What, Censor Us?

Thirty-year-old Rob Zicari is just another north Hollywood filmmaker with a few filthy habit and a taste for free speech. So how come john Ashcroft wants to put him out of business? And could the entire $10 billion skin industry be next? A report from the frontlines of the new porn wars.

(Details, December 2003. Photo: Taryn Simon)

THE RING OF THE BESIDE PHONE plucked Rob Zicari from a dead sleep. He scowled at the clock. 9:03 A.M. What ass-face would call this early? Outside, the April sun was already toasting the San Fernando Valley. He could hear the mommy joggers pounding behind their three-wheel strollers, tearing past the subdivision’s Spanish-style homes. Zicari, a 30-year-old porn producer, his chunky gold crucifix tangled in a snarl of black chest hair, looked over at his sleeping wife, Janet, 26, a onetime porn actress and now one of his top directors.

He picked up the phone.

“What?” he said.

“Rob,” came the panicked reply. “There’s like 40 federal agents outside our building.”

It was Ryan, the general manager of Zicari’s Extreme Associates, a six-year-old, $10 million-a-year company that makes some of the raunchiest porn in the business. Ryan was calling from a strip mall a mile west of Extreme’s brown-brick office and warehouse in a North Hollywood industrial park. He was hunkered down in his blue Lexus, afraid to go near the place. “What do they want?” Zicari asked.

“I don’t know,” whispered Ryan, 25, who had recently made his onscreen debut as a cop in Extreme’s Forced Entry video, in which a vigilante mob chases down and stomps to death a sadistic serial rapist and murderer.

“Calm down and go to the office,” Zicari told him. “I’ll call the lawyers.”

Zicari hung up and began working the phone. He wasn’t surprised the law had come down on him—just that it had taken so long. Over the past few years, the LAPD had handed out a few select obscenity charges to the industry’s most hard-core players (filmmakers who depict acts like fisting in the plotless genre known as gonzo). Zicari, outraged over the arrests, had been daring them to bring it on. He never expected it would be the Feds who would answer his challenge.

Zicari soon learned the worst of it. He and Janet were being charged with 10 felony counts related to the dis­tribution of obscene material through the U.S. mail and over the Internet, the result of a 14-month sting oper­ation; the Feds had logged on to his Web site, bought tapes, staked out his warehouse, and tailed Janet around town. It was also the Justice Department’s first major obscenity case against a producer in 10 years—and among the first to target an Internet-porn transaction that didn’t involve child pornography. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who’d spent $8,000 in taxpayers’ money covering the exposed breast of a female statue inside the Justice Department building, called the Zicari indictment “an important step… for attacking the proliferation of adult obscenity.”

Zicari was flattered and ready for the fight. To those familiar with Zicari’s work, it was clear why the conserva­tive Christian Ashcroft was so inflamed.

The primary’ target of the DOJ investigation was five Extreme videos that included scenes of women eating semen off dog food, fictional fathers having sex with their teenage daughters, an Ashleigh Banfield look-alike being sodomized by Osama bin Laden. But the vilest of the titles, by anyone’s reckoning, was Forced Entry— Director’s Cut, which depicts three fictional rapes, followed by each victim’s “murder.” A day after Feds in raid jackets hauled off computers, videotapes, and cartons of financial documents, Zicari—rather than pull these videos from his stock—labeled them the Federal Five, discounted them on his site, and vowed to fight “General Asscraft” all the way to the Supreme Court.

“The government is trying to impose its values on us,” says Zicari. “They say what we do has no artistic value, so it’s not protected speech. But it’s no different than in Traffic when that black dude shoots up that little white girl and then starts raping her. You’re gonna tell me there weren’t people out there going ‘That is obscene… but it’s also fucking hot!’? Bullshit.”

Zicari may have underestimated Ashcroft’s resolve. His case turns out to be the first strike in the DOJ’s new-war on America’s estimated S10 billion-a-year porn industry. The trial, which could begin as early as March, will challenge the nation’s 30-year-old landmark obscenity law. Ashcroft has met privately with various anti-porn activists, and the DOJ certainly seems committed to the cause: In the past year, it has assigned 25 prosecutors to help with such cases, rewritten guidelines to bypass local U.S. attorneys who don’t go after obscenity (some feel it’s a waste of time and drains resources from drug and organized-crime cases), and started a porn-centric training program for prosecutors. It is pursuing roughly 50 other obscenity cases. Additional indictments are promised.

More-sophisticated porn outfits are gearing up for the crackdown. They are jettisoning potentially offensive titles from their stock, making sure that taxes are paid and federal records on performers are up to dale. Skin pio­neers like Larry Flynt, who once appeared in court wearing an American-flag diaper and now oversees a $400 mil­lion empire, are publicly distancing themselves from the Zicaris of the world.

“What we do here is plain old vanilla sex,” Flynt told me. “The key in pornography, always, is to gauge the level of tolerance out there. There are certain things people won’t tolerate, like necrophilia or bestiality.”

