, October 21, 2010
Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

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Book review of the biography, John Holmes a Life Measured in Inches by request of the authors Jill C. Nelson and Jennifer Sugar.

John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches is the first book by authors Jennifer Sugar and Jill C. Nelson and is a work of considerable scope, ambition and importance in its chosen field. Indeed Sugar and Nelson have taken a subject inherently problematic – the history and scholarship of the adult film – and rendered it lucidly accessible to all, whether fans of adult material or not and whether male or female. Interestingly in terms of the burgeoning porno-scholarship literary genre, the consistently reliable and authoritative non-judgmental perspective with which Sugar and Nelson have structured this astonishing book – a combination of oral history, socio-cultural irony, political analogy and filmographic analysis – follows on from the pioneering study of the origins of the adult movie industry in The Other Hollywood. Both The Other Hollywood and John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches personalize and humanize an industry and its participants which have been traditionally treated with either repugnant disdain or objective remove to the point of absolute impersonal indifference (necessary perhaps in such scholarly accounts of the porn genre as that presented by Linda Williams in the pioneering study of porn as a genre – Hard Core: Power and Pleasure in the Frenzy of the Visible).

Sugar and Nelson have researched their subject considerably and it is evident on every page – John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches is the distinctive Holmes biography, sorting through Holmes’ tendency to fabricate the truth in his own accounts of his life with actual biographical fact and first-hand accounts of the man and his life presented uncut in the actual words of those who knew and interacted with him – from Sharon Holmes (the wife he kept secret to his adult industry business partners) to Bob Chinn (the Chinese-American UCLA graduate turned pornographer who in tandem with Holmes would birth West Coast US porn in the Johnny Wadd series of films, meticulously described in the comprehensive filmography which closes this remarkable book). In so doing Nelson and Sugar create a biographical portrait which functions simultaneously as 1) a deconstruction of the myths surrounding both Holmes and the adult industry in general; 2) a historical chronicle of the evolution of West Coast adult film as it centred on Holmes (and the Johnny Wadd films); 3) a biography which restores humanity to a man often stripped of such and condemned because of his lifestyle choices; 4) a socio-sexual portrait of American culture and morality in the wake of the sexual revolution and its impact on American standards of decency, obscenity and moral propriety; and 5) a pro-sex feminist critique which examines a traditionally male oriented genre with due attention to women’s responses to, judgements of, pleasure in and personal gain from viewing adult film (on this note Nelson and Sugar echo such as Wendy McElroy’s XXX A Woman’s Right to Pornography and Angela Cohen & Sarah Gardner Fox’s The Wise Woman’s Guide to Erotic Videos).
By doing that, Holmes’ tale here emerges as quintessentially American: although an idol for men, his influence on women’s responses to male sexuality as denoted by pornography as a genre also informs this work (especially the concluding filmography where Sugar and Nelson allow a hint of personal response to beautifully counterweight the preceding objectivity). Yet Sugar and Nelson take a considerable risk in structuring the book in this manner: as oral history it risks diffusing an objective account offered by the traditional reliable authoritative voice of Academic non-fiction and historical study. The risk pays off. Nelson and Sugar arrange their book chronologically in the manner of a traditional biography but with unedited interview extracts punctuating the factual account to give a portrayal of both Holmes the man himself, his developing legend and the way in which he was seen, considered and judged by those who knew him best. This demythologizing journey through the life of porndom’s most famous male star (with apologies to Ron “the Hedgehog” Jeremy it is Holmes who will be forever known as “the King”) begins with Holmes’ troubled childhood (he was neglected and brutalized). Here, authors Nelson and Sugar devote just enough time and targeted interview extracts to suggest the psychological pressures – including the need for attention – which would shape the adult Holmes’ dealings with and attitude to women. However, the authors do not attempt a full psycho-analytical portrait of Holmes – their intent is fact-based oral history and they present both the necessary information and a variety of first-hand accounts to enable the reader to assess the behavioural factors that shaped the humanity of porn’s biggest (literally in terms of penis size – how big was it?) icon.
Holmes’ early relationships, friendships and business contracts soon segue into an account of his life with wife Sharon Holmes (a frequent contributor to the extracted interview material) and his developing working relationship with Bob Chinn. Indeed, Nelson & Sugar have here done the astonishing (and even taboo) thing – interviewing a pornographer and rendering his perspective with both the authority and intelligence it deserves. What emerges is a fully detailed account of the birth of the porn industry, the methods, distribution and business structure of the industry and Holmes’ relationship to it. Importantly, this exploration of the industry that he helped popularize and establish is balanced with the continuing and evolving biographical account of Holmes as a person. Thus, the book frankly describes his relationships with his co-workers, with his wife (whom he tried to keep as separate from his work as possible) and his relationships with younger women – from Dawn Schiller through to Laurie Holmes in the latter stages of his life. Contributions from such adult industry veterans as Candida Royalle, Bill Margold, reporter Jim Holliday and Paul Thomas coalesce for a distinctive picture of the man, fully representative of the adult industry that grew up around him. As such, John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches is both a biography and a valid social document exploring an epoch which has never gotten its full attention due to the hypocritical moral quagmire that still surrounds any objective account of the adult film industry and the people who live it. 
