This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark
Middle Men (2009), by Paul Krassner
[Video Link] Speaking of his recent movie about the early years of the Internet porn industry, Middle Men, producer Christopher Mallick admits, "I think that it's based on a true story, but that doesn't mean it's all true." He should know. The main character — Jack Harris, portrayed by the ever grimacing Luke Wilson — is based on him.
Mallick in real life and Harris on screen both founded Paycom Billing Services, an Internet company that processes payments for porn sites. Money used to grow on trees, then it popped out of banks' brick walls, and now it's busy floating around in cyberspace. Until 1995, you weren't able to purchase anything online. But, thanks to a software code enabling secure transactions, Harris brags, "We could take a credit card from anywhere in the world and deliver a product to anywhere in the world. We can make a profit on every transaction. We're just the middle men." And now it's been estimated that porn is featured on nearly 40 percent of all Web sites.
In his cameo role as a powerful politician, Kelsey Grammer confronts Harris: "You peddle porn over the Internet."
"Well, Senator," he replies, holding up a sheet of paper, "this is your billing record: Naughty Secretary…"
The senator smirks and Harris continue to read other titles, then says, "You realize you've just attempted to blackmail a publicly elected state official — and it worked. Can I count on your vote next year?"
"You got it."
That scene is not so far fetched, either. In his book, Family of Secrets, investigative journalist Russ Baker writes that there are powers behind the elected or selected that call a lot of the shots, and that presidents have much less power and independence than he had assumed: "Initiating reforms or standing up to powerful interests can invite retribution of a kind I had not imagined. Presidents are subject not only to pressure but also to entrapment, blackmail, and even, in one way or another, removal."
Standup comic Kevin Pollak plays the part of an agent for the FBI's Organized Crime Task Force. He persuades Harris to cooperate in the war on terror. It seems that, among the millions of consumers logging in to those porn sites for which Harris is a middle man, many happen to be Arab terrorists. Simply because, in the words of that FBI agent, "They're men." Technology makes it possible to exploit their horniness, so the moment they click on to one of those sites, the United States military can pinpoint and terminate them.
Back in real life, immediately after 9/11, CNN ran a list of the hijackers and people who had tickets and were suspected of being hijackers. "Back then," says Mallick, "we recorded it and I took it in to one of my partners and said, 'Let's run these names through our database.' He said, 'You're crazy.' 'Let's just see what happens.' We had a hit and it was a guy that subsequently was arrested. One of the hijackers who went down with the plane had bought a membership to a site with an online check.
"We traced the check to a bank in San Diego, called the FBI, who was down the hall from us, and said, 'We have a hit.' These guys are apparently sitting in an apartment, ordering pizza and porn on their way to meet Allah. Anyhow, they found the check, went the apartment, found the phone record, found the cell phone number that one of these guys was using. One of the would-be bombers in Chicago was holed up in the Hyatt in downtown Chicago and the FBI raided it, on CNN, and arrested this guy."
In Middle Men, there was an incident that was deleted from the big orgy party scene. It was removed because of concerns that the MPAA would give the flick an NC-17 rating instead of an R rating. In a scene which lasts for two minutes, Harris wanders around a huge mansion, passing by naked men and women drinking and dancing, but what would be omitted was when he opens a door, only to find a couple of women performing oral sex on a man. It was posted on a Web site, but soon taken down. Ironically, remaining on that clip is a commercial for the film itself.
Ultimately, then, Middle Men was intended for the eyes of Middle America. Mallick points out that "The same guy who's going to Toy Story 3 is also going to come to Middle Men." Well, at least there's one thing that those two films have in common. The moving force in each one is a Woody.