Zicari plans to challenge that assumption. He argues that people are more comfortable these days with a wide variety of acts, and even if they don’t care for his videos, they’re reluctant to censor their neighbors for watching— or convict him for selling. “I have a lot more faith in the tolerance of this country than Asscraft,” he says.

“LOOK, HE’S GOT FOUR FINGERS IN HER ASSHOLE. Then he puts them in her mouth. So I mean, clearly, big fucking deal. And you know what the funny thing is? They’re husband and wife.”

Zicari is admiring another project while sitting in a cinder-block editing room cluttered with overflowing ashtrays and towers of videos with titles like German Whorefare. We are deep inside his North Hollywood headquarters, out past the junkyards, car washes, and the dusty Burbank Airport. Zicari, sleeves up to expose the blue barbed-wire EXTREME tattoo on his right forearm, is screening a clip the Feds are using in their case against him.

“You gotta put down a credit card and go through all this age-verification bullshit to even get these clips,” he says. “I mean, you gotta have a fucking col­lege education to even get into the site. They came looking to take us down.”

As a kid growing up in Rochester, New York, Zicari heard plenty of talk about raids and the First Amendment. His father, Dominic, now 66, who owns several adult-video stores in upstate New York, was arrested on obscenity charges 141 times in the early seventies. (His mother was the stores’ bookkeeper.)

Rebelling against his father’s porn peddling, Zicari went to college in 1994, hoping to become a DEA agent. He lasted one semester, then began working in Dad’s stores, “cleaning fucking cum out of the jack booths.”

It didn’t take very many rolls of paper towels before he realized that the smart money in porn was behind the camera. “I knew I could direct better movies than half the shit out there,” he says. In 1996, he made a video called Tenderloins, fol­lowed by Cellar Dwellers. He funded the films, which cost a combined $25,000, by siphoning his father’s bank account. When his dad found out, he fired his son. But by then, Zicari junior had found a distributor and was moving out West.

Both of Zicari’s movies contained violence: men choking women, sitting on their faces. Several producers were disturbed by it and blackballed him. But the fringe market ate it up. Zicari parlayed his reputation into a job as a $10,000-a-month contract director at Elegant Angel, which produces such tides as Abuse of Power, and he began turning out even raunchier fare, like 1997’s Shooting Gallery, a noirish look at junkies having sex. Zicari had also experimented with shooting in a black-and-white documentary style that aped such mainstream fare as Natural Born Killers.

“I wanted to make pornos like real movies,” Zicari says. “I wanted to make crime dramas and horror films, but with fucking. How come we have to have 10,000 movies of the housewife blowing the pizza guy for a tip? That’s boring.”

The year he made Shooting Gallery, Zicari—now calling himself Rob Black because “it sounded evil”—won Best Director at the Adult Video News Awards, the porn world’s Oscars. He then tried to Tarantino his way into more money, telling Elegant Angel he wanted to own the movies he shot. The company said no. So Zicari quit to open his own shop. With a $150,000 loan from his father, who was speaking to him again—he’d won an award, after all—he started Extreme.

It was around that time that Zicari met his future wife, Janet Romano, a local stripper with a taste for Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. A modeling agency had sent her over for a $200 oral-sex scene. Though she feared his reputation, the two soon began dating and would later come to share a love of S&M (Janet tells me over dinner that she likes “rape-play” sex, anal sex, and often has Zicari pee on her). Using the name Lizzy Borden, she took Extreme to a whole new level, writing and directing some of its bloodiest, most savage videos, and eventually dreaming up Forced Entry. She based the storyline on the 1980s Cali­fornia slayings and mutilations by “Night Stalker” serial killer Richard Ramirez.

“I love horror movies,” says Janet, a green-eyed beauty from Orange County who seems genuinely perplexed by all the fuss. Her career goal is to be “the big-titty blonde that gets lolled in the first scene of a Wes Craven movie.” “But they never show you the sex,” she says. “I wanted to make movies where you see what really goes on, where you see the horror—and the sex.”

As the American appetite for hard-core porn grew, thanks to the late-nineties explosion of porn via cable TV and the Internet, Zicari’s business boomed. He hired 30 employees, traded in his Escort for a Mercedes and then a Hummer. But people around him, even those pushing the porn envelope, feared that he was going too far, too fast.

“I don’t like the depictions in his films,” says Adam Glasser, best known to fans as Seymore Butts, a gonzo-porn producer whom the LAPD charged with obscenity in 2000 for a girl-on-girl fisting video. “I don’t like the idea of forcing a woman to do things against her will. And the fact that he relishes it.”

ON FEBRUARY 7, 2002, The PBS Documentary series Frontline aired a report called “American Porn” that chronicled the industry’s phenomenal growth over the past decade. It also asked whether porn was headed for a legal showdown. During the previous two years, the LAPD’s vice unit had put the industry on high alert, leveling obscenity charges against three producers, who had, in various movies, depicted fisting, urination, and men having sex with women portraying 12-year-olds. After Janet was shown shooting Forced Entry (the action was so violent the Frontline crew filmed itself leaving in disgust), Zicari railed against the LAPD’s porn jihad onscreen, bragging that he had dared the vice unit to “come and get me.”

