In the late ’70s, New York was a crime-ridden sinkhole on the verge of financial collapse. But through the eyes of Michele Capozzi—urban explorer, filmmaker and self-proclaimed pornologist—“New York was a magic place.” When Capozzi arrived in New York on April 14, 1978, he stepped into a boiling pot of cultural activity: “Everything was happening … politics, economics, sex …” Especially sex. There was the opening of Studio 54, the infamous nightclub where glamorous nobodies rubbed pelvises with celebrities in a flurry of cocaine and debauchery. The porn industry was at its prime and sex clubs gave new meaning to the meatpacking district while 140 adult establishments flourished in Times Square. “I arrived on time to become part of New York,” Capozzi says in his thick Italian accent. “There was an extreme sense of possibility … an explosion of New York City as the center of the world.” But in 1984 it all changed. “In the eyes of America, New York became something to be saved.”
Capozzi’s fascination with the urban underbelly began in Genova, Italy, where he was born in 1946. While studying law and social science, he was attracted to the sex culture that teemed across the street from his classes. In spite of his upper class, dorky appearance, the people across the street accepted him into their world. And so in 1969, the 23-year-old Capozzi had degrees in law and sociology and a master’s in street education. “I could witness and be protagonist of different periods and places where there was an unusual and magic freedom of expression … sexually, culturally, economically … everything is tied together …” He caught the tail end of the swinging ’60s in London for a year before moving to Rome to pursue film. There, he learned the ropes of the industry as assistant director on the sets of The Spy Who Loved Me (directed by Lewis Gilbert) and Mahogany, which features Diana Ross, Tony Perkins and Billy Dee Williams (directed by Berry Gordy). He stayed in Rome through the Italian liberation from 1973 to 1975, another cultural fire that expanded his awareness of freedom and fueled his journey on the urban sexual pathway.
With more than 30 years of decadent European experience, no wonder New York seemed magical. It was in this magic city where Capozzi developed his career as an “urban explorer,” giving tours to visitors who wanted to see the city as it really was. Distinguishing himself from the typical tour guide (which he insists he’s not), he still takes people in his car and shows them what he knows of New York: In the beginning, this meant ethnic culture by day and sex clubs by night. While making a living as an urban explorer, Capozzi tapped into the New York film industry. In 1980, he collaborated with fellow Italian Simone di Bagno on a documentary about transvestites called TV Transvestite. It was a cult hit. One day Capozzi said, “Let’s go into pornography.” Two weeks later he met a producer and landed the position of production manager on Girl’s Best Friend, directed by Henri Pachard (aka Ron Sullivan) and starring Ron Jeremy, Samantha Fox and other up and coming porn stars of the time. It was shot on 35mm in 11 days: This was the Golden Age of Porno.
The New York porn scene was as independent then as it is now. When Hollywood started to capitalize on the scene through commercialization, a lot of the directors were from New York, but a niche remained in the original sin city—one that still boasts realism today. If Capozzi had continued to produce porn, no doubt his films would have been an example of that realism. Instead, he compiled years of experiences into the 2005 documentary Pornology New York, a paean to underground New York focusing on the years 1970-1985, featuring Capozzi and three other protagonists: Neville Chambers of the Fuck Factory, Lenny Waller of the Hellfire Club and porn star/mistress/shaman Porsche Lynn.
Pornology New York reinvents a time when anybody could go to Plato’s Retreat, the Hellfire, Mindshaft, The Vault, the Anvil, Le Trapeze and even Show World, to indulge in their dirtiest, wildest fantasies and fetishes. There were no screening processes and no membership policies at these clubs. The curious couldn’t do a Google search to investigate the scene. People went to the clubs to find out what they were like. It was an underground system that created a community out of taboo. Capozzi laments how technology has affected sex in the city: “The difference now is there is a lot of parties, a lot of sex parties but you get to these things through the Internet … It’s more available but less personal, less interesting. It’s inter-ground—here’s another phrase I coined: Internet underground—inter-ground.”
Through my explorations of the inter-ground, I found myself at the Hellfire Club one topless ladies’ night in 2001. When I saw that I was one of only four or five women amidst a predatory swarm of prurient men, my arms censored my bare breasts that got me in for free. I tolerated the flaccid old perverts and young toe-sucking leaches long enough to have an interesting experience, but I never went back again. “It wasn’t always like that,” Capozzi tells me. “The security in this club was so good. Before ’85, Hellfire was amazing … It was very democratic. If there was ever an issue with safety … problematic people were whisked away.”
Safety didn’t really become a concern until AIDS entered the picture around 1981. People started using condoms more often, but latex didn’t desensitize the liberated spirit of New York in the ’70s and ’80s any more than Prohibition stopped people from drinking in the ’20s. “I strongly believe the sexual revolution did not happen,” Capozzi says. “Of course a sexual liberation happened ... divorce, the pill, gay rights, swinging, polyamory ... but it did not change the way of seduction, it did not change the way people relate. Maybe it was stopped, or many groups are happy that it stopped, and AIDS has a lot to do with it ... In a revolution the rules change dramatically. In this sexual liberation they did not.” Recognizing these patterns is part of being a pornologist. As with urban explorer and inter-ground, Capozzi takes credit for the concept. He defines pornologist as somebody who studies porn but is also in it, as opposed to a pornographer who merely creates it.
So, from the pornologist’s point of view, what happened in 1984 when it all changed? AIDS awareness ushered in condom culture. City efforts to tackle crime leaked into the sex clubs. Yuppies started overtaking the ethnic landscape that made Manhattan so demographically unique. “New York is definitely less interesting than 25 years ago,” Capozzi says. “But still it’s more interesting than most places. But the real New York is now Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Since ’78, Manhattan lost the multi-ethnicity … Manhattan is too white, too wishy-washy.”
Today, the Hellfire Club is a trendy restaurant. Most of the other clubs have met similar fates in the last few years. Le Trapeze is the only one still around, a relic of a time when every sex club had a fixed place. When something is fixed, it’s too obvious, and what is obviously different is threatening to mainstream culture. It’s not surprising that the current sex clubs are more like networks that circulate from one private location to another. Despite the changes, Capozzi is optimistic: “Food replaced sex in a sense, but the sense of possibility is still strong in New York.”
That sense of possibility has kept Capozzi rooted in the city he loves. He continues to roll with the sexual evolution, making a living as an urban explorer (although today he only does day tours) and bringing attention to the meaning of pornology. Pornology New York won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Cinekink Film Festival and recently screened at the Museum of Sex. Now Capozzi’s focused on building cult status with underground screenings and a DVD version. “The purpose of this film is to preserve as much as possible the memory of some fantastic, magical place,” Capozzi says. “We’re new conspirators … We want to bring to the general audience our experiences, our lives, our artifacts, our memories.”Sexy Spirits presents “An Evening with Michele Capozzi” PORNOLOGY IS BORN IN NEW YORK.
Nov. 2; 301 W. 55th St., #4; 7-10 p.m.; R.S.V.P. 212-581-2640.