Continuing through his porno movie career Nelson and Sugar next chronicle Holmes’ increasing drug use and the toll – physical and emotional – that it took on him. The authors make no attempt to glamorize this drug use but nor do they condemn it on either legal or moral grounds. Indeed, as a work shorn of moralistic judgment, John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches is exemplary, transgressive even. But the reality of drug use in the 1970s is covered and the disastrous effect on Holmes’ personality (turning a gentle lover into a violent pimp) is commented upon by – most importantly – the women in his life directly affected by his behaviour. Yet, in this too Holmes emerges as something of an enigma: as a Godfather to his friend Bill Amerson’s children Holmes was incredibly protective and as devoted as if he were their father yet was quite prepared to pimp out his girlfriend when the need for drugs arose. This humanist moral relativism distinguishes Holmes’ life making it impossible to judge him in terms of moral absolutism – his life and the industry he helped establish remain unaccountable to absolutist good or bad judgement. There is no good and evil here, just humanity – which is not to say that Holmes was not spiritual: as one astonishing revelation contained in the book explores, Holmes indeed developed a special relationship with a Christian police officer with whom Holmes jointly prayed and refused to let be cross-examined by his defense attorney when he was on trial for murder / conspiracy.
Holmes’ infamous association with the Wonderland murders – dramatized in the Hollywood film Wonderland starring Val Kilmer as Holmes – is subsequently chronicled, with confessions from adult industry personnel, surviving participants and investigating police officers juxtaposed (in reference to actual court transcripts) for a comprehensive account of both the available facts and the many suppositions put forward in the case. Foremost amongst these suppositions is speculation as to whether Holmes himself actually physically participated in the murders by bludgeoning (under duress) Rod Launius. Importantly, the book here acknowledges the polarized view of those in the police department (split between those convinced of his involvement in homicide and those who believe he merely led the killers to the murder scene under duress and for fear of his life – a legal distinction the bureaucratic inconsistency of which would eventually see Holmes in contempt of court for refusing to testify) and those in the adult industry who unanimously consider him incapable of murder, though the testimony of wife Sharon Holmes is of particular interest in sorting through this particular conundrum. Sugar and Nelson balance all testimony excellently for a well-rounded account of the case, acknowledging the scenes of pure speculation that infected Hollywood’s take on the story in Wonderland (wherein Holmes is shown as a participant in the murder of Launius, however forced to do so).
Rounding out the book’s chronological development are Holmes’ fugitive from justice period and his re-entry (so to speak) into the adult industry, through to the facts surrounding his death from AIDS after knowingly having sex on film when HIV positive and risking infecting his partners (who included Italian porn star later turned politician Cicciolina). Speculation abounds as to where and when Holmes contracted the fatal disease (linked to his one appearance in a gay film) but Nelson and Sugar balance this with a clever look at how the adult industry in general responded to the AIDS crisis (thanks in no small part to Sharon Mitchell) as much as an account of the disease’s toll on Holmes. Significantly, the book does not shy away from the debate surrounding Holmes’ decision to continue working (revealed in the book) even at the risk of infecting his on-screen sexual partners. To many, this point alone is enough to demonize and dismiss Holmes forever as a mere immoral “lowlife”: however, Sugar and Nelson clearly explain Holmes’ reasoning and, again without judgment, explain and account for the situation (again through expertly juxtaposed interview testimony) so as to if not excuse Holmes’ actions then at least explain them within the biographical account of his life.
A distinctive and essentially demythologizing and humanistic portrayal of Holmes emerges in the account of his actions and the account of him constructed throughout the cumulative oral history in John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches. In that, Nelson and Sugar sort through the populist ouvre surrounding Holmes as a result of the hit film Boogie Nights (in which Mark Wahlberg plays a porn star modelled on Holmes and Burt Reynolds a director modelled on Chinn) to present the first comprehensive account of a male porn star’s career, the legal and moral ambiguities that surrounded and threatened to overwhelm it and chronicle the cinematic legacy left by him as both erotic entertainment and essential cultural artefact. Holmes remains to many people an enigma, an immoral cipher who epitomizes the sleaziness of the porn industry. His drug use, his underworld connections, his boast to have slept with over 10,000 women (the actual figure being discussed in the book) and his foot long genital endowment have made him the envy of many men since the sexual revolution and the epitome of moral outrage to Christian hypocrites. Still, it remains the size of his penis which for many is his one and only claim to fame: that is the iconographic influence of Holmes as a screen icon, a man who used his natural endowment to prosper in the one industry that recognized such talent as a visual spectacle and delighted in revealing, codifying and playing with it. 