Little did he know the vice cops were watching and already deep into a year­long probe of his company. Federal prosecutors in Washington also saw the segment, and within days the DOJ had launched its own investigation. “The attorney general has made obscenity a priority,” says Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS), “and they were very vocal about the kind of material they put out.”

Tellingly, CEOS did not direct its prosecutors to pursue Zicari in California, where a liberal jury might chafe at the moral stridency behind an obscenity trial. (Two of the LAPD cases resulted in laughable $1,000 fines; the third ended in a hung jury.) Instead, the DOJ—because it can prosecute in any jurisdiction where pornography is sold, and because Extreme has a major distributor in Pittsburgh—handed the investigation to a rising star, the tough-on-vice U.S attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in Pennsylvania.

Buchanan had already grabbed headlines by busting comedian Tommy Chong for selling bongs online—landing him nine months in prison. Under her watch, U.S. Postal inspectors in Pittsburgh set up the sting against Zicari. They then used his videos, plus the Frontline transcripts, to obtain a search war­rant for the April raid of his offices. The venue he now faces will be a tough one. The anti-porn group Morality in Media calls Pennsylvania its first “saved state” for being, among other things, less tolerant of sexually explicit material.

Rather than coming off as a rabid crusader, Buchanan is cool and utterly persuasive, especially when soothing concerns that the government is trying to limit the right to free speech. “Does this mean we’re going to prosecute everyviolent act in a movie?” she says. “No. It has to depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner. This case is not about limiting personal sexual conduct or banning sexual or violent material—it is about enforcing federal law.”

In the 1973 case of Miller v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that material can be deemed obscene if “an average person, applying contemporary community standards, finds that the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest,” “depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner,” and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” The court made the defini­tion—now known as the Miller test—deliberately vague, so that obscenity is lit­erally in the eye of the beholder—or 12 beholders on a jury.

Zicari’s case could test Miller all the way to the Supreme Court by raising sev­eral thorny issues that weren’t addressed, because they didn’t exist, 30 years ago. For instance, when video clips are available on a Web site, shouldn’t the entire site be scrutinized when considering “the material… as a whole”? And when considering a “community standard,” what defines that “community” when a work is sold online—the entire Internet?

Zicari will be defended by Louis Sirkin, the First Amendment lawyer who last year persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down the Child (Pornography Pre­vention Act of 1996, which made it a crime to distribute or possess “virtual” child porn. Sirkin plans to start Zicari’s defense with the idea of artistic merit.

“Forced Entry has a storyline,” says Sirkin. “It’s about a killer who taunts the media and is brought to justice. It’s no different than the blood in Kill Bill. And it’s no different than what Hollywood attempts to do all the time, make it look real. And the sin is, the more real it looks, the more they scream about it.”

To keep the government off their backs, the porn industry’s leaders have drawn up a catalog of 21 no-no’s called the Cambria List. Named for First Amendment attorney Paul Cambria, who defended Larry Flynt in his landmark 1977 obscenity trial, it cautions all producers to steer clear of such niceties as fisting and urination. “If they try to take on mainstream companies they are destined for failure,” says Cambria. “But the government is an inexhaustible litigator. There is also a chilling aspect just going through the drill.”

For his part, Zicari thinks American attitudes, thanks not only to the saturation of porn in our culture but also to reality TV and shows like Sex and the City, have sufficiently changed. “When you talk about community standards you have to consider your TV,” says Zicari. “Our stuff is no different than what you see on Jackass, when Steve-0 vomits into a frying pan and then eats it afterward.”

The walls of Zicari’s office are covered in blood-red paint. In the air, there is an unmistakable odor of hand lotion and disinfectant. Zicari is compiling a “cum-shot reel” for Cock Smokers #18. Onscreen, a nude blue-eyed young woman is staring into a bowl, preparing to finish the last part of an action called “spit and swallow.” She tries several times but can’t do it, gagging and shaking her head.

“Everybody in the business hates me, but they should be thanking me,” says Zicari, watching the monitor as an onscreen hand stirs the foul concoction. “I’m the only person willing to stand up and fight Ashcroft. And it’s ridiculous. Me and Janet are facing 50 years in prison. For what? Making fucking movies? I’m gonna be in there with legitimate criminals, with tax cheaters and Enron executives.”

The woman squeezes her eyes shut and tries again, only to nearly vomit.

“Ugh, I can’t look at this,” says Zicari, shaking off a sudden, violent shiver. “You see? I find this totally repugnant. But to me, it’s no different than those TV preachers who break blocks of ice with their fists or having to watch a Klan rally on the news. I can’t watch that shit either. But to each his own. One man’s art is another man’s garbage.”