Director: Tomer Heymann
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Pornography has rarely been seen as an art, but in recent years this view has changed bringing with it a new academic interest in the genre. Soon Netflix will release its Circus of Books, a film by Rachel Mason about a porn shop in West Hollywood while Jon Ronson’s podcasts about the sex industry have been runaway hits. And now we have Tomer Heymann’s documentary about one of the most famous gay porn stars of recent years, Israeli Jonathan Agassi. For many reasons, it’s not an easy watch.
Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life shares similar territory to Ronson’s second series on pornography, called The Last Days of August, which looked at the suicide of porn actor August Ames. In unearthing the reasons for her death, Ronson demonstrated that porn is not the glamorous industry that perhaps we imagine it to be. There are issues with consent, with exploitation, with managing social media, and with fame. Heymann’s film underlines Ronson’s discoveries that porn can be a lonely business.
However, when we first meet Agassi he’s at the height of his success. Riding high from his breakout movie in 2009, his good looks and his muscular tattooed body soon receive worldwide attention. In one of the film’s early scenes we see him win a trophy at the porn awards at the Hustlaball in Berlin. He’s delighted. But this becomes the zenith of his career; a year later, he fails to hold on to his title and leaves the room before the newly crowned king of porn begins his acceptance speech.
It’s not just that Agassi’s a bad loser, but by this time work has started to dry up, and he’s now addicted to T (Methamphetamine) and G (liquid ecstasy), the drugs that are destroying many gay lives. Agassi seems only too eager to show us the drugs he takes, whether he’s injecting them intravenously or measuring powder into a bottle of Coke.
Parallel to this riches to rags story is Agassi’s increasingly dramatic relationship with his parents. When he’s not in Berlin he lives with his mother in Israel and there is something unsettling – for British audiences, at least – in the intimacy between mother and son. Indeed, watching the snippets of porn make for easier viewing than the hugs and kisses they bestow upon each other. He shows her the beginnings of his pornos, when he’s fully dressed pretending to be a sailor or a drifter, and she sits watching with an avid gaze. When the action promises to get steamy, Agassi takes the laptop away.
There’s no explanation to why the cameras are following him, and the time period is confusing. The publicity for the film states that Heymann spent eight years documenting the life of the porn actor. But was Heymann trying to capture Agassi’s success or was he relying on a plot twist that ended with a decline into drugs and paranoia? Increasingly we see Agassi wandering Berlin’s streets high and alone.
Alone? But there’s always at least one cameraman around and not even at a discreet distance, and these scenes of supposed solitude don’t quite work. They feel staged in the same way that a door opens to reveal Agassi passing through, pretending that the camera is not there. But we all know it is. With so many staged shots, other doubts seep in and in the end we can never wholly trust in what we are seeing.
At nearly two hours Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life is too long and this kind of documentary is best suited for a 60 minute TV slot. In a condensed version, the fact that feted porn actors are often beset with mental health issues may hit harder. Likewise the damage that these drugs are doing to the gay community worldwide could be foregrounded. At the moment, the film is too sprawling. And like Agassi himself, this documentary doesn’t quite know where it’s headed.
Released 18 November 2019