Indeed such was Holmes fame (and admitted novelty) that many women (and some men) would pay to have sex with him or urge his producers to be cast opposite him simply to fulfil a private fantasy of having sex with him. The accounts of such women – before and behind the camera inform the perspective on Holmes emerging through this remarkable book. This attention to both male and female perspectives on Holmes cuts through the mystique of male envy and vicarious empathy to examine Holmes as a sexual icon for women – indeed, it is revealed that even female members of the jury at his trial(s) knew and admired his work. Considering Holmes as a sex symbol for women also goes a long way towards the demystification of pornography.  Perhaps most surprisingly concerning the continued arguments against pornography as the sinful victimization of women (arguments primarily advanced by such incompetent intellectuals as Robert Jenson in the un-scholarly opinionated drivel of Getting Off) is the revelation that Holmes, aware of his enormous size, was a very tender and gentle lover and screen sex partner, with many of the women he worked with expressing to the producers a wish to work with him again (though Holmes preferred to work with a new co-star every time, making a few exceptions).
Authors Nelson and Sugar contrast the humanist demeanour of the gentle sex icon Holmes with the tendency towards violence and exploitation that emerged in the throes of the heavy drug addiction that resulted in his pimping of his girlfriend to drug czar, criminal and nightclub owner Eddie Nash (memorably enacted on screen by Eric Bogosian in Wonderland) and his hotly debated role in the resultant Wonderland murders. The toll of drug abuse is clear in the Holmes story: once Holmes was free of the Wonderland debacle, he swore off drugs and returned to the sweet, gentle man he was, distinguished by an ability to converse with engaging authority on almost any subject, although with a fanciful liar’s tendency to exaggerate his knowledge (just as he would exaggerate his personal life often confusing – as Bob Chinn recalls – his role as Johnny Wadd with his own lived experience). For those who are aware of Holmes either through reputation, viewing of his filmography or outrage over the Wonderland debacle John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches puts many rumours to rest and presents a rounded, well-researched account of the human being behind the screen icon. In this what authors Nelson & Sugar have done is nothing short of remarkable.
Nelson and Sugar are the first biographers / oral historians to compile a work shorn of the (either Patriarchal Christian or radical feminist) morality which automatically discredits any and all adult film as “pornography”. In stripping away any accountability to the imposed morality of those who demonize pornography and its participants what emerges is, as the book slowly segues from the vice squad anti-porn activities to the Wonderland investigation, a simultaneous exploration of the moral hypocrisy of those American authorities who have traditionally demonized pornography and sought to have it deemed illegal and suppressed as a form of either fantasy or generic discourse, both of which it inherently is. The ramifications of the investigation into Holmes’ possible involvement in murder (or conspiracy to commit murder) reveal a cross-section of legal implications ranging from sloppy investigation to – in the decision to hold Holmes in contempt of court when he refused to testify (for fear of his life) against Eddie Nash for involvement in the Wonderland murders – the outright violation of both the US constitution and essential human rights guaranteed by the UN (to which the US Constitution is accountable). In this, John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches carries the broader frame of moral hypocrisy towards the suppression of the adult industry so well documented in The Other Hollywood and re-locates it from the macrocosm of the porn genre in total to the microcosm by focusing specifically on Holmes.
As mentioned at the outset, John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches is the debut work for authors Sugar and Nelson. It is a responsible balance of objective historical scholarship, biography and oral history which not only demystifies the adult industry and the legend surrounding Holmes but raises ethical and moral questions regarding American culture’s legal and moral treatment of pornography as a genre. Although Nelson and Sugar keep their own voices and insight constrained to historical and journalistic accountability, they speak with an authority that should bode them well for subsequent books should they continue to explore adult industry related material. In that, the filmography that rounds out this book (feature films, loops, compilations) is astonishing for the research involved, the detail and – most interestingly – a film by film account of Holmes’ career from the perspective of two talented, intelligent women able to see through the smoke of anti-porn feminism to acknowledge the genre’s appeal for both men and women. The filmography alone, with synopsis, critical comment and credits, is enough to make John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches the definitive Holmes biography and encyclopaedic Holmes reference book. The back cover to the book boasts a review from critic Dick Freeman who describes the book as “undoubtedly the best porn bio ever written, and will set standards”. This is one case where the book well and truly does live up to the hype: outstanding by any measure of the term. 

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